Sounding Board: Greasing the wheels of commerce

While corruption in Mexico has dominated the news lately, it happens all over.

How big a deal is a little bribery anyway?  There. I said it and I am glad!

We have all followed the stories about Walmart’s alleged payoffs to public officials in Mexico and subsequent cover-up. But let us not forget about a corrupt system and bureaucrats who think they are untouchable.

Of course, they are not far from wrong in a country where officials are less concerned about stopping the billions of dollars in bribes paid every year than they are about finding excuses not to investigate.

Meanwhile, an entire industry has sprung up around bribery in Mexico. Agents called “gestores” know the ins and outs of the government bureaucracy. For a fee, these shadowy figures help companies and individuals navigate this complex world. It is all perfectly legal.

Some companies just cannot or do not want to deal with it. Back in 2005, Carrefour reportedly pulled out of Mexico because of the level of corruption and security issues.

But you cannot just bang on Mexico when places such as China, India and Russia have brought corruption to a fine art. In Russia today, you need approvals from 18 to 20 different government departments just to get a store open. How many Apparatchiks do you think have their hands out? Greased palms lubricate the wheels of commerce. Sad but true.

I am not here to condemn or condone, but to put things in perspective. So, let us ask who is really to blame—officials who demand money with a smile in an economy that thrives on corruption, or those who yield to the practice in order to get things done.

It would be the height of hypocrisy to deny that this is simply the way business is conducted—especially in parts of the world where bribery, or whatever you want to call it, is part of the cultural DNA.

Have you heard the term “baksheesh?” I first came across it in the early 1970s when I worked for an editor with contacts in the Middle East. It comes from the Ancient Persian and loosely translated means tip or gratuity. In some ways, that is the essence of bribery—payment for services rendered. Only you have to pony up before the fact rather than after.

Walmart’s troubles stem from violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which was passed in 1977, when the Watergate scandal was still fresh. Some 400 U.S. companies were put on the hot seat—companies like Lockheed Martin for allegedly bribing the prime minister of Japan and the president of Italy to win contracts and United Fruit for bribing the Honduran minister to lower banana tariffs.

Do you really think that “Big Oil” obtained billions of dollars in oil leases off the coast of Africa, Indonesia or the Persian Gulf because they are nice guys, or by letting the right people have a taste?

Today, some 80 U.S. firms are under scrutiny for violations of the act. So far, no one has been charged.

Of course, not everything is on a global scale.

Anyone out there ever slipped a C-note to a tradesman at McCormick Place to get something done quicker or to look the other way so you can do it yourself? Or, maybe you got Super Bowl tickets for members of the city council or arranged a little junket to Vegas for the local planning board.  Maybe you got a job for the wife of your kid’s Little League coach.

Guess what? While you may not be dealing in blood diamonds out of Angola or paying off Mexican officials for building permits, it is still baksheesh.

Meanwhile, thanks to social networking,  extortion is now protected by the First Amendment.

A user of the online review site Yelp.com recently contacted the Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar in Sacramento claiming he and his party got food poisoning from their meals. He wanted $100 or he would give the eatery a bad review on Yelp and report them to health authorities. The restaurant owner refused to give in to what is now called “Yelp extortion.”

Can we really do away with bribes and corruption or is it simply another competitive pressure?

In the end, it is up to industry leaders to establish a code of conduct on all levels and build a culture of integrity.

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