Wednesday 19 December 2012

Big Bucks Tempt the Authorities to Look Away

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the American multinational retailer corporation that runs chains of large discount department stores and warehouse stores is the world's third largest public corporation. The New York Times has published evidence suggesting that to some degree its foreign growth has been based on encouraging a culture of corruption. A key example cited by the newspaper is the bribery by Wal-Mart suggested by the evidence revealed by a NYT investigation as the store sought to build in the shadow of Mexico's most revered cultural landmark, the pyramids of Teotihuacán.
"The Times’s examination reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business. Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals".
Americans tend to think of their country as one where there is "very little corruption" compared to the rest of the world, ignoring certainly the corrupting influence America has on the rest of the world. Only a fortnight ago I discussed a blatant example of this ('Cultural Property Research Institute President:"Encourage Corruption in Artefact Source Countries') when Arthur Houghton III President of the Cultural Property Research Institute  apparently suggested on the blog of coiney lobbyist Peter Tompa that foreign "corrupt customs officials and museum directors" should be encouraged to supply US collectors and museums with cultural property ("I suggest the creation of a large private acquisition fund that will provide an inducement for corrupt source country officials to find more material to sell, that would bring more interesting objects into our own hands"). Perhaps this lies behind the position of the US in the ranking of the Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perception Index. It is about perceptions, in some countries citizens when asked will point to situations which they consider corruption, which over the other side of the ocean are accepted as something relatively normal.

US Collectors and dealers frequently justify taking and keeping illicit dugup antiquities from countries they regard as Oriental, backward, corrupt and generally un-American (which is about anywhere east of Maine and west of Seatle) on the grounds that they are rescuing them from the allegedly "corrupt" officials of those countries. First of all this is mkerely a 'two-wqrongs-make-a-right' argument. Secondly, what they'd prefer their readers not to take into account is the degree to which the big bucks generated by the international criminal antiquities trade creates the possibility to initiate corruption.

David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrabt, 'The Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Wayin Mexico', New York Times December 17, 2012.

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