Fear and Loathing in Bogota
. Formalism and heartlessness at the Dutch Embassy, Sept. 26, 2013

The Colombian singer Cenelia Alcazar is 78 years old and a musical living legend in her own country. You can check her out in the video above (and several others) posted on YouTube. When Bill Clinton visited her place of residence Cartagena on an official trip, she was invited to sing for him. Speaking of invitations: early last year I invited her to visit the Netherlands. Now we’re all aware that American presidents need to be well protected – but that’s nothing in comparison to the lengths the Dutch Embassy in Bogotá went to in order to protect the Netherlands from such dangerous elements as Cenelia.

Visa application
Cenelia really wanted to come to Europe for the first time to visit her daughter Rosa, my daughter in law. Rosa lives, together with my son Odin, part of the time in Ireland and part of the time in the Netherlands due to their work schedule. Cenelia was curious about the two different lives her daughter leads. Her plan was to travel first to Ireland and then after that take a trip to the Netherlands. For that reason she needed a ‘Schengen’ visa as well as a visa for Ireland.

Cenelia found it all very exciting even though it was also unfamiliar. This would be her first trip abroad. With some help from a computer literate acquaintance she was able, via e-mail, to make an appointment at the Dutch Embassy. Colombians need to turn up in person at the office in Bogota when applying for a visa. Cartagena is approximately 650 kilometres from the capital so Cenelia – who is no longer all that mobile – went by plane. However, upon arrival at the Embassy it quickly became apparent that she had made the trip for nothing because – bear in mind, we’re talking here about a 78-year old woman – she hadn’t followed the rules and should have confirmed the appointment by sending a second e-mail; so she was turned away without mercy and told to come back the following week. The music industry in Colombia is not unlike that in many other countries, so having to buy a new plane fare certainly ended up stretching her travel budget.

One week later she presented herself again at the Embassy – only to be turned away again. Her ‘crime’ this time was that she had omitted to print one page from an inch thick pile of documents that I, as her official host, had to send her. In tears she asked if she could call me, at her own expense, and request me to email the missing page. No way! The Embassy does not allow people to call from the waiting room area “for reasons of security and to minimise any inconvenience to other visitors”.
Cenelia was more than willing to make her telephone call outside the waiting room area so that the security of the Embassy would not be compromised and the peace of the other visitors would not be disturbed. However, the Embassy was unwilling to grant her that short interruption of the meeting.
Of course it’s commendable that the Embassy tries everything within its power to prevent visitors from being inconvenienced, but unfortunately this didn’t apply to Cenelia. Instead, she just had to make another appointment for a week or two later.

After several indignant telephone calls from my side, they were so merciful – “as a highly exceptional case” mailed the Consular Department – to agree to see her the following morning, thereby sparing her the heartache and expense of having to travel yet a third time.

There are no direct flights from Colombia to Ireland. Therefore, Cenelia’s trip took her first to Amsterdam where she had a lay-over of several hours.  During her lay-over she left Schiphol airport and came to my place to rest because I thought a proper bed would be more suitable for a 78-year old lady than an airport bench.  After her rest she went back to the airport and caught her flight to Dublin, Ireland.  The idea was to first spend two weeks in Ireland with her daughter Rosa, followed by a week or two with her in the Netherlands and then fly home from there.

Only when she arrived in Ireland did it come to light that the Embassy in Bogota had given her a single entry visa for the Netherlands without informing Cenelia of this, even though she had requested a multiple entry visa for Schengen countries. This now meant she couldn’t re-enter the Netherlands and in fact she was now stuck in Ireland and if this situation wasn’t sorted out quickly then her stay in Ireland would in fact be illegal. Unfortunately, it looked like her only and probably last chance to see something of her daughter’s life in the Netherlands was not to be, seeing her age and financial situation.

Finally two employees from the Foreign Affairs Office in The Hague offered to come to Cenelia’s aid in response to a phone call from our side. These very obliging officials issued a written visa in The Hague and then sent it via DHL to the Embassy in Dublin where she could pick it up, which meant that Cenelia was still able to spend four days with Rosa in the Netherlands just before her return flight to Colombia.

I lodged a complaint with the Dutch Embassy in Bogota, especially focused on the dreadful bureaucratic attitude and the lack of basic humanity towards a 78-year old lady for whom it was difficult to navigate a completely unknown world to her.
I received a reply in the very same cold-hearted tone and for a good part clearly demonstrable lies. Some examples are:

The Embassy:  When Cenelia “was stranded in Ireland, the Dutch Embassy in Bogota, on their own initiative, requested their colleagues at the Embassy in Dublin to make an exception this time as regards the rule that a person cannot request a Schengen visa in a country where he/she is only residing temporarily.”
The truth is quite different. My son Odin called the Embassy in Bogota no less than six times and the only answer he got time and time again was that there was nothing they could do and that she should have checked her visa beforehand. She was told to fly to Schiphol airport just prior to her return flight from Amsterdam to Colombia.  Implicitly this would mean sleeping on a bench overnight because it concerned an early-morning flight and she wasn’t allowed to leave the Schiphol airport terrain. There is absolutely no evidence of the Embassy acting on their own initiative to come up with a solution!

Another easy to refute lie from the Embassy was that Cenelia herself requested the wrong visa (in other words, she didn’t request a multiple entry visa). A copy of Cenelia’s visa application form clearly shows that ‘multiples’ had been ticked on the form.

The Embassy presented several other lies. Of course in some cases it’s just Cenelia’s word against the word of the Embassy personnel but the demonstrable lies do not add anything to their official credibility.

The reaction from the Embassy appears to be nothing more than an attempt to justify their own actions rather than a serious attempt to find out what happened exactly. We can assume that nothing will change and that other Colombians will be confronted with the same type of behaviour in the future.

In addition: it appears that such misconduct against potential visitors also occurs at other Dutch Embassies, much to the chagrin of not only tourists but renowned scientists, artists, photo journalists and the like as well.