Obama to Brazil: Send Us Your Affluent, Money-Spending Masses

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Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty Images

Washington has maintained only four visa-processing consulates inside Brazil, including this one in Rio de Janeiro

If I were a restaurant owner, I might cut back a bit on Coca-Cola and stock some Guaraná. That’s the favorite soft drink in Brazil, whose tourists, propelled by the emerging giant’s roaring economy, have been spending money like, well, Americans all over the world in recent years, but especially in the U.S. Brazilians are estimated to drop almost $45 million a day while abroad; and in 2010, 1.2 million of them (the fifth largest number from any country) visited the U.S. and pumped $6 billion into the economy. And they buy more than Mickey Mouse ears: Brazilians are currently purchasing almost a tenth of the houses and apartments being sold in the Miami area.

So it would make sense for the U.S., whose economy hasn’t roared in years, to roll out a redder carpet for os Brasileiros, whose applications for nonimmigrant U.S. visas have increased 234% in the past five years.

Instead, Washington has maintained only four visa-processing consulates inside Brazil – a country of 200 million people as geographically large as the U.S. – and has continued to subject Brazilians to a baroque process of red tape and interviews that can cost thousands of dollars in fees and travel expenses and well over 100 days of waiting.

President Obama took a step to rectify that seemingly ungrateful situation today by traveling to the Mickey Mouse–ears capital, Orlando, (which of course was not intended at all as a campaign stop in the nation’s key swing state) to announce that the U.S. would finally start streamlining the tourist-visa procedure after a decade of post-9/11 strictures. “The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work,” Obama said, noting that tourism accounts for 2.7% of U.S. GDP. The reforms are geared especially at helping visitors from Brazil and China get to the U.S. faster. Obama ordered the State Department, for example, to increase nonimmigrant visa-processing capacity in those two countries by 40% this year; ensure that 80% of tourist-visa applicants are granted interviews within 21 days; and simplify and speed up the process for “low risk” applicants (those not likely to remain illegally in the U.S. after their visas expire), such as those renewing tourist visas, and younger and older first-time Brazilian applicants.

SEE: Let Them In: How Brazilians Could Help the U.S. Economy

Obama also added Taiwan to the list of 36 countries (virtually all of them developed) whose citizens can visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. That visa-waiver program (VWP), established in the 1980s, is almost as irritating to countries like Brazil – which feel they’ve reached a level of development that should exempt their citizens from being considered potential illegal-immigration risks by Washington – as the old visa-application process was. Brazil, which as payback requires Americans to obtain visas to visit it, hasn’t met a key, if obscure, criterion for VWP eligibility: that a country’s U.S. tourist-visa application-refusal rate be less than 3%. “But Brazil is edging toward that,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington.

Indeed, Brazil’s refusal rate is now well under 5%. Ironically, Sotero notes, that’s thanks in large part to “the fact that the U.S., after its 2008 crisis, is considered a less attractive place for economic migrants in Brazil, which has almost full employment and a lot more economic opportunity.” In fact, Brazil is currently creating almost 20 new local-currency millionaires a week. So it’s perhaps little coincidence that Obama today also directed his Administration to expand the VWP – which should mean getting Brazil and China onto the list as soon as their refusal rates hit 2.9%.

Brazil, however, might face another obstacle. While no Latin American country right now is on the VWP roster, Argentina was in the 1990s. That was thanks in large part to then President Carlos Menem’s embrace of what was called the Washington Consensus, U.S.-backed capitalist reforms that for a while made his country one of South America’s most affluent. But when that bubble burst in 2001 in one of Latin America’s most disastrous economic collapses, the U.S. suddenly saw an “increase in the number of Argentine nationals attempting to use the VWP to enter the U.S. and remain illegally.” Argentina was dropped from the VWP in 2002.

Meaning that Brazil may be paying for the Argentine experience. Then again, Brazil under President Dilma Rousseff may prove itself more VWP-worthy than Argentina under Menem, mainly because even as its boom begins to subside – 2011 growth was about half that of 2010 – it isn’t showing ominous signs of bust. That kind of steadiness, albeit new for Brazil, ought to be a more important reason for including the country in the VWP than even its application-refusal rate. That’s especially true since Rousseff’s Brazil is also showing an unprecedented commitment to keeping its economic talent, especially scientists and engineers, in the country. Programs like Science Without Borders, for example, are sending thousands of Brazilian students to study in developed countries like the U.S. to help develop a more high-tech economy at home.

For now, we’ve learned, the U.S. consulate in São Paulo is expected to start working Saturdays to process more of the 2,300 Brazilian tourist-visa applications it receives each day. Some Brazilians might even find that reason to raise a glass of Guaraná. And if the changes Obama announced today in Orlando mean Brazilians spend less money on visas – and have more to spend while they’re in the U.S. – then that’s reason for Americans to raise a glass of Coca-Cola.