By Amy Skalmusky, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It has been an important year for the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro. From U.S. President Barak Obama’s visit in March to preparations for the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, the Consulate has played a critical role in strengthening ties as well as encouraging business and educational opportunities between Brazil and the United States.
Along with President Obama’s visit this year, the U.S. Consulate hosted numerous official visitors, including senators, congressmen, cabinet-level U.S. government officials, and unofficial delegations seeking new opportunities to increase bi-lateral trade and cultural exchange.
“The world has its eyes on Rio,” said Dennis Hearne, the U.S. Consul General, “The U.S. Consulate in Rio is happy to be an important player in this sense.”
The increase in Brazilian spending power was responsible for one of 2011s biggest challenges – more Brazilians wanting to visit the United States. According to Hearne, between October 2010 and October 2011, the Consulate in Rio saw a 72 percent increase in the number of visa appointments per day.
To facilitate processing, the Consulate increased its staff and hours of operation. “Starting in September 2011, the Department of State began sending many additional Portuguese-speaking officers from other posts on temporary duty assignments to adjudicate visa cases in Brazil,” said Hearne, “and this effort has resulted in approximately a ten percent reduction in the wait time.”
The Consulate plans to continue its efforts to expedite the visa process in 2012 and beyond. “We are going from fifty officers in Brazil in 2011, to 100 by summer 2012,” said Hearne.
The Consulate in Rio is also improving its physical space to improve capacity and speed as well as make the overall experience more pleasant for the applicants. “Our goal is to expand our capacity to have the ability to adjudicate more than 1.8 million visas in Brazil annually by 2013,” he said.
Other 2011 highlights came from the Consulates outreach programs to promote education, sports and social inclusion. “We have been approached by many institutions in the U.S. and Brazil looking to collaborate with the Consulate,” said Hearne.
The “Up with English” program, an English course for youth in underprivileged communities, continued to be successfully implemented in 2011 with the help of the private sector.
“We reached out to our partners at the American Chamber of Commerce in Rio,” said Hearne. “Their response was immediate and positive: three AmCham companies gave their support to UP with English programs in Cantagalo, Providência and Cidade de Deus.” Other companies are already interested in assisting with helping expand the program into other communities.
This year’s sports initiatives brought NBA star athletes like Dominique Wilkins, Sam Perkins, and Allan Houston to the recently pacified Complexo de Alemão favela in the NBA’s Basketball without Borders program as well as Linda Hamilton and Tiffany Roberts, former members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, to the Cidade de Deus favela for the Sports Envoys program.
The sports diplomacy efforts will continue into 2012. “Next month, we are bringing NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Rio and Salvador, to promote values that we strongly support: sports and education,” said Hearne. March 2012 will also see U.S. wheelchair basketball parathletes visiting Rio to engage with Brazilian youth.