CARACAS (Reuters) - Queuing in their hundreds from dawn then often waiting for hours in the sun, Venezuelans seeking U.S. visas fear their government’s order to slash American embassy staff to less than a fifth of current levels may snarl the process far more.
In his latest spat with the United States, socialist President Nicolas Maduro has accused Washington of promoting a coup against him and announced a series of reprisal measures, including the order to downsize the enormous U.S. mission in Caracas from 100 to 17 staff within two weeks.
That will inevitably hit the consular section, which in 2014 processed some 232,500 applications.
Given the interruptions last year when three consular staff were expelled, the lines could well be longer in 2015.
“It’s an organized cue, it flowed, but it’s still been a really tiring process,” said Yajara Ovalle, 35, who arrived at 6 a.m. on a recent morning and left at midday with a prized visa to take her children to Disneyland in Florida.
“Now imagine this with fewer staff for so many people. It would be chaos, far slower, maybe impossible. I think it’s crazy, this decision,” she said, as scores of Venezuelans waited in the street or under trees outside the hilltop embassy.
The U.S. visa system in Venezuela seems relatively efficient, with payments and applications made in advance on the internet, before appointments are scheduled.
Yet people still arrive early to the huge ochre-colored mission to ensure they are first in line for shared time-slots.
The vast majority are seeking temporary visas, though the number of Venezuelans granted permanent U.S. residency has steadily increased in recent years.
The downsizing of the U.S. embassy was one of several measures announced by Maduro at the weekend in retaliation for alleged U.S. meddling.
Washington has dismissed the allegations as ludicrous.
Maduro’s government, heir to the 14-year rule of former President Hugo Chavez, has also published its own “terrorism list” of American politicians prohibited from visiting Venezuela and has changed immigration rules to require U.S. travelers to seek visas before they visit.
While there was some sympathy for the principle of reciprocity, Venezuelans in the visa lines were quick to poke fun at the new stipulations for American tourists.
“I doubt there’ll be the same cue in the United States to come to Venezuela!” insurance salesman Pedro Rodriguez, 57, joked dryly in a comment echoed by many outside the embassy.
“With the crime and economic conditions of our country, what north American would want to come? Unless it’s for work or business. It’s such a shame with all that Venezuela has to offer,” said Rodriguez, who got a visa “just in case I need it.”
U.S. officials accuse Venezuela of understating its own number of diplomats in the United States at 17 in order to justify the downsize at the Caracas embassy. “We have advised the Venezuelan government that a reduction in our staff could negatively affect our ability to meet the demand for U.S. visas in Venezuela,” a State Department official said.
The prospect of a more arduous visa process adds to the headache for would-be Venezuelan travelers who are also facing vastly-increased airfares and reduced seats due to the impact of currency controls and government debts with foreign carriers.
Travelers to Florida, for example, said they could only find tickets in local currency at around 100,000 bolivars. That is about five months salary for an average professional, or between $15,900 at the strongest official exchange rate and $450 at the black market rate.
Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Frances Kerry