South America turning against School of Americas

The School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in the killings, disappearances and massacres that have afflicted the region for decades. Since 1990, the School of the Americas Watch, founded by the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, has led the struggle to close the school, leading huge marches outside its walls. Now SOA Watch has taken its message to South America.

Bourgeois, along with Carlos Mauricio and Lisa Sullivan, recently completed a three-week visit to Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. While there, the group urged political leaders to follow the lead of Venezuela by severing relations with the SOA. In January 2004, the Hugo Chávez government announced an end to cooperation with the school, now called the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.”

The time is ripe for upping the ante. In May, Congress will vote on HR 1217, a bill introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and co-sponsored by 120 congresspersons, which would cut funding for the school. SOA Watch is organizing three days of education, rallies and congressional lobbying starting April 23 in Washington.

Since 1946, the SOA has produced 60,000 graduates, many of whom have gone on to high military rank in their countries, and many of whom have been associated with crimes against humanity. The Pentagon released a SOA training manual in 1996 that outlines methods for torture, extortion and execution.

As the delegation traveled, e-mail reports from Lisa Sullivan and postings on the SOA Watch web site documented their success.

Sullivan reported from Bolivia on March 20: “Yesterday morning, [we] met with the president. ... President Morales’ interest gave us great hope. … [He] said he would like to present this to the high military command in the next few days. … Previously, [we] met with the Bolivian vice president, the chancellor, the first minister, a senator and a congressman. ... Half of them had been political prisoners themselves.”

“[We] also met with about a dozen social movements and human rights groups,” she said. “We were especially touched by the Aymara people of El Alto. ... They not only met with us several times, and organized a press conference, but have taken on this cause as their own, and are already taking steps to educate the large indigenous community about this school and launch a campaign to close it down.”

Sullivan’s hopes were confirmed April 3 with an announcement from La Paz that Bolivian personnel would be withdrawn gradually from the SOA. Soldiers would henceforth be obtaining advance training within the region as part of a new doctrine of “regional security.”

On March 24, the group met with Uruguay’s minister of defense, Azucena Berutti. “From the beginning of the conversation, Minister Berrutti told us that there was no need to explain the atrocities of the SOA, as she, and the people of Uruguay, were fully aware of this reality, having experienced first hand the horrors of the tortures, detentions, imprisonments and ‘disappearances’ caused by its graduates.”

Berrutti indicated that during the year President Tabaré Vázquez has been in office, “no military personnel from Uruguay have been sent to the SOA, and none will be sent under this current administration.”

The trip concluded in Argentina. “Yesterday [March 27],” Sullivan writes, “the three SOA Watch activists and the head of the Mothers of the Disappeared met with the defense minister, Nilda Garré, whose husband was disappeared during the repression in Argentina. Minister Garré agreed that after the one Argentine soldier currently at the SOA finishes his classes, no more Argentine soldiers will be sent to the School of the Americas.

“The tide is turning in Latin America,” she writes. “All across Central and South America, governments and citizens are rejecting SOA-style military ‘solutions’ to social problems. Support for the School of the Americas is eroding every day.”