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U.S. denial of academic visas absurd

Marc Becker
The Monitor
April 20, 2005

Last week I attended a “Narrating Native Histories” conference that brought together scholars and Indian activists from across the Americas to examine how Indigenous histories are written. Esteban Ticona Alejo, a noted Aymara scholar from Bolivia, was not granted a visa to attend the conference, leaving a significant hole in the program and discussions.

Last month I attended the Colombia Support Network’s annual meeting. Despite meeting all of requirements and presenting supporting letters from the likes of Senator Russ Feingold, the U.S. embassy in Bogota denied a visa to community activist Leonardo Padilla who was to be one of the featured speakers at the conference. An empty chair represented the absurd denial of his visa request.

Last fall I attended the Latin American Studies Association congress, an international gathering of scholars from a broad variety of disciplines. Just before the conference was to begin, the U.S. State Department denied visas to 61 Cuban scholars despite their having met all of the requirements to travel to the United States.

These are just several examples of what is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon–the Bush administration is using visa denials to curtail academic and cultural exchanges. The most recent high profile case was the denial of a visa last month to Nicaraguan historian Dora Maria Tellez to teach at Harvard University. In 1979, she helped lead the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza. Even though she had traveled to the U.S. before, now the State Department says that she is ineligible for a visa because of her involvement in "terrorist acts." Her supporters say she is as much of a terrorist as George Washington, and describe her overthrow of a dictatorship as a heroic act.

Even though Somoza was brutal he was a close ally of the United States. The Sandinistas attempted to feed, cloth, and house Nicaraguans instead of exporting the country’s wealth to the U.S. This led Ronald Reagan to begin a terrorist war against Nicaraguan civilians. Tellez is a lingering victim of his meanspirited and outdated cold war policies.

Tellez’s treatment contrasts notably with that of convicted terrorist Luis Posada Carriles who recently entered Florida and appears positioned to receive political asylum. Posada is wanted in Venezuela for blowing up an airliner in 1976, killing all 73 people on board. The U.S. recently secured his release from a Panamanian prison where he was held for an assassination attempt on Cuba’s head of state. Internationally, he is wanted on many charges including the assassination of an Italian tourist in a bombing in Cuba.

Who is more of a threat to the lives of U.S. citizens, a Colombian grass-roots community leader who struggles endlessly through nonviolent means to bring an end to a decades-long conflict, or someone who blows up civilian airliners?

Who is more supportive of U.S. corporate interests, a small Aymara scholar who writes about Indigenous rights movements in Bolivia, or someone who repeatedly attempts to assassinate a foreign leader who opposes U.S. imperialism?

The State Department is supposed to protect U.S. interests. In closing down cultural and academic exchanges, it is hindering rather than facilitating these interests. Giving convicted terrorists free passage not only puts our lives in danger, but it also points to the hypocritical and ideologically driven nature of Bush administration policy decisions. This administration excels at advancing corporate interests, but does little for the rest of us.

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