Coima (Argentina)

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Coima
Informal practice commonly found in Argentina
Argentina map.png
Map of Argentina, where Coima commonly takes place.
Argentina flag.png
Flag of Argentina.
Entry written by Cosimo Stahl.
Cosimo Stahl is affiliated to School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

Original text by Cosimo Stahl

Coima is a colloquial term for a bribe. It is commonly used in the Southern Cone – the southernmost areas of Latin America – in particular in Argentina. It is defined as ‘gratification [or] gift with which to bribe an employer or an influential person’ or simply as ‘bribe or [the act of] bribery’ (Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy [RSA][1]). Also used, though to a lesser extent, are the verb coimear (to give or receive a bribe) and the nouns coimera (fondness for bribes) and coimero (one who gives a bribe). ‘Backhander’ may be coima’s closest English translation, given its underlying informal, illicit and immoral nature.

The Spanish word coima originally denoted a concubine or prostitute, and probably had its roots in the Arabic word quwaima, meaning a girl. The word coima arrived in South America under Spanish colonial rule when it was used to describe a rake-off—a share or small fine paid to the keepers of often illicit and clandestine gaming houses (Collins[2]; Dictionary of the RSA[3]). Since colonial times coima has been used to denote the fastest and indeed sometimes the only way to ‘get things done’ (Soca 2012[4]), often therefore fulfilling a practical and necessary function in day-to-day life. The practice of coima in the form of payments to low- and medium-ranking officials follows established informal rules and tariffs, which are part of what Calcagno (2000[5]) dubbed ‘the folklore of public administration.’

What might today be labelled ‘state capture’ by a bloated and opaque public administration was observed by the journalist Giuseppe Bevione in Argentina in 1910. He wrote then of coima as ‘The only way to get something out of the bureaucracy is by offering a tip. […] It opens all doors’ (Bevione 1910[6]). A century later, in 2012, six out of ten Argentines interviewed said they had been asked or forced to pay coima at least once in the previous year in an administrative or institutional setting (Lodola and Seligson 2013[7]). According to Ruth Sautu and colleagues (2004: 93[8]) coima occurs only occasionally, usually in order to obtain or accelerate a one-off administrative transaction, such as the issue of a passport, or to avoid a fine for a minor legal transgression.. Again according to Sautu, citing Argentine opinion surveys and interviews, one of the most typical instances of coima involves bribing a police officer over a traffic violation (Sautu et al. 2002[9]).

The size of coima is significant. Calcagno (2000[10]) distinguishes between corrupción minorista and corrupción mayorista, roughly equivalent to the difference between petty and large-scale corruption. Coima used to be distinguished from larger bribes (known as comisión, retorno or soborno) in that coima referred to an occasional, ‘petty’ transaction involving a ‘reasonable’ payment. Today, however, coima is increasingly used to describe any type of bribe, regardless of its frequency or size. For while the act or practice of coima may remain occasional, those affected by it are often part of a stable social fabric that upholds a consistent and habitual pattern of corrupt behaviour (Sautu 2004[11]). Over time, coima has come to play a crucial role of the working patterns of a greater regulatory system of social relations: while the a traffic offender resorts to coima to pay an occasional bribe to a police officer and thereby avoid a formal penalty, the officer on the receiving end engages in coima on a regular basis.

As José Sarrionandia pointed out, the embeddedness of coima in social relations extends far beyond state politics; the term bribe (soborno) only approximates to the true meaning of coima since it does not capture the common acceptance of and even enthusiasm for coima among society at large. Sarrionandia issued the following warning to any traveller to Argentina:

You may call it white-collar gangsterism or South American opportunism, but the reality is that coima is already furtively insinuated at customs. It can be seen in the inquisitive look of the customs officer who is about slowly to search the visitor’s luggage... The difficulties and inconveniences are summed up when a covetous offer presents itself. In two gambits [as in a poker game], an arrangement can be reached for everything (Sarrionandia 1964: 4[12]).

