By Doug Gray, Senior Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Tim Flear has been the British Consul General to Rio De Janeiro since 2006. In that time the city has undergone substantial changes that have made his job both more challenging and more demanding, as the profile of the Cidade Maravilhosa – both as a tourist and a business destination – rises around the world.
The Rio Times caught up with Mr. Flear at the British consular offices on Praia do Flamengo shortly before Christmas to get a glimpse first hand of exactly what goes on behind the doors of the consulate and his relationship with the 180,000 or so British Nationals that visit Brazil every year. The building is grand and security is tight, but the relaxed atmosphere within and offer of a cup of tea are reassuringly English.
Educated in Nottingham and The University of Manchester, Tim Flear entered the Foreign Office immediately upon leaving his studies. Previous international postings include Seoul, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, but the current position is his first as Consul General of which there is one other in Sao Paulo as well as the British Ambassador located in Brasilia.
“Our duties here differ somewhat from those in Sao Paulo,” he explains, “it being the economic powerhouse of Brazil it is largely a trade and investment post whereas Rio has a big commercial and sports sector, as well as, of course, the visa processing and consular services we provide.”
Outside of the processing of visas for Brazilians looking to work or study in Britain (for which all applications from across Brazil arrive in the Rio office) and the replacing of lost passports etc, there is a surprisingly large amount of manpower dedicated to business channels between the two countries.
“Within our trade and investment team we have a unit dealing with sport, sending trade delegations to the UK and with stimulating visits from the UK. We also offer a market survey service to British businesses investigating opportunities for a particular product here and its viability in Brazil in general. We want to offer that expert knowledge on the ground here to answer companies’ questions without them having to leave Britain.”
For the major oil and gas companies representing British interests here, the need for preliminary advice may be a little more limited, but that by no means lessens the impact the Consulate can have on the business. “Any queries on fundamental regulations from the Brazilian government such as recently with the pre-salt drilling, we can act as a bridge between the company and the State or Federal government, relating any anxieties to them. If big UK companies start to get nervous for any reason it can raise questions about their investment, and what we want is for British business to capitalize on the opportunities here in Brazil.”
As Brazil continues to attract global attention, the number of VIP visits to Rio has also risen, and this is perhaps a more ‘traditional’ part of what one might expect the service of a consulate to consist of. “In my first 12 months here we had seven ministerial visits, four of which were at cabinet level, so a fair proportion of my job is delivering their programs during the stay and executing them.”
This year the whistle-stop visit by Prince Charles to Jardim Botanico and an NGO in Complexo Alemao was a case in point, and the kind of security and levels of preparedness demanded for such a trip are obviously something that the consul general thrives upon.
As for the security of the British nationals in Rio, Mr. Flear sees the situation here as somewhat different than in many parts of the world. While expatriates are firmly encouraged to register on the database for overseas residents, ‘Locate’, the low likelihood of natural disaster, war, and other such threats in certain countries are simply not a danger here, are factors attributes the low numbers currently on the Rio database to.
“But there are always unexpected problems, such as was the case with the Air France crash, so with very short notice we may need to get in contact with the next of kin and therefore we would encourage people to sign up. In some countries the consulate would utilize a warden network to get messages to Brits in different neighborhoods, but there is no homogeneous British community here, and we therefore would use institutions like the British Commonwealth Society, the Anglican Church and Royal British Legion to get messages out into the community.”
The responsibility to UK passport holders is certainly taken seriously, and it is a link that Mr Flear describes as both an emotional and a business one. “When you buy a British passport a consular premium is in fact included in the price to cover the consular services of wherever you go.”
With the pacification of the favelas in tourist areas such as Ipanema and Copacabana currently underway to remove the drug gangs, there are clearly serious dangers present to visitors that the consulate has to monitor.
“We urge travelers not to visit favelas because of the unpredictability of those areas,” he says, “and regularly monitor and update advice (on Brazil) to give an up to date synopsis of our views on safety and security for residents and visitors.” This advice is posted on the www.fco.gov.uk website, and covers general warnings though not specifics as can be delivered by some private security firms used by the big oil companies.
An estimate based on the number of passports issued to Brits here places the number of visitors/residents in Rio from Great Britain at around 2,000 any one time.
Meanwhile the consulate has to also monitor the 125,000 or so Brazilians traveling to Britain ever year and the approximately 8,000 visas, mostly student, issued each 12 months too. That number has slowly been reduced from around 13,000 three years ago as the economic situations in Britain and Brazil have diverged, the latter largely avoiding the worst of the global economic meltdown.
The responsibilities of the Consul General are therefore perhaps wider than one may at first imagine. There are those British expatriates in Rio who believe that not enough is done to unite their community here, but when there are so many who, as Tim puts it, “come to be a part of Carioca life and don’t need the services we offer here” it would appear that any traditional concept of expatriate life, that of tea parties and cucumber sandwiches on the lawn, are simply not applicable.
The UK Consulate of Rio offers a modern approach to visitors and businesses however, that is as refreshing as a cup of earl grey on a steamy December afternoon.
Correction: January 8, 2010
This article was first published on December 29th with an inaccurate estimate of the number of visitors/residents in Rio from Great Britain at any one time.