ACCESS CUENCAUncle Sam makes an appearance at the California Kitchen
Rachel Zeigler is the representative from American Citizens Services (ACS) for the district that includes Cuenca. She's based at the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil, a division of the U.S. State Department. She visited Cuenca a few weeks ago and held a lunchtime meeting at California Kitchen. It attracted more than 100 American expats.
Ms. Zeigler told us she’s lived in Ecuador for 20 years and was a “local hire,” meaning she got the job in Guayaquil. She said that she and her fellow ACS reps from around the country are the only representatives of the U.S. government in Ecuador who deal with federal benefits. They’re also responsible for other situations, such as bank issues, missing persons, robberies, and murders; she said that the ACS reps are specialists in these areas with personal contacts in their districts.
She told us that the ACS reps at the consulates and embassy don’t apostille documents, which has to be done in the U.S. in the state of origin of the paperwork, nor do they issue police reports or certify drivers licenses. Also, they don’t give legal advice, though they do try to guide people in local situations.
Everything that does get done at the embassy or consulates (such as applying for, renewing, and receiving extra pages in passports; notarial services; reporting children born to U.S. parents, marriage, and the death of U.S. citizens in Ecuador) requires an appointment, which can be made online at http://guayaquil.usconsulate.gov/.
The U.S. Consulate General in Guayaquil is located at the corner of Avenida 9 de Octubre and Garcia Moreno (near the Hotel Oro Verde). The telephone number is 04-232-3570 during business hours, 8-5:00 or 232-1152 for after-hours emergencies.
After the preliminaries, Ms. Zeigler launched into her pitch on what she was selling: the U.S. State Department-originated “warning service” as implemented by the consulate Warden System. On occasion, the State Department issues “travel alerts and warnings, and worldwide cautions.” Ms. Zeigler told us that in the one year that she’s been responsible for this system in her district, warnings have gone out to southern Ecuador registrants concerning two earthquakes, two tsunamis, and one period of civil unrest. (Landslides are also an issue here, though not tsunamis, at 8,400 feet.)
Cuenca is divided in 28 emergency zones, each with its own emergency volunteer, also known as a warden. Wardens are trained by ACS to contact the warning-system registrants in their zones in case of national emergencies.
When you register, you supply your name, permanent physical address, phone number, and email address. If you’re in, say, Cuenca for less than three months, you’re grouped together in the short-term zone. If you’re in Cuenca for more than three months, you’re zoned by your permanent address.
In Ms. Ziegler’s district, there are 19,000 names in the registration database. In the case of an emergency in which the U.S. government wants to contact you, the wardens are trained to send an email. If it’s a national emergency, registrants receive updated information and instructions. Be aware that if you don’t register voluntarily, and you subsequently need any services from ACS or the embassy, Rachel Zeigler told us that you’re registered there automatically. So it seems this system is voluntary until you come to the attention, for whatever reason, of the U.S. State Department, at which time it becomes compulsory.
The second representative from the U.S. government at the meeting was an Ecuadorian from Quito, whose name I didn’t quite catch. He was from the Federal Benefits Unit (FBU), which is part of ACS. The FBU is responsible for administering programs on behalf of U.S. federal agencies that pay benefits to both American citizens and the nationals of other countries. The FBU is mainly concerned with Social Security: cards, numbers, records, benefits, payments, representative payees, and the International Direct Deposit (IDD) program.
The FBU rep explained that four offices in Latin America, from Mexico to the Caribbean to Argentina, handle international Social Security issues; they’re in Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Kingston, and Santo Domingo. The International Department of Social Security handles all applications submitted by SS recipients outside the U.S. In the case of Ecuador, they go through the Costa Rica offices, which is why the process often takes longer than it would in the States. Even in the States, you need to apply for Social Security several months in advance so the paperwork is completed by the time you’re of an age to qualify.
Here, you need your original birth certificate, passport, and bank-account deposit info. We were told that the Social Security Administration deposits money to cover all Social Security checks into the Bank of New York around the first of every month. The Bank of New York distributes the money, depositing it directly into accounts around the world. The money shows up in Ecuador on the third or fourth of the month and it costs $10 for the wire-transfer fee. Social Security checks can be deposited directly into accounts at Banco de Guayaquil and Produbanco.
We were also told that 3,500 people in Cuenca get their federal retirement benefits directly deposited into banks here. I overheard a discussion among a few people who assumed that all 3,500 were retired gringos. But I’ve since asked around among the long-term gringos in Cuenca, all of whom strongly believe that the vast majority are Ecuadorian nationals who worked long enough in the States to qualify for Social Security.
Captions: Cal Kitch was packed with expats for the representative of the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil; Rachel Ziegler from American Citizen Services addresses the crowd.