For Sarrionandia, coima is rooted in anti-social attitudes generated by deep-seated distrust and mutual suspicion and enforced by complexly regulated yet inefficient public services in a precarious environment of economic shortage. In the context of asymmetrical relations of political, economic, social or institutional power that generate benefits for some but disadvantages for others, informal unwritten rules and punitive mechanisms uphold and perpetuate coima as an informal practice (Sautu 2004[13]). This is reflected in the Argentine expression pasar la factura (pass the bill on) which refers to the act of excluding those who refuse to pay a bribe from official administrative processes, such as issuing a passport. Another sanctioning mechanism is the deliberate delay of administrative procedures by public officials, or the threat to enforce the letter of the law by, for example, by health and safety inspectors.

Coima has a coercive element because it is rooted in social bonds and societal relations, requiring an act of exchange between the giver and the recipient that resembles the act of exchanging gifts, favours and other forms of reciprocity while ultimately helping to form and strengthen social ties based on a sense of obligation. In the words of the Argentine writer Roberto Arlt, ‘We live in the coima empire, the realm of trickery, the land of villainy […] Coima is everywhere: invisible, certain, effective, precise. […] And those who do not engage in coima, tolerate coima’ (Arlt 1929[14]). Nearly a century later, Eric Calcagno wrote that Argentines had become indifferent towards the incidence of coima at almost any level, and that, as a result, corruption of almost any size had ceased to shock them. Coima and corruption was a ‘settled and accepted custom,’ as a result of which the country had entered an ‘advanced stage of decomposition’ where coima had become an institutionalised mode of social regulation and part of a larger ‘system’ (Calcagno 2000[15]).

Notes

  1. Royal Spanish Academy (RSA). 1925-2016. Diccionario de la lengua Española. Multiple editions. Madrid: Espasa Calpe
  2. Collins Spanish-English Dictionary. Available online at http://collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/spanish-english
  3. Royal Spanish Academy (RSA). 1925-2016. Diccionario de la lengua Española. Multiple editions. Madrid: Espasa Calpe
  4. Soca, R. 2012. La fascinante historia de las palabras. Buenos Aires: Interzona Editora
  5. Calcagno, E. 2000. ‘Modelo neoliberal y “cometa” en Argentina,’ Le Monde Diplomatique (Edición Cono Sur): 17 (November)
  6. Bevione, G. 1910. ‘La Curée in Argentina,’ La Stampa: 237 (27 August)
  7. Lodola, G. and Seligson, M. 2013. Cultura política de la democracia en Argentina y en las Américas, 2012. Hacia la igualdad de oportunidades. Buenos Aires: Torcuato Di Tella University and Vanderbilt University
  8. Sautu, R. (ed). 2004. Catálogo de Prácticas Corruptas. Corrupción, Confianza y Democracia. Buenos Aires: Lumiere
  9. Sautu, R. et al. 2002. ‘La Integración de Métodos Cualitativos y Cuantitativos para el Estudio de las Experiencias de Corrupción,’ Cinta de moebio: 13: 153-78
  10. Calcagno, E. 2000. ‘Modelo neoliberal y “cometa” en Argentina,’ Le Monde Diplomatique (Edición Cono Sur): 17 (November)
  11. Sautu, R. (ed). 2004. Catálogo de Prácticas Corruptas. Corrupción, Confianza y Democracia. Buenos Aires: Lumiere
  12. Sarrionandia, J. 1964. ‘EL CIERVO en Argentina: COIMA,’ El Ciervo: 13 (127): 4 (1 August)
  13. Sautu, R. (ed). 2004. Catálogo de Prácticas Corruptas. Corrupción, Confianza y Democracia. Buenos Aires: Lumiere
  14. Arlt, R. 1929. ‘Your majesty – la coima,’ El Mundo (16 January)
  15. Calcagno, E. 2000. ‘Modelo neoliberal y “cometa” en Argentina,’ Le Monde Diplomatique (Edición Cono Sur): 17 (November)