United States: Bolivian human rights leader barred from US
Leonida Zurita Vargas, a Bolivian coca farmer organiser and alternate senator, was planning to be in the US as part of a three week speaking tour on Bolivian social movements and human rights. This tour would take her to Vermont, Harvard, Stanford and Washington DC. However, upon checking in at the airport in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on February 20 to fly to the US, she was informed her ten-year visa had been revoked because of alleged links to terrorist activity.
“I said if I was a terrorist then I should be in jail”, Zurita told reporters. She obtained the visa in 1998 and had used it to travel to the US on four previous speaking tours.
A letter from the US embassy in Bolivia explained her visa was revoked in May 2004 due to a section of the USA-Patriot Act that bars anyone from entering the US that poses a security threat or has participated in or incited terrorist activity.
Her background, however, tells the story of someone who has fought for human rights and peace in her country for years. This mother of two young sons is one of the leading women politicians in Bolivia. She came into the political realm, like President Evo Morales, through her work in coca farmer unions in the Chapare, a coca producing region in Bolivia where the US-sponsored war on drugs has resulted in forced eradication of crops sold for traditional use and violence against poor farmers. Though coca leaves are used to produce cocaine, for centuries the leaves have been utilised as a mild stimulant and medicine to combat altitude sickness and fatigue. A large market in Bolivia makes coca farming a legal, viable occupation.
According to the University of Vermont, “In 1997, The Coordinating Committee of the Six Women Peasant Federations of the Tropics was formed under Leonida’s leadership and she continues to be democratically re-elected every two years ... Leonida has travelled extensively abroad ... and on four US tours sponsored by Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union Poor People’s March, People’s Global Action, and most recently Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Last year, Leonida was a candidate for the RF Kennedy Human Rights Award.”
Zurita is a long-time colleague and friend of Morales, who was elected in a landslide victory on December 18. Morales spoke of her visa rejection at a recent press conference in the presidential palace. “I want to tell the US government not to confuse us with some parties implicated in drug-trafficking”, he said. “We are not terrorists or drug traffickers but rather humans who want to democratically change our history in Bolivia.”
So why was her visa cancelled? According to Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, “In 2003 [Zurita] was accused of 'terrorism’ by the government of ousted-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, served a brief time in jail in Cochabamba, and was released for lack of evidence.”
The Center for International Policy (CIP), a think-tank in Washington DC that invited Zurita to speak on this tour, reported that she has been accused of crimes in Bolivia but found innocent in each case.
“In Bolivia ... the word 'terrorism’ is too often used to brand one’s political opponents ... If the terrorism label does not stick — and we strongly believe it does not — the reason for the visa decision must be politics”, explains an article on the CIP’s website.
In Burlington, Vermont, Zurita was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Winds of Change in the Americas conference on March 5. Robin Lloyd, an organiser of the conference, said she met Zurita in 1996 during one her first tours of the US. “At that point I saw her very strong commitment to her community, the farmers in the Chapare and I heard about the oppression they were facing from then Bolivian President Banzer, a drug war zealot. He was following the dictates from Washington down the line, supporting a plan for zero coca in a country where this is impossible because coca is a leaf that many people chew as part of traditional ceremonies and daily work”, Lloyd said. “Leonida Zurita is an important figure in Bolivian politics and we invited her here to exchange ideas and articulate the change that needs to happen in the war on drugs.”
The case for Zurita’s visa cancellation is not an isolated one. Dr Waskar Ari is an Aymara Indian from Bolivia who received his PhD from Georgetown University. He was recently offered a teaching position at the University of Nebraska, but his visa was denied because his name was “placed on a list of individuals under 'conspicuous revision’ — that is, he is being subjected to extensive background checks due to alleged security concerns”, reported the American Historical Association.
Barbara S. Weinstein, the President of the American Historical Association, told the Chronicle for Higher Education that Dr Ari “has certainly never been a member of any movement that would be of a security concern to the US government”.
In the Name of the War on Terror
“We invited Leonida here to increase the dialogue between US citizens and Bolivians at a time of historic change in Latin America. Yet the US government is clamping down exchanges such as this in the name of the war on terror”, Lloyd said. “The US government is taking a hard line against countries like Venezuela and Bolivia; they are trying to stifle the winds of change that are sweeping through Latin America.”