By PETER SWANSON
Cuba Cruising Net
Have you ever been in the middle of some complex dealing when you realized the whole thing was a bad idea, that nothing was going to work out the way you had planned, but the process was too far along to gracefully pull the plug?
Let me tell you about our trip to Cambiaso Beach, a happy village in the Dominican Republic, a happy Caribbean country whose national motto is “no problem.”
Let the language barrier work to your advantage. Even if you understand what’s being asked, pretend not to, and patiently out-dumb your adversary.
Until we decided to take our boat to Cambiaso Beach, that is. That’s when I had my introduction to official corruption in Latin America.
My boat, a Cheoy Lee ketch named Hong Kong Maiden (get it: “made in” Hong Kong), was anchored in Luperon Harbor on the D.R.’s north coast. My cousin and co-owner, Greg, had flown down for a few weeks in the Dominican sunshine. He had spent three years studying Spanish on his own—books, dictionaries, and tapes—a major effort.
That’s when I came up with the idea.
Let’s invite a couple of the women from the corner cafe for a daysail to Cambiaso. We could eat lunch at Cambiaso’s one rustic little restaurant, and, since neither our guests nor the natives speak any English, we can practice Espanol all afternoon. Greg hadn’t gone sailing on his own boat for a couple years so this would be kicking off his vacation with some real quality time.
“But I am afraid of the sea,” one of the waitresses said. “I have never been on a boat, and I cannot swim. I am afraid that I will fall into the sea and sink straight to the bottom.”
I knew that Dominicans as a whole and the women in particular turn their backs to the ocean; many who go to the beach rarely venture deeper than their knees. I argued that the boat was very big
and stable and that I had many years of sailing experience. No Problem. Ten in the morning we would depart.
Until recently going from port to port in the Dominican Republic required an official document called a “despacho” (related story), which lists who’s on board, where you’ve come from and where you’re going. The problem is that Cambiaso is not a designated “port of entry,” which technically meant we couldn’t go there. The other problem was that Dominicans are not even allowed to visit foreign boats, let alone go sailing, without being licensed to do so by the local port authorities. Of course, this law is only enforced against the poor and dark skinned.
Those rules had been handed down from the days when the D.R. was run by dictators who took their cues from the leaden bureaucracy of Spanish colonial rule. These absurd stricture against Dominican citizens aboard foreign vessels survives today in the guise of preventing illegal immigration to the United States.
The consensus among the veteran sailors in Luperon was to ignore the whole process, pop down to Cambiaso, anchor for the afternoon, have lunch, then sail the 3˝ miles back before the sun set. Easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, they said. That was my plan, and Greg was all for it. His brother, the third partner in the boat, worried loudly that we would be caught and treated as outlaws.
“How about this,” I said. “I’ll talk to my friend in the Navy and see what his advice is.”
So later I tracked down the Navy lieutenant whom I’d helped repair another yachtsman’s ailing engine. He was a good guy, and I trusted him.
“It is not possible,” said the lieutenant. “You cannot go to Cambiaso, and even if you could, you cannot take the Dominican women, though I think it would be okay if they weren’t Dominican.”
“Now I’m confused. Can we go or not?”
“Before you go I will talk to the commandante with you. He and I were classmates at Navy school.”
The commandante had the bearing of a state trooper—mirrored sunglasses, tailored, crisply pressed khaki uniform.
“It is not possible, what you are asking. It is against all the rules to take your boat to Cambiaso. Nor can you depart with Dominican citizens aboard your vessel.
“What would the officials there say if they saw that I had given my permission to such a venture? It would mean my head,” the commandante said, running his thumb across his throat. Even I knew the “officials” at Cambiaso consisted of a threadbare squad of Army men living in shacks.
My lieutenant friend argued that surely such a trip was harmless and well within the commandante’s discretion to approve.
“My problem is that there are three other fellows here who do not report to me but directly to the capital. They are the counter-narcotrafficking agent and two agents from military intelligence, whose only job is to watch the harbor. If they saw you leave with Dominican women, it would mean my head.”
“Perhaps, commandante, a ‘tip’ for these fellows might be in order,” my lieutenant suggested.
“It is possible. The money would not be for me, but for the counter-narco agent and agents of military intelligence. Wait here while I speak to them.” Away he walked up the hill to Navy headquarters.
“Jesus, lieutenant, what kind of a Navy is this?” I had heard that the port commandante collected a fee for any activity happening in the bay or along its shores. Even the prostitutes were said to kickback a third to him if they visited a foreign boat in the course of business. I now knew the whole plan was a bad idea, and I had lost control.
“That’s the way it is here,” the lieutenant said, with an air of resignation. “To become commandante, you need to have big friends in Santo Domingo.”
Soon the commandante was back and smiling.
“Here’s what you will do: You will pay me 80 American dollars for the counter-narco man and military intelligence. You may use your dinghy to bring the Dominican women to your sailboat, but not here, from the Government Dock. You will load them from the marina dock. You will sail your boat to Cambiaso, where you may drop anchor and use the dinghy to go ashore with the Dominican women. You may bring them back by dinghy and must return to Luperon by sunset. You must then report to the lieutenant and inform him of your return. Nothing will be in writing. Do you understand?”
Mainly I understood that it was Greg’s money that we were paying, a huge chunk of change by Dominican standards, but at least my painful visit to the land of hint, wink and nod was at an end.
Or was it?
