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A Letter to the U.S. Embassy: A Visa Denial Bodes Poorly for American Interests in Latin America
September 24, 2007

On September 20th, the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador denied a visa to Maria de los Angeles Pleitez Carcamo, a national leader of the Salvadoran General Hospitals Union (SIGEESAL), denying her access to the United States, to which she had been invited by members of a number of civic, labor, and government groups—including Congress—in order to speak concerning the current situation regarding labor rights and political repression in her country. The reasons given for denial of her visa were specious, to extent they were intelligible (go here for a more complete story).

I wrote the following letter to Carl S. Cockburn, Consul General, at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, asking him to reconsider:

Dear Mr. Cockburn,

I am an American author who was recently invited by Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, to speak to his officer staff concerning my recent book on El Salvador, Blood of Paradise. I was very encouraged by how knowledgeable, encouraging, and open-minded virtually everyone at SOUTHCOM was, despite the fact my views on certain matters and many of theirs diverged considerably. Indeed, everyone considered the exchange of ideas bracing, informative, and valuable. I was impressed and honored.

Regrettably, if recent reports are correct, such open-mindedness, generosity, and courage appear to be lacking among certain officials at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador.

I have learned that your office denied a visa to Ms. Maria de los Angeles Pleitez Carcamo on September 20th. I can't tell you how small and contemptible this makes America appear to people in the region, if not throughout the world. We come across as too frightened of open discourse to even allow people with whom some Americans (or Salvadorans) might disagree to even permit them the opportunity to voice their opinions. When did we become such a pack of paranoid cowards?

Ms. Pleitez has been invited to tour the United States this fall by a number of parties, including U.S. Congressional Representatives, unions, and other organizations, and unless you have clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, it appears she has gone through all the appropriate steps to secure a visa to enter the U.S., including providing proof she has been employed in El Salvador for years.

All of this substantiates more than adequately Ms. Pleitez's long-term ties to El Salvador. Accordingly, the official letter of denial claiming she lacks any such proven ties (under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act) doesn't pass the smell test.

Regardless of what you or anyone else in the administration may think of Ms. Pleitez, her union, CISPES, or anyone else associated with her planned speaking tour, your office's decision is ill-considered, counter-productive, and un-American. It will damage our long-term goals of democracy promotion in the region, casting us as bullying hypocrites, and strengthening the hand of those who would use anti-Yaquismo to push an anti-democratic agenda.

The reported justification of the visa denial by the Consul General—that Ms. Pleitez can not travel to the U.S. "for the security of the country"—comes off as nothing short of bizarre. It's transparently phony and heavy-handed, and smacks of the most odious kind of political skullduggery for which we are sadly notorious.

Union leaders are not terrorists, and considering them as such is almost criminally counterproductive to our regional objectives. If anyone in your office truly believes that silencing Ms. Pleitez and those who support her is in our national interest, they have a very feeble grasp of regional history or our genuine national priorities in Latin America.

We will pay for this kind of wrong-headedness through the increased influence of China and Iran throughout the region. As the intelligence officers I met at SOUTHCOM made clear, our main advantage over these other countries is our commitment to the building of a middle class, not just the extraction of labor and resources. The support of unions is key to the building of that middle class. Your decision to deny a voice to Ms. Pleitez makes clear that support of the ruling elites, traditionally exclusive and repressive throughout the region, is our real national priority, and that is a terrible, tragic step backward for the U.S.

Your office, through its actions, will cast the U.S. as a country too terrified of open discourse—or too cynical—to learn directly from a key Salvadoran union leader how she sees the issues facing worker people in Latin America.

I challenge you to rethink this decision, reconsider the values that unite us as Americans—in the most generous and courageous sense of the term—and approve Ms. Pleitez's visa application immediately so that she can arrive in the U.S. in time for the October tour.

As a final note: You may be able to silence Ms. Pleitez in the short term, but it will ultimately backfire. It will only outrage those of us here in the States with the means to express our views openly and forcefully. I for one will use every means at my disposal, including articles, op ed pieces, and talks in the course of my promotional tours, to inform the American public of what is happening in El Salvador, and the unwarranted, misguided, and ultimately self-destructive measures our embassy has chosen to employ to keep us from learning the complete truth of what is being done in our name.

David Corbett

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