Viveza Criolla by Ronald Mackay
“We don’t call it stealing and we don’t call it cheating,” Damian said. “Here, in Argentina, it’s called viveza criolla.”
“Not cheating? When Bruno, my own partner, is redeeming personal expenses as legitimate purchases for our business?” We were talking in Spanish and I wasn’t sure that Damian had understood my grievance correctly. My wife and I had bought a commercial vineyard in the province of Mendoza and named it Caledonia, the name the Romans had given to my native Scotland. Bruno had persuaded me that he was the ideal partner since I was a novice in grape production. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He was the husband of my wife’s cousin, an experienced agronomist, and also ran a family farm close to my vineyard.
“Look, Ron,” Damian said, “here in Argentina, it’s commonly regarded as absurd for a man not to act in his own best interests.”
“Even if the act is blatantly dishonest?” I was still incredulous. “Even if Bruno’s behaviour will destroy my trust in him? Even if his fiddling the books threatens the success of our business?”
Damian held up both hands to silence my objections.
“I’ve lived in Mendoza since I was brought from Italy when I was 12 years old. I despise viveza criolla and I’m not defending it. But Bruno practises it and so do many Argentines. Just look at our country! As big as the US and just as rich in natural resources. But Argentina has never progressed. It careers from one crisis to the next. Stumbles from one corrupt government to another.”
He could see that I was willing to listen and so he went on.
“In this country, a man who demonstrates viveza criolla is commonly admired. It shows he’s smarter than the other guy; that he can act in his own self-interest. It’s a recognised, yes, even an admired way of getting ahead.”
“But it shows a total lack of respect for others. It breeds mistrust.” I was so wounded by having uncovered Bruno’s treachery that I couldn’t see past the hurt I felt when I found out. I had discovered bills for diesel used in his and his son’s trucks passed off as legitimate Caledonia expenses. Unwilling to believe it at first, I’d gone through months of invoices and discovered that he had been regularly submitting illegitimate bills – and being reimbursed -- not only for diesel fuel but also for expensive items like herbicide, tractor parts, fence posts and fencing wire.
“What you need to understand, Ron, is that a person who shows viveza criolla--”
“You mean my business partner, Bruno!” My mind was still grounded in my personal injury. It was Bruno I was angered at, not Argentines in general or the entire country I’d been living in now for almost two years.
“O.K. Bruno! What you need to understand is that Bruno doesn’t care what you think of him. You, your friendship, the partnership in the vineyard are, for him, only means to an end. The end is his own self-interest. Nothing else.”
I was still having difficulty getting my mind around this. I’d spent much of my life reducing uncertainty. Suddenly, without warning, my orderly world had been thrown into chaos.
“You mean that he doesn’t care that, at his request, I took him into this venture as an equal partner? That his wife is my wife’s first cousin? Are you telling me that Bruno doesn’t care what I – or Viviana – thinks of him?”
All my business dealing up until then had been conducted on mutual trust and a win-win attitude.
“Now you’re catching on!” Damian nodded. “Those who practice viveza criolla have one goal and one goal only -- personal advantage. It doesn’t matter if you steal or cheat to achieve it. It doesn’t matter if you lose the respect of the person you’ve stolen from or cheated. The only thing that matters to Bruno is that he benefits materially.” Damian paused. “How much has he taken you for?”
“Well, during the months I checked, he’s illegally been reimbursed over 10,000 pesos. But it’s not the money in itself, Damian.” I went on, “It’s the principle.” I paused to massage my hurt. “Bruno has violated the moral principle of honesty, of respect, of fair dealing.”
Damian looked at me in a slightly pitying way. He shook his head. “Honesty, respect, fair-dealing – these are not things that concern an Argentine who engages in viveza criolla.”
“For 10,000 pesos Bruno is willing to lose my respect; to wreck the future of our vineyard; to create a family rift?”
Damian shook his head again. “You’re not getting the point, Ron. Viveza criolla ignores everything – absolutely everything -- except personal material gain. Nothing else counts. Absolutamente nada!”
“Nothing?” I stood helplessly, trying to grasp an idea that threatened the foundation of all I believed in.
“Bruno doesn’t care if you never talk to him again. Or if you and your wife cross the road to avoid him tomorrow. Or if people whisper and point when he sits at a table in the cafe.”
“He doesn’t care?”
“He doesn’t care, because he knows that those who whisper will secretly admire him. They will secretly compliment him for having got the better of someone else.”
I stood aghast at what I was hearing.
“Not even if that someone is his own brother!” Damian nodded soberly. “There are any number of Argentines who have cheated their brothers or their sisters and split their family asunder as a result. And it hasn’t caused them a single sleepless night.”
I shook my head, desperately unwilling to accept this.
“You’d better get used to it, Ron.”
I felt defeated. “So, what do I do now? How can I confront Bruno?”
“You don’t confront Bruno. You don’t directly challenge or accuse anyone in Argentina.”
“So, you invite Bruno to have a coffee. You tell him that you know how desperately busy he is.”
“He tells me how busy he is every time we meet.”
“Exactly, so that’s your opportunity. You listen attentively to him tell you how unbelievably overworked he is and then you smile and tell him that you want to help out. You tell him that from now on, you will undertake the book-keeping for the vineyard. You tell him that you have a computer and that it will be far easier for you to keep track of expenses and revenues than it is for him to do so by hand. He can’t argue with that, so you have him over a barrel. From then on, he won’t submit any false claims, but even if he does, you very politely but firmly return the invoice to him saying that he must have submitted it by mistake since he is so busy. The cardinal rule is: Never let an Argentine lose face.”
And, starting the very next day, that’s exactly what I did. No confrontation! I expressed my sympathy for Bruno’s busy life. I offered my generous help. And when I discovered a receipt for a personal item or for Bruno’s own family farm tucked in along with the receipts for Caledonia, I slipped it back across the table to him between the coffee cups.
“You must have had a busy week, Bruno. Look! Here’s a bill I found for your own farm. You must have confused it with those for Caledonia. I wouldn’t want you to lose it.” He would grit his teeth and give me what passed for a smile.
Based on Damian’s advice, I developed my very own Scottish antidote to viveza criolla. I called it Caledonia’s Revenge. And it saved the day – and my business!