Easing of Cuba Travel Restrictions Will Cut Bribe-Taking in Mexico

Today the Obama administration lifted the travel restriction for Cubans traveling to Cuba from the U.S. This will have the effect of helping to cut bribe-taking in Mexican Immigration in Mexican cities with direct flights to Cuba.

Under the old rules Cubans who wished to travel from the U.S. to Cuba more often than they were allowed to under U.S. law would commonly try to bribe Mexican Immigration officials to prevent the officials from stamping their passports with a second (and to U.S. officials suspicious) entry stamp.

The typical scenario worked like this: A Cuban (or an American traveling illegally to Cuba) flies to Mexico from the U.S. In Mexico their passport is stamped showing an entrance to Mexico via air on a certain day. Then the passenger generally travels on to Cuba the same day, on a later flight, never leaving the airport.

Cuba is known to be ‘nice’ to people in this situation, so Immigration officials there do not stamp these passengers’ passports, leaving no record of their entry to Cuba.

Returning to the U.S. the passenger flies back to Mexico where the Mexican Immigration official is required by law to place another entry to Mexico stamp in the person’s passport. U.S. Immigration officials know to look for two Mexican Immigration entry stamps within a short time frame, this alerts them that the passenger may have traveled from Mexico to Cuba.

And so upon return to Mexico from Cuba it is very common for Cubans who reside in the U.S., and for Americans who have traveled to Cuba illegally, to try to convince the Mexican Immigration officials not to give their passports that second suspicious Mexican entry stamp. As you can imagine, the convincing part often involves money changing hands.

It’s hard to blame Mexican Immigration agents for taking these easy bribes. The passengers are often VERY interested in NOT getting that second stamp and are willing to pay well to avoid it. And Mexico doesn’t pay its Immigration agents a living wage. Currently the pay rate for most agents is something around $8000 MXP per month after tax (which is less than $500 USD at current exchange rates).

With the cost of living here and that salary you can’t maintain a vehicle, let alone a decent home. People living on less than $500 USD per month here in Mexico can forget about anything except meeting their basic needs and an occasional stop at a street vendor for cheap tacos. There is no extra money in that equation, none. So it’s very easy to see why these poorly paid agents would be willing to take easy money from someone desperate to avoid having their passport stamped.

Taking a bribe is not without risk for an Immigration agent in Mexico. Agents have gone to prison for taking just a $20 USD bribe. But travelers rushing through airports are almost universally not interested in taking the time to report their abuse at the hands of Immigration officials. And if you are guilty of giving the bribe you are not about to turn yourself and the agent in, because you’ve received a benefit. So while there is a risk to the agents for taking bribes they know that their chances of getting turned in for bribe-taking are very small.

The easing of the U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba will mean that the Cubans, at least, who travel through Mexico en route to Cuba, will have no reason to try to bribe Mexican Immigration agents. This is good. Other Americans, who are traveling to Cuba illegally will still have reason to avoid that second stamp, however. So the corruption will be reduced but will continue.

Until such time as Mexico sees fit to pay its Immigration agents a decent salary, a salary that represents a wage that allows more than just subsistence living, many agents will embrace the easy money that is a side-effect of illegal travel to Cuba by Americans.

For Mexico’s sake, it is my hope that the U.S. will completely remove the restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. This would completely eliminate a huge source of bribe money for Mexican Immigration agents. I also hope that the Mexican government will recognize that it can’t hope to fight corruption in Mexican Immigration until it pays those agents a decent wage.

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9 Responses to “Easing of Cuba Travel Restrictions Will Cut Bribe-Taking in Mexico”

  1. Croft
    April 15th, 2009 15:09

    So much for the USA being the “Land Of The Free”, eh? Obama is such a breath of fresh air.

  2. jody
    April 16th, 2009 11:50

    Um….this was not done for Mexicos sake. It was done to allow families to be together, and provide $ to relatives in Cuba who are being oppressed and abused.

    This law should have been obeyed by both lawless US citizens and corrupt Mexican immigration agents. Period.

    Removing laws so that they are not broken is backward logic. How about obeying the laws in the first place? Period.

