The annual protest of the US Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, has grown dramatically in recent years, drawing 10,000 people in 2003, 16,000 in 2004 and 19,000 in 2005. Building on that momentum, the movement to close the controversial institution is expanding its horizons even further this weekend. As peace activists from throughout the United States converge at the gates of Fort Benning, SOA protesters will simultaneously take to the streets in Santiago, Bogotá, San Salvador and several other Latin American cities. The demonstrations offer a strong testament to the growing international movement to reject US military policy. Recent reports of the Bush Administration’s decision to increase training and aid for the militaries of Latin America so as to reverse the region’s leftward swing have only sharpened criticism at home and abroad.
Founded in Panama in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning in 1984, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics. The Pentagon has acknowledged that in the past the SOA used training manuals advocating coercive interrogation methods and extra-judicial executions, and over time SOA alumni have been linked to many of Latin America’s most heinous human rights atrocities, from widespread torture to massacres of young children.
Congress renamed the SOA the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001; since then thousands of foreign soldiers have journeyed to Fort Benning for training. However, with political change currently sweeping through Latin America, several countries have cut ties with the SOA in recognition of its notorious track record. “Many of the governments here in South America are now made up of people who were thrown in prison and tortured in the past,” says Lisa Sullivan, a Caracas-based organizer for SOA Watch, “so they’re taking a very different look at the role of their armed forces and their military relations with the United States.”
In 2004 Venezuela stopped sending soldiers to the SOA, and earlier this year, Uruguay and Argentina followed suit. Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch, catalyzed those developments through meetings with government officials in Caracas, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Throughout 2006 Bourgeois has continued to make his case against the SOA in the capitals of Latin America, from a sit-down with President Evo Morales of Bolivia in March to a meeting with Chile’s Defense Minister, Vivianne Blanlot, in August. The activist priest plans to visit at least five more countries next year, including Nicaragua, now likely to re-evaluate its military-training partnership with the United States given the recent election of Sandinista leader and former contra target Daniel Ortega as president.
Meanwhile, local activists throughout the hemisphere have begun to focus heavily on the SOA and US military training, as this weekend’s events suggest. “We plan to protest because we want future generations to live in peace and with justice,” says Pablo Ruiz, a Chilean torture survivor gearing up for the Santiago demonstration. “And that, to our understanding, will never happen if we continue to allow soldiers to be taught that things should be resolved with weapons and violence, as is taught at the School of the Americas.”
In Washington the Bush Administration’s strategy to further militarize the hemisphere, as reported November 10 by USA Today, has exacerbated the long-running controversy over the SOA and US training. According to the report, the White House decided on October 2 to waive restrictions on US military training and funding in an attempt to “blunt a leftward trend” in Latin America. (The restrictions had been in place to pressure nearly a dozen governments throughout the hemisphere to promise immunity to US service members in the International Criminal Court.) In short, the Administration has responded to the mounting rejection of US military influence in Latin America by striving to increase its influence.
Despite the Bush team’s effort, the new Democratic majority in Congress could alter the course of the training debate. In June, the GOP-led House rejected an appropriations amendment to cut funding for the SOA, long the icon of the training debate, but the midterm elections may have swallowed its thirty-vote margin. Given that Democrats were five times more likely than Republicans to support the amendment, a similar measure could break differently next session. “I absolutely plan to introduce the legislation again in the next Congress, and I hope that now we’ll have a better chance of getting it passed,” says Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who sponsored the amendment and cruised to a sixth term on election day. With regard to the current trend throughout the hemisphere, McGovern says international opposition to the institution and US training helps bolster his position in Congress. “It shows how isolated we are,” he says. “The SOA is supposed to be about training the militaries of Latin America. But as people in that part of the world say, ‘We don’t want any part of this,’ we become more and more isolated.” Still, with the Senate not quite as engaged in the SOA issue as the House and with several prominent Democrats backing the foreign policy the Georgia institution represents, McGovern and his allies continue to face a tough struggle.
Back in Georgia, the SOA is now more exposed and observed than in its cold war heyday, and it may be as much a symbol of dangerous policies as a practical danger in itself. But it should come as no surprise that this small institution has evolved into an international lightning rod. After all, the most recognizable qualities of the SOA over the past six decades–the teaching of torture, the absence of accountability and the furtherance of political objectives through military means–explain much of this country’s struggling image in Latin America and around the world.