Monday, April 19, 2010

Reciprocity is a Five-Letter Word

They say that payback is a b****. Maybe they should say that about reciprocity too. The kind of reciprocity I’m referring to is the fee imposed on Americans traveling to other countries. As a result of the $131 our government charges non-U.S. citizens for the Visa necessary to enter U.S. soil, governments have begun to respond with their own mandatory fees targeted specifically at Americans. I perceive three main problems with this policy, the first of which is that the $131 does not guarantee that “aliens” may enter the United States; it merely grants them the pleasure of being interviewed by a Consular Officer who determines if the applicant will receive a visa. The second problem is the use of the word “alien” – instead of non-U.S. citizen – in our official immigration and tourism policy (xenophobia much?). Immigration and non-U.S. citizens’ access to visas is a contentious topic, to say the least, and one that I’d like to sidestep in this article to focus on the problem with which I have personal experience: the unspoken cost imposed on American travelers abroad.

I have been serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay since May 2008. The pay scale of Peace Corps Volunteers depends on the host country’s living standards. In Paraguay, where I serve, volunteers make between 1.300.000 Gs. and 1.700.000 Gs. I make the lowest amount; that’s Paraguayan minimum wage, which translates into US$260-325/month, depending on the value of the U.S. dollar (at its current rate of 4750 Guaranis/US$1, my salary is $275). That means that appreciation of the dollar is not something we hope for over here. Given my current salary, which is my only means of income for the 27 months of my Peace Corps service, you can imagine the difficulties Volunteers have paying back student loans or other bills from back home.

In today’s globalized world, where hundreds of American college students participate in study abroad, travel is on every Volunteer’s mind. The most expensive part of traveling in the Global South is often the plane ride there – the plane to Paraguay, for example, runs around $1500 –, but Peace Corps pays for our transportation to and from Paraguay at the beginning and end of the two years. Accordingly, many Paraguayan Volunteers take advantage of their 24 days of annual vacation to travel around the region. It is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the world’s most picturesque sights, including Macchu Picchu, Ipanema Beach, Lake Titicaca, and Patagonia. Sounds like a great plan, right?

This is where reciprocity comes in. Remember my monthly salary of $275? Imagine that I have deprived myself of chocolate and cereal from the supermarket (an hour-long trip that involves both a bus and boat) and trips to the big city (the capital, Asunción) and managed to save $50 a month, adding up to the grand total of $600 for the year. Let’s now do the math for 24 days of travel in Latin America. If I travel to the neighboring country of Brazil and stay in cheap hostels, eat at local restaurants and food stalls, and limit sightseeing trips and nights on the town, I can get by on $35 a day. That is $875 for 24 days. I better forget sightseeing and going out. I still need to buy my bus ticket, which for a 20 hour-long bus ride to Rio de Janeiro will cost at least $100. I guess I don’t have to eat… If I prepare all my meals in the dilapidated kitchen of a second-rate hostel, I might have enough to pay for the bus ticket. Ok, I’m finally ready for my trip; I have my bus ticket and hostel reservations. I reach the border with Paraguay and they demand $165. “$165? Why?” I ask. “Reciprocity fee,” they answer. There goes my trip to Brazil.

I forgot the biggest expense, countries’ entrance fees. These can either take the form of country-specific visas or fees to be paid at ports of entry. As Peace Corps is a government agency, upon my arrival in country I was issued an “official” government passport, alike to a normal tourist passport but property of the U.S. government and containing my Paraguayan visa. It does not preclude me from having to pay, at a minimum, $131 to enter Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil. My “official” (still blue in color folks) Peace Corps passport gets me nowhere. In contrast, holders of Red and Black U.S. passports are excluded from entrance fees in every country other than Brazil. Who are the holders of these privileged passports? Government employees working overseas, such as Peace Corps and Embassy staff. In-country Peace Corps employees, for example directors of individual country programs, can make up to $160,000 a year, compared to my $3300 yearly salary. As for Embassy staff, isn’t the State Department responsible for our immigration policies? You’re telling me that the same people who impose the $131 U.S. Visa fee and are therefore responsible for reciprocity fees, don’t have to pay them?

We Peace Corps Volunteers do not make a lot of money; we are volunteers after all. Nonetheless, we do work for the U.S. government. We work around the world as the positive face, the good publicity front of the U.S. government. Is it too much to ask that we receive the same passports and visa exemptions as other higher-paid government employees?