Each day at Argentina's Foreign Ministry, a long line of people stretches from an office marked "Legalizations" down a flight of stairs, out a side door and up a street.
Inside, behind a mica-top counter, sits a clerk wielding a well-worn stamp, the imprint of which on birth certificates, police reports, diplomas and the like is necessary for such documents to have official value here.
It does not matter who may have certified these forms already -- notaries public, police agents or Argentine consular officers in embassies abroad. No stamp is deemed valid until confirmed by the ministry's oval seal of approval.
"There are an awful lot of forgeries around," said Mario Rivera, the office director, explaining the verification function he and his crew perform.
This redundant procedure -- requiring an official stamp to authenticate other official stamps -- is symptomatic of a basic feature of Latin American life: pervasive bureaucracy. People here have a word for the seemingly endless series of steps involved in getting anything done. The word is tramites, and it calls to mind frustrating efforts of shuttling from office to office, of cajoling and pleading with clerks, of bribes, seductions and interminable waits.
All countries, of course, have their red tape. Systems of ponderous record-keeping and exhaustive paper-processing were developed long ago by older civilizations and transplanted in part to this region by Spanish empire builders.
But the nations of Latin America have let their state structures grow to monstrous proportions, giving bureaucrats a say over most aspects of life, from what a child can be named (there are lists of allowed names) and which translators can turn foreign documents into Spanish for official use (there is a list of them, too) to what safety items must be carried in a car (flashlights and matches are required) and what time of day a truck can unload downtown (not after 10 a.m.).
Where a one-step procedure would do, additional steps have been added. That applies as well to many stores, where it is out of the question for a customer to select and pay for a product at the same counter.
As in the rest of Latin America, time here is regarded as flexible, and meant to be stretched. A doctor at the immigration office in central Buenos Aires, for instance, recently kept an American visitor waiting for nearly an hour while the doctor chatted with friends, then finally took the minute necessary to initial the American's medical form. Subsequently, the same U.S. applicant was informed by an Argentine immigration official of a wait of 50 days for police to verify that the American had no local criminal record, although he had been in the country for fewer than 30 days.
For this newly arrived newspaper correspondent, the process of getting a residency visa, moving in and starting work has been a nightmarish maze of administrative obstacles.
Forget the laws of geometry, I was told by an Argentine friend.
"The shortest distance between two points here is usually not a straight line," said the friend. "In the United States and Europe, things are either automatic or predictable. Here, nothing is either automatic or predictable."
To help the helpless cope with tramites, there are middlemen who cut red tape knots, using what in Spanish is called palanca, or leverage. They draw on contacts and experience.
"Fewer people these days seem to work and more move paper around," observed Raul Seoana, a recent accounting school graduate. Rather than prepare income statements for a living, the young graduate has gone to work as a despachante, an agent who facilitates the clearance of goods at customs.
How does someone get a job like that?
"You don't go to a company and ask for it," said Seoana, interviewed outside the customs warehouse at Buenos Aires' international airport. "You'll never see an ad for this kind of work. Openings come by word of mouth, through families and friends. I was taught the ropes by a neighbor, who is a despachante."
Some people with a bit of clout can sometimes handle things on their own. A phone call to the office of the minister of finance by this correspondent was enough to ease the way past customs inspectors for a shipment of household goods. But airport warehouse workers took two days last week to locate and deliver the two small moving crates.
Another attempt I made to surmount the bureaucracy -- this one to get a multiyear Argentine residency visa before leaving the United States -- ran into a regulatory hitch, despite the best efforts of Argentina's ambassador to the United States, Lucio Garcia del Solar.
"By a regulation of our immigration law Decree 441865, Article 30, Clause G," wrote the ambassador in a letter, "consulates can only provide foreign correspondents with temporary residence visas with multiple entries renewable every six months or yearly. I have personally recommended this regulation be changed." The Foreign Ministry is still pushing for the change.
The Argentines know they have a problem. But for the most part, they tend to shrug off the notion that life here could ever be very efficient.
After two air conditioning units in my apartment broke down the first week I moved in, after the hot water was shut off, after I was assured for the umpteenth time that the collapsed curtains in my dining room would be repaired, the landlord, a businessman, tried to ease my annoyance, saying: "Don't get so upset. It's bad for your health. Just remember, this is Latin America."
Lest some people go away thinking no red tape can be as bad as the Latin American variety, an Argentine secretary added this footnote: "The worst tramite in this country is trying to get a visa to the United States. They ask you for everything -- property deeds, verification of employment, proof of last year's salary. Now, that's bureaucracy."