IC professor, students protest School of Americas
By Jackie Simone
Patricia Rodriguez wasn’t intimidated by the police forces and helicopters that surrounded the 19th annual School of the Americas protest. She was not afraid that she could be arrested while she called for the closing of the notorious school on Nov. 21-23. She was not scared that her rights might be violated.
In 1973, she was scared. Although she was a young child, she remembers the constant nervous tension and fear in her family in the wake of the brutal coup in Chile that replaced President Salvador Allende, a Socialist, with Augusto Pinochet, and she remembers the ensuing brutality. Graduates of the School of the Americas played a significant role in overthrowing Allende and attacking innocent Chileans in the chaos that followed–horrific stories of torture, rapes and indiscriminate killings. The political turmoil and danger persuaded Rodriguez’s father to move the family to Brazil. Decades later, the School of the Americas is still responsible for human rights violations in Latin America.
“It was very real at the protest that this hasn’t stopped, that there’s still this going on nowadays,” said Rodriguez, an assistant professor of politics at IC. This year was her first time attending the protest, although she had wanted to participate for years.
The school has undergone many name changes throughout the decades, but the core practices and curriculum have remained largely unchanged. The Latin American Training
Center–U.S. Ground Forces was the school’s first incarnation. It was established in Panama in 1946 to protect American interests in Latin America. Specifically, it was intended to spread democracy and prevent the spread of communism during the early years of the Cold War. Three years later, it expanded and changed its name to the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center. In 1963, it again expanded and was renamed the U.S. Army School of the Americas. The signing of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1984 necessitated its move to its current location, Fort Benning, Ga. Jorge Illueca, the Panamanian president at this time, called the SOA the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
The SOA was officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and brought under the U.S. Department of Defense by Congress’ National Defense Authorization Act in 2001. However, many people still refer to the institution as SOA since little has changed in the latest version of the school. Many of the school’s critics refer to it as the School of Assassins.
The SOA emphasizes counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Most courses are taught in Spanish, but the school is now open for civilians and people from outside Latin America. Approximately 1,000 to 1,300 students attend the SOA every year. The SOA trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen between 1946 and 2001, among several of Pinochet’s officers, Bolivia’s former dictator Hugo Banzer, Argentia’s former dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, and Panama’s former dictator Manuel Noriega.
Numerous SOA graduates have been accused and convicted of human rights abuses. As recently as Nov. 13, the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a criminal case in Spain against former Salvadoran President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Alfredo Cristiani Burkard as well as 14 other soldiers from the Salvadoran Army for massacring Jesuits on Nov. 16, 1989. Eight of the soldiers accused of human rights abuses in this massacre attended the SOA.
Thousands of protestors have called for an end to the SOA since the advocacy group School of the Americas Watch organized the first protest and vigil in 1990. The official Web site of the SOA states that it “provides professional education and training for civilian, military and law enforcement students from nations throughout the Western Hemisphere.”
WHINSEC and its supporters deny claims that the school encourages torture techniques and other human rights violations, asserting that currently all students must receive at least eight hours of instruction in human rights, democratic principles, and due process. Furthermore, WHINSEC supporters argue that the school should not be held accountable for the actions of some of its former students.
Several Latin American countries have recently ceased their relationship with the SOA as a result of criticisms related to human rights. Venezuela stopped sending soldiers to be trained at WHINSEC in 2004, and Argentina and Costa Rica followed suit in 2006 and 2007, respectively. On Feb. 18, 2008, Bolivian President Evo Morales formally announced that he would not send Bolivian military or police officers to attend training at WHINSEC. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Guatemala, continue sending officials to be trained through the SOA’s controversial curriculum.
“The SOA is a very important issue having to do with U.S.-Latin American relations that has been under scrutiny a long time,” Rodriguez said. “There’s things that have been bettered, but the school is still open, and I find that there’s hardly any reason for it.”
Despite the continuation of violence at the hands of SOA graduates, Rodriguez has found that many of her students have never heard of the school. As a result, Rodriguez makes a point to discuss the SOA in her classes. This semester, she included the protest in the syllabi for her two politics courses as a voluntary activity.
While Rodriguez had been personally impacted by the SOA and had wanted to attend the protest for years, senior politics major Mark Brett knew nothing about the school before he took Rodriguez’s Political Violence and Human Rights in Latin America course. After learning about the SOA, Brett felt compelled to participate in the protest.
“What business is it of the United States to be training soldiers in Latin America?” Brett said. “That’s its own place, and America needs to stop trying to control everything.”
Brett believes that it is important for citizens to be aware of the activities of their government. The lack of knowledge about the SOA is particularly startling when considering that it is funded through taxes. The WHINSEC budget for 2005 was $7.8 million.
Two other students from Rodriguez’s Political Violence and Human Rights in Latin America class attended the protest as observers. A group of students from the Catholic community also participated in the protest, which has historically been linked to the Catholic Church. Major attention and criticism of the SOA largely resulted from the assassination of El Salvadoran human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 by SOA graduate Roberto D’Aubuisson. School of the Americas Watch, which organizes the annual protest and vigil, was founded by Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990. Since then, Catholics have been instrumental in the call to close the SOA.
Brett was surprised at the level of organization of the event. Protestors could choose to participate to varying degrees throughout the weekend. Rodriguez registered online to serve as a Spanish-English translator during the presentations. A large portion of the weekend was dedicated to presentations by torture victims, workshops and teach-ins at the nearby Columbus Convention Center. An estimated 12,000 protestors participated in events on Saturday. Brett remarked that the inclusion of topics that were not directly correlated to the SOA, such as gay rights, might have distracted protestors from their original purpose.
In addition to presentations, the protest included symbolic elements meant to draw attention to the unfairness of U.S. intervention in Latin America. For example, puppetistas proceeded through the city to represent what the SOA Watch Web site calls “a dancing battle to bring down the massive puppet of U.S. imperialism.”
The culmination of the weekend is a vigil on Sunday morning, in which people gather to honor those who have been killed by SOA graduates. The names of the victims, referred to by protestors as martyrs, were each sung from the stage as the crowd of approximately 20,000 protestors responded by saying “¡Presente!” This follows the tradition in Latin American justice movements of honoring the memory of those who lost their lives. Protestors held small white crosses with the names and ages of the dead, which they carried as they marched in the funeral procession. Many protestors placed the crosses in the wire fence at the Fort Benning property line. Brett and Rodriguez commented that the vigil was a powerful, emotional experience. As protestors stood together for two hours while the names were sung, they gave a different meaning to the WHINSEC motto “Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad,” or “Freedom, Peace and Brotherhood.”
Rodriguez watched complete strangers embracing each other at the vigil and contrasted it with the violence, largely instigated by SOA graduates, that tainted the nation in which she was born.
“When I was at the protest, I felt a tremendous sense of unity and a tremendous sense that this matters,” Rodriguez said. “It matters to be at that protest in solidarity with people from Latin America. It matters to participate in these things so that policy can be changed. It matters particularly now.”
Jackie Simone is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.