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Crackdown: Venezuelan Prof. Visited by Feds in Pomona, Bolivian Prof. Denied U.S. Entry Visa

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We look at two cases of U.S. government crackdown on university professors: A prominent Bolivian scholar who was recently barred from entering the U.S. while a Venezuelan-born professor comes under the watch of federal agents in California. [includes rush transcript]

For the second time in two years, the U.S. government is blocking a prominent foreign scholar from teaching in this country due to so-called security reasons. Eighteen months ago, the U.S. denied a visa to Tariq Ramadan to teach at the University of Notre Dame. The Swiss-born Ramadan is considered to be one of the leading Muslim scholars in Europe.

Now the U.S. government is blocking an indigenous Bolivian professor from entering the country to teach at the University of Nebraska.

The professor’s name is Waskar Ari. He is a member of the Aymara indigenous people in Bolivia and a leading authority on religious beliefs and political activism in Bolivia. He received his PhD at Georgetown and has spent many years studying in the United States.

A State Department official told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the government has “derogatory information ” about Ari that renders him ineligible for the visa. But the government has not shared that information with Ari or the university. The government has not officially rejected Ari’s visa but it has effectively blocked him from teaching the past two semesters.

Meanwhile in California a Venezuelan-born professor has also come under the watch of federal agents. Last week Pomona College professor Miguel Tinker-Salas said he was visited and questioned by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies working for the FBI’s federal anti-terrorism task force. The agents questioned the Latin American studies professor about the political situation in Venezuela and his ties to the Venezuelan government.

The questioning has rattled the education community.

Pomona College President David Oxtoby said he was extremely concerned about the chilling effect this could have on free scholarly and political discourse.

Today we speak with both professors:

  • Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of Chicano and Latin American Studies at Pomona College in California.
  • Waskar Ari, a visiting professor at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz, Bolivia. As an Aymara activist, he founded the Kechuaymara Foundation in La Paz and other 7 grassroots organizations in Bolivia and Peru. In addition, he was the first director of the largest Internet site on Aymara peoples, He is the author of a number of books, including some on the issues of indigenous movements, human rights and the Aymara people.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re going to speak with both professors, Professor Waskar Ari, who joins us on the phone from Bolivia, and Professor Miguel Tinker-Salas, who is in a studio in Puerto Rico, where he’s attending the LASA International Congress, that’s the Latin American Studies Association Congress in San Juan. We begin with the professor in San Juan. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: Thank you very much. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Professor Miguel Tinker-Salas, tell us what happened. When did the sheriff’s deputies come to your home?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: They came to my office last Tuesday as I was having office hours. I have my door always open, and I noticed two individuals walk by who, obviously by their age and dress and stature, were not students. And they joined and milled around outside my office. I could hear them talking to students. And when the student that I was working with left, they entered and identified themselves as L.A. County sheriffs working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. And they began, very interestingly, talking about my credentials and about my work and about my publications.

And then the conversation quickly moved into a discourse about the Venezuelan community in the Southern California area and in the United States. They were keenly interested in finding out about the nature of this community, where it congregated, its ties to the Venezuelan consulate, its relationship to the Venezuelan embassy. Would it respond to any proclamations being put forth by the government?

And I found the questions rather disingenuous, because much of this is public information. Had they simply gone to the internet, they would have found out that there is no Venezuelan consulate in Los Angeles. They would have found out that the community of Venezuelans in Southern California is relatively small. And when I pushed them on these questions, they kept insisting that they were there to develop a profile of this community and concerns over security. And that troubled me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, professor, I’d like to ask you, the Chavez administration in Venezuela has been accused of many things by the Bush administration, but to my knowledge, involvement in terrorism is not one of them. Your sense of why they would be even asking, or did you say to them, what does this have to do with anti-terrorism work?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I was concerned because that very day in the front page of the L.A. Times, there was an article citing Condoleezza Rice trying to link Venezuela to some new axis of evil that included North Korea and Iran, and particularly with her statements about inoculating Venezuela and John Negroponte’s statements to the same effect. It concerned me that there was now being a connection made between Venezuelan immigrants who are here to make a living as are hundreds of thousands of other immigrants and somehow now the idea that the state could in some way move this population to become a security threat. And I was concerned by that correlationship they were drawing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But there was also, as I understand it, another Venezuelan-born professor at your college who was not questioned, as well, right? So, it would indicate that —


JUAN GONZALEZ: — they’re also concerned about the political views of the various people they’re questioning?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: Precisely. What I — when they left the room, I asked them what was their intent. And they kept — they said, “Well, this is only the first of many visits we plan to take into account in the Southern California area. We plan to be talking to a lot of professors to deepen this idea of a profile.” And when I questioned them further, the questions became personal. The questions became, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” They also became, “Where did you go to school? What is your background?” And that’s interesting, because on their lap they had a profile, which gave them that information. On their lap, I could see that they had downloaded a copy of the Pomona College web page that has my faculty profile. So they were asking me questions to which they already had an answer. So again, it seemed very disingenuous.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you planning to do now? And how has Pomona responded? How has the college that you are professor of Chicano and Latin American Studies responded?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: The college response has been extremely supportive. I am heartened by my colleagues who have all indicated support and opposition to this intrusion into the academic arena by state agents. The President has issued a very strong statement. The neighboring colleges in the Claremont Consortium have issued also very strong statements, as has the American Association of University Professors. the AAUP.

