Commentary

Antagonizing Traditional Friends

Many Latin Americans, from virtually every country in our hemisphere, were killed by the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. None of the 19 al Qaeda assassins came from Latin America, and all of them entered the country with valid visas. But the new treatment of Latin American travelers would indicate that the enemy is to be found south of the border.

And Latin Americans that used to travel to the United States for years on business, to visit their children studying in American colleges, on holidays, to shop or because they own second homes in this country have had their visas cancelled for no apparent reason.

I traveled to the States practically every year since 1945. My older brothers entered boarding school that year and my parents wanted to be near them for the first few months. Some of my earliest memories were looking at the huge gash made by the army B-25 bomber that crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State building and watching parades of soldiers returning from Europe along Fifth Avenue. Our second home was my father’s New York apartment. I attended prep school, college, and graduate school in this country. But my experiences with consular and customs officials were not always happy.

On my second trip to New York, in 1947, I walked out of our Pan American flight with a toy giraffe in my arms, my favorite toy. A customs official took it and broke its neck, looking for I don’t know what. My mother was furious at both the man and at my father, who had a Venezuelan diplomatic passport, but refused to show it. Father had been appointed chairman of the Venezuelan National Immigration Institute, where he was instrumental in welcoming hundreds of thousands of European refugees after the Second World War, an endeavor that contributed to turning Venezuela into the most prosperous Latin America nation in the 1950s. He served his country in several capacities, but never accepted a penny from the government nor made use of the diplomatic passports given to him.

Upon my 8th birthday, I got a passport of my own. Until then, I had traveled with my mother’s passport, where my photo and name were added. Father was then on a business trip to New York and my mother and I were to join him there. We went to the U.S. Consulate in Caracas to renew her visa and have one stamped on my brand new passport. I still remember the face of the consular officer who asked my mother three incredible questions: “Have you ever being a member of the Communist Party? Do you plan to overthrow the government of the United States? Are you traveling to the United States to engage in prostitution?” Later, when I told my father in a trembling voice what had happened, he wisely told me that I should never judge a country by its bureaucrats.

I guess I inherited from my father his love for the United States. When, a couple of years ago my wife and I became American citizens, at the ceremony I remembered that my father — ill and near the end of his life — felt much happier in New York than in Caracas.

What are the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security trying to accomplish by alienating hundred of thousands of Latin Americans that have been this country’s best friends in a continent packed with leftist politicians and intellectuals? The number of visas issued to foreign students has dropped by 65,000 since 9/11. According to El Universal, a Caracas daily, the number of Venezuelan students in the U.S. has dropped 90%. Some cannot study abroad any more because of President Hugo Chávez’s exchange control and his destruction of the Venezuelan economy. But Washington bureaucrats are helping him.

Many of my Latin American friends had permanent U.S. visas, which were automatically transferred to their new passports. Those visas have been canceled and, with luck, replaced with short term visas. One of them invested a considerable sum of money in a new business in Florida and brought executives and technicians from his main Latin American office. Recently, the application for a renewal of his visa was denied and his immigration lawyer told him that he had never seen that happen before.

The number of non-immigrant visas has dropped 2.7 million per year (36%) since 2001. Are those millions of people enemies of the United States or are they, in part, the executives and scientists that used to hold their annual conferences in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Hawaii and now prefer to meet elsewhere because of the difficulties imposed by U.S. officials?

Also, many Latin Americans traveling to Europe would stop over in Miami or in Los Angeles when going to the Far East. Now they can’t or won’t because of nasty experiences. One of my sons, a U.S. resident, was detained over an hour each time at Kennedy airport, when coming back from a vacation in Spain last year and again when arriving from Italy this summer. He saw people in chains near him. When allowed to go, no explanation was given to him or to his American wife.

As Anne Applebaum wrote this month in The Washington Post: “Violent gangs of smugglers regularly cross the Mexican border into this country, where they conduct shootouts in broad daylight. At the same time a whole new, post-Sept. 11 visa bureaucracy now regularly prevents distinguished scientists and pianists from visiting this country at all. In other words, you can get in if you’re a gun-toting thug, but not if you’re a visiting professor of neurology.”

It is no surprise that polls in Latin America reflect a sharp drop in the popularity of the United States, from 14% that held a negative image in 2000 to 31% today. In Mexico, where in 2000 only 22% of the population had a negative image of the United States, now 58% do. Such negative views are shared by 62% of Argentines (who three years ago could travel to the U.S. without a visa), 42% of Chileans, and 37% of Brazilians.

Washington officials and politicians, apparently, could not care less. But when the Hispanic voter in New York, Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago finds out that his mother won’t be allowed to come over to spend Christmas with the family or to undergo surgery at the Mayo Clinic because her visa was denied, he will probably react by voting for Democrats in next year’s election.

Carlos A. Ball, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, is the editor of AIPE, a Spanish-language news organization based in Florida.