Nicaraguan historian and former Sandinista leader Dora María Téllez declined a visiting professorship this spring at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) after the U.S. State Department denied her a visa for her alleged role in “terrorist activities.”
Téllez—who helped overthrow Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza during the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s—had applied for a student visa to study English at the University of San Diego, but after it was denied in January, she decided not to seek a visa allowing her to teach at HDS.
In an e-mail yesterday, Téllez denounced the State Department’s decision.
“In order to deny the visa, they have described me within the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that typifies terrorist activities,” she wrote. “I think it constitutes a violation to my human rights and a threat to my safety and personal integrity.”
Officials at the State Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Téllez has served as president since 1998 of the Sandinista Renewal Movement, a political party allied with the leftist Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.
HDS Dean William A. Graham said in a statement earlier this week that the Faculty was “very disappointed” that Téllez would be unable to teach courses on religion and society at the school, as she had planned.
“We strongly support the free exchange of scholars and scholarship internationally,” Graham said.
Graham said HDS would help Téllez apply for a visa if she decided to teach at Harvard in the future.
Téllez would have held the position of Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor under a joint appointment with HDS and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs John H. Coatsworth, the center’s director, said he did not believe the denial of the visa could be justified on national security grounds.
“It’s just another cost we’re all paying for the restrictions on international travel to the United States under the Patriot Act,” Coatsworth said.
Coatsworth also referred to the State Department’s decision to deny visas to 65 Cuban scholars seeking to attend a Latin American studies conference in Las Vegas last October. The Rockefeller Center had invited six of those scholars. Coatsworth and two other faculty members protested the decision at the time.
“We are more intellectually impoverished each time some interesting scholar from abroad is denied a visa into the United States,” Coatsworth said earlier this week.
Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America Davíd Carrasco had been working with Téllez design courses on religion in the Americas.
He said Téllez would have been an “important resource” for HDS students studying Central American religion.
“I think this is bad policy,” Carrasco said. “I think it’s a loss.”
Carrasco said he had not known about Téllez’s political involvement before he began to help her plan her courses via e-mail, but that he would have worked with her anyway.
Téllez had planned to teach two courses this spring: “From Revolution to Hope: Nicaragua and the Sandinista Aftermath,” and a seminar called “Caribbean Identity, Race, and Ethnicity.” The courses were to examine issues of social and religious thought, politics, and ethnicity.
“She has quite a remarkable background as a social activist as well as a historian,” Coatsworth said.
Téllez is currently finishing research on the history of coffee in Nicaragua for the Institute of Nicaraguan History and the Central American University. She is continuing in her position as the president of the Sandinista Renewal Movement Party, and wrote in an e-mail that she intends to run for Congress in Nicaragua in 2006.
Téllez’s decision to decline the visiting professorship at Harvard comes after University leaders have criticized State Department restrictions on international travel.
Last April, University President Lawrence H. Summers sent letters to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67, citing decreases in applications and enrollment from international students. Summers suggested that these might be the result of restrictions on travel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Coatsworth said that the Rockefeller Center’s graduate program has also suffered a decline in applications from international students.
According to Harvard’s Senior Director of Federal and State Relations Kevin Casey, University officials were not involved in lobbying on behalf of Téllez, since she had been denied a visa to attend the University of San Diego, and never applied for a visa to teach at Harvard.