The AHA and Academic Freedom in the Age of Homeland Security
Barbara Weinstein, January 2007
From the President column of the January 2007 Perspectives
The inaugural column of an AHA president is typically an opportunity for that historian to introduce herself to her colleagues and share some of her ideas about the American Historical Association and its role in our professional and scholarly lives. I will not entirely depart from that tradition, but before saying anything more about myself, I would like to say a few words about Waskar T. Ari Chachaki. Professor Ari's name is well known among his former professors and fellow graduate students at Georgetown University, where he earned his PhD, his fellow scholars of Andean indigenous history, and his anxious colleagues at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL). Why, then, do I believe that historians in every field and at every university in North America should also come to know Waskar Ari's name?
Professor Ari didn't attend the 2006 AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia nor is he likely, at this writing, to attend the 2007 meeting in Atlanta. He hasn't shown up for department meetings at UNL, nor has he been teaching his classes or holding office hours for his students. The reason? He can't get a visa to enter the United States. A Bolivian from the Aymara indigenous community, Professor Ari returned to Bolivia in the summer of 2005, after defending his doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University, for what was supposed to be a brief visit with family and friends. He had received several tenure-track job offers and had accepted a position in the history department at UNL because of its strong program in ethnic and indigenous studies. UNL, meanwhile, had filed the paperwork for the appropriate visa, including the extra fee to fast-track its approval, and all seemed ready for Professor Ari to take up his new position in the fall of 2005. All except the visa: Upon checking with the U.S. consulate in La Paz, Professor Ari—who had lived in Washington, D.C., for years while studying at Georgetown University, and had already taught as a visiting assistant professor at Western Michigan University—learned, to his shock and dismay, that all of his visas had been cancelled. Apparently, there were "national security" concerns. No details were forthcoming.1
Because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not explained why it objects to granting Professor Ari a visa, it would be mere speculation on my part to offer an explanation. However, I do feel completely comfortable saying that I cannot imagine a scenario—even a farfetched one—that would make Professor Ari's presence on U.S. soil a national security concern in any meaningful sense of that phrase. The very idea would seem absurd if it were not for the very real refusal of the DHS and the State Department to grant Waskar Ari a visa. (Though I'm already hearing some government official sternly admonishing me and insisting that "national security is no joke.") Bolivia has been the site of militant mobilizations of indigenous peoples over the last few years, and its new president, Evo Morales, is not a particular fan of the U.S. government. Yet even in our post-9/11 world it seems unthinkable that we have arrived at the point where scholars from nations or ethnic communities that criticize U.S. policies may be summarily barred from entering the United States or teaching at U.S. universities. Has the definition of "national security" been stretched so far as to include anyone associated with any group that has manifested unhappiness with the U.S. role in world affairs?
All of this seems especially ironic to me since my generation of historians of Latin America "came of age" in the 1970s, a time when the region was carpeted, wall-to-wall, with military dictatorships. I made my first research trip to Latin America—to Montevideo, Uruguay—when that nation was in a declared State of Internal War that closely preceded the military seizure of power. Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, during my first month in graduate school. Even Brazil—which I first visited a few years later—was only just emerging from the most ruthless phase of a 21-year military dictatorship. These repressive regimes of Latin America—many of them helped into power by the government of the United States—created a predictably inhospitable environment for academic inquiry. Throughout Latin America, university professors suspected of having subversive ideas—which could be something as simple as a preference for elected civilian government—found themselves forced out of their jobs or, in the worst cases, forced to flee for their lives. Many sought refuge and employment elsewhere. Some went to Mexico where, despite similar patterns of human rights violations, the government maintained its tradition of welcoming exiles from repressive regimes. Others went to Western Europe. But perhaps the largest portion of this intellectual diaspora ended up in the United States.
Recently, while leafing through the 1974 issues of the AHA Newsletter in search of a statement on academic freedom, I came across an item entitled "Aid for Latin American Scholars Requested." In response to an appeal from the Emergency Committee to Aid Latin American Scholars (ECALAS), the AHA had published a letter signed by six college presidents who urged their colleagues to "help individuals who cannot continue teaching or research careers or advanced studies" in Chile, or elsewhere in Latin America, due to "abrupt political changes."2 It was, to say the least, a peculiar situation. Scholars fleeing regimes that had been aided and abetted by the U.S. government found themselves seeking refuge at universities in the United States. I myself was a beneficiary of this odd set of circumstances. My doctoral adviser, Emilia Viotti da Costa—widely regarded as the leading Brazilian historian of her generation—had been forcibly "retired" from the University of São Paulo, and this led to her joining the Yale history department the very year that I began my graduate studies.
The transition to life in North American academia was rarely easy, whether for Emilia or for other scholars. It meant suddenly having to become fluent enough in English to feel comfortable in a North American classroom. It meant dealing with colleagues who were often hostile to the theoretical perspectives of Latin American scholars. And it meant enduring the anxieties that noncitizens routinely face with regard to their visa status. Yet at a time when it was quite reasonable for U.S. citizens to feel ashamed of the complicity of their government with brutally repressive Latin American regimes, the one consolation was the continuing willingness and ability of North American universities to welcome exiles and to provide a safe haven for those who could no longer do academic work in their home countries.
