Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Red Tape

Getting a visa to Vietnam was like pulling teeth. Susan Bindig, on of the trip organizers, had to jump through all sorts of hoops to file fifteen visas at the New York Consulate. Through several months in the spring, there were endless rounds of Fed Ex-ing, revising, and redundant forms and fees before the visas finally arrived.

When I picked my visa up from her office in May, I noticed that it expired on July 15, half way through our trip. I asked if we would need to get an extension during the trip, and she said no. I figured that something was in the works and that we’d be given an additional visa in July. As July 15 approached, I started to wonder about the situation and brought it up with Desaix. It turned out that July 15 was a typo—everyone else’s expires on September 15.

As angry as I was that after months of wrangling with the consulate, they’d botched my visa, something had to be done about it. I’d prefer not to travel illegally in Communist Vietnam. And as much as I’m enjoying Vietnam, I’d like to be able to leave when the time comes.

So on Monday, Desaix and I took a cab to a plush government agency where Desaix had been told I could get a visa extension. Before we’d even passed through the gate, however, an official told us to go to another agency. The second agency was at the end of a long alleyway and was full of Vietnamese people, most of whom seemed to be there to update their national ID cards. They sat in plastic chairs waiting for their number to be called by white-shirted officials who were in no particular hurry. It was the Vietnamese DMV.

Desaix talked to a woman behind a glass window and after a bit of bureaucratic wrangling, she declared that the university authorities could take care of my visa. I was elated, thinking I’d go into a friendly university administrator’s office, get a simple stamp, and once again be a legal visitor to Vietnam.

The next morning I gave the passport to Mr. Vinh, who organizes the logistics of the course. He returned an hour later with a handful of complicated forms which I signed and then he disappeared again. As we were leaving class, I asked him when I’d get it back, expecting to have it by the next day. To my horror, he casually estimated that it would take a week. That’s too bad, I thought, it means that I’ll have to manage with my remaining cash, since I won’t be able to change any more travelers checks.

A WEEK!! Wait a minute! I’m flying to Ho Chi Minh City in three days! How am I supposed to get on an airplane without my passport!?! It suddenly dawned on me that this was a disaster. I need the passport back immediately or I need them to expedite the visa extention.

Desaix helped me out again by calling some university staff and expressing my predicament. He learned that I couldn’t get my passport back because it was already taken to the authorities and now that they knew that the visa is expired, they wouldn’t release it. So there was no choice but to go through the visa process. The challenge was to cut a week down to two days.

I thought of myself spending my last weekend lying in my hotel room and I got desperate. I frantically stammered, “Tell them I’m willing to pay any “fees” that they need. I’ll pay whatever it takes. WHATEVER it takes.”

People in the West constantly criticize people in the developing world for being corrupt, for giving and taking bribes. I’ve personally asked Vietnamese officials tough questions about corruption in their country. But here I was, in a desperate situation, and my immediate reaction was to throw money at the bureaucracy to make it go away.

Desaix told them to “feel free to pay any expediting fees that may be necessary” and by the late afternoon, we heard welcome news—the passport and renewed visa will be in my hands by Thursday, before my flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I still have no idea if some sort of bribe did the trick or if I was just lucky, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something shady went down.

Since I last wrote about corruption in “Politics”, my assessment of government corruption has changed. I had written that corruption was substantial but that the government was taking important steps to combat it. I’m now convinced that corruption is extremely widespread and that anti-corruption campaigns are mostly for show.

Part of this reassessment emerged through a briefing by an official at the U.S. Embassy, who painted a sobering picture of corruption in Vietnam. Corruption, he claimed, is present at every level of government and is likely to remain a formidable challenge for a long time because the system is self-perpetuating. Like most bureaucracies, the Communist government favors passiveness over initiative. Officials who maintain the status quo will slowly rise in the administration. Those who rock the boat are inevitably purged.

The Embassy official cited a recent example to illustrate this. For years, parents have been bribing exam authorities to boost their children’s test scores. But recently, a brave official stood up and publicly exposed the well known exam corruption. The Party was embarrassed but pretended that it was pleased by the official, who was promptly promoted. Many observers saw this as a sign that the government was serious about fighting corruption. But when the official tried to run for the National Assembly, the Communist Party vetted him and prohibited his candidacy. There was no room for an upstart whistle blower in the National Assembly.

Corruption is firmly engrained in Vietnamese government because of its scale. Because it is prevalent at all levels of government, everyone is complicit and has a stake in minimizing reform. The junior official won’t denounce a senior official for accepting a car from Chinese construction firm because the senior official knows all about the junior official’s special “expediting fees” at the immigration agency.