What I’m concerned about is if they are interviewing other scholars with this intent, I would like to have as a public discourse what is their intent? How many people have they interviewed? What is the objective of trying to link an immigrant community with purported questions of security or terrorism? And what are the implications? What is their objective? I would like this policy to be part of an open discourse, particularly concerning, now that we have the renewal of the PATRIOT Act and we have all the issues of Homeland Security, what are — and we have the N.S.A. wiretapping people in the U.S., I am concerned where this is going and what the implications are for, not only academic freedom, but for also public discourse in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Tinker-Salas, we only have ten seconds, but you’re at the Latin American Studies Association conference in San Juan. Has LASA taken a stand?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: It is on their agenda. It is before the executive body. It’s also before the Venezuelan section. So we hope that there will be a statement coming out of this organization, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us from San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we turn now to a colleague in Bolivia, Professor Waskar Ari, a visiting professor in La Paz, Bolivia. He is an Aymara activist, founded the Kechuaymara Foundation in La Paz and seven grassroots groups in Bolivia and Peru, first director of the largest internet site on the Aymara peoples. But our question to you first, Professor Ari, is why we’re speaking to you in Bolivia, as opposed to at the University of Nebraska?

WASKAR ARI: Hello, everybody. Taking your question, please. I couldn’t listen well.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the reason that you’re not teaching at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where you were invited?

WASKAR ARI: Well, the reason is that my work permit is not ready yet. And it’s about nine months that I’m expecting my work permit. But also I learned that my previous visas were cancelled, and through the Chronicle of Higher Education, I learned that actually the State Department ordered to cancel it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And has the State Department given you any explanation of why this has happened and what information that led them to cancel your visas?

WASKAR ARI: Well, I never — I never got any information. Once I went to the vice counsel here in La Paz and talked to the vice counsel, she just asked me to show my passport, and she canceled the visas. And before I could have asked why she was doing that, she just said, “We don’t know. This is just the State Department order us to do this. You should know.” And that was all.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Waskar Ari, who was invited to be a professor at the University of Nebraska, but at this point has been not allowed into the country. I wanted to get your reaction, Professor Ari, to the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the inauguration of the new Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, visiting with Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. I believe he gave her a guitar that she played on that was made of coca leaf, which she didn’t realize at the time. But your response to that meeting?

WASKAR ARI: Well, the guitar is the charango. That’s something very traditional in Bolivia. And the Bolivians have proved that President Morales just wanted to show her that, well, this is very Bolivian. And that was mostly related with something that earlier happened in Chile, in which President Lagos gave the charango to another personality. And that was in relation to that. About the coca leaf, I read that in the international news, but information about that is not in Bolivia. I haven’t heard about that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you also about the case of Leonida Zurita, a leader among Bolivia’s peasants and coca farmers, who has also had a visa revoked after the U.S. government received “information” they said about her and that the order came from the ambassador of the U.S. to Bolivia that she not be allowed to travel to the U.S. Has that gotten much attention there in your country?

WASKAR ARI: Yeah. That’s right. That got some attention in the country. First of all, Bolivia is a country that is more or less used to this problem about visas. So visa is not a big news in Bolivia. But this issue about Mrs. Zurita was in the news. And the reactions are that — indeed that case, by the way, is different than mine, because the embassy gave an explanation and said openly that this is about security concern, and they quoted some parts of the PATRIOT Act on that. So this is something that had explanation. But in my case, it’s different, because I never got an explanation about why my case is a case. But in terms of Mrs. Zurita, there was some reactions in Bolivia about the way that was she treated, and I guess this is an issue that some institutions in Vermont are still trying to get a visa for her.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, she’s a close confidante of the new president, Evo Morales.

WASKAR ARI: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Waskar Ari, what has been the response in the United States in the academic community to the U.S. government saying they have “derogatory information on you,” though they’re not willing to share it with you or the University of Nebraska?

WASKAR ARI: Well, I got strong support from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and they wrote letters to the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and asking information. And then, also at Georgetown — my PhD is from Georgetown — the president also wrote to the Condoleezza Rice. And then, the American Association of University Professors, also. So, basically — but the most strongest support is from the American Historical Association. So basically now, people are writing letters asking that they should give me visa.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Waskar Ari, I want to thank you for being with us, supposed to be at the University of Nebraska, but remains right now in Bolivia. We thank you for joining us.

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