Pressure is mounting on President Obama to close the infamous Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), known up until 2001 as the School of the Americas (SOA). Graduates of the centre — mostly soldiers from Latin American regimes friendly to the US — have been involved in many of the hemisphere’s worst atrocities and human rights violations, served in dictatorial regimes and even gone on to become dictators themselves.
In the latest protest to receive wide media coverage, five American activists — a priest, a public interest advocate, a retired preschool teacher, a nun and a student — have recently started serving two-month terms in federal prisons for trespassing after entering the grounds of the Fort Benning Army base outside Columbus in Georgia which houses the SOA. A 68-year-old journalist and activist who was arrested with them has been excused from jail for medical reasons and instead faces six months of house arrest.
The "SOA Six", as their supporters have dubbed them, walked onto the base in November last year during an annual protest organised by a group called SOA Watch as part of their ongoing campaign to have the training facility shut down.
This brings the total number of activists from the group jailed for their protests to 231. Collectively they’ve spent nearly a century behind bars in their efforts to close the school, which SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois says is connected to "untold suffering" in Latin America.
Bourgeois, a Vietnam War veteran, spent time working for the Catholic Maryknoll missionary order in Bolivia during the 1970s, where he says he received an "education in US foreign policy" when SOA graduate General Hugo Banzer seized power in a bloody coup. Banzer would go on to close the nation’s universities, ban all left-leaning parties and arrest, torture and murder his political opponents.
Bourgeois founded SOA Watch in 1990 after a US congressional inquiry found that graduates of the school included 19 out of the 26 people held responsible for the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. He still lives in the apartment where the group was founded, directly outside Fort Benning’s gates.
Since then, SOA Watch plus other activist groups and various journalists have identified graduates of the school serving in almost every repressive regime in Latin America, and in some cases even leading them.
The school has been influencing the region since it first opened in the US-controlled Canal Zone in Panama in 1946, under the name "Latin American Training Centre — US Ground Forces". In 1963 it was expanded and renamed the School of the Americas, although its critics often call it the "School of the Assassins". In 1984 it was moved to its current location following an agreement between Presidents Omar Torrijos and Jimmy Carter to restore Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
In 2001, following increasing public scrutiny, the school went through a Blackwater/XE-style cosmetic re-branding and became the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation", a move which some of its critics often resist, preferring to refer to it by its old name. So far more than 60,000 soldiers and police from US-friendly regimes in Central America, South America and the Caribbean have taken courses at the school.
Among these graduates are also the dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador.
At the school, these graduates are apparently held in much higher esteem than they usually are by most people outside its walls. Indeed, according to SOA Watch, a photo of Banzer (who also attended the Armoured Cavalry School at Fort Hood, Texas) was hung at the school as late as 1990, to serve as inspiration for the students. It has been reported elsewhere that also on display there was a ceremonial sword given to the school by General Pinochet, the brutal former dictator of Chile. While Pinochet himself did not attend the school, many of his henchmen did — including the heads of the CNI and DINA secret police forces.
Crimes attributed to more obscure graduates include the torture and murder of a UN official in Pinochet’s Chile, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre of over a thousand civilians, the rape and murder of Catholic nuns in El Salvador during the early 1980s, and more recently, the 2005 murder of eight members of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community (including three children) in Uraba, Colombia. A more extensive list of incidents in 13 countries can be found on the SOAW website.
However SOA Watch stresses their information is far from complete and may only represent a fraction of the total number of offences committed or ordered by the school’s graduates, who often operate in secrecy.
Tracking the activity of the school and its graduates got even harder in 2004 when the US government started blacking out the names of graduates on documents procured by SOA Watch through Freedom of Information requests. Until then Father Bourgeois and his colleagues had been able to use these names as the starting point for their research as well and look out for them in the press, where they often crop up.
The school’s defenders commonly argue that graduates guilty of human rights violations merely constituted a "few bad apples", and that simply because some had attended the school and gone on to do terrible things did not mean the school was responsible. After all, there are criminals of all descriptions who are graduates of Harvard and Yale.
What little credibility this argument had (which was not much, considering that Colonel Pablo Belmar, one of the SOA graduates involved in the death of the UN official in Chile, returned to the school as a guest instructor in 1987) was destroyed in 1996 with the release by the exposure of translated sections of the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual following an FOI request from the Baltimore Sun.
