School’s Out?

The fight to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation
(formerly known as the School of the Americas or SOA) at Ft. Benning in
Georgia has been an uphill battle. But the dramatic leftward political
shift in Latin America might be giving the activist group SOA Watch something
to be optimistic about. 

The School of the Americas, founded in 1946 in Panama and relocated to
Georgia in 1984, has trained soldiers from Latin American countries for
more than half a century in the arts of psychological warfare and counter-insurgency.
An integral institution during the Cold War, when Washington supported
the brutal measures of anti-communist regimes in Latin America, it now
focuses on the campaigns to “fight drug trafficking and production.” Many
of its graduates have gone on to commit atrocities throughout South and
Central America, including acts of torture and extrajudicial killings of
innocent civilians. Its graduates include death squad leaders in various
countries. It is believed the assassin who killed Oscar Romero, a Salvadorian
monsignor known for aiding the poor who pleaded for peace in his country,
was an SOA graduate. General Manuel Noriega of Panama studied there. The
list goes on. 

A delegation from SOA Watch, a group dedicated to closing the school and
known for holding large annual protests outside Ft. Benning that include
acts of civil disobedience, recently visited 12 countries in Latin America.
They met government officials and activists in an effort to convince leaders
to stop sending soldiers to Ft. Benning. “It’s amazing how many people
will listen to us,” says Lisa Sul- livan, a member of the delegation. 

Venezuela was the first country to pull its students out of the school,
followed by Argentina and Uruguay. Bolivia has indicated that it will dramatically
decrease the number of students it will send over time. SOA Watch expects
Nicaragua, now under the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega, to soon
announce the same. 

However, according to Sullivan, even in countries such as Chile and Ecuador
where left-leaning political leaders have taken control of the government,
it is still difficult for these civilian leaders to force the military
to stop interacting with the school, as the military has sizable economic
and political power. 

The group is gearing up for a delegation to Mexico. While President Felipe
Calderon, a conservative, will not pull students out, SOA Watch believes
reaching out to him and his Administration may not be in vain. 

The big fish SOA Watch has yet to catch is Colombia. None of its government
officials agreed to meet with the delegation on its recent tour, says Father
Roy Bourgeois, SOA Watch’s founder. Colombia accounts for 50 percent of
the school’s student body. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that
there are between 1.8 and 3.8 million internally displaced peoples in Colombia
as a result of the conflict involving right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing
insurgents and drug traffickers. “At the SOA, the student body reflects
where there is the most conflict,” says Sullivan. 

“Can a military — an inherently hierarchical, authoritarian machine — install democracy?”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) has introduced a
bill in the House Armed Services Committee to cut funding to the school
while Congress investigates it. SOA Watch’s legislative director Pam Bowman
has hope for the bill. The way she describes it, the last time the House
voted to cut funding to the school it lost by 15 votes. Since then 35 Republicans
who voted in favor of funding the school were replaced by Democrats in
the last midterm election. Since February, SOA Watch has engaged in lobbying
efforts to persuade the new members of Congress to vote in favor of the
McGovern bill. SOA Watch representatives have visited more than 200 Congressional
offices, Bow- man says. SOA Watch also organized nearly 60 groups to hold
public fasts around the country in April to highlight the McGovern bill
and the movement to close the school in general. 

The school’s advocates say that the dirtiness of the past is over and that
the school, with a reformed curriculum, one that teaches “democracy,” is
necessary for security cooperation. But Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran, isn’t
buying it. Can a military—an inherently hierarchical, authoritarian machine—install
democracy? Moreover, a school training combat soldiers with a long history
of producing human rights violators cannot address the real needs of much
of the Latin American people, who lack proper education and medical care,
he insists. “It’s an obstacle to democracy,” he says of the school. “It’s
an obstacle to their liberation process.” 


Ari Paul is a contributor to Citizen Culture, Z, and Time Out Chicago