by Toby Muse | The Times Higher Education Supplement | 25/3/2005
The experience of a history professor refused entry to the US under new anti-terror laws is a blow to all those who support the free exchange of ideas, says Toby Muse
Early in 2004, Dora Maria Tellez, a heroine of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution and now a professor of history, applied for a visa to study in the US in preparation to teach at one of that country's most prestigious academic institutions, Harvard University's Divinity School. In January she was told by the US consul in Nicaragua that, under new provisions of the US immigration rules, her request for a visa had been denied. Only later did she discover that the provisions concerned people connected with terrorism.
"I have no idea why I've been labelled a terrorist and I really want an explanation," says 49-year-old Tellez by telephone from her home in Managua, Nicaragua. A spokeswoman for the US State Department says that the agency can not comment on individual cases because they are confidential. Tellez had planned to study at the University of San Diego to improve her English and prepare the subject matter she was to have taught from autumn, when she was due to take up her post as the Robert F. Kennedy visiting professor of Latin American studies. The appointment, a joint one with the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies at Harvard University, involved teaching courses on religion and society. Her two themes were to be the impact of the Sandinista revolution and a social history of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. Tellez has recently met with Nicaragua's foreign minister, and he agreed to write a letter asking for an explanation for the visa decision.
"The US Government says that this is a war on terrorism to the death, so I feel personally threatened when they qualify me as a terrorist," says Tellez, who teaches Central American history at the Managua-based Central American University. The US has made its immigration system its first line of defence against foreign terrorist attacks. Tellez's case highlights the fact that there has been greater scrutiny of visas of all types since the events of 9/11. Tellez has visited the US as a tourist in the past, but has not been back to the country since 2000. She believes there is no hope that the US will change its mind over her visa application in the current climate. A spokeswoman for Harvard's Divinity School says that it is likely there will be no guest lecturer for the autumn term, given the limited time the university has to find another professor. The dean, William A. Graham, says the school is "disappointed" by the rejection of the visa. "We strongly support the free exchange of scholars and scholarship internationally." He adds that the school will help Tellez to gain a visa if she wants to teach at the university in future. Her case is causing concern in some quarters over possible restrictions on academic freedom in the US and has reignited the old debate about who is deemed a terrorist and who a freedom fighter. "This Administration is using the term terrorist for political opponents," says Tellez, who turned to history "because it seemed the only way to explain the condition of my country and what was occurring in the world". She adds: "The relationship between the US and Nicaragua has always been one in which the US has had complete domination. To my mind, when the Sandinistas ruled, this was an exception to that history. "It is ironic that the US is calling me a terrorist when the US Government supported the Contras against the Sandinista Government. There is a double morality at work here - the US says it wants to destroy all terrorism, but this same Government has supported terrorist groups. My case has nothing to do with national security."
Tellez was a leading figure in the Nicaraguan revolution that overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. A self-described "combatant, political leader and guerrilla leader", as a 22-year-old she was one of 25 revolutionaries who dressed as waiters and took over the country's national assembly, drawing global attention to the struggle that was going on in the country. She then led guerrillas to rise up in the city of Le"n, which is often referred to as the first real uprising of the revolution. During the Eighties, she served as Minister for Health in the Sandinista Government and remains committed to her ideals. In the Nineties, Tellez helped found the Sandinista Renewal Movement political party and was subsequently elected president of the party.
Following the attacks of September 2001, observers have seen a number of cases similar to that of Tellez. Last year, the US Government took the unprecedented step of denying visas to an entire delegation of Cuban scholars who had been invited to participate in the Latin American Studies Association congress in Las Vegas. "The fact is that Cuban academics are government employees. They come as government officials, and we have a policy restricting travel by Cuban government officials. We think it's not consistent with our national interest," says Richard Boucher, a spokesman for the State Department, explaining the rejection of the 67 visas. He adds: "As far as I'm aware, none of these individuals has distinguished him or herself for free thinking and for questioning anything the (Cuban) regime has said."
Last year, a Swiss national, Tariq Ramadan, was offered a post at the prestigious Notre Dame University to teach as the Henry R. Luce professor of religion, conflict and peace building. He had been named one of the 100 most important thinkers and scientists by Time magazine. He is also the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, who helped to found the Muslim Brotherhood - one of the most influential radical Islamist groups - in Egypt in 1928. With the work visa in place and just days before he and his family were set to leave for the US, the Department of Homeland Security revoked his visa in accord with a law denying entry to aliens who use a "position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity". A spokesman adds that the decision was based on "public safety or national security interests".
"If the reason for keeping Tellez out does turn out to be for her political beliefs or past actions then, like the Ramadan case, this raises very serious questions about the Administration's decision to keep out individuals because of their expressed political ideas," says Jonathan Knight, who directs the programme for academic freedom and tenure with the American Association of University Professors. He adds that the guidelines on denying people entry to the US on the basis that they "endorse or espouse" terrorist activity are so broad that they could encompass practically anything. "From our perspective, we're not so concerned about the rights of the individual, but rather the rights of the public to have access to other ideas, other experiences and engage in debate with these different voices." With the increased scrutiny of both foreign students and professors, says Knight, the AAUP is hearing of more and more people who are deciding to study or teach elsewhere.