Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Tale of Two Visas

I’m currently in Zambia, assisting the country program here on a large, multi-million dollar proposal they are writing for USAID. (More on that later.) It’s always interesting to get out of Angola and do a little bit of comparing between it and other African countries. What sticks out the most right now is the way the two countries handled tourist/ordinary visas.

The visa I have now for Angola is a multiple entry visa that is good for 2 years, with stays of up to 90 days. In other words, until I get my work visa I must leave every 90 days and am technically a “consultant” according to my employer in Angola. (Consultants are allowed to perform work in Angola on an ordinary visa because they are technically not residents.) This is how it must be done until I get my work visa. Work visas are even slower to process than other visas, so it’s sort of an open secret in Angola that many foreigners- NGO employees, oil workers, whoever- use these ordinary visas in the meantime. The ordinary visa differs from country to country- the one I have is specific to the US, apparently. My visa expires in July, so I hope to get my work visa before then. If not… who knows what will happen!

I’ve entered and left Angola several times on this visa. Each time the immigration official looks at each and every entry and exit date, sees that I am in compliance and lets me go through. I’ve never had a problem… until Thursday.

If there was any doubt that Angola used to be a Soviet-backed state, then the internal immigration controls should erase it. Every time I or any other foreigner flies domestically, we must present our passport and visa. It’s a pain, but not such a big deal. Thursday I flew from Benguela to Luanda. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently using my expired passport containing my valid Angola visa, attached (via paper clips) to my current, valid passport. When the immigration folks took a bit longer than usual to authorize me to fly, I assumed it was because of the passports. The female official began to ask me how many times I’ve entered and left Angola. I answered honestly, that it has been several times, but that the last entry was on 25 Oct so I was in compliance

Then all confusão broke loose! The woman explained to me that I have been in Angola for more than 90 days. According to her, the visa that I have is valid for ONE 90-day stay in Angola, to be used between the dates printed on the visa (between 17 July 2006 and 17 July 2007), and during those 90 days, I could come and go as I pleased. Let's say I came to Angola for one week then went back to the US- according to her logic, I would only have 83 more days to come back to Angola. According to her, since I had clearly been in Angola for a grand total of more than 90 days, I was breaking the law.

I pointed out to her that the date on the visa was for 2 years, and that it was for multiple entries of 90 days each. She wouldn’t budge, however, and called her colleagues over to confirm. She explained her position to them, and they all nodded their heads in agreement.

At this point, I was completely dumbfounded. Either my employer, the Angolan Consulate in Houston and immigration officials in Cunene and Luanda are ALL completely wrong, or this band of paper-pushers in Benguela who are paid to know these visas simply do not know the visas. This is a common problem in Angola. People who are paid to enforce the laws- police, bureaucrats, state lawyers- don’t usually know the laws of the country. Luckily I’ve avoided any real problems associated with this ignorance up until now.

I was getting very upset and angry. One moment I was taking deep breaths to not burst out into tears and the next moment I was trying my hardest to stop rolling my eyes and not say anything to insult them. (How do you tell someone they don’t know how to do their job? It ain’t easy!) I supposed it’s possible that they are right- but how would I have slipped by so many other officials for over a year? Unlike other countries I’ve been in, Angola is very serious about who they let in their country and how they monitor them. (My employer must send a copy of my passport, visa, and entry stamps to a local immigration office every month.)

Luckily, my favorite driver, Manuel, was with me. Manuel has helped me out with visa problems at the Benguela airport before. He knows all the people and has a very nice, calm way of not taking crap from anyone. I decided to follow his cue and simply stop talking and crossing my arms. It seemed to work. They backed down on their threat to take me into custody (my second threat of being taken into custody in this country!) and let me go. As they stamped my ticket, they said that I had to call their immigration headquarters in Luanda and get an explanation. Yes folks, if they don’t know the law, it’s YOUR responsibility to call THEIR supervisors and get an explanation.

I was very upset about this. I like Angola but sometimes the hassles overwhelm you and you just want to scream. That, coupled with a 4 am wake-up call in order to make check-in at the airport in Luanda, put me in bad mood on my way to Zambia. Zambia requires US citizens to buy a $100 visa, available upon entry to the country. During my last visit in July, I bought one that was good for 3 years. However, that was in my old, expired passport, so I assumed that I would have to buy a new visa.

When I presented my new passport to the immigration officer, he asked if I had ever been to Zambia before. When I said that I had, he asked about my old passport with the visa. I had it with me, so I presented it to him. He said, “Well, you shouldn’t have to pay for a new one. Let me just transfer it to your new passport. Is that okay?” I was floored by his flexibility and shocked at his politeness! It certainly restored my faith in bureaucrats. At least Zambian bureaucrats.

UPDATE: I wrote this last Sunday. In the meantime, my collegaues in Luanda and Benguela have visited the immigration supervisors in their respective cities and, indeed, have confirmed that the Benguela immigration officials' interpretation of my visa is incorrect. We'll see what happens next...


Sir Chancelot said...

Like I've said before, Angola is country that needs to be LETTING people in, not trying to keep them OUT. Unbelievable. I take it all the oil money the government gets done NOT go to training the civil service?! I like the arms-crossing method with silence. I will try that next time at the post office here when they won't let me send my package wrapped with duct tape!! I'll show you!!

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