04 janeiro 2008

the business of fiscalizing

If there is one government activity that is popular in Portugal it is that of fiscalizing. The Portuguese like fiscalizing. Although generally nice, decent and honest people, the Portuguese do not trust each other outside their closed circle of family and friends. As a result, in each and every activity that has some public relevance - specially those that are highly profitable - sooner or later public allegations arise that profits are made illegally, and the people rise in arms calling upon the government to fiscalize it.

A typical, pervasive, figure of Portuguese economic landscape is thus the fiscal. There are fiscais for everything. First and foremost, there are tax fiscais because every Portuguese believes that everybody cheats on taxes - except himself. There are construction fiscais, financial fiscais, but also food and drink fiscais. There are press fiscais who scrutinize every daily newspaper for some mischievous argument or intention. At schools and universities, there are fiscais during examinations - usually, the teachers themselves. Every Portuguese citizen knows from early childhood, with a certainty that defies imagination, that everybody in society is a cheater - except himself.

There are fiscais in the private sector too, specially in construction and banking , although they are particularly numerous in the public sector. At the local government level, fiscais da Câmara Municipal are specially feared, yielding tremendous power and influence. They are responsible for fiscalizing housing construction and building permits. As the laws governing construction in the country are extremely complex and minute, such fiscais can delay any construction project for months, if not years, with the blinking of an eye.

Public works fiscais are a class in their own and are readily identified. If you travel through the country, you might encounter at some point a team of five or six people doing some small public work, such as the repairing of a road or of an electrical pole. You will notice that two or three of them are really working, frequently kneeling down on a road or with half of their bodies under the ground. The other three, their hands in their pockets, often in their suits and ties, are just looking. These are the fiscais. Their business is to make sure that eveybody is working and doing their work properly.

The fiscalizing activities of the government over the private sector - such as in the tax, financial, and construction sectors - pose a special problem. The government pays the fiscais to keep their eyes open. The private sector has an incentive to bribe them to keep their eyes shut. With typical Portuguese sense of humour these could be called fiscais pisca-pisca. Obviously, they are targeted by the population with accusations of corruption. Although the allegations are often exaggerated, public opinion calls upon the state to fiscalize the fiscais. This gives rise in Portugal to a surprising class of fiscais - the fiscais de fiscais -, whose business is to fiscalize the fiscais. They are often organized under the form of commissions called comissões de fiscalização.
As every citizen in this country believes that CEO´s and other management are always maneuvring to cheat on shareholders, customers, workers, or on taxes, Portuguese law requires that each private company must have its own fiscal - called Revisor Oficial de Contas (ROC). He is supposed to act in the public interest but is paid privately. Surprisingly or not, there are no allegations of corruption against ROC´s, although the monthly fees (avenças) they receive from the very same companies they are supposed to fiscalize are not different from legal bribes.
It could be argued that in a country with such a propensity for fiscalizing nothing can ever go wrong. Unfortunately, this is not so. A bridge might fall killing dozens of people; a child might be sucked to death by the drainage system of a swimming pool; a private company or a bank might do illegal deals. The case usually ends up in court. After many years of close investigations (rigorosos inquéritos) the conclusion is always the same: everybody did his work properly and the fiscais, in particular, did a supreme job. The only person to blame is the doorman who should be sent to jail.
In their much beloved business of fiscalizing, the Portuguese have now a rising star - ASAE. This is the government body set up to fiscalize the quality of food and drink as well as environmental conditions at restaurants and other public places. These are a new breed of fiscais, generally drawn from a younger generation overly concerned with health and safety, known for their zeal and strict application of the law. They show up in restaurants and bars in uniform with the labels "ASAE - polícia - fiscalização", and they yield true police power.
On January 1st, the day a law banning smoking in all public places went into effect in Portugal, the chief of ASAE was caught during the reveillon at Casino Estoril smoking his first cigar of the New Year. In most Western countries, this would be a strong argument for public opinion to call for his immediate resignation. But in this southern European country, known for its love for the business of fiscalizing and tenderness for small vices and pecadillos , this might well be a reason for people to call on the government to fiscalize ASAE - certainly, its chief fiscal.

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