Monday, November 30, 2015

At the Border: An Encounter with Officialdom

In the course of doing what I do, traveling in South America to update my guidebooks and other projects, I often come in contact with government officials – especially when crossing borders (most often between Argentina and Chile). Latin America still has something of a reputation for official intransigence but, for the most part, my experiences have been cordial and routine. In one recent instance, the exchange was memorably positive.
Last week was not one of those, though. En route to visiting the Argentine wine capital of Mendoza – which I had not seen since early 2010 – I had the most disagreeable experience in recent memory while crossing the border at Las Cuevas (eastbound, Argentina and Chile share a border complex on the Argentine side, pictured above; westbound, the shared complex is on the Chilean side, near Portillo).

Crossing the border, with my Chilean car, has almost always been routine but this time it was not. I had everything in order – as in many previous crossings - but the Chilean customs official who handled my paperwork didn’t think so. He was upset that I had no Chilean ID card – I can’t have one because I’m neither a citizen nor a resident – though I do have a RUT (the Chilean tax ID that allows me to pay my annual vehicle registration fees). To the best of memory, no official has ever asked to see any documentation other than the official ownership title and my passport.

This gentleman, though, was adamant that, without a Chilean cédula, I could not leave the country with my own vehicle. Routinely, Chilean customs has given me 90 days to return to Chile but, when he finally relented – I never expressed anger, though I was a bit bewildered - he was only willing to grant me four days to travel to the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, a distance of roughly 3,000 km that would have required me to spend almost every waking hour on the road.

There followed a sort of dialogue – not exactly a negotiation – in which he extended my stay to 10 days and then 20, but not a second longer. Given what I had planned, to explore much of the Argentine side of the Andean front range and coastal wildlife destinations, even that gives me minimal flexibility to visit anything outside the main cities and off the principal highways.

Eight of my allotted 20 days are already gone, as I prepare to leave the city of Neuquén and continue to the Andean resort town of San Martín de los Andes. From there, I am considering returning to the Chilean side of the border in hopes of re-crossing with a clean slate that would let me resume my Argentine travels at a more leisurely pace. My reliable Santiago customs agent has informed that this shouldn’t raise any red flags the next time I try to cross, and that’s calmed some of my worries.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Argentina's Day After

Argentina’s politics are often dramatic, but yesterday’s presidential election was essentially drama-free. My perception of that, though, may have something to do with passing the day in Chacras de Coria, the upper-upper-middle-class enclave in Gran Mendoza, the suburban communities that surround the relatively small provincial capital.
In the course of the last three days, I saw little evidence of controversy in the closely contested race. Winning candidate Mauricio Macri, who won by about three percentage points, had relatively few electoral posters here, all enclosed on small billboards (pictured above). I saw none at all for losing candidate Daniel Scioli, who was considered a strong nation-wide favorite before eking out only a narrow plurality in the first round in late October.
I spent most of the morning writing before leaving my accommodations for lunch and, when I strolled by the local polling place in mid-afternoon, there were no lines. For someone whose first experience of Argentina came during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, though, it was disconcerting to see police and soldiers with automatic weapons standing guard (at right, above) at the school where voting took place. Few areas in this country are more secure than Chacras.
In theory, Argentina enforces an alcohol-free period from 8 p.m. the night before the election until three hours after the polls close at 6 p.m. on election day. In principle, this sounds like a good idea but, when I’ve asked my Argentine friends whether their countrymen vote better drunk or sober, nobody’s quite sure. When I strolled through town Saturday night, there were bottles of beer and wine on sidewalk tables and, when I ate lunch yesterday the couple at the next table were sharing a large bottle of Stella Artois (pictured above).

However ineffective the alcohol ban may be, I think the US could learn something from Argentina’s elections. It’s admirable that 80 percent of the electorate turns out to vote (voting is obligatory, but the penalty for not doing so is insignificant); in the US, though, some states have made scandalous efforts to suppress voter participation. The quick turnover of government is also worth considering – Macri will take office in about three weeks, instead of the roughly 2-1/2 months that leaves the outgoing US president as a lame duck.

While Macri’s victory was a clear one, he won’t have an easy road. On both domestic and international stages, unlike outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he’s likely to be less confrontational on issues like hedge fund debt settlement and the Falkland Islands (which Argentina claims as the Malvinas). Still, many of her partisans despise Macri and will provide strong congressional (and even extra-congressional) opposition, though it’s encouraging that she publicly congratulated him on the victory and met with him today.

I spent quite a bit of time since Friday chatting with Daniel Alessio, a former mountain guide who’s my host at Parador del Ángel (pictured above). Daniel, whom I’ve known for some years, is a political junkie who’s out of step with most of his neighbors in the privileged environment of Chacras, though he himself runs a very attractive accommodations on beautifully landscaped grounds, that draws a pretty prosperous clientele. It will interesting to see how Macri manages a delicate balancing act between the country’s polarized extremes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Visa & Money Miscellanea - An Update

As regular readers will know, one of my pet peeves is the arbitrary immigration procedures that some South American countries impose on US citizens and some other nationalities. Argentina, of course, requires the euphemistically named "reciprocity fee," while Brazil requires advance visas.

I am not suggesting, I will repeat, that these fees and procedures are unfair - the United States and other countries require them of Argentine and Brazilian nationals. I do consider them foolish, though, because they comprise one more obstacle to the free movement of visitors (for the record, I also believe my own country should also make the process easier).
I was recently encouraged, though, to hear that Brazil has decided to eliminate visa requirements for a three-month period to coincide with the 2016 Olympic Games there. No doubt this measure owes a great deal to recent economic troubles, and the government has decided they could use the extra foreign currency that additional visitors might bring (those visitors need not actually attend the Olympics).

I don't spend much time in Brazil but, from my point of view, this is a big advantage for visitors to the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls - they'll be able to make a day trip or more to the Brazilian side (pictured above) without wasting time and money getting a visa. The exact dates of the measure are undecided but, hopefully, it will be so successful that the government will end the visa requirement - and perhaps persuade Argentina's new government to abolish the reciprocity fee.
Chile’s gotten most of the way there but, as my arrival photo above shows, Australia and Mexico are still on the hook. Australia has one of the most restrictive visa regimes among western democracies, while Mexico applies its US$15 fee to every foreigner except for US citizens within a certain distance of the border - roughly 60 miles, if I recall correctly.

BancoEstado Breaks Me…
Meanwhile, I’ve had one unpleasant surprise since my arrival in Santiago. For many years, the widespread state-run BancoEstado was the lone holdout among banks collecting a large service charge for use of their ATMs but, when I changed there on Saturday, I had to accept a 4000-peso (not quite US$6) fee for the convenience of it. Yesterday, when I used a private Banco de Chile ATM, the charge was only 3000 pesos (a shade more than US$4). BancoEstado may have lost my business, such as it is – except on Easter Island, pictured below, where it’s the only choice.

I haven’t tried any other ATMs yet but, in the past, charges have always varied slightly from bank to bank. When you do make a withdrawal, the machine tells you the fee, and you have the option to cancel the transaction.
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