It has always been said the problem with gringos doing business in Latin America is that gringos don’t understand the culture. Businessmen from large multi-nationals just wanted to come down to “close the deal and get the heck out of this place”. I don’t know if that’s still true since the larger metropolitan cities in Latin America are very cosmopolitan nowadays (business people and Secret Service agents alike may actually look forward to visiting Latin America nowadays). However, getting things done in Latin America remains very different from in the industrialized countries. The big difference is that you have to be genuinely interested in the people you do business with, the places you operate in, the culture, the history, etc. You cannot come down to Latin America in a strictly business mindset, close the deal and get out of there.
I’m good at doing business here in Peru. I take an interest in people, culture, history. I chat up people for no reason other than to be social. You have to be social here in Latin America. The same holds true for dealing with the bureaucracy in Peru. You can’t just walk into a government office and expect straightforward explanation of what to do, how long it will take, etc. You have to shake hands with the security guard, tell him the nature of your tramite (the paperwork you’re doing), go to 3 different desks, make nice talk at each desk, profusely thank the bureaucrats as if they are really being helpful, etc.
The trouble is, even though I’m quite good at getting things done in Peru, I still can’t navigate the bureaucracy. No matter how nice or social you are with the bureaucrats, they stick to their rules and forms and you simply never get the final “OK, you’re done” until they are happy.
It’s never good to loose your cool with a Latin American bureaucrat but some situations push the limits of your patience:
- Before Patricia and I were legally married the municipality needed a translated copy of my birth certificate. We gave them a certified “international birth certificate” that conforms to some international treaty, but that wasn’t enough. They wanted the original birth certificate, translated, certified in Belgium, then taken to Lima and certified there.
- I spent a lot of time and money to get my Peruvian pilot’s license which I was told would have all my same ratings as on my US license but at the very end of the process they issued my license with a single rating only, saying I’d need to spend another $6,000 or so to get the rest of my ratings.
- I recently incorporated a company, “The Silver Lining Company, EIRL” here in Peru. “EIRL” stands for Empresa Individual de Responsabilidad Limitada. On one of the forms that was generated by the “Registros Publicos” (national registry), the word “Responsibilidad” was misspelled (by them, not by me). I was told it would take 3 days to correct that!
- One of my international flight permits to deliver a small Cessna from the factory to Peru was delayed by almost a week because we had specified “Ferry Flight” instead of “Vuelo Traslado” (= ferry flight) on the permit request.
Some of these issues may seem petty but if you’re trying to get a job, buy a house, get married or something like that and you can’t get past the bureaucracy it can be very frustrating. I was recently at the US embassy in Lima where another person wanted to have some documents notarized to get a job at a university in Lima. The embassy told this person they couldn’t notarize her forms because the embassy had to comply with the Hague Convention. As I understand it, the Hague Convention simply means you get a certified form only from the originator of the form and then it is supposed to be respected worldwide. But what do you do if the person at the other end of the transaction doesn’t know there exists a Hague Convention and insists you “get it notarized at the embassy”. While I was listening to this conversation at the US embassy it was quite obvious this is almost a daily issue for them, people coming to get papers legalized that the embassy can’t or shouldn’t legalize.
Long story short no matter how you try to make sense with a Peruvian bureaucrat they always win.
A few weeks ago I won my first argument with a Peruvian bureaucrat. I have to go twice a year to the Peruvian immigration office to renew my visa. It’s the typical tramite: you go into the office and stand in line to get some forms. Then you take the forms to the Banco de La Nacion and stand in line to pay a fee. You make some copies of various documents, get the copies notarized, return to the immigration office to turn the whole thing in and listo, visa is extended.
Last year I had a problem when I renewed my Peruvian visa. When you enter or leave the country your movements are supposed to be recorded in a database, but when I enter (or leave) through Trujillo or Piura airports on my ferry flights, the entry is often not recorded. I pass immigrations and customs, get a stamp in my passport, but for some reason the entry is never made into the database. When I renewed my visa last year my “movements” didn’t add up, for example, I had 2 entries for “leaving the country” without one for “entering the country” in between. I spent about 6 weeks, a bunch of time, tramites, photocopies, notary fees, trips to the immigration office, and then it was supposedly resolved.
When I went to renew my visa this year I did my tramite in about 2 hours, got my new sticker on the back of my carnet extranjeria and was home free. Or so I thought. A half hour after I left the immigration office I got a phone call that there was a problem and I needed to return to the office. I went back and the officials there told me my “movements” didn’t add up again. They showed me the list of movements and even the ones that were supposed to have been corrected last year were missing again, as were some from my more recent trips.
The friendly lady at the immigration office in Cuzco told me to go make certified copies of my passport, all the pages with the stamps that show me entering or leaving Peru, get them all notarized, write a letter to request that my “movements” be fixed and pay a fee to fill out some forms.
I didn’t loose my cool at first. I kindly told the lady I simply wouldn’t do it. I said I had spent a lot of time and money doing the same thing last year for nothing (the problem still existed even with my movements from last year). It was not my problem, I pass through immigration and customs on all my trips. It’s simply a system issue with international flights through airports other than Lima (both Piura and Trujillo are airports of entry, meaning they accept international flights).
The bureaucrat lady and I go through the same conversation about 3 times. She tells me to do a bunch of stuff and I kindly tell her I won’t. After about 3 or 4 times beating a dead horse I finally loose my cool and raise my voice.
“Look lady, I ain’t doing nothing. It’s your problem, you fix it!!!!!!!!”
This never works. You just shoot yourself in the foot. So I was completely dumbfounded when another bureaucrat at the next desk stood up and agreed with me. He walked over to the first bureaucrat lady and said something like, if my entries/exits were not through Lima that all they had to do was send an email to the airports (ie. Piura or Trujillo) to confirm the movement or have them put it in the system or something of this nature. I didn’t follow the exact details of the conversation between the 2 officials but they quickly decided I didn’t have to do anything else, all was fixed, they would take care of it.
I was happy and at the same time I couldn’t believe it, I had actually won an argument with a Peruvian bureaucrat 🙂