Friday, May 4, 2012

Bureaucracy and Corruption

I've been talking a lot about what we've doing to get the house ready to rent out (which is a lot), but I don't think I've said much about a whole other category of things that need to get done before we can go - the bureaucratic side of preparation.

It's surprising how many different institutions I have to deal with to get ready to leave the country for a year. It makes me feel like a real grownup, but not in a good way. I didn't realize I was tied down with quite so many guy-wires. It made me wistful for the days when everything I owned could fit comfortably in the bed of a 1986 toyota pickup truck. Moving involved one full day's work. I was twenty-one, childless, scared of nothing at all. I guess a paucity of worldly goods isn't the only thing I'm nostalgic about, here.

Following is a partial list (I say that because I'm sure I'm going to forget something) of things that need to happen before we go, along with a progress report for each thing.

- Renewing the children's passports. Since I have the old passports, I figured this would be a simple matter of getting new passport photos. No; as it turns out, for children under sixteen, renewals have the same requirements as initial passports. Both Homero and I have to show up in person, with the children and certified copies of their birth certificates, our own valid identification, new passport photos, and a whopping $135 each.

- Health insurance. Actually, this one is done, as of today. Spending not quite an hour on the phone, I figured out how to cancel the family policy yet leave Rowan covered. There is no point in keeping our health insurance - it probably won't cover us in Mexico. In fact, it doesn't really cover us here - in the five years we've had it, they have yet to pay out a red cent. The premiums are nearly $600 a month - money which we desperately need at the moment. My sister thinks I'm insane for letting any of my children be uninsured for a minute, but I think it's a pretty safe bet. If we can all avoid getting hit by a bus for the next twelve weeks, we will be covered once we are in Oaxaca. Assuming, that is, Homero succeeds in....

- getting Mexican citizenship for me and the kids. In theory, this isn't difficult. The children are entitled simply by virtue of their father's nationality, and I am entitled by virtue of marriage providing I can prove I speak Spanish and pass a Mexican history test. I do speak Spanish and I can study for the Mexican history test. The devil, as usual, is in the details. In order to complete the process, we need to make an appointment with the Mexican Consulate in Seattle, and show up with all the children, their birth certificates, our birth certificates, and two witnesses who are willing to swear to whatever they are asked to swear to (I swear these children will not be a menace to Mexican society?). I am fairly certain I can bribe two of my friends into being witnesses for us, but what we cannot seem to do is make an appointment with the Mexican Consulate.

Homero has called over and over, encountering busy signals every time. This morning he managed to find another number to call, and was able to leave a voicemail. I am not particularly hopeful that will bear fruit. in the form of a return phone call.

Arranging Mexican citizenship is not optional. Without it, not only will be we have no access to Mexico's national health system, but the children may not be able to attend school, and we will have to leave the country after six months. Also, I wouldn't be able to work, should I choose to do so. Which I might. I don't know what to do about this situation. If we were to go to the Consulate and camp out on the sidewalk until someone saw us, they'd only tell us to call for an appointment.

- Arrange with the bank for Rowan to receive an automatic deposit every month. This was more complicated than I thought it would be and involved opening not one but two new accounts. As I told her, we are certainly not going to give her enough money that she doesn't have to work at all, but I want to make sure she at least has something for groceries every month. In addition to tuition, we will be providing her with her housing and car insurance - which brings me to...

- Cancel car insurance, except for Rowan. Haven't done anything about that yet.

So far, all of this has been relative painless, hours on hold notwithstanding.

