Brazil: America’s No-Go Zone

“Yankee, go home!” was a popular chant in Latin America in the Eisenhower era and later, a reaction to U.S. meddling in our southern neighbors’ affairs. An updated version from the Portuguese-speaking corner of South America is, “Yankees, stay away!”

Resentment over CIA assassinations and other U.S. skullduggery was understandable, but the Brazilians have a particularly large chip on their shoulders. A decade ago, when the U.S. imposed post-9/11 travel restrictions, many countries protested, but the Brazilians dialed it up several notches with vindictive, tit-for-tat measures. The retaliation was severe enough to draw an official reprimand. American diplomats slammed them, complaining about Brazilian customs procedures “that single out U.S. citizens for exceptional treatment that has meant lengthy delays in processing….(including) a more than nine-hour delay for some U.S. citizens arriving at Rio’s international airport.”

Today, getting jerked around begins before take-off. I speak from experience. In April, I was invited to attend a June food-technology trade show in Sao Paulo. The only catch was the visa required for Americans entering the country.

One advantage of American citizenship is that the door is almost always open: people may dislike America Inc., but they generally like Americans, particularly when we spread some wealth in their countries. If the purpose of the visit is business, so much the better.

Not so Brazil. First off, Brazil’s visa fee is higher for Americans than any other nationals. At $160, it’s $95 more than Canadians pay. Mexicans don’t even need a visa. Next is a requirement that visitors have a passport with an expiration date at least six months after the end of their visit. That made an expedited passport renewal my first requirement.

That was a minor inconveniences compared to the gauntlet known as the Consulate General of Brazil in Chicago. The office uses a mixture of on-line and hardcopy requirements guaranteed to frustrate the applicant. A receipt for a purchased round-trip ticket is among the requirements. The office gives itself 10 business days to issue the document, which then must be picked up at its office (U.S. turnaround averages five days). Visa agencies can do the legwork, but they require 15 business days. Throw in weekends and holidays, and a business traveler might have to purchase an airline ticket three weeks in advance.

Living and working in a city with flush toilets, the consulate staff must be the envy of the folks back home. It’s evident in the hubris with which they relish the job of jerking around American citizens who have to supplicate themselves when applying. But meeting the posted requirements is just the start.

Three days before the 10-day window closed, I paid my first visit to the consulate’s office. Although I arrived at the office with all the specified forms, the consulate reserves the right to demand additional information. An official reviewed the material, highlighting information in a copy of the e-mail inviting me to the show, then ruled it inadequate: a signed copy of the invitation from my host was necessary, she informed me. Another visit would be necessary.

The following day, a different agent reviewed my papers. She added an additional demand for a signed letter from my employer, stating the purpose of the trip and other details. She also suggested a different type of visa was required, never mind that her colleague had specified the category.

Given Brazil’s rampant corruption, this was beginning to look like a shakedown. The right move probably would have been to lean in and ask, “What’s it going to take to get a visa?” while sliding forward an envelope stuffed with reals. That’s how things get done in corrupt backwaters, right?

Forget the propaganda about Brazil emerging as a first-world economic power, but it remains firmly entrenched in the second world. Bloviators have touted Brazil’s impending status as an economic goliath for 30-plus years, but the start date keeps getting pushed back. Every step forward is followed by two steps back. It remains a corrupt backwater, with a 1.2 percent GDP contraction expected this year. The real once again is in the toilet, pushing inflation into the stratosphere

“There’s enough corruption and fraud to make an Enron executive blush, plus crime rates high enough to put the sturdiest road warriors on edge,” a foreign-investment analyst wrote of Brazil. Small wonder Brazil won bids for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Kickbacks and graft involving FIFA are legendary, and as a sports-oriented criminal enterprise, the International Olympic Committee isn’t far behind. Losing the World Cup was just desserts. Besides, Lionel Messi is a better soccer player than Pelé.

Kickbacks, bribes and kidnapping-for-ransom are endemic in Brazil. Anyone foolish enough to consider attending the 2016 Games, be forewarned: it ain’t worth getting jerked around. Even if the death squads successfully clear Rio’s squalid slums, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Right back at you, Brazil.