The Perfect Gift

Last week when president Obama made his first-ever visit to Brazil, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff gifted him with a glossy picture book rife with alluring images of Rio de Janeiro. Although it’s customary for the receiving heads-of-state to gift the visitors, Brazilians were hoping that Obama would give them a present as well: a waiver of the visa requirements that the U.S. demands for Brazilian travelers.

Currently, getting a tourist visa for the U.S. is an example of bureaucracy at its most ludicrous.

Currently, getting a tourist visa for the U.S. is an example of bureaucracy at its most ludicrous. I know because I recently helped a friend of mine, a professor at Salvador’s federal university, who had been invited to participate in a congress at Harvard, to muddle through the process.

First of all, Brazilians must go online and apply to schedule a face-to-face interview, which can take place at one of only four U.S. consulates in this enormous country (Rio, São Paulo, Recife, and Brasília). Right from the start, applicants meet with frustration since it can take anywhere from 1 to 2 months just to snag an interview date. After paying an interview processing fee, you must then be prepared to take a couple of hours out of your life to fill out a 20-page, online form (in English only). Highlights include submitting (and resubmitting) a digital mug shot (which can be rejected for any variety of aesthetic reasons) and answering yes or no to a long list of questions such as whether you’ve ever been an assassin, a drug trafficker, a sex trade worker, a terrorist, and/or a communist., etc. Then, prior to the actual interview, you must track down a Citibank where you can pay the US$130 visa fee (although, until the actual interview itself, you have no guarantee of obtaining the visa).

Like many Brazilians who don’t live in or near any of the cities blessed with one of the four chosen consulates, my friend also had to fork out money for round-trip airfare (from Salvador to Recife) as well as a night’s accommodation in a hotel. All things considered, my friend ended up blowing around US$500.

Although her interview was scheduled for 9:15 a.m., she and dozens of other eager candidates were forced to cool their heels for several hours in a line outside the consulate, in Recife’s baking hot summer sun. Adding to the indignity was a homeless woman (on the shady side of the street) who jeered at the applicants for lining up like cattle to get into the U.S. – upon her return, my friend claimed to have only felt more ridiculous when her “interview” concluded after an absurdly anticlimactic 2-minute/2-question session (yes, she got the visa – and, thankfully, she also loved her first trip to America once she actually got there).

Because Brazil follows a policy of reciprocity in all of its diplomatic dealings, the Brazilian government also demands that Americans (and Canadians and Australians) obtain a tourist visa as well. Although the fee is the same (the same exorbitant US$130 – which really adds up if an entire family is flying down to Rio), North Americans are spared the interview process.

Anyway, back to Obama… Although the president didn’t magically wave his wand and dispense with current visa requirements, he and Dilma did officially announce the recently signed Open Skies commercial aviation agreement between Brazil and the United States. Removing restrictions on all flights between the two countries means that the sky will be the limit for the two largest airline markets in the Americas. Beginning in October of 2011, more flights will gradually be allowed between the two countries with the free-market accord to take full effect by October 2015, just in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Travelers from both countries are expected to reap multiple benefits from the agreement. As the number of passengers increase, the number of flights and number of connections between U.S. and Brazilian cities will also rise, causing airfares to fall. Currently, the only Brazilian airline that flies to the U.S. is TAM, which controls around 30 percent of the market, only slightly less than American Airlines, but more than Continental, Delta, United, and U.S. Airways, all of which offer direct flights to Brazil.

According to estimates made by the U.S. Department of Commerce, even with the present visa requirements in place, by 2015 Brazilians will make up the fifth largest group of foreign travelers to the U.S. This is quite a feat when one considers that Brazil is hardly in the world’s Top 5 when it comes to average per capita income (even so, in 2009, 1 million Brazilians visited the U.S. and blew over $4.5 billion while stateside).

Here’s hoping that when Dilma goes to visit Obama in Washington – ( she received an open-ended invitation from Obama this week, who phoned to thank her for a “marvelous time”) – Obama’s present to her will be a relaxing of the visa requirements so that both American and Brazilian travelers visiting each other’s many splendors can afford to relax as well.


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