My Kingdom for a Passport!

Nothing binds the Venezuelan diaspora together as closely as the Kafkian ordeal that is getting a passport abroad. Here's my family's tale of SAIME woe.

Until not so long ago, we used to take our VenezueloPeruvianGringo family to Caracas to visit the abuelos, tios and primos at least once a year. Our kids remember those visits fondly. Sadly, we haven’t been since 2012, and not just for the kinds of reasons readers of this blog don’t need explained to them, but also because my wife’s passport had expired.

She became a U.S. citizen in the mid-90s. For a long time, she travelled home on her US passport. But as relations with the U.S. worsened over the past few years and stories started to get around about the hassles Venezuelans traveling on US passports would face in Maiquetía, she started to fret she’d need to suck it up and go through SAIME hell. She’ll eventually need it: sooner or later there’ll be a wedding or a sickness or a funeral. It’s better to be prepared.

Where to even start?!

We’re after all in the 21st century so the instructions on how to do this are to be found on the web. Check!

Read the webpage, follow instructions… make appointment through the website for your consulate – for us in Atlanta, that’s New Orleans – wait for the email, keep on waiting…

After a few months of waiting you realize that something is wrong. Very wrong. You go back to the website. You try to call. You get an answering machine that essentially tells you there is nothing they can do for you and you should go to the website.

You try a few other consulates. Same thing.

You stew.

A year into this Kafkian ordeal – and having missed a wedding and a funeral in between – she goes into Venezuelan mode: “I just have to show up and ask”.

The drive to New Orleans it is 8 hours. Each way. This is not to be taken lightly.

Making Our Passport Plan

After pondering the situation for a few weeks and hearing through the grapevine that the Consulate General in San Francisco issued a passport for a friend of a friend in the past few months, we decide to “go West, young man.”

It doesn’t hurt that San Francisco is a lovely city. We make a holiday of it.

We go back to the website and meticulously gather every paper, and then a few more just to be on the safe side. Heck, we had to upend the filing cabinet to find the expired cedula. But we get it all. ALL!

We’re feeling lucky. We even get ambitious. “Why not register our youngest daughter as Venezuelan while we are at it!?”

I’m the one behind the stretch goal. I had registered her birth in Altlanta’s Peruvian consulate shortly after she was born. It was a breeze: birth certificate, proof of my Peruvian citizenship, 20 bucks, done!

We also prepare emotionally. We tell each other to keep expectations low.  I remind my fiery wife that no matter what happens she cannot become indignant and give anyone a piece of her mind. She must remember how one behaved when one was pulled over in an alcabala when going to the beach during our college years.  Whatever you do, don’t get confrontational. If you have to say anything, just say “sí, señor”.

À la recherche du consulat perdu

The first morning in San Francisco we’re up by 5 am: a direct consequence of changing three times zones, plus all the tension. Getting back into the spirit of things, I suggest she should queue up by six. She laughs it off. I then suggest we get breakfast and scout out the place. It was 7am and we were out, our half-asleep four year old in tow.

We walk down Mission street and come to a non-descript green building undergoing some remodeling. We see no signs. We look for the directory. Nothing. Finally my wife gets  the attention of the security guard. He lets her in the small lobby.

“Is the Consulate General of Venezuela here?”

“I don’t think so”, he says.

My mind is racing.

Have they closed it and not updated the website?

She pulls out her phone and tries to navigate to the website to verify the address. Have we already made a mistake?!

A second security guard walks down the hallway. By now she has verified that this-is-the-address on her phone.

The second security guards, tells the first one, that yes, there seems to be something like that in the second floor.

“Can I go up and check, sir?”, says my wife.

She hops on the lift and is back within five minutes. It’s there. They open at 9.

We leave, with our four year old in tow,  to find breakfast.

Before Hours

We get some breakfast and we’re back by 8 am at the building. The security guards are friendly and hold the door open for us as we go two stories up to wait for the consulate to open. We sit on the floor and entertain our child. We’re the only ones here. It’s dark.

By 8:15, a hip young girl gets off the lift. She ask if this is the consulate, we nod. She sits next to us. Within a few minutes she tells us that she took the night bus from LA. She also tells us that she has an appointment for this day.  Appointment…we hear the word with dread.

By 8:30 another young woman arrives. She flew in from Phoenix, she just got off the plane. She has an appointment, too.