Many of the Latin American scholars who entered the United States in those years had little or no engagement with the political sphere; they were victims of regimes whose repressive tactics were often arbitrary and unpredictable. Others had been more directly engaged with radical movements in their home countries, movements in which anti-American feelings ran high. But whatever their politics, they typically found a warm reception in the academic world; the authors of the 1974 letter cited above explicitly stated that they were not concerned with "the ideological position of any individual or group," but rather were seeking "to foster an academic-humanitarian effort" to aid scholars who they believed could "make a very real contribution to the academic life of our universities and colleges."3 Indeed, their presence in the United States did much to productively blur the boundaries between North American and Latin American scholarship in my specific field of historical research.
Recollections of that dark time in Latin America's history, and the consoling memory of the role played by the academic milieu, make Waskar Ari's current predicament particularly disturbing to me. To be sure, his colleagues at the University of Nebraska, by insisting on holding the position open for Professor Ari, have continued the very admirable tradition of expressing solidarity with foreign scholars—even if this time around the persecuting government is our own. It is also gratifying that the AHA has taken up this issue in a very energetic way, seeking over the last 12 months to register its support and concern for Waskar Ari by every means at its disposal, and continuing its long-standing commitment to academic freedom for historians both within and beyond the borders of the United States.4
Ironically, in this case, it is the border itself that is serving as the barrier to academic freedom.5 I have no doubt that Waskar Ari's predicament will elicit sympathy from most of his fellow historians in the United States, but many of us are likely to see it as a problem that we don't share. After all, we don't need a visa to work here; we worry more about crossing disciplinary boundaries than geopolitical ones. Still, I would argue that Professor Ari's exclusion is an immediate challenge to the academic freedom of each and every historian. It is not only that we are denied the freedom to communicate face-to-face with Professor Ari, or to have him discuss Bolivian indigenous history and politics with our students and colleagues, or to invite him to present a paper at a conference we might be organizing, though all of these are serious concerns. Perhaps more important, it means that decisions about who can enter the classroom, and what can be said in the classroom are being made by government officials with no particular sensitivity to the nature of academic discourse or debate. Yet who among us has not written or lectured with some sympathy about historical actors whose actions might be classified as "terrorist activity" by the current personnel in charge of homeland security?
Actually, I do think there is some relationship between Professor Ari's scholarship and U.S. "national security," but it is certainly not the connection being drawn by consular authorities or Homeland Security officials. His absence from the University of Nebraska campus makes us, in a small but significant way, less secure. As someone deeply familiar with both the world of Aymara politics and U.S. academia, Professor Ari is an invaluable source of knowledge about a rapidly changing region of Latin America, where indigenous politicians are trying to address long-standing grievances in new and innovative ways. In this respect his case is similar to that of the noted Islamicist, Tariq Ramadan, who was denied a visa to teach in the United States and therefore could not take up a chair in Islamic studies and religion at the University of Notre Dame. Apparently deemed too dangerous even to enter the United States, Professor Ramadan has since been appointed to a task force on the problem of Islamic extremism by the Blair government in Britain.6
Finally, the barring of Waskar Ari and Tariq Ramadan (as well as the many others who decline to seek positions or to participate in conferences in the United States because of the potential humiliations of the visa process) is occurring at a moment when the historical profession is becoming more international in its structure and more transnational in its thinking. As Linda Kerber cogently observed in her final presidential column, "we live in a time when the importance of international intellectual exchange is as great as it has ever been, but when the institutional supports for it are erratic, and even breaking down."7 For many AHA members, it has become a matter of routine to attend conferences or workshops outside the United States, or to collaborate with colleagues based in other regions of the world. Some of this international mobility may smack of the jet-setting scholars in David Lodge's novel, Small World, but most of it indicates a genuine reconfiguration of the circuits of academic knowledge. The question is whether these new connections, which many of us regard as crucial to our intellectual endeavors, can survive and thrive in the face of governmental restraints on the free movement of scholars. We are, it seems, confronted with a particularly acute case of the academic world and the U.S. government operating at cross purposes.
Looking forward to the 2008 AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., I anticipate that many of my colleagues in the historical profession from Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America will be in attendance even though this will require them to undergo the ordeal of securing a visa from the U.S. consulate. I anxiously await them sharing the results of their research and airing their intellectual opinions without having to be concerned that something they say might lead to a denial of a visa at a later date. But my fondest wish is that Waskar Ari will be there, that this time next year he will be attending department meetings at the University of Nebraska, teaching his classes, holding office hours for his students, and doing all the things that most of us take for granted in our regular academic routine.
—Barbara Weinstein (New York Univ.) is president of the AHA.
1. For further information about Waskar Ari's case, including the various letters sent to U.S. government officials on his behalf, and media coverage of this matter, see the web site created by the UNL history department at www.unl.edu/history/news_events/ari/ari.html.
4. On the AHA's efforts thus far on Waskar Ari's behalf, see Bruce Craig, "Scholars Become Targets of the Patriot Act," Perspectives 44:4 (April 2006).
5. For a summary of the AHA statements on academic freedom see "Guidelines on the Defense of Professional Rights," AHA Newsletter, 12:9 (December 1974), p. 13. In an earlier issue that year, 1973 AHA President Lynn White, Jr., wrote that "over the years the AHA Council has assumed that it has both a right and a duty to defend the freedom of historians not only in this country but also (if such protest promises to be effective) abroad when their liberties are being constricted in their explicitly historical activities." "Arthur Schlesinger, jr. and Lynn White, jr.: An Exchange," AHA Newsletter 12:1 (January 1974), 3–4.
7. Linda K. Kerber, "At Home in the World: The International Dimensions of the AHA," Perspectives 44:9 (December 2006).