Waskar Ari: Bolivian Historian, Academic Caught in a Web of U.S. Suspicion
But Ari has yet to obtain a U.S. visa. He hears rumors that he has been accused of "terrorist" connections, although no one has told him anything directly. "It's all very secretive," Ari, 44, wearing the modified bowler hat favored by traditional Indians, said during a recent interview at an upscale cafe in this Andean capital. "We really don't know what's behind this." Representatives of the U.S. Embassy here declined to comment on the matter, citing privacy concerns.
But Ari's lawyer speculated that his client had been linked, unfairly, to the U.S.-bashing indigenous movement associated with Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president and a critic of Washington.
Ari's case has become somewhat of a cause celebre in U.S. academic circles, prompting a letter-writing campaign to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and condemnations of the visa delay as an assault on scholarly freedom.
Ari's lawyer, Michael Maggio, says his client's visa has been held up -- and his student visa canceled -- on hazy national security grounds, an increasingly common occurrence since the Sept. 11 attacks. Ari is among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foreign intellectuals, businesspeople and others languishing in visa limbo, apparently blacklisted and left to wonder what has triggered the suspicion, rights activists say.
"Waskar is one of many people caught in this web," said Maggio, a Washington attorney who is taking Ari's case on a pro bono basis. "What I've told Waskar, and his many supporters here at Georgetown and in Nebraska, is that you've got to hunker down for a long and difficult struggle."
One U.S. official here, who declined to be named, acknowledged that such reviews could take a long time, but declined to be more specific when pressed about Ari's case.
Although Ari and President Morales share an Aymara ancestry, Ari's political views appear more moderate than those of Bolivia's outspoken chief executive. Ari says he has not joined the president's political party and has openly questioned some of his policies, even as he acknowledges that Morales has been a vivid symbol for the Americas' indigenous masses.
Specifically, Ari has criticized Morales for allying himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, the most high-profile U.S. adversaries in the hemisphere. Ari, who openly admires the freedoms and academic opportunities available in the United States, has urged closer U.S.Bolivian ties.
"I would like President Morales ... [to] work more for better relationships with other democracies of the world, including the largest democracy of the world," he said in a recent e-mail.
In Bolivia, Ari often has been accused of being too close to the United States, where he studied for a decade and has many friends. His frequent trips north made him suspect in certain indigenous circles in his homeland, where there is deep mistrust of Washington.
"Don't become white," he recalls a well-known indigenous leader warning him once. Ari has sometimes heard the epithet "Gringo Aymara."
But his very independence has made him a popular choice as an analyst for Bolivian news agencies and Western media outlets eager for an English-speaking expert to comment on his nation's turbulent politics. The U.S. Embassy here even invited Ari this year to sit on a panel comparing populist movements in the United States and Bolivia.
The University of Nebraska, which filed the "expedited" petition for Ari's work visa more than a year ago, continues to stand behind him and has canceled classes and found fill-in teachers.
"We remain committed to his appointment," said Patrick Jones, an assistant professor. "We have decided to leave the post open for him indefinitely and continue to hope that he will be able to join us in the near future."
Ari says he accepted the position at Nebraska, which has a strong ethnic studies department, over four other job offers in the United States. In the meantime, he is teaching at his alma mater here, the Greater University of San Andres, Bolivia's largest public institution.
The visa delay has forced Ari to spend more time in his homeland than he has in a number of years. He says he has learned a great deal, even though the teaching workload is three times larger -- for about one-fifth of the pay -- than it would be at Nebraska, leaving little time for research.
"Life continues," Ari said. "In Bolivia I am a public intellectual. I'm always participating in discussions, giving interviews.... I am gaining an audience. People have an interest in what I'm saying. So, in a sense, I am living in a good moment."
The Aymara scholar still holds out hope that he will be able to move to Nebraska and take up his professorship, intellectually fortified by his forced exile in his homeland. He exhibits no hard feelings and continues to admire much about the United States.
"I feel bad that these things have happened, that someone like me can fall into such a sad situation," Ari said. "But I recognize these things really aren't against me, but are part of a more complex process that is happening in the United States....
"I have hope that one of these days, the situation will change, and people will realize this has all been an injustice."
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