Along with passports, guidebooks and phrase books, American tourists should take along some knowledge about their rights, or the lack of them, in a foreign country.
Most travelers are unaware of how little their embassies and consulates can do for them if they are jailed overseas.
Relatives howl hysterically at the State Department; they expect young Johnny or Aunt Flossie to be rescued immediately, unscathed. They are unaware that Johnny was playing James Bond or Auntie was sniffing glue in the marketplace.
Panic and indignation run high in such foreign scenarios. Nevertheless, Uncle Sam’s “Innocents Abroad” are not considered untouchable--no matter what they may think.
The State Department strongly advises American travelers to be aware of the laws and culture of country before going there.
Innumerable laws around the world involve spying, drugs, cultural sensitivities and currency and traffic violations, to name a few. In some countries, even photographers can get arrested for taking pictures, for example, of public buildings that may be considered strategic installations.
Sometimes host suspicions are puzzling. Take the case of two American boys who were talking pleasantly with some German youths they met on a downtown street in Yaounde, Cameroon. It was just after a coup, and the political climate was tense. Suddenly they were all arrested and taken to the police station.
“What did you do?” asked the U.S. consular officer. “We talked,” they said blankly. “Just chatted.” Later, after a scary interrogation, they were released. Thanking the consular officer for his protest, they left in guarded silence.
An elderly couple from New York City won a trip to Trinidad on BIWI Airlines. They didn’t take along passports because they aren’t required on other Caribbean islands, and they didn’t know that Trinidad is an exception.
As winners, they were greeted on the airport ramp in Port-of-Spain with band music and flowers and a joyous welcome. They were then promptly arrested and detained at the police station. That apparently did not seem bizarre to the Trinidadians.
Don’t Argue With Police
Don’t try to convert the natives, no matter how patriotic or religious you are. Above all, don’t argue with policemen--you are in their country and subject to their laws. If you get caught with drugs, court decisions may not exactly be based on the U.S. Constitution.
In Mexico, American insurance is not valid. It is wise to buy that country’s insurance at the border before entering. If you need it for any reason and don’t have it, you probably will end up in jail. The length of such undesirable lodging would depend on full financial retribution.
In Uruguay, Americans have been detained for playing soccer on the beach. That innocent sport is against the law there. In Bulgaria, according to a friend who was threatened with arrest, it is wise not to chew gum while looking at Lenin’s statue.
Consider some elderly Americans on a tour in Nepal. They bought some novelty fountain pens for souvenirs. They were little pistols in disguise. At the next border crossing they were arrested and jailed for smuggling firearms.
Often it is an argument with a native person who calls the police that causes the arrest. Trivial or innocent offenses might be forgiven with some wise and apologetic artifice.
U.S. Power Limited
The leverage of a U.S. Foreign Service representative is very limited. His basic job is to monitor a case, and he is legally required to do so.
He also checks to see that the American involved receives legitimate and equitable humane treatment--under the host country’s laws. He must determine that the person is not singled out for abuse. He is restricted from doing anything more.
Here are some some things you can expect from your consular officer:
(1) He can visit you in your cell; (2) he can give you a list of local lawyers but cannot call a lawyer for you or even recommend one; (3) he will notify Washington to communicate with your family (providing you want him to); (4) he can find out what the charges against you are and what the prospects for a court trial are; (5) he can serve as a conduit for bringing you money from your family through telegraphing; (6) he can protest.
That is all. The U.S. government has no jurisdiction in a foreign country; only the host country’s laws prevail. However, in some instances, the U.S. official’s presence alone may make an enormous difference to your welfare.
In a section of U.S. Government Manual 1987-88 it says: “One of the main responsibilities of a Foreign Service officer is to maintain cordial relations with that country’s government and people.”
It is best to remember his position.