  3. RiverGirl
    April 16th, 2009 13:38

    Jody – Of course this law wasn’t changed to benefit Mexico! The whole point of my post is that there will be an unintentional benefit to Mexico, which is a good thing.

    Removing laws which encourage corruption is not backwards thinking, it’s being pragmatic.

    Mexico is a largely lawless country. Expecting people in Mexico to just obey the law when there’s a century-long history of corruption here, and when agents can’t feed their families on what they are paid is simply WISHFUL thinking. If we are to expect them to follow the law it has to be practical for them to do so.

  4. jody
    April 16th, 2009 14:22

    Rivergirl, it is not the laws that cause corruption, it is individuals and the bad choices they make that cause it. Following laws should not be optional depending on your circumstances. It is a societal norm to have laws in place that must be obeyed. Doing away with the laws so that people won’t be tempted to break them is most certainly backward thinking.

    I think the first way that vacationers and ex-pats can help the hard working Mexican people earn a living would be to quit haggling the prices down in the Mexican markets. Pay asking price if you can afford it. It is still probably 1/2 what you would pay in the US or abroad. It ALWAYS ticks me off to hear Americans bargaining with Mexicans selling their homemade goods.

    I don’t consider the Cuban travel ban to have been a law that was not practical enough to have been followed. It was quite clear, and was deliberately disobeyed. Shame on those who broke the law, and shame on those who accepted bribes and allowed it.

  5. RiverGirl
    April 16th, 2009 15:47

    Jody – I completely agree with you, following the law should not be optional.

    However when a situation gets created that makes it easy, expedient and profitable to take a bribe you have to expect someone who is already underpaid might be very tempted to take that bribe. There is motivation on both sides, the agent is underpaid and the Cuban needs to go back to the US without penalty for having been to Cuba without permission. Both sides may feel that they win if that bribe changes hands.

    I’m not saying the agents SHOULD take bribes, I’m saying that if you are practical about it you will see that many WILL take bribes.

    In my mind this isn’t a question of what’s right or wrong (even though you want it to be), it’s a question of creating a situation that makes it impractical and difficult to disobey the law. When that happens the law will be respected.

    In a country where so many people live just above subsistence level you can’t expect people to respect the law if they can easily benefit from breaking it without recourse.

  6. Rob
    April 22nd, 2009 15:37

    You have outlined very well why the US is concerned that Mexico could become a failed state. Corruption and acceptance of bribes exist at all levels of the Mexican government. The drug barons have so much money to offer that the integrity of the government – such as it is – may be threatened.

  7. Mira's Desk
    April 27th, 2009 11:50

    As with everyting in life it is best to be prepared. Here is a link to the CDC for information on the Travel restrictions. http://pfx.me/NP

  8. Human
    April 29th, 2009 12:19


    The restrictions to Cuba (not only in traveling matters, of course) have been declared illegan by several international organisms, the UN, for instance.

    It can´t make me but happy to hear that Obama is aware of that and is taking steps to change such an unfair situation.

    There is one point in your discourse I disagree with, though… 8000 pesos a month is not a great salary, right, but is is kind of enough to make a living out of it, at least for a single person, here in México.

    I don’t earn much more than that (specially these days…) and I can afford living in a nice house (not very fancy, that’s right) and a tsuru. Again, not an expensive car, but one that takes me to my work and back. If things weren’t as they are now, I would have taken a credit from a bank to buy a house of my own, and I was going to pay it in about 10 years.

    I also eat delicious, cheap tacos, of course, but I often spend money on recreational activities, too, at least once or twice a week (let’s say bowling in Paseos Cancún or an occasional beer on the Yaxchilan avenue).

    I planify my economy very well (sadly, much better than most poeple i know), but I think that in general terms, 8000 pesos is good money for a single person.

    Sorry for my English! I’m still learning after about 8 years of having started… I know it hears odd sometimes.

  9. RiverGirl
    April 29th, 2009 12:27

    Human – It sounds like you are an honest person who manages money well.

    I think that many people would find it difficult to live on $8000 MXP a month if they were supporting a family, wanted to put their kids in private school, wanted to drive a fancy car. But you are right, if you live modestly you can survive reasonably on that money.

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