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View from Washington

Tourists from some countries find it easier to enter the US than others. Is it time Obama expanded the club’s membership?

By Sasha Issenberg

Barack Obama’s White House has grown fond of direct outreach to foreigners, releasing an online “Happy Nowruz” message to Iranians and inviting French teens to question him at a Strasbourg town hall meeting. But as Obama toys with the instruments of soft power, one group abroad has been conspicuously left behind: Bulgarian tourists and Maltese business travellers who still need a visa before they touch down on American tarmac.

Over the summer, expansion of the US’s visa-waiver programme – the primary channel for foreigners to enter the country without prior approval – was quietly halted. Since the programme began in 1986, its 35-country roster has reflected Washington’s view of the global upper-crust (western Europe and other wealthy countries, such as Japan, Brunei and Australia that are free of security concerns). As he sought to remake US foreign policy, George W Bush saw inclusion in the programme as a useful diplomatic tool to reward friendly leaders and strategic allies.

Six countries were left languishing on Bush’s “road map” for future candidates after homeland-security officials failed to meet a summer deadline to establish new biometric exit procedures at US airports. The administration says it is unlikely to fully work out the technical requirements before year’s end and even then has no plan to fund implementation of the procedures nationwide. Visa-waiver supporters fear that Obama’s position is ­complicated by the issue’s proximity to politically toxic ones – illegal immigration and border security – which he has cleverly dodged elsewhere.

The coalition that pushed Bush on the issue is marshalling again to win exemptions from the current moratorium. Travel-industry lobbyists estimate that inclusion in the programme doubles a new country’s tourist flow to the US (when Argentina was removed from the programme in 2002, visitors from that country fell by half).

Their allies on Capitol Hill tend to have large ethnic constituencies: New York congresswoman Carolyn B Maloney proposed visa waivers for Greece, while a bill including Poland was among the first things that new Illinois congressman Mike Quigley set to work on after arriving in Washington this spring. “Poland is the glaring country that is missing,” says Quigley, who represents a strongly Polish district in Chicago. (The other road-map countries are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and ­Romania.)

Obama once sounded a lot like Quigley. “Today’s visa regime reflects neither the current strategic relationship nor the close historic bonds between our peoples,” he said in 2007, on a visit from Poland’s president. Those were the words of a senator speaking for Illinois. As president, Obama has been silent.

Top five countries to use the US visa-waiver programme:Visitors to US between Oct 08 and July 09

Great Britain: 2,987,690
Japan: 1,592,429
German Federal Republic: 1,249,956
France: 1,013,114
Italy: 603,940

Dream machines

USA [TRANSPORT]

Overnight America’s cities have been blessed with some of the finest transport systems in the world – and without a single cent of Obama’s stimulus package. In Rochester, New York, graphic designer Michael Governale sells posters of an underground tram his city abandoned 50 years ago. In Ohio, “Cincinnati Transit Map for Optimists” T-shirts show five train lines in a region that currently has only a dismal bus network.

Playing the field

Canada [FARMING]

In Quebec, the percentage of young single farmers has doubled in less than 40 years. The limited opportunities for meeting a spouse are jeopardising the survival of the traditional family farm. Dating website farmersonly.com has been doing booming business, and now organisations like The Greenhorns – which offers support to young farmers – are sprouting up. “Living rurally can make dating a challenge,” says director Severine von Tscharner Fleming. “Young farmers have needs. But beyond the immediate prospect of a date, there is tremendous value in bringing farmers together who might later share equipment or borrow a billy goat.”

Get the arts in gear

USA

The term soft power may have been coined by the American academic Joseph Nye in 1990 but the country is not always bullish enough about what it offers. Why is there no equivalent of the Goethe-Institut? Under Obama, American cultural institutes could reinvent affection for the US.

Alpaca man

Bolivia [EVO MORALES]

Whenever he gets half a chance, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, dons full ceremonial dress. Often that’s a red poncho, which, in the Aymara Indian tribe to which he belongs, is reserved for leaders and warriors to wear in times of war or at weddings. “He wants to look defiant while at the same time showing how proud we are of being an indigenous nation,” explains his tailor, the veteran, Savile Row-trained Manuel Sillerico.

Although Morales appears not to care about his appearance, everything is designed to remind people of his humble, indigenous origins. He often wears a traditional necklace of coca leaves, a constant reminder to the United States that he supports the cultivation of the coca leaf (used to combat tiredness and altitude problems, but also to make cocaine).

Morales – a former llama herder and coca grower – is the only Latin American leader who refuses to wear a suit. Instead, for most official business, he appears in an ordinary pair of black trousers, a short-sleeved white shirt or a checked shirt and a black leather jacket trimmed with Andean colours by Sillerico. He has been known to wear trainers to work. And when it’s cold, he still wears the same second-hand, stripey jumper he became known for on his first European tour in 2006.

“President Morales is unique. He has definitely been the most colourful of all,” says Sillerico. And he should know, having been the official tailor for every Bolivian president since General René Barrientos, the right-wing dictator who ordered the execution of Ernesto “Che” Guevara here in 1967.

Since he came to power, indigenous women’s clothes have also become fashionable for the first time in the 200 years since independence from Spanish rule. The president is usually accompanied by female aides wearing the traditional flouncy skirt and bowler hat. His emphasis on the rights of the indigenous poor who live mainly in the high plains of the Andes has pitted him against the wealthy white elite who previously ran the country. They want independence for the resource-rich lowlands in the east of the country. If they got it, the national dress would be… a suit and tie.

1. Alpaca scarf:
As a former llama herder (alpacas and llamas are of the same family), Morales likes to keep the deeply soft camelid wool close to his heart. 2. Tari or chullpa:
Every indigenous Andean has to have a colourful hand-made bag in which to carry coca leaves to chew in order to stay awake. In Morales’s case, this could prove useful while listening to the never-ending speeches of his left-wing ally in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. 3. Trainers:
When he was a coca grower, Morales used to wear sandals made from a car tyre. He has also worn his favourite old navy and white canvas trainers on state visits.

Tanks for nothing

Chile [MILITARY]

There’s no question of an armed conflict between Chile and Peru and yet these two countries are locked in an arms race and forking out hundreds of millions on military hardware that opponents say could be better spent on education and health care.

A law passed in Chile in 1958 and later expanded under General Augusto Pinochet’s rule requires the government to spend 10 per cent of copper revenues on the military. With copper prices at record highs, Chile recently bought 18 F-16 fighter jets from the Netherlands for delivery in early 2010. This follows earlier acquisitions of tanks, warships, submarines and 18 other F-16s – all of which makes for nervous neighbours. Peru is now planning to boost its own military spending by $650m over the next two years.

Pressure is mounting in Chile for military spending reform. José Pablo Arellano, head of state-owned Codelco copper company, has called for the copper law to be abolished, saying it has made it difficult for the firm to do business in Peru.

Feed the world

Brazil

Mexico’s chefs have done as much for the nation as any ambassador. As Brazil courts more global power, it should win hearts and stomachs by opening a Brazilian chain of restaurants in key capitals.

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