A teach-in organized by the Latin America Solidarity Coalition (LASC) and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and LASC and co-sponsored by SOA Watch, CISPES, the Alliance for Global Justice and other organizations drew a crowd of over 125 people to Howard University to hear about the problems in Latin America which are caused by US militarism including US-funding of Latin American military and police as well as militarization of social problems such as drug use and immigration. The teach-in on Feb. 15, 2009 is the first of three LASC/NACLA teach-ins on 11 foreign policy changes the LASC is working on as part of its campaign “Toward a New US Latin America Foreign Policy.” Teach-ins in Chicago and Berkeley in April will address the LASC demands on sovereignty and democracy manipulation and trade and economic justice, respectively.

The crowd first heard from Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, an organization whose purpose is to close the School of the Americas (or as it is sometimes referred to in Latin America, “The School of the Assassins”), which has trained many of the hemisphere’s worst dictators and human rights offenders. At the SOA (now named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), US instructors have trained Latin American military officers on the finer points of torture, murder, and defense of US corporate interests. He told the audience about the feelings of many in Latin America that the US in an imperial power and that powerful countries most often become involved in the affairs of weaker nations to take rather than to give. He also spoke of the “sea change” in Latin America, as many countries are now rejecting US influence because of the decades of failed policies coming out of Washington.

Professor Lesley Gill, the chair of the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, questioned whether or not we are likely to see much promised “change” from president Obama in Latin American policy. She pointed out that he has already begun hostile rhetoric towards Venezuela and promised to continue the Cuba embargo. She pointed out that the United States has been a destabilizing force in Latin America for decades; however, the Left is on the rise all over Latin America. Latin America has become more economically independent from the US, with the Bank of the South, UNASUR and access to new markets in Europe and China.

Argentina has begun to prosecute offenders from the “dirty war” and democratic governments throughout the region have started to deal with issues of inequity. She told the audience that Bush’s response to this was aggressive. He responded with more intervention in the region: supporting coups in Haiti and Venezuela, viewing people in Latin America as a security threat, and continuing “Plan Colombia”, a program which has the stated purpose to combat drugs, but ends up funneling money to paramilitaries. These paramilitaries make alliances with drug lords, murder civilians and burn through the country side.

She told the group how private security forces (such as Blackwater, one of the groups under investigation for crimes in Iraq) have been used in Colombia. These groups have no accountability for murder and human rights violations and have become the “[US] empire’s paramilitaries” in the region. She told the crowd how Obama needs to be “pushed from below” in order to address problems such as our “divide and conquer” strategy in the region and to accept the center-left governments which have come to power in the region. She told the audience that US policies, namely agricultural “dumping” (where subsidized US crops destroy a country’s agricultural base) create huge unemployment, which forces people to become migrant workers or drug traffickers.

She made note that Obama is one of the historical revisionists who claim that US torture began after 9/11 when, in fact, the US has always employed torture. She said his anti-torture policies, while a step in the right direction, do not address the other countries we have trained in torture including Colombia and Israel.

Ben Beachy, the Mid-Atlantic Coordinator for Witness for Peace, discussed the military and human rights problems of narcotics in Latin America, problems created by US demand and made worse by the US’s concentration on a military “supply side “drug war” in Latin America. The “Merida Initiative,” signed by Bush and Calderon in March 2007, a component of the NAFTA countries’ “Security and Prosperity Partnership” (SPP), is giving billions of dollars to Mexico and Central America militaries and police to fight drug production and trafficking rather than addressing demand in the United States.

However, since the program the situation in northern Mexico has become many times worse, with 5630 execution style murders in 2008 alone. He drew comparisons between this program and “Plan Colombia.” Both programs stem from the belief that the drug problem in the United States should be solved by military action in Latin America, rather than drug treatment and prevention in the United States. However, military solutions have proven totally ineffective, as they merely spread production to new areas, what Beachy called the “balloon effect.” Even if the United States is successful at dismantling a cartel, it creates higher profits for those who move in and take over their business. Creating power vacuums in the region create huge levels of violence as other cartels fight over who will have control.

