JO - 'Have mercy': Embassy response missing the point
'Have mercy': Embassy response missing the point
Friday, March 16, 2007
Although there are always several responses from readers of this column, from time to time an article draws heavy response. Such was the case with last week's piece, "Have mercy, US Embassy!" By phone, personal responses, local mail and foreign email, the responses were overwhelmingly in favour.
The US Embassy response was published in this newspaper on Monday, March 12 under the headline "US Embassy does have mercy". That embassy response over the name of Glenn J Guimond, public affairs officer, simply misses the point. One reader, a prominent national leader, described the embassy response as having "said nothing". That, of course, is not literally true since Mr Guimond's response letter said a great deal. But it is true that the letter said nothing pertinent to my article's concern for the plight of the dozens of people who line up outside the embassy's walls day after day in the broiling sun (or whatever weather) unsheltered, seeking assistance to obtain a US visa.
Several of the readers, however, had practical suggestions as to how the US Embassy could demonstrate its caring for the "outdoor" applicants seeking visas. One suggested that the embassy plant shade trees on the wide strip in front of its buildings. Another suggested the erection of roadside tents for shelter. One creatively proposes a "hospitality centre" across the street which could be worked out in collaboration with the embassy. It would be a "no-charge" service. What is striking about this proposal is that the proposer is a person who founded and owns a chain of branches of a very successful client service operation. I found it intriguing that the article should move a well-off entrepreneur to think of a caring solution to the identified problem (although I cannot picture how the proposal could work).
The embassy's response by contrast was that "every visa applicant is given an appointment and every applicant knows the time of his or her appointment before ever coming to the embassy". The response continued: "There is no need to stand in line for hours (my emphasis). Applicants are advised to arrive no more than 15 minutes before the scheduled appointment time. We stage appointments in organised increments.Unfortunately far too many applicants continue to arrive an hour or more before the stated appointment times". Now clearly the embassy must be commended for its scheduling process which, if it operates like clockwork, is designed to move lots of people quickly through the screening process. And one must sympathise that despite such a well-designed procedure, by the applicants arriving an hour or more before the stated appointment times, the embassy notes "it actually slows and complicates procedures for everyone".
Now if the embassy was located in any well-organised US city with reliable public transportation, it would have little or no problem having applicants come through in neat 15-minute slots as designed. But this is Jamaica, a Third-World country where an applicant coming in from western Negril, central Ulster Spring or eastern Morant Bay, not to mention deep rural areas, may have to change several buses or depend on a very undependable public (read heavily private) transport "system". To ensure being on time, many such people would rather arrive too early than risk missing the stated appointment. Of course, the embassy is not responsible for this state of affairs.
What my article called for, however, is that the embassy should show mercy to people caught in this kind of fix. The embassy's response shows commendably that once those waiting outside the walls get inside, they are very comfortably taken care of. The "sin", if you will, of those petitioners waiting outside who must face the rigours of weather (with no possibility of shelter), is that they arrive too early, according to the embassy's response to my article. In other words, the embassy's responsibility to the visa petitioners begins only when they gain entrance to the compound, never mind that they pay no less for the service whether being outside or inside. In that sense, they are therefore "penalised".
In the article I actually wrote that "the embassy cannot be held responsible for the comfort of the people in those lines outside its buildings". But one reader who is an ambassador, and who was supported by several other readers' similar comments, observed that by certain diplomatic conventions signed between sovereign states, the embassy may indeed be expected to have a responsibility to all the paying applicants, inside or not. I did not know this. My appeal to the US Embassy was purely on moral grounds and in its own interest as representing the great US giant which many regard as perceiving it can do no wrong in dependent underdeveloped nations.
In that regard, perception is reality. What the public sees is not the comfortable services inside the high walls of the embassy, but the "sufferers" waiting outside. The old English legal principle captures this situation well: "Justice must not only be done; it must appear to be done". But the embassy accuses me of making misleading statements and is "sad" about these while condemning my "emotion in place of fact". I make no apology for my emotion on behalf of the affected people. I apologise for saying that the embassy "beautified" a bus stop instead of building one (it was relocated because of the embassy's presence), and for suggesting that a neighbouring street was closed for the embassy's convenience (it was closed because of the embassy's presence).
But it is not misleading that the major protest against the embassy being placed at its present site, led by well-regarded Jamaicans, ("dumped" there, in their view) represented the sentiment of a majority of the people. That's how representative samples work. But let's not quibble. What was good about the US Embassy response was the final sentence: "We believe that by working together we can greatly diminish whatever difficulties we have." How can that worthy sentiment be applied to the problem outside their gates?