This may be the year that the infamous SOA of the Americas (SOA), implicated in massacres and human rights violations throughout Latin America, finally closes. The prospect of an impending vote in the U.S. Congress, combined with a steady movement of Latin American countries withdrawing their troops from the school, makes the shut down of the school very possible in 2007.
The SOA in 2001 changed its name to WHINSEC, the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," in response to international criticism of the school that trained hundreds of army officers and death squad leaders responsible for genocide, assassinations, torture, disappearances and other human rights violations throughout Latin America. However, only the name changed and the school continued its deadly mission of training Latin American soldiers in "counter-insurgency" techniques.
Venezuela, the first country to pull its troops out of the SOA in 2005, was followed by Argentina and Uruguay last year. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch, recently returned to Bolivia, where he was kicked out when working with the poor as a Maryknoll Missionary. Bourgeois and a SOA Watch delegation met with Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, a coca grower, union leader and leftist.
"It was so good to go back to Bolivia where I lived and worked as a missionary during the Hugo Banzer dictatorship. It was a joy to see my friends working now at a clinic and a day care center," he reflected.
"When I was in Bolivia, people were being tortured, disappeared and forced to leave the country. I left Bolivia at a time of fear and despair and it was a wonderful thing to find hope and joy when I finally returned. Who would have thought this would have ever come to pass?" he emphasized.
Bolivia's military will be pulling out of SOA/WHINSEC on a gradual basis, according to Bourgeois. In spite of the election of leftist president Evo Morales, the military is still powerful, but nonetheless, even to entertain the idea of pulling out of the SOA would have been impossible until recently.
"There is a sea change in Latin American taking place as a result of the coming to power in elections of leftist governments," said Bourgeois during his recent speaking engagement in Davis. "The fear that I saw before has been replaced by hope. The countries once dominated by el imperio -- the empire -- to exploit their natural resources and cheap labor have changed. Now the people are getting together and saying Basta! (Enough!) The leaders are now speaking the language of the poor."
Among the 60,000 graduates of the School are notorious generals and dictators known for their violent policies and multitudes of human rights violations, such as General Hector Gramajo, Guatemala, Leopoldo Galtieri, Argentina, Guillermo Rodriguez, Ecuador and Hugo Banzer Suarez, Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have been involved in many atrocities such as the massacre of 900 people at the village of El Mozote in El Salvador in the early 1980's, and the massacre of four Jesuit priests and the housekeeper in El Salvador in 1989.
"The SOA continues to provide the muscle for U.S. foreign policy. It keeps the rich rich and the poor poor," said Bourgeois. It provides the enforcers and shock troops for neo-liberalism and corporate globalization.
The countries with democratically elected leftist leaders are now saying the U.S. is welcome now as a "partner," not as an exploiter.
Nicaragua continues to send its troops to the SOA, but this should end soon, according to Bourgeois. "We met with Daniel Ortega and Sandinista officials and it's looking really good for Nicaragua's withdrawal of troops from the SOA," he stated.
The "Latin American Initiative" started in 2005 when Bourgeois and other SOA Watch Leaders met with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and asked him and other Venezuelan leaders to stop sending soldiers to the school.
Three weeks later, Chavez announced that the troops would be pulled out immediately. After that, Bourgeois decided to go to the other Latin American countries where leftists had been elected, well as others like Columbia and El Salvador, where right wing presidents continue to be in office.
From January 8-27, 2007, Lisa Sullivan of the SOA Watch Latin America office, Bourgeois, Pablo Ruiz (Observadores de la Escuela de las Americas -- Chile) and Linda Panetta (SOA Watch North East) made a very successful and educational trip to Colombia and Panama where they met with human rights activists, community organizers and former Panamanian president Jorge Illueca, who in 1984 ousted the School of the Americas from Panama, forcing it to relocate to Ft. Benning, Georgia.
"Our small group of four were in Colombia as part of the Latin America initiative of the SOA Watch to visit the countries that send students to the School of Americas," summed up Sullivan. "We had already visited 7 countries of South America where we met with several government leaders who agreed both to the immediate removal of their troops from the SOA (Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay) and to a gradual withdrawal (Bolivia.)."
Another big sign of hope in the movement to close the school is the change in the U.S. Congress and Senate with the November elections. Congressman Jim McGovern has introduced a new bill to shut down the SOA, HR 1217, that the Congress will vote on in April.
In addition to putting pressure on the politicians through the annual protests at the SOA in Fort Benning, Georgia, SOA Watch and its allies throughout the country are organizing hundreds to knock on the doors of Congress and ask them to cut off funds for the school, according to Bourgeois.
McGovern's bill to shut the SOA down only lost by 15 votes in 2007. With the new Democratic majority in the House and Senate, this is the most promising year yet for closing the school.
"We're going to shut this school down," affirmed Bourgeois, who has spent a total of four years in federal prison since 1990 because of his non-violent, civil disobedience protests inside the gates of the SOA/WHINSEC at Ft. Benning, GA. "If that happens this year, we will gather for a big fiesta at Fort Benning in November where we hold our big demonstrations every year. It will be a reminder of what happens when grass roots people get together. Our movement, one guided by nonviolence, moves ahead with great hope."
Bourgeois ended his talk in Davis with the worlds of Oscar Romero, killed by Roberto D'Aubuisson's death squad while the priest was raising the host to heaven during mass at the cathedral in El Salvador in March 1980: "Let's those who have a voice speak for those who are voiceless."
Next month Bourgeois will be going to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to ask the leaders of those countries to pull out of the SOA.
Bourgeois also spoke passionately at a press conference on February 7 at the ongoing "peace-in" at Representative Doris Matsui's office in Sacramento organized by local peace advocates to stop the funding of the Iraq war and occupation.
"We are requesting Doris Matsui and other members of Congress to spend not one more dollar for the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq," said Bourgeois, in solidarity with members of the Sacramento Coalition to End the War. "Those opposed to the illegal and immoral war are not in the minority now. The vast majority of the public is saying that the war is wrong and we need to stop funding it."
Dan Bacher is an outdoor writer, alternative journalist and satirical songwriter from Sacramento, California. He is editor of the Central America Connection and contributes to numerous publications and websites, including Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Because People Matter and the Sacramento News & Review. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the SOA:
The School of the Americas (SOA), in 2001 renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Initially established in Panama in 1946, it was kicked out of that country in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Former Panamanian President, Jorge Illueca, stated that the School of the Americas was the "biggest base for destabilization in Latin America." The SOA, frequently dubbed the "School of Assassins," has left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned.
Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins. For more information, contact: www.soaw.org
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