I have some experience with Mexican bureaucracy and red tape, and it makes American red tape look like silly string. Once we spent about six hours in a hot little concrete office in Tijuana waiting to buy a decal for the windshield of our car that would allow us to drive it more than ten miles from the border. The number of proofs required was absolutely absurd - I think they asked for about fifteen different documents. Mexican real estate transactions are unbelievably complex. Here is what I wrote about what was involved in getting title to a property we had actually bought (in the sense of forking over cash in exchange for) some two years before -

Homero bought a property on a hill above one of the little villages and although we had paid for it, we had to finalize the sale and transfer title through a complicated process involving a ton of small town Mexican beaurocracy. Believe it or not, every sale of real estate requires that the buyers, the sellers, and all neighbors who have contiguous properties be present - at the SAME TIME - for an official measuring, which must be done by a government official. All parties must be provided with refreshments and a meal by the buyers. As you can imagine, causing this event to take place requires the powers of a diplomat and/or magician.
That's not the end of it, though. Homero did manage to get the property officially measured, even in the driving rain, but the creation of an official document to be signed by all interested parties had to await the next day, and required more refreshments. Altogether, the process took two full days, and we counted ourselves extremely lucky to have been able to complete it. Now we are the proud owners of a very pretty 1 and 1/3 acre on top of a hill with a 180 degree view of the ocean.
Or Homero is - as an American, I cannot legally own property in Mexico. Nor was I present for any of the official wrangling. That would have thrown some sort of monkey wrench into the works. 
When certain members of Homero's extended family wanted to exchange one property for another, it took some eighteen months of wrangling with the local authorities, part of which was spent waiting for the next election so that more favorable authorities would be in power. 

Many Americans have the idea that Mexican bureaucrocy can be circumvented by the timely application of a mordida, or bribe. The recent breaking of the Wal-Mart scandal has certainly reinforced this widespread view. While it is certainly true that Mexico has longstanding issues with corruption, it is not necesarily true that this makes life any easier for your average citizen trying to get shit done. 

This is not an area where I have any expertise - my only firsthand experience of Mexican corruption was when some rural cops stopped us as we were driving through Michoacan and demanded to see our papers - the ones that went with the decal on our windshield (see above). They scrutinized these papers until they found some tiny anomaly and then said they would have to impound the car, then and there. I began to totally freak out, since all of our worldly goods were in the car, along with my three children, and I imagined us all thrown out into the broiling Mexican heat and having to depend on the mercy of passing strangers. Homero was mad enough to spit tacks, knowing exactly what was expected of him but refusing to comply. 

Clearly, there was a script to be followed here, and we weren't following it to the police's satisfaction. They kept upping the ante ("we will have to search the car... you will have to stay in jail until your car is certified...") but with increasingly doubtful looks on their faces, as if they hadn't thought there would be any need to go so far and they were in untried territory. Homero shut down like a clam, and I, in more or less a blind panic, reached into my purse and grabbed a handful of cash and passed it out the window to the cops. With disgusted looks at my serious breach of etiquette, they fumbled the cash into their uniform pockets and drive away. Homero fumed silently at me for the next hundred kilometers. 

Later, I learned how the script should go:

Cop: Sir, Ma'am, there is an anomaly in your papers, we will have to impound the car until we can communicate with the proper authorities.

Citizen: Oh my goodness, that can't be true. There's been some mistake. Will you show me the anomaly please? 

Cop: Here, you see there's a smudge right here.

Citizen: Oh yes I see. But we can't stay here... you can see our children are sick....Isn't there anything you can do to help us, Sir? Perhaps you could fill out the proper forms on our behalf? Of course, we understand that your time is valuable....

Cop: I don't know, that really is irregular... 

et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum, until some peso figure is arrived at, which is more or less uniform and understood ahead of time. On another trip, we were stopped in Mexico City and had to pay a small bribe to avoid trouble. For some reason this event didn't bother Homero as much, perhaps because Mexico City has always been known as a cesspool of corruption, but on the previous occasion we were in the supposedly pristine countryside? I don't know; I'm guessing. Anyway, we gave the cop our money and he gave us a slip of paper with a code on it. This code was for us to present to the next cop who stopped us, to prove that we had already been shaken down once that day and he should let us go in peace.

Honor among thieves. 


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