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Corruption and honesty

"The difference between Latin Americans and Americans," an Englishman once said, "is that Latin Americans are religious, but not moralists, and Americans are moralists, but not religious."

Take corruption, for example. There's plenty in Latin America, as most Americans are aware of due less to recent events than to Hollywood portrayals of Latin officials accepting drug cartel bribes while customs officials are paid to ignore unidentified planes with unscheduled 4 a.m. flights.

Corruption is out in the open in Latin America and well-hidden in the United States. In other words, we both stick our hands in the cookie jar, but in Latin America one can claim, "I lie, cheat and steal, but at least I'm honest about it." Now who has the claim on moral superiority?

However, Americans exact harsh retribution on offenders. Not harsh enough, some may remark, but consider the dynamics during a scandal _ that is, before there's even a trial. Typically, the accused is ostracized by co-workers, friends, neighbors and usually the press if allegations are real juicy. No one wants to be associated with the thief. His name is mud for life. His family is humiliated. His kids are harassed at school. And later, due to "stress and strain," his wife dumps him. Then he's reborn.

This treatment is usually enough to keep one on the straight and narrow.

In Latin America, however, reputations are trivial and legacies are golden. Stadiums, airports and lighthouses bear proof along with a conspicuously prominent name plaque.

Latinos admire men of action. If you're a man, you're a fool if you don't grab what you can get today. "A man provides for his family," it is said. "Think of your mama. She broke her back making you what you are today. The Queen Mother deserves something special, like a condo in Miami Beach. Only don't be a fool and get caught. Now you'll break her heart."

A scandal in Latin America blows over quicker than you can blink an eye. In the United States it haunts us for decades. In Latin America, usually no one is harmed, things are patched up and someone else is given his turn. This power exchange also exists in the military. One military junta is replaced by another only because the ousted didn't share. Yet, in general, everyone ends up happy.

It's all political, anyway. Corruption is a fact of life in Latin America, but it depends on who is doing what and when that counts. Until the next election, members of the opposition party cry, "Corruption is ruining the country!" After a change of government, until the next election, members of the opposition party cry, "Corruption is ruining the country!"

Party loyalty runs deep through generations. Not only that, like the old Party Boss system in the United States, Latin political parties take care of their members. From the president's cabinet down to members' household maids and chauffeurs, all profess the same party affiliation.

In addition, the allegedly most corrupt institutions _ the post office, customs, immigration and utilities (if still state-owned) _ are stocked with party loyalists. If it weren't for unions, all school teachers would even be party members. Under these conditions, when the opposition party wins the next election, most of these government employees _ from postal clerks to health care workers _ are put out on the streets with no prospects of finding a similar job until their party wins back power. This may help to explain the Latin philosophy of take-what-you-can-get-today, for you might not have another chance for a while.

Of course, no matter who is declared the winner after an election, claims of fraud inevitably ring throughout the land. That's so the losers can save face, for nothing is ever investigated. If a case of fraud or corruption does make it to the courts, justice is partial at best because judges are _ you got it _ political appointees. One's own lawyer is likely to be on the payroll of the enemy.

Corruption and fraud are a byproduct of the economic system of democracy, capitalism. Latin America's version of capitalism is a combination of economic practice and cultural attitudes known as "crony capitalism."

Unlike a true free enterprise system in which work, savings, investments, risk-taking and entrepreneurship are rewarded, crony capitalism stresses control of economic activity by the state on behalf of favored individuals or sectors. As a result, capitalism is often discredited as an unfair economic system which in turn has produced the social upheaval prevalent in the region.

When too much is too much, in steps the military or a dictator. Sometimes in the short run, authoritarian policies turn a country around.

Even dictatorships prefer a capitalist system, albeit of a customized form, and Latin American economies have prospered under some dictators: Chile under Pinochet, Paraguay under Stroessner and Argentina under a military junta.

Still, the United States continues to insist on implementing democracy and capitalism in Latin America as practiced in the United States. It's a noble effort, I suppose, even though the United States threatens to exercise its muscle to impose economic sanctions and to cut off funding from international institutions like the IMF.

Latin culture is the stumbling block. Without electoral, economic, judicial and police reforms, the people will not have enough faith and hope to effect cultural change. This is what the United States fails to understand. Latin American nations should be allowed to introduce democracy and capitalism at their own pace. They're already operating at capacity, to the best of their abilities.

Shelly Tabar served for 3{ years in the Peace Corps in Honduras, then worked as a journalist in Central America.