Heading into its eighteenth annual protest at Georgia’s Fort Benning, the movement to close the US Army’s School of the Americas has continued to show signs of progress. The House nearly voted to eliminate funding for the SOA this session, with newly elected Democrats tightening the roll-call count to 203-214. Meanwhile, the governments of Costa Rica and Bolivia announced that they would cut ties with the SOA, becoming the fourth and fifth Latin American countries to do so in the past four years. But in a sign that the SOA protest movement has a long road yet to travel, only two of the eight Democratic candidates for President–Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska–would close the controversial institution if elected to the White House.
Established in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, in 1984, the SOA has instructed more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics. The Pentagon has acknowledged that in the past the institution utilized training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. SOA alumni, after returning to Latin America, have committed countless human rights atrocities, often in the course of creating and maintaining military dictatorships. Responding to that history, Congress intervened in 2001 by renaming the SOA the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and revising its structure and curriculum.
With Congressional reforms on the books for six years, the SOA may hold less practical significance now than in decades past. Nonetheless, the institution retains an unparalleled symbolic position, given Washington’s continuing history of manipulating the hemisphere’s politics through military training and funding. “The school is important because it’s about US policy in Latin America and how we’ve been on the side of military dictators who oppress their own people,” said Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch, in a recent interview. “Any presidential candidate who is serious about changing [that policy] has to address this school because from the beginning it’s been more about protecting US economic interests than contributing to the development of these countries.”
Though only Kucinich and Gravel called for closure of the SOA, all but one of the Democratic candidates for President offered comments (through their campaigns) in response to inquiries about the institution.
Kucinich, who has voted repeatedly to close the SOA, confirmed through a campaign spokesman that he would shut its doors if elected President. “Dennis has come to believe that the School of the Americas by any name is injurious to both the reputation of the United States and the people of Latin America,” the spokesman wrote in an e-mail.
Gravel, despite having never considered the issue independently as a legislator, would close the SOA as part of his plan to eliminate US institutions associated with human rights violations in the past. “The senator would destroy Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo as part of a message to the rest of the world,” said Alex Colvin, a campaign spokesman. “And he would close the School [of the Americas].”