BY JENNIFER D. JORDAN | Providence Journal Staff Writer
Despite appeals by Sen. Lincoln Chafee and other members of Congress, the Rev. Raul Suarez will not be allowed to speak at the University of Rhode Island on multiculturalism.
A Baptist minister and peace activist from Cuba who was scheduled to speak at the University of Rhode Island on Tuesday has been denied a visa and cannot enter the country, according to the U.S. State Department.
The decision—which follows President Bush’s recent crackdown on Cuban visitors and heightened security measures—drew criticism from local civil-rights leaders, who said a pastor preaching nonviolence should be welcomed, not shut out.
The Rev. Raul Suarez, who runs the Martin Luther King Memorial Center and is pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, said in a phone interview yesterday that he has traveled to the United States about 20 times since 1980 to speak to church groups and at universities. Mr. Suarez, 69, is also an elected member of the Cuban Popular National Assembly, but says he is not a member of the Communist Party.
Yet, for the third time since 2001, Mr. Suarez said his U.S. visa application has been denied, despite letters from Sen. Lincoln Chafee and a group of 11 members of Congress asking the State Department to let Mr. Suarez come next week. He was also scheduled to speak at Black History Month events in Mobile, Ala., and Boston.
Mr. Suarez said he is saddened by the decision.
“I am in favor of improving the relationship between the American and Cuban people,” he said. “There is no reason to separate us.”
But Cubans, particularly government officials, have largely been banned from traveling in the U.S., said Gonzalo Gallegos, a public-affairs adviser for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
“With few exceptions, entry into the U.S. by officers and employees of the Cuban government has been suspended,” Gallegos said, citing a 1985 presidential proclamation. However, the policy was not always strictly enforced.
That changed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Cuba was singled out last October by President Bush in a policy speech, when he said “we are strengthening reenforcement of those travel restrictions to Cuba that are already in place.”
Cuba is on the government’s short list of countries with “state-sponsored terrorism,” which automatically triggers closer scrutiny of visas originating in those nations, Gallegos said.
Such a letter-of-the-law interpretation is absurd in cases such as Mr. Suarez’s, said Steven Brown, of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This is another really terrible example of how, in the name of fighting terrorism, we are throwing out our civil liberties,” Brown said.
Melvin Wade, director of URI’s Multicultural Center, met Mr. Suarez last summer while on a research trip to Cuba, and invited him to deliver URI’s 10th-annual multiculturalism lecture.
Yesterday, Wade said he was “dismayed and disappointed” that Mr. Suarez would not be allowed to enter the country.
“It is so important for us as American citizens to have the ability to make good foreign-policy decisions and to enter into dialogue with people who may have different points of view,” Wade said. “To think of him as a terrorist or as a security risk is so far from what this man is.”
Mr. Suarez was scheduled to speak about antipoverty initiatives, his work spreading Martin Luther King Jr.‘s philosophy of nonviolence in Cuba and his work to increase religious tolerance under Fidel Castro’s regime, Wade said.
Bernard LaFayette Jr., director of URI’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, has worked with Mr. Suarez since the 1980s, and went to Cuba to dedicate the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, a social-service agency that builds homes for the poor, offers programs for children and the elderly and runs nonviolence workshops.
“It’s unfortunate that his visa has been denied, because he, of all people, represents the philosophy those of us in the nonviolence movement espouse,” LaFayette said.
LaFayette said URI will try to bring Mr. Suarez to Rhode Island again, and Mr. Suarez said he hopes to come one day.
“I am inspired by the example of Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite suffering, looked for solutions for the anguish and problems of his people, an example I have tried to follow in my own life,” Mr. Suarez said. “It has made me understand my Christian faith, not just as a hope for an afterlife, but as a better way to live this life, and transform the world.”