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Apr 032005

In Latin America, the word “terrorism” is coming to mean everything and nothing at all. Our latest example comes from Bolivia.

According to an article in Wednesday’s Washington Times, Fernando Rodríguez was denied entry to the United States a month ago, when he was to come to Washington to present a case before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. A co-founder of the Bolivian chapter of the Inter-American Platform of Human Rights, Democracy and Development, Rodríguez is a member of a commission that develops the Bolivian government’s human rights policy.

Though his visa was valid until 2014 and he has traveled here several times, Rodríguez was detained for six hours at Miami International Airport. According to the Washington Times article, he was “questioned by four officials, two from the Homeland Security Department and two others who identified themselves as members of an ‘anti-terrorist task force.’”

The officials stripped Mr. Rodriguez of his visa. The reason they gave, according to Rodríguez: he had met with “terrorist peasants.”

Wait a minute. Terrorist peasants?

Rodríguez seemed confused too. “There is no terrorism in Bolivia,” he told the Washington Times. “There are no guerrillas either. There is no armed struggle. So I have no idea what peasants they’re talking about.” Indeed, Bolivia has no groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Some peasants in Bolivia’s coca-growing zones have organized protests and roadblocks. A very small number have gone so far as to stage ambushes or lay booby traps that have killed or wounded troops and police who were forcibly eradicating coca (Bolivia, like Peru, refuses to allow aerial fumigation). These activities, which are hard to distinguish from criminal behavior since the political goal is unclear, are about the extent of what might approach terrorism in Bolivia. Of course, the ambushers and booby-trappers are only a fringe of Bolivia’s broad and politically powerful cocalero movement.

The terrorist peasants of Villa Tunari

Don’t tell the Miami airport authorities, but I too have met with “terrorist peasants.” On a visit to Bolivia’s Chapare region last May, the Andean Information Network arranged a meeting with leaders of one of the coca syndicates in the town of Villa Tunari. Though its members chewed prodigious amounts of coca leaves during the meeting – a traditional use that is legal in Bolivia – their syndicate’s role goes well beyond coca. It carries out many local self-government duties, providing services and carrying out development projects. It coordinates these closely with the office of the mayor of Villa Tunari, who belongs to the MAS party, headed by cocalero leader and congressman Evo Morales.

Bizarrely, several of those at our meeting identified themselves as being “processed for terrorism.” Apparently, they have not been found guilty of anything, though cases are being developed against them. Because of their role in past highway roadblocks and other protests of forced coca eradication, they must check in with the local prosecutor’s office every few weeks. What a strange requirement for people suspected of a crime as serious as terrorism!

Apparently, Bolivia’s defines “terrorism” very differently than the United States does. Here, nobody accused of terrorism would be at large, active in local government and free to talk to visiting delegations. They would be locked away.

But U.S. policymakers make no distinctions. Terrorism is terrorism. The Washington Times article explains.

In Bolivia, U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee and his predecessor, Manuel Rocha, have alluded to links between the nation’s combative indigenous-based social movements and both narco-trafficking and terrorism. … Neither Mr. Greenlee nor Mr. Rocha have presented any evidence of such a connection between indigenous leaders and terrorism, however.

Counterterrorism is also a declared objective of U.S. military aid to Bolivia. The Bush Administration’s 2006 aid request to Congress reads, “We are working with the military to better coordinate Bolivia’s counterterrorism activities and enhance support for their operations and ability to respond to threats through the acquisition of specialized equipment, training assistance and infrastructure improvement.”

Add to this the denial of visas to those known to have met with cocalero syndicates, and you have a U.S. policy that has lost all sense of perspective about terrorism. This could have serious consequences, because there has never been a time that demands more clarity about who the true terrorist enemy is.

If we are too vague or broad in our definition of this enemy, the definition will expand. If allowed to expand unchallenged in Latin America, it may come to include not just coca-growing peasants, but political parties, journalists, labor and peasant leaders, and others who strongly express views that run counter to those of the United States or its allied governments.

We must guard against the politicized misuse of the “terrorist” threat in Latin America. Instead, as Mr. Rodríguez’s experience in Miami indicates, we seem to be encouraging it.

Postscript as of April 7: The Andean Information Network informs me that terrorism charges have since been dropped against the peasants with whom we met. Good!

One Response to “Terrorist peasants!”

  1. jcg Says:

    Definitely a case of clear misuse of the word “terrorist” here, at least until any credible evidence and an explanation of its applicability is presented, and apparently no such thing even exists here.

    In Colombia, perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, this kind of thing also happens, and it’s just as worthy of rejection.

    Just as, for that matter, the equally repugnant use of the word that some armed opposition groups (terrorist themselves or not) and their open sympathizers make (see the case of those that justify 9-11 because the U.S. as a whole is allegedly a terrorist state).

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