Friday, March 04, 2011

The Policeman in Arraiján

The second year I was stationed in Panama I bought a motorcycle.It wasn't anything special, a little blue 1986 Sportster with a solo seat, but it gave me a freedom I hadn't had until then, and I used it to travel about the immediate vicinity of my post at Ft. Kobbe and see a little of the country I lived in. I enjoyed most of the trips I took up and down the "Inter-America" as the locals called the stretch of the Pan-American Highway that ran through the environs of Panama City.

Except for the bit where I had to go through the little town of Arraiján.

The one-stoplight part of town along the road was a notorious Panamanian speed trap, and by that I mean a revenue-generating machine, since speed had nothing to do with it. I assume that the locals were exempt, but I'll bet that other Panamanians, the "rabiblancos" from downtown and transisthmian travelers got nailed, too. Being unable to do anything other than DWG, I payed the driving-whilst-gringo penalty almost every time I passed through the burg.Speed was immaterial; I once tried to go as slow as I could short of actually falling over. Mal suerte, Yanqui; a ticket for you (if I understood the copper correctly) for going too fucking slowly and tying up the busy traffic of the Republic of Panama (one rackety Chiva bus and a panel truck, I recall).

But that point was that the tickets had nothing to do with traffic or enforcement of the Panamanian statues regulating traffic. It had everything to do with the salary of a Panamanian police officer and the cop culture of Panama.

Panamanian cops, like nearly every other Panamanian national functionary back in the Eighties, were paid better than most Panamanian civilians that didn't work for that money tree, the Canal Commission. But by any other standard, they were paid squat.

And the "civil service" culture of Panama had a streak of graft a mile wide and deeper than Gatun Lake.

So the policeman in Arraiján was on the take.And the clerk at the DNTT, where you got your Panamanian plates and license. And the guy doing the food inspections for the bodegas and kitchens in Panama (interestingly, in country if you said "Panama" everyone knew you were referring to the City of that name; the nation of Panama was referred to as "la pais" or some equivalent of "the nation" or "the country".), the guy taking your toll along the TransIsthmica, the highway from ocean to fact, pretty much everyone in town had some sort of scam going on. It was how they made ends meet, since they worked for a poor country that paid them poorly.

And Panama was not the only place I watched this go on; in fact, pretty much everywhere outide the U.S. I spent any time; Honduras, Bolivia, Egypt...every public employee and a hell of a lot of the private ones stretched their incomes by mulcting the public they "served". La mordida - the "little bite" - came out of nearly everything you needed; inspections, licenses, travel...everything.

In China to adopt our little Miss we met the same; we had to bring "gifts" for every fucker in the process. The nannies in the orphanage, the orphanage director, the clerk at the public records office - in fact, the only people who DIDN'T formally solicit a little bribe were the coppers, making China one of the few parts of the Less-Developed World when I didn't associate a uniform with a gentle tug on the wallet.

But the reason I have been thinking about the policeman waiting patiently at the traffic light in Arraiján for his little bite is the recent furor over public unions and the apparently insatiable needs of the conservative party (and people, it seems) to beat down those damn tax-fattened hyenas until they accept their serfdom.Now I enjoy paying taxes about as much as anyone, and I certainly don't like the notion of bloated bureaucrats lolling about on my dime. But, unlike many of the people, especially many of the conservative people I read, I have read a little on the history of public employment in the U.S. AND have spent some time in places where the public employees really ARE serf-like.

And the reason that most U.S. public jobs pay middle-class wages - or better - has as much to do with the good of the public as it does the good of the "public servant". Because a poorly paid policeman, or clerk, or inspector - as anyone who's brain cell wasn't lonely should be able to figure out - would seem to be ideally placed to suppliment his or her income.

And do it in a way that most of us Americans, used to a relatively honest public workforce, would find extremely unpleasant.

One of the biggest reasons that the policeman in Arraiján could ply his trade was because he never touched los dorados - the golden ones, the truly wealthy - who had all the wealth they needed to buy protection from his irritating intrusion. A culture of public corruption can only really flourish in a society where the people who command the society are raised above the effects of the corruption...or benefit from it. In Panama back in 1986 they could do both, and did.

I wonder.

Could this recent enthusiasm for vilifying, and destroying the power of, the public employees in my country be related to changes in the U.S. of 2011 that make us more like the Panama of 1986 than the U.S. of 1986?Because I don't think I want the policeman...or the fireman, or the DMV clerk, or the building code Portland, Oregon to feel the desire for the little bite of the policeman in Arraiján.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

This is a compelling suggestion. As you say, those at the top never will feel the bite.

Collective bargaining used to be the American way, but the Republican party since Mr. Reagan (PATCO) has successfully demonized the greedy unionistas.

While it is true that some unions might have gone a bit far, it was no moreso than their overlords; the only difference today is that somehow this nation has truly bought into the prosperity gospel: If you're rich, God favors you. If you're not, quit your whining and accept your lot.

Oh, and go to church and drop a pennance in the plate to buy off the Big Guy.