I was waiting at the marina for our passengers. That was where I had asked them to come, even before receiving the commandante’s ridiculously specific order. I was the only person sitting at the marina’s open-air restaurant, when I heard the sounds. When Dominicans want to get someone’s attention, they hiss.
Sssssssssss! Ssssssssssss! The sound was coming from the shrubbery at the dinghy dock. I walked over warily. There were two men in hats.
Hat No. 1 was slouched, small brimmed and crowning a grinning, mirror-sunglassed face. Hat No. 2 I recognized as the drug agent who had conducted the perfunctory search of our boat the day we arrived in Luperon; he had sniffed like a dog at the nets holding our fruits and vegetables. Hat No. 1 had a big, shiny 45-cal pistol sticking out of the top of his trousers.
“Amigo, Amigo, How are you? Como estas,” they said, giving affectionate little fist-taps to my upper arms and backslaps to each other.
I decided I wouldn’t know any Spanish for the purposes of conversation with this pair.
“I don’t think I like this,” I said.
“No! Amigo, everything okay. What is your name, please?”
I said my name.
“What is the name of your boat.”
I said the name of the boat.
“You are going to Cambiaso?”
“With the two Dominican women.”
Yes, that’s us.
Big grins. Laughs. More slaps on the back. More repetition of the word “amigo.”
Our passengers were late, I said.
“My friend, how much money did you pay the commandante?”
Why don’t you ask the comandante?
“Amigo, you do not understand. I am in military intelligence; this fellow is in counter-narcotics. The commandante, he is in the Navy. We are all together. Amigos. We are like one.”
Let the commandante sort it out, I thought.
“ Eighty American dollars,” I said.
They burst out in big, oily grins, repeating the word “amigo,” and slapping each other on the shoulders.
Then they started rubbing their stomachs. “Amigo, we are feeling very hungry. Amigo, we feel like we must eat.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “You want me to buy you breakfast.”
“Breakfast!” They said the word, a wonderful new word in English.
“Breakfast, amigo. Yes. We would like breakfast!”
“Okay, I’ll buy breakfast here at the marina,” I said, thinking to put the hats on display.
“No. No, amigo. We cannot eat breakfast here at the marina. There are too many people who would see. It is not a good idea. We would like breakfast in the town, amigo.”
All right, but some other time.”
“Yes, amigo. We will eat breakfast in town some other time. Good-bye, my friend. We go now,” said Hat 1, as they got in their skiff and motored away.
To make a long story short, I never heard from them again. Our trip was a disaster. The weather turned bad, while we were eating our Cambiaso lunch, forcing us to evacuate and scamper back to Luperon. Surely, our seasick passengers had learned an important life lesson. “I would not go in a sailboat again for a million pesos,” one said.
But what had I learned from this and subsequent dealings with Latin American officialdom?
Play it straight. Even minor victimless rule-breaking equals entrepreneurial opportunity for petty officials. Playing it straight denies them the opening for extortion. We could easily rented a car for the Cambiaso trip and sailed stag another day.
Playing it straight is not always enough. Be stubborn. Say no when an official asks for a bribe just to do his or her ordinary duty. I agree with my friend and cruising guide author Bruce Van Sant, who argues that Americans historically have encouraged corruption by being all too willing to fork over the cash.
Stubbornness is not always enough. Let the language barrier work to your advantage. Even if you understand what’s being asked, pretend not to, and patiently out-dumb your adversary.
You can’t always win. Despite the aforementioned, there are times when you will have to pay a strongman with clear power over you and your vessel. Enter into a negotiation mode. If he says 20, counter-offer with 10, respectfully arguing you don’t want any problems with him (no quiero problemas contigo) but 20 is too much. Consider the cash equivalent of your dollars in the local economy.
Make friends in high places. Your status as a gringo yachtsman will give you entry into the world of the Latin American elite, most of whom are gracious and friendly folks. Always ask for a couple business cards from your newly made acquaintances that you can show. No local official wants a powerful enemy back in the capital. Ex-pats call them get-out-of-jail-free cards.
Some times you should pay. If local officials in a poor country are providing an extraordinary service, why not? If, say, a harbor official asks for an extra $10 for gasoline to conduct nighttime security patrols in an anchorage where outboard motor thefts have been common, it makes sense to contribute, even if you suspect that half of it is going into his pocket.
Take the high-end road. Frequent high-end marinas, which have on-site government customs and immigration offices. Examples of this can be found at Casa de Campo Marina in the D.R. and Las Barrillas Marina in El Salvador. Even if officials at these marinas wanted to, they wouldn’t dare try a shakedown. Otherwise look for quality marinas that advertise they will handle vessel clearance paperwork for a fee. Yes, you are still paying extra, and some of the money may go to “tip” officials, but being insulated from this ugly process is well worth it.
Let me finish by suggesting a lesson you should not reach from this article. If the question were whether corruption was worse in the United States or Latin America, my short answer would be that corruption surely is worse south of the border. Don’t interpret that as a signal to don the mantle of complete cultural superiority worn by so many gringos in the tropics.
It’s been a long time since I was a teenager paying an old Boston cop $5 to let me through the back door of Jethro Tull concert. Later I spent a career as a newspaper reporter and editor helping to publish a steady stream of stories about official corruption in the lily-white state of New Hampshire. I’m convinced only a tiny bit of the self-dealing will ever be uncovered there. Maybe you’ve heard of recent events at Enron and Tyco.
Here’s where I think lies the biggest difference between our two worlds: In 21st Century America, corruption is the province of the rich and powerful, whereas in Latin America it is practiced at the retail level like that Boston cop.