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Brazilian Official's Guerrilla Past Jinxes Bid for U.S. Visa

March 06, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Among the no-shows at this month's Academy Awards will be Fernando Gabeira, the Brazilian lawmaker whose autobiographical book inspired the Oscar-nominated movie "Four Days in September."

U.S. law forbids Gabeira--a bicycle-riding member of the Chamber of Deputies who champions ecology, human rights and the legalization of marijuana--from entering the country.

There is a solid reason: In 1969, Gabeira was one of the leftist guerrillas who kidnapped the U.S. ambassador to Brazil to gain the release of political prisoners held by the military government. The movie, a political drama nominated in the foreign-language film category, recounts that incident.

Gabeira, 57, sought a visa in January to attend the New York premiere of the film. Although Gabeira argues that he has abandoned the violent ideology of his youth, the State Department rejected the request based on a law prohibiting admission of terrorists. It was his fourth attempt at a visa since 1990.

"U.S. law prohibits the issuance of a visa to a person who has engaged in a terrorist act," said Layton Russell, U.S. consul general in Brazil's capital, Brasilia. "And it's a matter of public record that Fernando Gabeira has done so."

Gabeira admits that the law makes sense. But he asserts that the U.S. government should be flexible because so much has changed since he committed the crime--for which he was convicted, spent time in prison and later was granted an amnesty.

"The U.S. has frozen me in the past," he said in a recent interview. "I am now a pacifist. . . . I hope to have good relations with the United States. Maybe in the next century, Americans will not be so attached to the past."

He has an unlikely ally: the daughter of former Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick. An emotional 1996 meeting with Gabeira in Rio de Janeiro convinced Valerie Elbrick Harmon that he has reformed and is remorseful.

"I think it is silly to deny him a visa after all this time," said Harmon. "Obviously, he is not a danger to the United States."

The dispute poses interesting questions about the politics of the rehabilitation of former guerrillas and other participants in ideologically motivated violence.

Gabeira represents a particularly colorful example of what happens to gunslinging Cold War militants when they grow up. After a 10-year exile, he returned to Brazil and embarked on a career as a prolific author and all-around social provocateur. He spoke out in favor of the rights of gays and indigenous peoples and got himself elected as the only Green Party representative to Congress, where he serves on a human rights panel.

His profile was raised by his book "What's Up, Comrade?" the story of Elbrick's four-day kidnapping by the MR-8 guerrilla movement. The book sold well, although a former guerrilla comrade accuses him of exaggerating his role.

Today, Gabeira stops short of apologizing for the kidnapping but says he now opposes the methods used by the guerrillas. He has nothing but praise for Elbrick, who died in 1983.

Some critics question why Gabeira was denied a visa, noting that the U.S. has changed its attitude toward others, such as longtime Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

The answer, according to a U.S. official, is that Arafat's visits have furthered the peace process in the Mideast, whose importance to U.S. national interest permits a waiver of the legal restriction. Gabeira's desire to attend a movie premiere does not rise to the same level, the official said.

Paula Gobbi in The Times' Rio de Janeiro Bureau contributed to this report.

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