Friday, November 20, 2009

Breaking News-Pay to Play Corruption in San Juan

November 19th, 2009-San Juan Bautista, Misiones

Breaking News- Corrupt Secretary of Public Works and Governor allegedly involved in $25,860 Corruption Pay to Play Scandal

At approximately 5:00 PM yesterday, the Secretary of Public Works was caught red-handed receiving $25,860 US, allegedly on behalf of the Governor of the department of Misiones.

The money was delivered by the contractor who won a competitive bid to build 5 bridges in the department of Misiones on the condition that he give 10% of the $258,600 contract to the Governor.

All this went down yesterday, early evening not 10 blocks from my house. Word on the street is that the contractor agreed to the deal and then went to the public prosecutor with the information. They set up a drug bust style deal, caught the transaction on tape, and with that the Secretary of Public Works was caught red-handed and arrested. Of course, the Governor is denying everything and claiming innocence. Usually public figures or anyone with money aren’t held accountable for breaking the law so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Word travels super fast here. I was sitting outside my neighbor’s house around 8:00 PM talking with a few friends when we heard bombs going off around the city. One of the most popular soccer teams, Cerro Porteño, was playing in a semi-final game in the second most important South American tournament. I thought the bombs were going off because Olympia fans were happy that Cerro had just lost their opportunity to move on to the final, which if they won would be their first international championship. Olympia boasts 5 international championships, one of which is a world championship, so they always make fun of their national rival, calling them the pajama club, which is to say they never leave the house, the house being Paraguay because they have yet to win a championship outside the house that is Paraguay.

Anyway, my friend’s Mom came outside the house super excited from hearing the news. You see she is a longtime Colorada and was so happy because the Liberales always accused them of corruption, and rightfully so. The parties changed and the Colorados are ecstatic to see the Liberales fall to corruption too. So the bombs weren’t in fact Olympia fans announcing the fall of their rival, Cerro; they were in fact Colorado fans celebrating the fall of their rival, the Liberales.

A ton of Colorados gathered around the Gobernación, which is just a few blocks from my house since I live in the center of the capital of the department (state). Everyone was chatting, speculating, chanting, and generally celebrating the recent events.

My friend’s mom and I got into some really interesting political discussion and I took the opportunity to ask her what were the ideological differences between the two parties. She has a masters, is a retired professor, and heads up the local admissions office. By Paraguayan standards she is well educated, and she is a dedicated supporter of her political party, the Colorados. She couldn’t give me one single difference between the ideologies of the parties or even explain what her party stood for. I’m not 100% convinced that the parties have even developed platforms, ideologies, and the like. Maybe that’s why no one knows how their party is different from another...because the only difference is the color and the people.

You see in Paraguay, one chooses their political affiliation much like they choose their soccer club...based on where they’re born and who they’re family is affiliated with.

Then they support that party with an intensity similar to the loyalty and enthusiasm they afford to their soccer club, but without really knowing why.

It’s sad, embarrassing, and comical all at the same time.

Today, Pachiqui, one of the coop’s drivers, took me to the laundry mat to drop my clothes off to be washed. My host family is supposed to wash my clothes but never do, and now the washing machine has broken so they can’t, even if they wanted to because there is absolutely no way that my current host mom is going to hand wash my clothes. She has a domestic staff of three that come every morning to clean the house, iron clothes, buy groceries, etc... On top of that I’ve been told she hates cooking (a claim that is supported by how rushed and careless she is while cooking). I’ll often find parts of eggshells, dirt or grime, my food. She’s equally careless with the dishes. I’ll often reach for a fork, glass, or plate from the “clean” pile only to find it covered in dirty smudges and remnants of yesterday’s there is no way she’s gonna wash my clothes by hand. That’s just sucks a little that supposedly this is included in my rent and then I have to pay to get it done elsewhere on top of that. I guess some of you are probably thinking I should wash the clothes by hand myself, but the cold, hard truth is that I’m just too lazy and incompetent domestically speaking for that at this point in my service. We’ll see if my perspective and motivation change later when I’m in my own house and pinching pennies.

Stay with me...I’m gonna come around to a point and relate this back to political corruption in Paraguay. I’m just taking the scenic route.

Regarding the domestic staff, I always feel so awkward around the young girls and now a really really young boy. They hang their heads in shame and hardly ever speak. They seem defeated, lack confidence, and carry themselves as if they’ve accepted a position in a lower class, even though they are not. Many times the family ignores them or my host mom loudly and harshly barks orders at them and then offers empty words of gratitude. I think they secretly hate their job but their family desperately needs the money so they endure it. I’ve tried talking to them on many occasions. It’s always super awkward because they very tersely respond to my questions with a few words and have a hard time looking me in the eye. I managed to discover that one of the girls wants to be a singer so I encouraged her to follow her dream, and tried, obviously in vain, to get her to sing a bit for me. I hate that they act so subservient. If I ever have a domestic staff in my life, I want them to be like Geoffrey from the Fresh Prince...funny, not afraid to speak their mind, involved in the family, gregarious, not subservient, speaks with a British accent, etc...

I just hate that they are acting like the family is better than them and worthy of bowing to, when that’s not the case at all, and I hate even more when I get the vibe that they feel like they have to act all submissive around me too. It makes me feel horrible, and my attempts to talk to them and break their shell have failed miserably.

