New Internationalist

Visa quid pro quo

Issue 398

Bolivians seeking tourist entry to the US have the pleasure of completing the following steps:

1 Pay $110 (twice the monthly minimum wage) for the honour of submitting a visa application and seeking an interview at the US Embassy in La Paz.

2 Wait (usually months) for your interview to be scheduled.

3 Travel to La Paz and wait in a long line in Arctic-like morning weather outside the fortress-like, white US Embassy.

4 Approach the first window and have your paperwork reviewed (including all kinds of personal economic information, such as bank statements and employment letters). Have a good chance of being turned away right then for completing incorrectly the confusing, English-only forms.

5 Advance to a second window for questioning about your intentions. You might chat through the thick glass window with someone who is friendly, or with an official who seems interested in turning surliness into a fine art.

6 Stand a 90-per-cent chance of being denied (no refund of the $110 you paid the US Government for the experience).

I have watched the attrition process a few times while making my own visits to the ‘interview room’ at the US Embassy here. Denial, in many cases, seems just arbitrary. My landlord, an accountant at the university in his forties with a family here and two houses, got denied a visa to visit his relatives in Nebraska. Did the US Government really think he was sneaking in to become a day labourer in Virginia?

What about the opposite process? How does someone from the US enter Bolivia as a tourist?

1 Get off the plane from Miami.

2 Hand the friendly fellow at the immigration desk the 10-line, half-page immigration form that lists your birth date, nationality and destination.

3 Get a free 90-day entry visa and collect your luggage. (You do have to pay $45 to leave.)

So it is no surprise that many Bolivians feel like the process between our two nations isn’t exactly reciprocal and on 1 January President Evo Morales issued an executive decree mandating that US citizens visiting Bolivia will soon need to have pre-arranged entry visas.

You might chat through the thick glass window with someone who is friendly, or with an official who seems interested in turning surliness into a fine art

Bolivia has both a legitimate right to assert whatever entry rules it desires and, as noted above, ample justification to make the process for people from the US coming here a little more like it is the other way around. Morales also raised security concerns, recalling that, last March, a deranged Californian came as a US tourist and exploded bombs in two La Paz hotels, leaving two people dead.

So, with the legitimacy of Bolivia’s demand recognized, let’s take a look at the practical side of things.

While the specifics of the new visa process for US citizens (and potentially Europeans) remain unclear, here is what the Government is considering:

1 A birth certificate.

2 A certificate of residency (which we don’t actually have in the US).

3 Documentation of financial assets (bank records, etc).

4 Documentation of employment.

This is essentially a mirror of the US requirements for Bolivians and all would-be visitors would have to solicit such a visa from the Bolivian Embassy in Washington.

Tourism officials in Bolivia were quick to express their objections to the plan, and their worries that it will cost Bolivia a lucrative chunk of its tourism trade. The Vice-Minister of Government Co-ordination dismissed those concerns, noting that ‘the number of US citizens entering the country is minimal’.

However, three airlines now offer direct daily service to and from Miami, in addition to those who arrive over land, so the number of US visitors measures in the thousands. That is a heavy visa-processing load for a skeleton staff of seven at the Bolivian embassy in Washington, along with a handful of part-time consulates in other states.

To be sure, a lot of visitors will just deal with it. I travel all over the world for work and I have had to leap through tougher hoops than this. Once I had to send my US passport by Federal Express to the Ugandan Embassy in Washington, only to have FedEx send it back to Bogotá, Colombia instead of Cochabamba, Bolivia. All those Bs, Cs and As could confuse anyone.

But a good many others won’t be so willing to jump through the new Bolivian visa hoops. A proportion of tourists who head to Machu Picchu in Peru – and then want to add on a week over the border to visit La Paz or Lake Titicaca – will respond by saying: ‘I have to send my passport and bank records to the Bolivian Embassy in Washington? Hmm, I hear Lima is nice.’ If too many do, then restaurant, hotel and other tourism-related jobs will be a lot less plentiful.

I think Bolivia has a fair point to make about the disproportionate US entry requirements. But there are other ways to handle visas that are less cumbersome. In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, I got my visa (legally) at the airport in the middle of the night for a reasonable price. The same in Croatia. Brazil didn’t ask for any bank records but did make me pay $100 (though in Brazil they throw in beaches, which landlocked Bolivia doesn’t).

In other words, Bolivia may be faced with the dilemma that what seems fair in one way, will end up being both economically damaging and a bureaucratic mess in other ways. In the end it is a choice of which matters most.

Jim Shultz is the executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org) in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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