Shortly after 8:30 a young man dressed in black with a leather jacket walks by us and enters the restroom at the end of the hallway. He comes back 15 minutes later and opens the main door. He tells us that it is a very strict rule and we cannot enter until 9am. He turns the lights on and shuts the door behind him.  

We sit on the floor.

The Doors Open…Welcome to Chávez Country!

A couple of middle-aged ladies enter shortly before 9 am, greeting us dryly on their way in. At 9 o’clock sharp, the doors open into a large room. We are instructed to write our name down on a paper which is on this ugly desk in the middle of the room.

“Do you all have appointments for today?” say one of the ladies.

People answer yes, my wife, pauses and in urgent voice say no. Without pause she rambles all the troubles she has gone through and the desperate need she has for the passport.

Ay mi amor, if you don’t have an appointment, we can probably can’t help you”, says Funcionaria.

“But I have to go to Venezuela!!!, what am I to do?”, says my wife, still with her voice of urgency.

“You can go to Venezuela with your expired passport, thing is, you cannot leave without a valid one” says Funcionaria.. She reassures her, “it is easy to get it there, you know”.

That was not the experience of my in-laws. It took them months to finally get theirs renewed. I think a little more and remind myself that our interlocutor has a Chavista frame of mind, and being trapped inside of your country of birth even though you have lived all your full adult life outside is OK in her mind.

Funcionaria relents somewhat and says that once everyone that does have an appointment for the day is taken care of they will see if they can help her. We are instructed to take a seat at the end of the room, next to a TV running a documentary about the Venezuelan’ Llanos on a loop. Not a bad show, either.

Sitting there, I take in the place. The room is very large. It’s divided with some Ikea bookstands, a whole row of them. Behind there I presume are the desks for the consul and Funcionaria. I hear phones ring and conversations in Spanish.  Leather clad young man is sitting behind an open desk across the room from our little waiting area with a computer on it.

The book stands have old faded titles I can’t quite make out. It also has a small, cheap bust of Chávez, like to ones they use in Santería.

Across from the double entry door, high up on the wall, there are three large portraits. Maduro in full presidential regalia is one. There’s another of Bolivar and the de rigueur Chávez portrait. I also see a 8 x 12 autographed picture of Chavez at eye level under the portraits. There’s llanero music blaring from the TV beside me.

I decide to ask about registering the birth of our kid who is playing in the furniture in the sitting area. Funcionaria tells me that it’s very hard to do here, it’s best that we go to Venezuela to do this. I get it, she doesn’t want to be bothered. I think how easy it was at the Peruvian consulate in Atlanta, but I don’t press.

By now, there are five people at the consulate. It’s 9:10 a.m.

Things move smoothly. By 10 a.m., they’re ready to deal with my wife.

Young man in the leather jacket tries the website and gets stuck at the same point that my wife had. He tries again, but he needs help. He looks for Funcionaria, she enters some special URL, gets right through. We are in luck, my wife has no open appointment so she can schedule one for now. They will collect her papers.  

“¡Reciprocidad!”

The tension’s dissipated somewhat, so my wife dares to ask some more questions:

“All my family are US citizens. What do we have to do to go to Venezuela?”

“Each and every one of them must come here in person for an interview and pay $160” says Funcionaria.

“Señora, that’s a huge financial and time burden. You imply traveling expenses for 4 members of my family plus $640 in fees for a one year visa!”

“¡Reciprocidad!” she says in a self-satisfied way, as if this were a knock down argument.

Wasn’t Motor Turismo one of the big things Maduro is banking on to relaunch the economy? You can fly to Mexico, Costa Rica or Peru without a visa, and even Brazil will allow you to get a visa through mail as long as you send the check. Besides, I doubt Venezuela has many Americans overstaying their visa.

I muster the best poker face I have and say nothing.

Epilogue

Funcionaria did eventually take all the papers and promise my wife her very own Venezuelan passport. Eight weeks later we get the precioius little booklet via el imperio’s very own postal service. Later – courtesy of the #PanamaPapers – I learn the thing is made in Cuba. Have I broken the US embargo? How fashionable!

After that Chavistoid morning in the consulate we start our San Francisco holiday out right. We walk over to City Hall, just a few blocks away. At  UN plaza, we discover a mounted statue of Bolivar. We laugh, take selfies and Whatsapp them to primos and tíos. We admire the horse in the Venezuelan emblem, it still runs to the right.

Then, as we’re getting ready to go, a seagull flies over us and lands on Bolivar’s head. It relieves itself.  

Reciprocidad

…I grimace, then think to myself …“¡reciprocidad!

 

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