So Pachiqui, like me, apparently prefers the scenic route too. I had to call Cynthia, the Human Resources manager to get permission for him to take me to the laundry mat. He’s on the clock and using cooperative gas money. He picks me up, and we start heading the opposite direction of the laundry mat. After a little while, I ask him where we’re going. He says something to the effect of, “We’re gonna stop by my house for a bit.” We drive out to the very outskirts of San Juan where his house is. His two-year son meets us at the gate. I greet him with a “Ha’upei chera’a,” which literally translates to “and then partner.”

We go sit under a shade tree for a bit before taking a flora/fauna tour of his property, which is humble yet quaint. Picture a dirt red yard surrounded by a raggedy fence made from bamboo, which is half hazzardly held together with cheap wire. Picture a caving in shack outside the main house that serves as a little outside cooking area. He took me around showing me different plants and trees. Can you imagine how convenient and cheap it must be to be able to walk out in your yard and grab a fruit or vegetable? He has lemons, limes, guava, mamón, squash, peppers, bananas, lettuce, berries, peaches, parsley, and the list probably goes on. I saw several chickens and 3 malnourished cows, one, which was a baby. He made me pick off a lime to try and also offered me a mamón, which is a sweet and juicy fruit with a texture that I can’t explain.

We retreated back under the shade, where we talked a bit with his wife. They say they’re going to invite me over for lunch or dinner sometime soon. Paraguayans are really hospitable. They always ask what my favorite food is here, which regardless of what it is they will prepare for when I come over. I always say I want to eat their favorite food or just whatever they decide to cook.

Suddenly he decided it was time to leave. We took the really long way around to the laundry mat. I saw places in San Juan I’ve never seen before. It reminded me of “loafin’” with my grandpa when I was young. As we drove along, he pointed out places of importance and showed me spectacular views of the campo. “There’s a little school...they’re building a plaza there...that’s where such and such lives. You don’t know such and such? You know the one...” I can hear my Papa D saying, “Why Brad you know ‘em.” Papa D was my grandpa who I used to go loafin’ with when I was a boy. Come to think about it, I miss him and he was a great loafin’ partner and just generally cool to hang out with.

I told Pachiqui I’ve never seen those parts of San Juan, to which he replied something to the effect of, “yeah I told you, you gotta come out with me...all day inside...on the internet...what internet? What’s on the Internet? You’ll never learn anything or see what the real deal is.”

As those words left his mouth we pulled up to the laundry mat, which is a spacious house with a few washers and dryers, and a kind, hefty woman. Tomorrow I’ll pick up my large hamper load of laundry, washed, dried, and ironed for a grand total of $8. If I haven’t mentioned this before, Paraguay was recently ranked one of the

We left the laundry and took the long way back to the cooperative. I waved at people as we drove by and was enjoying our playing hooky adventure.

Suddenly we pulled up to a house where two elderly women sat outside drinking terere. He told me, “Their single, you want one of them for your girlfriend?” I told him I wanted both of them. We sat under some excellent shade joking around while drinking terere. Most of the jokes were crude centering around how the old ladies like young, fresh meat. They told me not to believe a word that comes out of his mouth and that he is missing some screws. As she said that she motioned with her hands as if to be struggling to tighten a screw with a screwdriver. Before too much longer he announced we better get back. He said he was going to blame the significant amount of wasted time on me, yet knowing where I am and how the culture is, I doubt a question will ever be raised as to why it took us so long to go to the laundry mat and back.

On the way back to the cooperative we passed this construction site, where a gigantic house was nearing completion. It was made of fine brick, had nice, modern windows, and was just generally bigger and better than any house I’ve seen in San Juan. “Wow that house is huge...that must be a Millionaire’s house,” I announced. “Fiscal,” he said. That means someone who works in the fiscalía, which is something like the state office of inspector general, which in most US states is in charge of inspecting fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption in the state government. They investigate and then pass on the information to a state prosecutor and collaborate with law enforcement agencies like the FBI.

Doesn’t this case of pay to play governor corruption remind you of a recent scandal a little closer to home?

As it happens it’s not just third world countries like Paraguay that have corrupt politicians. You’ll recall that when Governor Rod Blagojevich was involved in a similar corruption scheme, it was a United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who was a member of the US Department of Justice that investigated the corruption scandal and it was the US Marshals service on behalf of the FBI that made the arrest. Corruption exists’s the proportions and the consequences, which are different.

I was told today that this particular fiscal with the mansion house comes from a very humble family, and that this government position doesn’t pay that well. The looks I got from everyone indicated that there was no way that house was paid for with clean money, and it’s pretty much common knowledge that it was built on a foundation of corruption. How arrogant and bold! It’s bad enough to coerce, rob, blackmail, accept bribes or use other methods to earn money corruptly. It’s on a whole different level to construct a gigantic house, which serves as a symbol of corruption and a smack in the face to the town.

Pachiqui later said, “You see how it is in Paraguay. While the town remains hungry and people struggle living in poverty, people like that construct mansions.”

Isn’t it ironic that the same people within the agency that is supposed to investigate infractions against the law, in this case corruption, are, what appears to be, corrupt themselves?

That’s how pervasive the corruption in Paraguay is. It will be interesting to see if the Secretary of Public Works, who is so obviously guilty, will in fact, be held accountable or if he will be able to pay his way out of corruption charges. The governor, on the other hand, is sitting pretty if there is no substantial evidence because he can deny involvement and claim that the Secretary of Public Works is lying about the destination of the pay to play bribe money.

For now, it’s a great start that the contractor blew the whistle, the fiscal investigated and acted on the matter, the press showed up and conducted interviews with somewhat pressing questions, and the police took the Secretary to jail. That’s a great start...let’s see how this ends.

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