Leonida Zurita Vargas, a Bolivian coca farmer organizer and alternate Senator, was planning to be in the US right now 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in at the airport in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on February 20th to fly to the US, she was informed her ten year visa had been revoked because of alleged links to terrorist activity.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 this 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A letter from the US Embassy in Bolivia explained her visa was revoked in May, 2004 due to a section of the USA-PATRIOT Act which bars anyone from entering the US that poses a security threat or has participated in or incited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 utilized 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 yearsLeonida has traveled extensively abroadand 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 President Evo Morales, who was elected in a landslide victory on December 18th, 2005. Morales spoke of her visa rejection at a recent press conference in the presidential palace. "I want to tell the U.S. 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 canceled?
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), and think tank in Washington DC which invited Zurita to speak on this tour, reported that she has been accused of crimes in Bolivia but found innocent in each case.
"In Boliviathe 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 which will take place on Sunday, March 5th. Robin Lloyd, an organizer 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 Ph.D. 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 U.S. 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," Robin 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."
Lloyd and other organizers of the "Winds of Change in the Americas" conference are working to bring Zurita to speak in spite of the visa rejection. They have contacted the US embassy in La Paz, the offices of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Bernie Sanders to obtain a new visa for Zurita in time for Sunday’s conference. If she cannot arrive in person, she will give a speech via phone to the conference crowd.
The "Winds of Change in the Americas" conference will take place on Sunday, March 5th from 3-9 PM at the Unitarian Church at the head of Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. In addition to the presentation by Zurita, George Ann Potter, Zurita’s political advisor in Bolivia, will also to speak at the event. There will be discussions led by Vermonters who recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela for the World Social Forum, a gathering of social movements, NGOs and activists from around the globe. Representatives from the Vermont Worker’s Center will be discussing social movements in Vermont.
For those interested in calling the US Embassy in La Paz to voice their concerns, and support Leonida Zurita Vargas’ right to travel to the US, the number is 011-591-2216-8000. For more information on the "Winds of Change in the Americas Conference," call 1-802-862-2024
BENJAMIN DANGL just returned from Bolivia where he was doing research for "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia and Beyond" which will be published by AK Press in January, 2007. He is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and www.TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: ben(at)upsidedownworld.org