In the past week, the defense ministers of both Uruguay and Argentina have declared that their governments plan to cut ties with the US Army’s School of the Americas. The Montevideo newspaper La República quoted Uruguay’s defense minister explaining her country’s position in an article published Thursday, and Argentina’s defense ministry has issued a statement to The Nation confirming that the lone Argentine soldier currently training at the SOA will be the country’s last to enroll there. These developments represent two of the strongest indications to date that the people of Latin America have come to view the SOA as a destabilizing force and a gateway to human rights atrocities.
Since its founding in 1946, the SOA–now located at Fort Benning in Georgia and renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation–has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in commando and psychological warfare, counterinsurgency techniques and intelligence-gathering. The Pentagon has acknowledged the school’s use of field manuals advocating torture in the past, and UN commissions and research organizations have linked SOA graduates to many of the region’s most heinous massacres, assassinations and torturous interrogations over the years. Graduates from Uruguay and Argentina figure prominently into this sordid history, from Uruguayan soldiers linked to kidnappings and torture through Operation Condor to the notorious Argentine dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri.
Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990, catalyzed the developments in Uruguay and Argentina by appealing directly to the two countries’ defense ministers in face-to-face meetings during a visit to the region. “We did not have to convince them,” said Bourgeois, speaking by phone from Buenos Aires. “The people here are very educated about the SOA and US foreign policy, simply because they’ve been on the receiving end.”
Joined by Salvadoran torture survivor Carlos Mauricio and human rights activist Lisa Sullivan-Rodriguez, Bourgeois met with Azucena Berrutti, Uruguay’s defense minister, on March 24 in Montevideo. Berrutti demonstrated deep knowledge of the SOA, according to Bourgeois and Sullivan-Rodriguez, and assured her visitors that Uruguay, which has not sent any soldiers to Fort Benning since President Tabaré Vázquez took office last year, has no intentions of sending its citizens there in the future. “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 firsthand the horrors of the tortures, detentions, imprisonments and ‘disappearances’ caused by its graduates,” wrote Sullivan-Rodriguez in an e-mail message from Buenos Aires. On Wednesday, five days after the Montevideo meeting, Berrutti stated publicly that Uruguay will not send any more soldiers to the SOA, which La República reported.
On Monday in Buenos Aires, Bourgeois and his allies, this time including Hebe de Bonafini of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, encountered a similar reaction from Nilda Garré, Argentina’s defense minister. The Buenos Aires meeting occurred just days after the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that launched years of military dictatorships in Argentina, and in an era in which the country has sent between 12 and 22 soldiers to the SOA annually. In its statement to The Nation three days after the meeting, the defense ministry declared that though the one soldier from Argentina currently training at Fort Benning will remain there until July, “In the future, there are no plans to send more personnel.”
Bourgeois drew the blueprint for these victories in 2004, when he met with Hugo Chávez in Caracas and presented his case against the SOA. As the National Catholic Reporter noted in April of that year, Venezuela announced its decision to stop sending soldiers to the SOA just six weeks after Bourgeois’s Caracas meeting. Since then, the Georgia-based priest has made numerous direct appeals to government officials throughout Latin America.
On March 20, before traveling to Uruguay and Argentina, Bourgeois met with Evo Morales, Bolivia’s newly elected president, in La Paz. Having sent more than 500 soldiers to the school in the past decade alone, Bolivia currently stands among the SOA’s most reliable customers. Though Morales steered clear of definitive statements during the meeting, Bourgeois said the former coca farmer and longtime critic of US foreign policy offered positive feedback. “It’ll take some time, because he’ll have to meet with his advisors,” Bourgeois said of Morales, “but I have no doubt that Bolivia, like Uruguay and Argentina, is going to pull out its troops.”
Even without Bolivia, Bourgeois’s direct appeal strategy has already contributed to three critical success stories for SOA Watch and the movement to close the institution. “We’re thrilled Uruguay and Argentina joined Venezuela as the second and third countries to agree that they would stop sending troops to the school,” said Christy Pardew, communications coordinator for SOA Watch in Washington, DC. “These are incredible victories for social movements in all of the Americas, from mothers of the disappeared in Argentina to social groups in Uruguay to activists here in the United States.”
Lesley Gill, a professor of anthropology at American University and the author of The School of the Americas, said given the “symbolic importance” of the SOA, the two governments’ decisions to stop sending soldiers speak to issues much larger than the institution itself. “This is very important because of what happened in those countries under military dictators,” she said. “It shows they want to move away from the legacy of the dirty wars, and in not closing the SOA the United States has shown that it’s not willing to do that.”
As a political matter, Bourgeois’s victories in Latin America will almost certainly further invigorate the movement to close the institution inside the United States, which in turn could spark action in Washington. Though the House bill to close the SOA remains a long shot in the current Congress, its sponsor, Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called the developments in Uruguay and Argentina “a powerful statement” and expressed his hope for continued momentum on the issue. McGovern said he plans “to work with some of the grassroots organizations to decide whether we should put [the bill] up for a vote this year or wait until next year, when hopefully we have a different Congress.”
Despite the Democratic Party’s mixed record on the SOA, changing dynamics in Washington could, as McGovern implied, reshape the legislative playing field on the issue, given that Democrats and the Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders account for 114 of the House bill’s 125 co-sponsors. With SOA Watch’s efforts in the United States generating more support for closure by the year–the annual protest at Fort Benning in November 2005 drew 19,000 people and more than 30 of them have been sentenced to federal prison terms for acts of civil disobedience–the bill could well make headway in a newly aligned Congress.
Perhaps even more important than their legislative implications, the developments in Uruguay and Argentina speak volumes about the changing political landscape of Latin America. As Bourgeois, who in the 1970s was forced to leave Bolivia, then under the dictatorship of SOA graduate Hugo Banzer, said, “The fear that was alive in these countries through years of repression has been overcome by hope.”
So regardless of whether Washington’s power brokers continue to defend the SOA and the history of US policy it represents, Bourgeois and his legions of activists throughout the Americas are not likely to let the issue slip away. Indeed, the SOA debate has not yet run its course.