Waskar Ari Chachaki is an ill-fated victim of the War on Terror. Born in the remote Andean highlands of Bolivia, by age 42 he had earned a Ph.D. from prestigious Georgetown University. Ari, the first member of the pre-Incan Aymara tribe with a doctorate in history from the United States, also helped establish eight indigenous organizations in Bolivia and Peru. He’s an expert in indigenous history, culture and political movements.
But American students may never benefit from his singular perspective.
“I’m exiled in my own country,” Ari says from La Paz, where he now resides after eight years living in the United States.
For the past one-and-a-half years, the U.S. government has refused to grant Ari a visa to teach at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Attorney Michael Maggio says the case is another instance of ideological exclusion—a practice that has grown exponentially since 9/11. Before, these cases “weren’t very common” and “usually involved someone of prominent stature, such as [former Chilean president] Salvador Allende’s widow,” says Maggio, who has fought such cases for more than 20 years and is representing Ari for free.
Ari first moved to the United States in 1996 on a student visa. He studied, taught, and traveled in and out of the country for eight years with no problems, then returned to Bolivia in late May 2005, for what he expected to be a short stay.
The University of Nebraska petitioned the government for a professional, H1-B visa for Ari on June 13, 2005.
They’re still waiting.
In July, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz called Ari. When he turned up for his appointment, a U.S. representative stamped “cancelled” on all the American visas in his passport, apparently at the request of the State Department.
Since then, “the world has turned upside down,” Ari said.
Jones says of the university’s decision to hire him, “he’s a top-notch teacher and scholar. But he also brings his experience as an indigenous person, and that’s unique and rare in academia.... We’re continuing to hold his position.”
The government will neither officially explain why it’s held up his H1-B visa for so long nor when—if ever—it expects to make a decision.
“We’re in this speculation chamber,” Jones said. “We’re sympathetic to security issues, but we deserve resolution.... The lack of information and the lack of movement [on Ari’s visa] raise bigger questions: Is this a legitimate process, or is it political?”
Maggio said that “highly reliable sources” in government told him, off the record, that the matter is “in the hands of the FBI.”
Earlier this year, the State Department told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Ari’s old visa had been cancelled “under a terrorism-related section of U.S. legislation.”
A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), the government branch that processes visa applications, said it won’t give out information on specific cases.
Ari suspects ideological detractors in Bolivia fingered him as a threat. “If someone wants to ruin a person, they just say they have terrorist connections,” he said, adding that “the election of [Evo Morales,] the first indigenous president in five centuries, has provoked racial confrontation in Bolivia. Some say all those who advocate indigenous rights need to be reigned in.”
Although Ari is a staunch supporter of indigenous rights, he insists he’s not a separatist. He claims that he’s widely perceived as a moderate in Bolivia—a position supported by many prominent individuals and professional associations that have appealed to the Bush administration on his behalf, including the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, and the Georgetown University Faculty Senate.
Nonetheless, Charles Hale, president of the Latin American Studies Association, isn’t surprised by Ari’s treatment. “There seems to be an ideological litmus test that’s being selectively applied, particularly to Latin American intellectuals from countries with left-leaning governments,” says Hale, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Ideological exclusion has become such a problem, he says, that LASA is relocating its next international congress from the United States to Canada for the first time in its history.
Which law the government is relying on to hold up Ari’s visa remains unclear. The Patriot Act includes a clause that allows authorities to deny entry to those who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity” or persuade others to do so. But attorney Maggio says the practice of barring ideological undesireables from entering the United States is nothing new.
“What’s new since Sept. 11,” he says, “is the number of people caught in the ideological exclusion sweep, which has expanded dramatically.” Definitions of terrorism have been broadened, standards of proof weakened, secrecy increased, and visas are being denied based on preposterous allegations, according to Maggio.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in January challenging the Patriot Act’s ideological exclusion provision as unconstitutionally depriving Americans from hearing perspectives protected as free speech under the First Amendment. Swiss citizen Tariq Ramadan, regarded as one of the world’s top scholars on Islam, was among the plaintiffs. The U.S. government temporarily revoked Ramadan’s visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame in 2004. Last June, a federal court agreed that the government cannot exclude someone based purely on the person’s politics, and ordered CIS to make a final decision on Ramadan’s visa within 90 days. Ramadan was formally denied a visa in September under a separate clause. The reason cited was donations he’d made to Swiss and French charities providing humanitarian support to Palestinians.
If you sue, Maggio said, you might get answers as to why you’re ostensibly being denied entry into the country. But “you don’t get the visa” and “no one gets into trouble for calling someone a terrorist.”
In the meantime, Professor Jones worries about the effects on Ari. “This has taken a toll on him,” he says. “He’s in limbo. It’s his job, his career.”