Corruption! In Portugal … never

In my early days of living here when Salazar was still alive and we lived under a dictatorship, bribing someone for what you wanted was often the only way forward if you were to get anywhere.

I remember well, when converting a quite large old ruin in the countryside, coming across a major blip in our plans.

The building had belonged to a farmer who dwelled in one section but had a very large barn where he stored not only his seasonal crops but also his tractor, cart and mule.

We decided that it would make a wonderful lounge with its beautiful stone walls and very high roof and had a special pair of large French windows made so that we would get the maximum view of the surrounding countryside and light in what would otherwise have been a very dark room.

Just as we had the place almost finished and we were in fact living there, two men turned up one day and started digging a hole in front of my splendid new living room window. Horrified I rushed out to find out what was going on and found that high tension electricity was being brought through and they needed to put a post in that precise spot so that the cable would run in a straight line from the main road.

It would then pass over the roof of our house and on to its destination. When I attempted to tell him he could not possibly do such a thing on our property, he promptly puffed himself up like a peacock and told me in no uncertain terms that EDP had a legal right to put posts wherever it had a mind to and there was nothing I could do about it.

At this point, Sr João, our gardener, evidently rather more used to these situations than I, kindly intervened and exercising admirable control, offered the gentleman a cigarette and led him away for a quiet chat.

After many wild arm movements, shaking of heads and finally laughter, by which time my husband had joined me to find out what was going on, the pair returned.

Sr João then explained that, in order to compensate this important representative of this illustrious purveyor of electricity for diverting this otherwise ‘straight as the crow flies’ piece of essential equipment, perhaps the sum of €€€ could be slipped subtly into the gentleman’s hand and just might resolve the matter.

The matter was indeed resolved, everyone was happy and the cable reached its destination with only a slight right angle deviation.

Ours was only a minor example of that which was considered normal and acceptable. Far more serious and possibly dangerous grafting took place and hardly any licences for building were granted unless several people along the chain of command had felt their palms greased.

There was one ‘Little Earner’ which might have been particularly dangerous and that was the driving licence scam, which I only became aware of in the early 80s, so well after the revolution when we all had high hopes that things had changed.

But, as it was in another country that the real sin occurred, perhaps the full blame cannot be laid entirely on Portuguese shoulders, and in fact shows that bribing is not exclusive to Portugal!

At that time as today, in order to get a driving licence a written test was required. Many people were unable to read or write so unable to get this much desired document, which was a great handicap for any worthwhile employment.

However, if you knew someone who knew someone, the problem could be resolved. With money of course!

Once a month, a man left Faro for Gibraltar with four passengers. He delivered them to the test examiner one at a time where no doubt there was a subtle exchange of cash.

The examiner was careful to ask each of the men if they could drive at all before starting the engine and, having been assured they could, were then asked to drive in a straight line to the end of the road and given a receipt as having passed.

The group would then return to Portugal and two weeks later would receive their legitimate driving licence in the mail. This was duly exchanged for a Portuguese licence and I can leave it to your imagination as to how genuine the GNR or traffic police believed these licences to be.

Whilst we now live in an age where we must assume that things of this nature no longer happen so blatantly, we are not so simple as to believe that they do not happen at all! It has become regular reading to hear about one council or another where there seem to be enormous debts looming, debts unpaid and not just here in Portugal.

We must not think that Portugal is the only country dealing with such problems. Recent stories of such things are also making headlines in the UK, however as long as they are not too serious I suppose they will be brushed under the carpet which is the time honoured way of making things disappear – isn’t it?

By Jenny Grainer
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Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1964. She is a freelance writer and her book ‘Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then’ is now in its 3rd printing.