hubert-williams_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

One thing is almost sure for the traveler bearing a Guyana passport through foreign airports: Fellow travelers will be “cleared” by immigration and customs officers much more expeditiously than you would. Over the years, it seems wherever the passport is presented to immigration authorities, there is a problem and sometimes it brings the most inane questions:  “Where is that… in Ghana?”

Some countries speak of having Guyana on a “black list” and, at the point of my entry, it tends always to be the case of OK, let’s see who will win the mental and verbal tussle.

In Vienna, Austria, it seemed I spent an eternity in the office of the airport’s senior immigration officer, who, quite obviously, had never seen a Guyana passport or ever heard of the place and my own efforts at prevailing upon him came to naught.

Entry was permitted only after an official of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), on whose invitation I was visiting Austria, vouched for the validity of my documents and the purpose of my visit.

In the tiny British possession of Anguilla in the northern Caribbean, a Guyana passport ensured that I was the very last person from the flight to leave the airport, as I was told a visa was essential for entry. The immigration officer hastened to assure that a visa could be obtained at Immigration headquarters in The Valley, the island’s capital, on payment of $150.

Not willing to do that, was my response: “I wasn’t aware there was need of a visa but the flight on which I arrived is still on the tarmac. I’ll be on it when it departs. It really doesn’t matter much if I don’t visit Anguilla. I was going to spend just a few days anyhow.”

The officer showed me a document of “black-listed” countries, Guyana among them. So, I asked, how could Anguilla black list another English-speaking country within the same Caribbean group? And he explained such instructions and regulations originate in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London – Anguilla is a British territory – therefore, no visa, no entry.

By that time, the Arrivals Hall had cleared but for the two of us, so he phoned the chief immigration officer at headquarters. After a while, he handed me the phone, saying, “The chief wants to talk to you.”

The chief said the officer would allow me in and point me to a taxi which would take me to headquarters, where a visa would be issued on payment of the fee. My response was that I preferred to leave, whereupon the chief asked to speak again with the officer, following which, on hanging up the phone, the officer told me: “The chief said to let you in.”

In another British possession, Bermuda, a female immigration officer was immediately frosty when she saw the Guyana passport. The welcoming smile she had been giving to other passengers just disappeared. I was going to attend a friend’s 65th birthday celebration at the Bermuda Maritime Museum. My sister had traveled from London and we linked up in New York and flew in together. As a British citizen, she sailed through the arrival procedures. But my passport was a cause for official anxiety and, in this case, too, I was the last person out of the airport

The officer had many questions. I offered no answers, saying only once, “All the questions your government wished me to answer are on the immigration landing form and I have answered all of them comprehensively. It is you who now have to decide whether you allow me in or not.”

(Evidently, Bermuda, also a British territory, has the black list.)

Her face showed the displeasure she felt and we just kept looking at each other, she seated at her desk, I standing a respectful two feet away. After what seemed an eternity, she stamped and signed the passport, returned it to me without a word and I moved through.

Passport difficulties have been encountered also on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise liners. In one case, out of Puerto Rico, when ship boarding personnel insisted that the passport be surrendered until the end of voyage, I prevailed in my insistence that the photo page be copied and my passport returned immediately.

My contention was that the passport is the property of the government of Guyana, with me as custodian, and I don’t surrender it anywhere. The issue went to the captain, who instructed that a copy be made of the photo page.

However, on a subsequent cruise, out of Long Beach, Calif., nationalism took a beating. The ship’s boarding crew were unyielding.  They insisted: If we cannot hold the passport, as the regulations require, you don’t cruise. It’s as simple as that. Next in line, please. I handed it over.

Total refusal to accept the Guyana passport has occurred only in Guatemala – for a simple day trip by bus across the border from Belize. It was the sole Guyana document among American passports and the only one bluntly refused entry.

More recently, the greatest challenge came in the wake of charges against three Guyanese nationals – Russel de  Freitas, Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur –  for alleged involvement in a plot to blow up fuel depots at JFK International Airport in New York.

I spend a lot of time in Boston and flying from there to New York is a not infrequent weekend activity for me, mostly to visit my mother, who is now 101, sisters, other relatives and friends.

Following the alleged JFK bombing plot, surveillance tightened around my Guyana passport. What is needed is a government-issued ID and the only one I had was the Guyana passport. Check-in clerks, seeing the passport, would put a big red “X” on my boarding pass, which meant being taken into a cubicle at security, searched, patted down, carry-on luggage opened and minutely checked.

Were I the holder of an American passport, I could have booked an American Airlines flight, gone to  Logan Airport and flown to London’s Heathrow Airport to attend my sister’s 80th birthday celebration without encountering any difficulties at all. But, with the passport of a country evidently still on a black list, there is a process which has to be followed.

A 10-page application for an entry visa has to be filed with the Border Agency of the United Kingdom Home Office, through the British Consulate General in New York. The biometrics – photographing and fingerprinting – have to be done (in Boston, in my case). And there must be what seems to me a considerable amount of supporting financial and other documentation.
I first balked at providing it all, because it seemed so intrusive into private and personal matters.

I was also required to prove that my sister was my sister; that I would not be destitute in England and become dependent on the state; that it was I who was paying for a return air ticket; that resident relatives named on the application were not in the U.K. illegally; that I would not abscond at the end of the intended three-week visit.

Also, as I had not set out a detailed program of my daily activities during the visit, such absence of planning and preparation was contributory to the initial denial of an entry visa.  Happily, a closed door is not necessarily locked, and on appeal the decision was reversed and a visa granted.

Ah, yes, I visited London, had a great time at my sister's big event and returned to Boston April 7…. Didn’t break my word and seek to stay in England. I’ll see the wedding of the year on American television.

Hubert Williams is a veteran Guyanese journalist resident in Boston who writes on economic, social and political affairs.

Photo courtesy of Hubert Williams. World Traveler: Journalist Hubert Williams on the American side of Niagara Falls in August 2009 during a visit to Buffalo for celebrations marking Jamaica’s Independence Anniversary.