A Brazilian journalist said recently that if the businesses of the Ambassador to the US in Brazil, Clifford Sobel, had the performance of his consulates, he would have never left the list of anonymous entrepreneurs of New Jersey. That is a pretty hard statement.
Why would someone say such a thing about an Ambassador, who by the way is not a diplomat and was nominated to the important office because he is a close friend of President Bush, and also an important fundraiser?
The statement did not come out of the blue. Mr. Clifford Sobel arrived in Brazil last August, as the new Ambassador of the United States in the country. When he came, Brazilians had problems already trying to get visas to come to the US.
With a more stable economy, and the devaluation of the dollar, there was more money available and Brazilians are known to be attracted by all the wonderful places and things the US has to offer for tourists coming from all over the world; and Brazilians have been coming to this country as tourists for a long time.
There was a time, back in the 1990s, when Brazilian tourists lost in number only to the Japanese in places like New York, Orlando and Las Vegas. It was common then to walk into stores in Manhattan with signs that read "WE SPEAK PORTUGUESE," a language that in all of Latin America is only spoken by Brazilians.
There was no problem then to get a visa to come to the US, one could do it usually through a travel agency, and it was a matter of filling out the paper work, making copies of documents and travel tickets and the passport would return with a visa that was good for 10 years in most cases.
Occasionally someone would be asked for an interview, but that could be easily done at the Consulate in Rio, on the way to the airport. Simple and practical, as it should be, and as it is, as a matter of fact with most countries, in most consulates.
Then things changed. Interviews were required more and more often, and visas started being denied. Because of the increase in the number of Brazilian immigrants in the US, the Consulates started applying more rules and making it more difficult for a Brazilian to get a tourist visa.
It is understandable that the American consulates nowadays should have tighter rules, that they should be more careful and develop new criteria to give visas for foreigners to come to the US.
After all, much has changed, there was a World Trade Center attack, there is Osama Bin Laden out there somewhere in Afghanistan and there is a war in Iraq against, well, this part is not very clear.
But why should things be so hard for Brazilians? Why is it that only very wealthy Brazilians find no problem in coming to the US and everyone else, even people with good jobs, a home and family of their own, cannot get a visa and get no explanation?
When Clifford Sobel arrived in Brazil in August, the American Consulate in Rio imposed 49 days in a waiting list to Brazilians who were requesting a tourist visa to the US. It was pretty bad, but the arrival of a new Ambassador, who had charmed the press with good remarks about his new job and the country, threw new hope in the air.
It was only natural, because no one thought things could get any worse. And usually, when things cannot get worse, they get better. This was not the case. Since Sobel took office at the American Embassy in Brasilia, the wait for a visa at the Consulate in Rio moved from 49 to 72 days.
In São Paulo, the picture is not very different, only a little worse. After Sobel, the waiting went to 86 days, as opposed to the 73 days before he took office. In Brasília, at the Embassy where Clifford Sobel works, things are not any better, Brazilians used to wait 32 days and now they wait at least 49.
Why is it so hard for Brazilians to come to the US these days? Is it because they are afraid of illegal immigrants? Maybe, but why in Paraguay things are different? It takes only two days for a Paraguayan to get a tourist visa to the US, at the American Embassy. This is the way it should be.
What is wrong, Mr. Sobel? Why did things get worse after your arrival as the American representative in Brazil? Why the unfriendliness? With all due respect, why is it that the world’s most powerful country cannot show more respect for the South American giant?
Let Brazilians come to New York, bring their children to Disney World, throw their money in Vegas if they so choose, give standing ovations during Broadway shows, shop in Manhattan, and try the English they have been struggling to learn in expensive language schools. Brazilians deserve a break and the US should welcome all the money that they are willing to spend here.
No wonder the Brazilian press has been criticizing Mr. Sobel. Despite all the admiration for the culture he has been showing lately, particularly the enchantment with the Rio de Janeiro Carnaval scene.
Clara Angelica Porto is a Brazilian bilingual journalist living in New York. She went to school in Brazil and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Clara is presently working as the English writer for The Brasilians, a monthly newspaper in Manhattan. Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.