Charly Cardeño is the CEO and founder of Elemento 43, a Cartagena-based software services company. Motivated by opportunities to expand to the US market, he has been planning a trip to the US.
“I wanted to take advantage of a trip to the US to present my business to possible clients. I have many friends there who were ready to introduce me to the right people,” said Cardeño.
But his plans quickly encountered difficulties. Namely, the process to obtain a visa. When Cardeño, researched the E-1 Treaty Traders visa, a nonimmigrant classification business visa which allows nationals of treaty countries “to be admitted to the United States solely to engage in international trade on his or her own behalf”, he found the requirements impossible to navigate for a small company like his.
“I had thought of obtaining a simple tourist visa, but a potential date for an interview to begin the process was July 2023,” Cardeño explained.
“And even if I wanted to apply (for the E-1 Treaty Traders visa), I wouldn’t be able to gather all the documents they asked for. Authorities ask for proof that I already have some clients in the US but at the moment 100% of my invoicing is to the Netherlands, so it’s impossible for me to qualify,” added Cardeño.
US Visa Process Hit by Covid-19 Set Backs
Even though securing an US visa has always been a difficult process for people from Latin America & Caribbean, Covid-19 added an extra layer of challenges. Across the region, US embassies across the region are understaffed or not fully operational, and pandemic-induced travel bans disrupted normal mobility patterns. Sensitive programs such as refugee resettlement or family reunification have been heavily impacted.
This reality also threatens to hold back the Latin American & Caribbean entrepreneurial landscape. As Nearshore Americas recently reported, the connection with the US is fundamental for the region’s IT growth. From finding new clients, receiving training or basic networking, traveling to the US can make the difference.
“We’re selling a service that is relatively expensive. The people we’re trying to sell to receive many emails with similar offerings all the time. That is why having face-to-face time with a potential buyer is so important. It’s hard to set us apart from the rest if we don’t have that element of physical presence when needed,” Cardeño explained.
For Charles Fry, founder of the Honduras-based software development outsourcing company CODE Éxitos, the importance of meeting with clients or providing training in specific locations for his employees is clear, even when most of the company’s activities take place online. In addition to its Honduras HQ, CODE Éxitos also runs an office out of Austin, Texas and most of its clients are US companies.
“We’ve needed some of our team to go to the United States for client meetings or training. But it’s been hard, it’s been really hard to get travel permissions. Embassies are closed or they’re running short staffed, and the backlogs are huge. In several cases, we’ve had engineers and technical people unable to get permission in time to go to the US in order to meet with clients. It seems like the permission process has just gotten so much longer and more complicated. We can still put our team in Zoom calls. It’s not terrible but it definitely is not ideal,” said Fry.
This problem is repeated across the region. The US Embassy in Mexico suspended processing visas, citing Covid-19 concerns, early in 2020. Since then some services have recovered but delays remain considerable in most countries. Only recently, the US embassy and consulates in Brazil announced that they will resume routine nonimmigrant visa appointments beginning November 8, 2021. Even smaller countries like Jamaica and Barbados have seen disproportionate wait times for visa application.
“Most of our clients are in the US, but we have European clients as well. We recently had a situation where two executives from a client in Ireland were coming to our Austin facility. And they had a hard time getting their travel permission from Ireland to the US in order to meet with us,” Fry added.
The Biden administration recently announced that the US will allow vaccinated international travelers to enter the United States. Though for many people this opens the space to enter the US, it doesn’t change the difficult process people need to go through to obtain a visa in the first place.
At the same time, the US will accept vaccines authorized by US regulators or listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization. This includes Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, two versions of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Sinopharm and Sinovac.
“I had thought of obtaining a simple tourist visa, but a potential date for an interview to begin the process was July 2023” — Charly Cardeño
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is not currently on the accepted list, meaning that people inoculated with Sputnik V may be prohibited from entering the US. This vaccine has been used in millions of people in countries like Mexico and Argentina. The disparity in vaccine access and distribution in the region also creates challenges.
For Fry, this situation certainly makes the process of doing business longer and less entrepreneurial. “We have to spend some time and money with our attorneys figuring out how to make the best of what’s currently a bad state of affairs. But entrepreneurs do what they do, they figure out a way to get around obstacles,” he said.