When U.S. behaves like Cuba, it hurts itself
The U.S. decision to deny a visa to Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, who had been invited to spend an academic year at Harvard University, sounds like a page right out of the Cuba-North Korea-Iran playbook.
Freedom of the press groups have a name for this practice — ideological exclusion. It is the procedure whereby governments — most often dictatorships — cite alleged terrorist ties to deny entry visas to people who can spread inconvenient truths, or ideas that counter the official line.
Press freedom advocates say they know of about 250 cases of foreign journalists, academics, writers and artists who have been denied U.S. visas for ideological reasons in recent years.
ON THE AIR
Morris is a 41-year-old independent television journalist who has been one of the strongest critics of President Alvaro Uribe in recent years. In his independent TV show, he often interviews leftist victims of the Colombian government’s human rights abuses. He has recently been selected as one of a dozen journalists from around the world to spend a year at a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.
Morris says he has visited the United States more than 10 times before his five-year visa expired in May. In January, he had been invited to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Bogotá for a private luncheon with James Steinberg, the State Department’s No. 2 official, Morris told me.
But when Morris went to the U.S. Consulate in Bogotá in mid-June to renew his U.S. visa to go to Harvard, he was informed that his visa had been denied under the Patriot Act, which allows the government to bar anyone who “endorses or espouses terrorist activity.”
Morris scoffs at the suggestion that he supports Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas. He says he has been the victim of “a criminal hunt” by the government that has included “threats, stigmatization and arbitrary detentions” because of his work, which he describes as giving a public voice to those who are most often shunned by mainstream media.
“I am a democrat. I have not even been a member of the communist youth, or of any leftist political party,” he told me. “My work is public, and it’s in defense of victims of the barbaric acts by the army, the guerrillas and paramilitary forces.”
Several advocacy groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, the PEN Club and Human Rights Watch among them — have expressed alarm in recent days over the visa denial.
According to PEN Club estimates, about 250 academics, journalists and writers had their visa denied between 2001 and the end of the Bush administration.
From my own experience trying to invite foreign academics and journalists to this country, I know of the cases of prominent Venezuelan publisher and former Planning Minister Teodoro Petkoff and former Salvadoran guerrilla leader-turned-Oxford University academic Joaquin Villalobos.
Both were guerrillas in their youth — like the current President of Uruguay and several other Latin American officials who nevertheless get red-carpet welcomes in Washington — and have problems entering the United States despite having long denounced violence.
LIFTING TRAVEL BANS
Earlier this year, the Obama administration effectively lifted the travel bans on two prominent academics, Oxford University scholar Tariq Ramadan, and South African scholar Adam Habib.
“Ideological exclusion was disturbingly common during the Bush administration, but the atmosphere has improved under Obama,” says Larry Siems, a top official of the PEN American Center. “The denial of Morris’ visa took us very much by surprise.”
My opinion: The United States should be careful to distinguish between members of terrorist groups, and people who are involved in discussing the causes of terrorism, whatever their ideology, and no matter how mistaken they may be.
If we create a “Fortress America” and reduce the flow of information between scholars, journalists and society in general, we will be less informed, and thus less secure.
In addition, we will miss golden opportunities to convince foreign opinion makers that the “U.S. empire” is occasionally right, and — even if in a much smaller scale — we will put the United States in the same league as some of the world’s worst dictatorships. That’s counter-productive, and outright silly.