Yesterday, Sarah Lacy over at Tech Crunch started a massive anti-American Internet intifada by writing about her very bad experience trying to get a visa to Brazil. She had been planned the trip for four months and taking Portuguese lessons, evidently making a concentrated effort to understand the country and language before she left, unlike the typical American businessman. She had intended to scope out IT companies, entrepreneurs, and other potential investment opportunities. An excerpt:
Sarah, however, made the big mistake of defacing the Brazilian flag with a little message and using some inflammatory language toward the end of the post directed at Brazilians and the Brazilian government. As a result, she was lambasted by Brazilians and a scattering of other Latin Americans, accusing the US of having an unfair visa policy and claiming she had no right to complain.
Ernesto knows what I'm about to say.
Unfortunately for her, Sarah didn't know that any minor bit of criticism towards Brazil will provoke sheer outrage, and since her post was very accusatory, she actually got death and rape threats (no joke). Defacing any flag is generally a very bad idea, as is blogging when angry and/or making sweeping accusations (trust me, I know from personal experience). So attracting an angry mob wasn't surprising.
But what irritated me about the reaction to her post was that it was so typical, something most gringos who write about Brazil have to deal with, and frankly, the reaction ended up doing an equal amount of damage to her visa issues. And as you know, I've had to deal with the US visa system for the past 10 months, so I'm well aware of how it works.
First off, Sarah was accused of being irresponsible, and everyone put the blame on her. It could be true she waited until the last minute to apply for her visa, and it could be true she didn't do her research about the complexity of the visa. But what's more important is that the responsible authorities (the visa company, which she paid to do a service, and the Brazilian consulate), ultimately were the ones who failed to do their job. And unlike seasoned travelers to Brazil, she didn't do a jeitinho and apply for the much easier tourist visa instead. She did it the right way.
Second, it is useless to compare apples to oranges. Brazil and the US have totally different visa systems with very different purposes. The US system is a mess, but more importantly, it's not always fair because we have a huge amount of illegal (and legal) immigration. The Brazilian visa system, aside from super quick and easy tourist visas, tends to be inefficient and slow, but also does not have to deal with the sheer mass and constant pressure of millions of immigrants.
But this is even irrelevant when it comes down to the fact that the US system has nothing to do with Sarah's frustration. She did not mention the US system nor does she defend it nor is she responsible for it. If she were from England or France or Australia, she would have received the exact same response, because Brazilians have an extremely hard time accepting criticism about their country (and a harder time when it comes in the form of an angry accusation like Sarah's). And any immigration issues with Latin Americans will always be a sore subject.
This used to happen to me a lot, and still sometimes does: "What right do you have to criticize the Brazilian government/system/economy/judicial system? Yours is screwed up too!" If this illogical double standard were true, I wouldn't have this blog.In fact, I'd delete the whole thing. We have two totally different countries, and criticizing one is valid based on our experiences in that country. There's a huge amount of anti-American sentiment in Brazil (I was sometimes shocked at the things people would say to my face), while the average American largely ignores Brazil until things like this happen; when they do, some Brazilians assume a double standard about who has the right to talk smack about whom, about who's system is worse than the other's.
Sarah wasn't justified in going after the entire country and its people because of what happened. But instead of chastising Sarah for her condescending tone and the flag issue, she was viciously attacked for criticizing Brazil and for coming from a country with an unfair visa system. The idea was basically: "Look at what we have to go through all the time. See how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot?" The problem is, the ha-ha, you deserved it, na-na-na-na-na attitude that a lot of people had just helps xenophobic Americans feel secure in their same attitude towards foreigners in the US. Two wrongs don't make a right.
But as far as I'm concerned, that's not the point. Everyone deserves the right to be angry and upset when they have to face visa issues, no matter where they're coming from or where they're going. I think she's completely justified to criticize the Brazilian consulate, as are any Brazilians are justified to criticize the US consulate after having problems entering the US (and which they do a lot, justifiably). Brazil's biggest hope is its rapidly growing economy, and incidents like this do not encourage foreigners to invest there or consider traveling there on business. Similarly, it's in the US's best interests to speed up visas for investors and businessmen coming to the US. Given my experience with foreigners in Brazil, Sarah's experience isn't new; any visas that involve doing some sort of work in Brazil are much more difficult to get and require much more red tape than a straightforward tourist visa (ask anyone who has ever been transferred to Brazil working at a multinational). Frankly, they're a nightmare to get.
Had Sarah taken a more diplomatic route, and/or had the response to the post been different (like Fabio Seixas' eloquent open letter), I expect the author might have written an apology. But since her anger was met with outrageous threats and accusations, it made her look like the victim, and it looks like Tech Crunch is standing behind her. And given the criminal nature of a few of the comments (the rape and death threats have been deleted from the site), it didn't make Brazilians look so great. Plus, given the vitriolic response to a valid complaint (albeit masked in ugly words), I doubt Sarah or anyone from Tech Crunch or their affiliates will keep Brazil on their radar for potential opportunities.
The bottom line is that you can't possibly expect people not to get angry about bad experiences they have in Brazil (or anywhere for that matter), and not to share those experiences when they're frustrated. Lashing out at Brazilians and using the Brazilian flag with FAIL on it was in poor taste, and it would be in the author's best interest to remove it from the site. But so were a lot of the comments. And everyone was the loser in this affair: Brazil and its up and coming IT companies, Sarah, and those who made offensive remarks when attacking her. Go ahead and demand she remove the flag, and explain to her about the danger of angry accusations and how they hurt everyone. But don't expect her not to feel justified in her frustration. Because that's a very big double standard.
We're all just humans. We all deserve the right to complain--even about Brazil. But we must always respect each other, or else we will never be able to get along.