In Latin America, the word â€œterrorismâ€ is coming to mean everything and nothing at all. Our latest example comes from Bolivia.
According to an article in Wednesdayâ€™s Washington Times, Fernando RodrÃguez 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, RodrÃguez is a member of a commission that develops the Bolivian governmentâ€™s human rights policy.
Though his visa was valid until 2014 and he has traveled here several times, RodrÃguez was detained for six hours at Miami International Airport. According to the Washington Times article, he was â€œquestioned by four officials, two from the Homeland Security Department and two others who identified themselves as members of an â€˜anti-terrorist task force.â€™â€
The officials stripped Mr. Rodriguez of his visa. The reason they gave, according to RodrÃguez: he had met with â€œterrorist peasants.â€
Wait a minute. Terrorist peasants?
RodrÃguez seemed confused too. â€œThere is no terrorism in Bolivia,â€ he told the Washington Times. â€œThere are no guerrillas either. There is no armed struggle. So I have no idea what peasants they’re talking about.â€ Indeed, Bolivia has no groups on the State Departmentâ€™s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Some peasants in Boliviaâ€™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 Boliviaâ€™s broad and politically powerful cocalero movement.
The terrorist peasants of Villa Tunari
Donâ€™t tell the Miami airport authorities, but I too have met with â€œterrorist peasants.â€ On a visit to Boliviaâ€™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 â€“ a traditional use that is legal in Bolivia â€“ their syndicateâ€™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 â€œprocessed for terrorism.â€ 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 prosecutorâ€™s office every few weeks. What a strange requirement for people suspected of a crime as serious as terrorism!
Apparently, Boliviaâ€™s defines â€œterrorismâ€ 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. â€¦ 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 Administrationâ€™s 2006 aid request to Congress reads, â€œWe are working with the military to better coordinate Boliviaâ€™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.â€
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 â€œterroristâ€ threat in Latin America. Instead, as Mr. RodrÃguezâ€™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!