On January 1 of this year Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that his government was developing a new visa policy for visitors from the US. He said the new policy would be based on “reciprocity”, meaning that visitors seeking entry to Bolivia from the US would be subject to similar rules as those facing Bolivians who seek a visa to enter the US.
The months since have been marked by substantial confusion about what these new requirements would actually mean, amidst rumors that US visitors would be required to be interviewed in advance, by one of the handful and short-staffed Bolivian consulates in the US.
On Friday, staying on target with the government’s pledge for new rules by April 1, Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, laid out the details of the plan in La Paz. He said, “We have made our decisions carefully to develop a plan that brings both dignity to Bolivia and also remains practical in terms of encouraging visits by US tourists and others.”
The specifics of the plan include the following:
1. All US visitors, whether arriving by air or land (arrival to Bolivia by sea is difficult as it has no sea coast, but presumably the rule would be the same) must secure an entry visa which, up to now has been free for the first 90 days, but will now cost $100.
2. While the new rules will not require visitors to obtain the visa in advance of their arrival, they will need to present a signed letter of reference from a Bolivian citizen certifying that the visitor “is not a terrorist and has no intention of committing terrorist acts while in Bolivia.”
3. As part of each visitor’s $100 payment they will receive an “Evo Sweater”, sized appropriately. Each visitor will need to be photographed at the port of entry wearing the sweater, for official immigration records.
US Ambassador Philip Goldberg (pictured above wearing the Evo Sweater given to him Friday by Mr. Choquehuanca) said in La Paz that he and other Embassy staff had been briefed on the plan prior to the Bolivian government’s announcement.
“To be honest, when we heard about the sweater we were taken aback. To our knowledge no other government in the world requires visitors to purchase a specific garment on entry or to be photographed wearing it,” Goldberg said at a US Embassy new conference. “But, if you think about it, it’s actually a good deal. Bolivians seeking an entry visa to the US have to pay $114 just to be interviewed and most of them only get a DHL receipt, a cold wait in line in front of the Embassy and a rejection slip. And the sweaters really are attractive.”
Mr. Choquehuanca announced that to supply the estimated 10,000 sweaters that will be needed annually as a result of the new policy, the government has entered into contracts with six women’s knitting cooperatives in El Alto, Cochabamba, and Potosi. “This new policy will create dignified incomes for 300 women,” he noted. The Foreign Minister also announced that all after-cost profits from the sweaters will be dedicated to a new special Presidential fund to provide the nation’s toddlers with soccer balls.
“It’s good for employment, it’s good for Bolivia-US relations, its good for sweaters, and it is also good for sports and for our nation’s youngest children,” the Minister declared. “We think it is a creative win-win solution for everyone.”
Among the unexpected winners from the new policy appear to be the new businesses seen propping up in Cochabamba within hours of the visa policy announcement. “We pay 40 Bolivianos for letters of references for gringos!” proclaimed one banner outside a Cochabamba storefront. Hugo Montesinos, the letter agency owner explained, “A lot of gringos want to come here and we see a real market in letters of reference from Bolivians. I mean, how many of these foreigners actually know a Bolivian? So we feel we are providing a service.” Other agencies, speaking off the record, said they expect to sell the 40 Bolivianos letters (about $5) for a mark-up of as much as ten fold. “Fifty dollars for a letter of reference really isn’t much for people up there,” one said. “We are going to make a lot of money!”
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Happy April Fools Day from The Democracy Center!!!