He pointed to a RAND Corporation report, which says that spending money on drug treatment programs is 10 times more effective than attacking smugglers and 24 times more effective than attacking farmers. He suggested that the reason for this insanity might be that these defense contracts go to American arms manufacturers, which have been world renowned for their lobbying of the US government. He pointed out that human rights violations are a real part of the drug war. Lines become blurred between police and military, and rape, torture and murder are the consequence. Abuses are committed not just against the drug cartels, but also against political movements and labor activists, and that these activities are protected by an environment of impunity. Lastly, he pointed out that 90% of guns in the drug war come from the United States, lining the pockets of our arms industry and that as long as there are crack addicts in Los Angeles, there will be cartels in Tijuana.

John Lindsay-Poland, the co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, addressed the audience on the problems in Colombia that stem from US intervention. He said that much of the violence in Latin America comes from US campaigns against communism from the 1950s through the 1980s, where we encouraged torture, murder and sabotage against communists in the region. Then, in the 90s, US intervention in the region became cloaked in the theme of a war against drugs, and now, a war against terrorism. In Colombia, “impunity is systematic” for murders by police, military forces and paramilitaries. 95% of cases see no one prosecuted, and even if the prosecution rate doubled, impunity would still be a fact of life.

He told the audience that the Colombian Army is “under pressure to create body counts” in the drug war and their war against the FARC, which gives them an incentive to falsify guerrilla activity in order to have someone to kill. He described “false positives” in which the army kidnaps a civilian, kills him, and claims he’s a guerrilla killed in battle. He discussed how President Uribe intentionally confuses human rights supporters with the FARC and encourages the atmosphere of violence and impunity. He told the audience that half of the civilian killings are perpetrated by units which are directly funded and trained by the United States. No evaluations are made of the records of units funded by the United States after they receive funding, and US training has not been shown to improve the human rights record of Colombian military units. Lastly, he discussed the prevalent attitude of “win the war,” an attitude which does not lend itself to the protection of civilians.

We then heard from Sonia Umanzor, who is a representative from the FMLN. She told us her story about being an immigrant from El Salvador who escaped the paramilitary squads in 1981. She told the audience how she made it here, including walking for 16 days, and the economic and political realities that caused her to undertake her harrowing journey. “You could build the Great Wall of China and we would still walk through it, she said, “because we have no choice.” She also discussed the elections in El Salvador and about the consequences of either victory or defeat for the people of the country. If the FMLN is successful, the right-wing will not accept it and the death squads will multiply. A defeat of the FMLN candidate who is running well ahead in the polls will be met with much suspicion by many in El Salvador.

Pablo Espinosa Ruiz, a Chilean human rights activist coordinating SOA Watch’s North-South campaign to convince Latin American countries to withdraw from the SOA, told the crowd about how left wing organizations in Chile are seen as security threats even when they are totally non-violent. He also discussed social networking sites such as Facebook, which allow governments to spy on their populations very easily, since people post pictures of their activities, a list of their associates, and their political affiliations.

Patricia Isasa told us how when she was only 16, she was arrested during what has come to be known as the “dirty war” in Argentina, having committed no crime, and was tortured by soldiers who learned their trade at the infamous School of the Americas. She talked about her struggle for justice and to ensure that no more innocents are subjected to the same kinds of horrors because of incompetent and malevolent US involvement in the region. She has now seen nine of her torturers put behind bars, but as much as it means to see justice done, the important thing is to ensure that these activities never happen again, she said.

The group then broke into small group discussions of the many issues raised and many took copies of the LASC-written letters detailing the 11 foreign policy changes as well as brief talking points to send to their Senators and member of Congress.

Sean Hannley, intern, Alliance for Global Justice