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Leonida Zurita is a cocalera peasant leader, a close ally of Bolivian President Evo Morales, and now an alternate senator in Bolivia’s Congress. She has published an op-ed in the New York Times, spoken at Harvard University and several other U.S. schools, and is by far one of the most prominent women in Bolivian politics.

Senator Zurita is supposed to be in Florida right now, on the first leg of a three-week speaking tour that would take her to Florida International University, the University of Florida, Stanford University, the University of Vermont, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, among others. She was to be in Washington two weeks from now, and the Center for International Policy was helping to organize a public event and a few meetings for her on Capitol Hill.

We at CIP have never met her, though we have heard much about her, and we were looking forward to hearing what she would have to say about U.S.-Bolivian relations, now that Evo Morales has assumed the presidency in La Paz.

We will have to wait a while longer to have that opportunity. Senator Zurita was to visit the United States on a ten-year, multiple-entry visa she obtained in 1998 and has used several times. However, when she came to the American Airlines check-in counter in Santa Cruz three days ago, she was told that the U.S. embassy had called specifically to warn them not to honor her visa, which had been revoked.

Leonida Zurita shows her canceled U.S. visa. (From La Razón)

“At the airport, we were told that we could not travel, by order of the ambassador,” Zurita told Bolivia’s daily La Razón. “Later, Ms. Julie [Grant], the consul [in La Paz], gave me a letter explaining that my visa is suspended or canceled because of involvement in terrorism and some other things.”

The letter, according to La Razón, informed Sen. Zurita that her visa was revoked on May 27, 2004 under Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the USA-PATRIOT Act. This section prohibits entry to the United States of foreigners whom the consul believes to have “engaged in a terrorist activity,” incited terrorist activity “under circumstances indicating an intention to cause death or serious bodily harm,” or “used [his or her] position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization, in a way that the Secretary of State has determined undermines United States efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities,” among other criteria.

Let’s be clear here. The Center for International Policy doesn’t invite terrorists to the United States. Neither do Stanford, Harvard or other U.S. universities. So what is the State Department talking about?

In Bolivia, where the word “terrorism” is too often used to brand one’s political opponents, Sen. Zurita has been arrested on at least two occasions for alleged incitement of terrorist activity. Like all of the cocalero movement’s most prominent leaders, Zurita has organized many protests. Authorities tried unsuccessfully in the past to punish her for some of the rare occasions when such protests involved outbreaks of violence. Zurita has never been found guilty, and she currently faces no charges.

In one case from 2000, Zurita was accused of a protest-related murder that in fact took place when she was in Prague. In another case, Zurita was among 43 cocalero leaders detained in relation to the 2003 arrest of Francisco “Pacho” Cortés, a Colombian peasant leader accused of trying to expand ELN guerrilla activity into Bolivia. Colombia’s human-rights community considers these charges to be baseless, and indeed they do seem ridiculous given the ELN’s precarious state within Colombia. Following a detention determined to be arbitrary by the UN Human Rights Commission’s Arbitrary Detentions Working Group, Cortés was recently released from house arrest, as prosecutors determined that insufficient evidence exists to keep him in custody.

If the terrorism label does not stick – and we strongly believe it does not – the reason for the visa decision must be politics. Sen. Zurita is a strong critic of U.S. policy toward Bolivia, and – like most MAS candidates, including Evo Morales – campaigned under the slogan “Long live coca, death to the Yankees.” (A Reuters piece about Zurita’s visa cancellation identifies her as “a close ally of President Evo Morales known for her raucous chanting” of that slogan.)

Those words are repugnant and unhelpful, of course. But moderating that attitude has been a central goal of the U.S. government since Evo Morales’ stunning election victory. The Bush administration’s praiseworthy decision to seek dialogue with the new government in La Paz – at least for now – appears to be bearing fruit, as the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable noted on Tuesday: “Morales, 46, has already toned down the harsh anti-American rhetoric that peppered his campaign speeches. Most significantly, he has backed off from a blanket condemnation of U.S. anti-drug programs as an excuse for military intervention and has said he will allow such operations to continue if they abide by Bolivian law.”

In this context, it makes no sense to close the door on Zurita, one of Morales’s closest political allies. Actions like these, which appear petty and vindictive before a Bolivian audience, will serve only to radicalize, not moderate, Bolivia’s new leadership.

If Zurita’s visa was indeed canceled because of her political views – which she planned to express in university settings – then the revocation, as a squelching of freedom of expression, is more un-American than merely chanting “death to the United States.” This embarrassing decision must be reversed now.

2 Responses to “CIP doesn’t invite terrorists to the United States”

  1. jcg Says:

    I have generally avoided commenting on the Bolivian situtation at large, here and elsewhere, mainly due to my relative ignorance of many relevant details and their proper context. Therefore, I expect my opinions on the subject to potentially have a larger margin of error than those of others who are far better informed.

    That being the case, all I can say right now, as long as further developments don’t change my opinion, is that yes, it sure looks like the accusations against Senator Zurita are more political than anything else. CIP appears to be quite right in rejecting what seems like a completely counterproductive move, irrespective of whatever one might want to make of Zurita’s specific slogans and views.

  2. rainer cale Says:

    A basic grounding in U.S. Latin America policy is enough to see what’s going on here, i.e. More of the same.

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