SANTIAGO AIRPORT, Dominican Republic- “No se acceptan dinero. Ni pesos, ni dollares, ni Euro,” was written on large posters stuck to the front of each immigration booth at the Santiago international airport.
Apparently, these signs are suppose to keep the immigration officials honest. My experience can only attest that these posters do not function as intended.
I received a taste of some good, old-time corruption when going through exit procedures when leaving the Dominican Republic last night. I have dealt with corrupt immigration officials before, but never in an incident that was so blatant, and in a major international airport.
An American citizen on a tourist visa should expect to pay a $25 exit tax upon leaving the Dominican Republic. The guidebooks say that this tax is included in the cost of the air ticket, and it may be, but immigration still demands it before stamping you out of the country.
This exit tax is $25 per traveler, there are now three travelers in my family, so this is a $75 charge just to exit the Dominican Republic. Now if you add to this the $25 that I had to pay to exit the DR to go to Haiti, the $10 that I paid to return to the Dominican Republic, and then the $30 I paid for my family to enter the country back in February, then the total amount that I paid for 6 weeks in this country is upwards of $140. One hundred and forty US dollars extorted for no other reason that I wished to be a tourist in the Dominican Republic.
I did not want to pay this exit tax again, so I question the airlines to as to if this tax was included with the cost of my flight. To my dismay, the check in girl just shook her head, “No, you need to pay the tax at immigration.”
As we stood in line waiting to be stamped out of the Dominican Republic, I watched ahead to see if other Americans were being charged. They were. Before the immigration officers would stamp them out of the country, they would first be sent over to a woman, who sat against a far wall behind a desk with a little money box and a ledger book placed upon it.
Each American who did not appear to be of Dominican nationality were sent over to this women and forced to pay the exit tax. They all did so in turn before returning to the immigration booth for their exit stamp.
When Chaya, Petra, and I walked up to the immigration booth, a lean, skinny faced, brown skinned man with grease curled, kinky hair looked up at us from behind his little counter. I handed him our passports. I hoped that we would not be sent over to the woman with the money box. We were. I tried to explain that I had already paid one $25 tax at the land crossing with Haiti, and had only been in the country for a week after that.
My protestations were to no avail, I would have to pay $25 too, bringing the total to 75 USD for six weeks of spending money in the Dominican Republic.
Though something interesting happened first: the immigration official had stamped all three of our passports, thus putting a ripple in the pattern of what I observed in the passengers who went before us. I became curious, as everybody else paid their tax and only then received their stamp. I thought for a moment that he may have been letting us slide. I thought wrong.
This immigration officer clearly had other plans for us.
We were pointed over to the desk with the little box and ledger boo, but by the time we arrived the woman was mysteriously nowhere to be found. We waited for a few minutes, I grudgingly dug out 75 USD to pay the tax. But the tax collector had split. I became a little anxious, I had just wanted to get through security, into the terminal, and to our gate in time to claim our pre-boarding privilege for traveling with an infant.
The skinny immigration officer that had stamped our passports then walked up behind us and directed that we follow him into an adjoining office. The office door was wide open and there were two other Dominican air passengers sitting inside, waiting for something. There was no call for true alarm, perhaps the tax collector was in here?
She wasn’t. The immigration officer walked into the room ahead of us and then around a little partitioning wall. He motioned for us to follow him. We hesitated, then Chaya went and I followed. We found ourselves in a back room with only lockers, bunkbeds, and the greedy smile of corruption.
We were perhaps in one of the worst places for a traveler to be. This was not good.
“Da me setenta cinco dollares?”
I cracked a cheeky smile, the immigration officer did too. This was corruption, plain, simple, to the point corruption. He would take my exit tax for himself rather than allow it to disappear into the tax collector’s little metal box.
This man was acting with an air of complete impunity, and, as we in plain view of another passenger who could clearly see Chaya and I from his vantage point in the office, it was apparent that there were no checks imposed upon this immigration officer’s behavior. This was a bad place to be, and a worse place to have a disagreement.
With a chuckle, and a sigh of defeat, I quickly handed over the money. My wife looked at me like I was nuts. The immigration inspector stuffed my money into his pocket without counting it, smiled, and said in Spanish, “Ok, you can go, no problem.”
Shit, I should have bargained.
I just smiled and shook my head with disbelief as I walked by the other passenger in the office who had observed the crooked transaction. He smiled and shook his head as well. He knew that he was next.
There was nobody watching the watchers, nobody officiating the officials, nobody to police the police. Or if there were, they took their cut as well. This is how corruption works smoothly: all of the gears are greased, and there was no way that I was going to be the lone clog in the system.
But my wife Chaya was not so easily placated.
“No, that was too f’cking sketchy,” she roared as we walked out of the office, “we need to get a receipt for that.”
As the immigration officer exited the office behind him, my wife boldly turned to him and demanded a receipt.
“No, it is OK, you can go,” the officer again repeated in Spanish.
I backed my wife up and demanded a receipt for the tax that we had paid. I at least wanted confirmation — a souvenir perhaps — of the contribution I made to the Dominican immigration officer fund.
With a yell of “Mujer!” the immigration officer summoned the official tax collector lady, who suddenly appeared from around a corner. The two had a little private meeting. The woman moved back to her desk, and we followed. My wife made it clear that we had already paid the tax to the immigration officer. The woman fumbled indolently at her ledger book and tried to dismiss us. Chaya again demanded a receipt. The lady got up from the desk and walked across the room for another meeting with the corrupt immigration officer, who had by now returned to his little station and was again stamping passports.
The woman returned and wrote out our receipts. Chaya, Petra, and I went through security, boarded our flight, and departed from the Dominican Republic no less encumbered by dollar bills than if the tax payoff had been standard.
It was not me who was hustled in this deal — I paid the same amount that I would have even if the tax collection was legitimate — it was the immigration officer cheating his own country. And, honestly, I could not give a shit.
All exit taxes from a country are corrupt: you are just paying off the police to let you leave their area of jurisdiction. Just because some forms of extortion are officially mandated does not make it any less corrupt. Many countries refuse to let you leave unless you pay them money like a couple armed goons collecting tolls at a medieval footbridge.
“None shall pass.”
This is a ransom payment — I am temporarily held in limbo until I pay up. I always wondered what would happen if a traveler refused to pay their exit tax when trying to depart on an international flight. I tried it once in Mexico, for 15 minutes I declared that I had no money when an exit tax was demanded of me. The cops just shrugged their shoulders and waited until their payoff magically appeared. It eventually did.
So it matters very little to me if I place my ransom into the political machine of a country or into the palm of a greasy passport stamper — the only thing that I care about is that it does not cost me anymore than what it has to.
I had to pay $75 to leave the Dominican Republic, I paid $75. The fact that this money went directly into the pocket of a Dominican Republic immigration officer means no more to me than if it went towards its intended purpose: all exit taxes are payoffs, they are all baksheesh.
My family and a couple other Dominicans were chosen to make this payoff under the table, while the other passengers paid on the books. In the end, it is the same corruption.
I am at least pleased that I was able to experience this particular bought of extortion in an old fashioned, upfront, and wholesome way — in the back room of an immigration office, the sort of place where acts of corruption should occur.
At least I know where my $75 went.