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.”