The documents, which had been the basis of lesson plans at the school, contained passages that taught murder and extortion techniques in hyper-sanitised language, such as: "The employee’s value could be increased by means of arrests, executions or pacification," and, "The [counterintelligence]agent could cause the arrest of the employee’s parents, imprison the employee or give him a beating as part of the placement plan of said employee in the guerrilla organisation."
The excerpts also contain what many interpret as endorsements of torture, such as the reference to the use of "information obtained involuntarily from insurgents who have been captured".
This was not the first burst of media attention on the school and its activities. In August of 1993 Newsweek ran a double-page spread on the facility under the heading "School for Dictators". This article caused a stir in the houses of government after Congressman Joseph Kennedy, from the floor of the house, implored his colleagues to read it.
Many did, and soon Congressman Kennedy launched the first of a string of unsuccessful attempts at congressional action to have the school’s activities suspended and investigated. The most recent attempt, a move co-sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern to stop funding the school in 2007, was the closest they’ve come to success so far, falling short by just six votes. Votes were largely cast along party lines, with the Democrats mostly in favour of cutting the funding.
Since then 35 new Democrats have been elected to Congress and McGovern is expected to introduce an identical bill in the coming weeks or months.
SOA Watch is also appealing directly to the Obama Administration for action. Bourgeois says they have the support of influential congressman John Lewis from Atlanta, who is working now to arrange a meeting at the White House. This would give the group an opportunity to make their case to President Obama, and present him with a petition calling for the school’s closure with more than 25,000 signatures collected since his election last year.
Bourgeois is up-beat about the current situation. "The feeling is that this could be our year," he says, adding that he’s encouraged by the anti-torture measures Obama has so far introduced and the fact that Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been supportive of moves to close the school down in the past.
Other changes are also underway which may help to finish the school off. In May last year, Congress passed a vote forcing the SOA to resume the release of graduates’ personal details, making its activities a little bit less secret. Meanwhile Bolivia and Venezuela have already stopped sending troops to the facility and other countries involved in the "pink tide" sweeping Latin America are expected to follow.
SOAW hopes Obama will decide to shut down the facility by executive order, as he did with Guantanamo Bay. "This school is on life support" says Bourgeois, "we want the Obama Administration to pull the plug".
The President, however, is yet to comment on the issue and has not foreshadowed any major changes in American policy towards Latin America. With so many other issues facing the US right now he may simply decide to steer clear of it.
Just how much genuine change Obama is willing (or able) to bring to complex issues like this one was demonstrated at Obama’s first presidential press conference, when he responded to a question from veteran correspondent Helen Thomas. As Thomas (who has questioned the last 10 presidents beginning with John F Kennedy) stood to ask her question, Obama quipped, "This is my inaugural moment here. I’m really excited."
Thomas then simply asked "Do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?" Obama replied, "You know, I don’t want to speculate," before going on to say that nuclear proliferation was a bad thing, and that it was up to America and Russia to lead on the issue.
It was a charming answer, but it completely dodged the question.
The question was a test, and one which Obama failed. He knows perfectly well that Israel has a substantial nuclear stockpile (former president Carter puts the number of warheads at over a hundred). Obama’s statement wasn’t an outright lie, but it was just as dishonest.
A similar dishonesty lurks behind the statement in his inaugural speech, when he said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
In delivering those lines Obama committed himself, perhaps predictably, to the false narrative of American foreign policy as a force that, in general, promotes democracy and human rights. It’s a narrative which says that the mentality behind the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is the exception, not the rule. The School of the Americas and its long history of horror do not sit easily within this fairytale.
If my cynicism here is misplaced and Obama’s goal is, as many seem to believe, to transform America into the force of good he pretends it already is, the closure of the WHISC/SOA would be a fantastic start.
It would however, be just a start. According to SOA Watch staff, the US has more than a hundred facilities for the training of foreign troops located all across the country and the Department of Defence’s website lists around 150 countries whose troops were recipients of US training in the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years.
Surely in some cases these training agreements are what they claim to be — nothing more than a kind of military student exchange between allies. All too often, however — and especially when dealing with the poorer countries where America or US companies have significant interests — these exchanges have more to do with building relationships between the US and local strongmen, relationships which can later be used by a superpower to undermine the civilian government if it threatens US interests.
And as the School of the Americas’ most famous alumni have been proving for decades, the human consequences of that can be horrific.
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