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Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation

School of Americas Watch



Reading, Writing and… Torture? Not your Typical School.

A training ground for democracy or abuse?
"It doesn't look like a place where they teach how to torture people," Irene mused as we walked out of the Army training institute in Fort Benning, Georgia. The sun was shining and we headed straight for a sunny spot on the lawn outside. Laying out underneath the beautiful bright blue sky felt like paradise, as if the only torture here would be to stay cooped up inside on such a gorgeous day.

But I know the allegations. This institute has been charged with training murderers, rapists and death squad leaders. Graduates include dictators Manuel Noriega of Panama, Hugo Banzer Suarez of Boliva, and Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador. Some of the most notorious abusers of human rights in Latin America - people who are responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of 4 American church women and the massacres of hundreds of people - were once students here.

What kind of messed up school are we at?

Irene and I are visiting the former site of the School of the Americas (SOA), now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).

More than 60,000 soldiers from 22 Latin American nations have attended the SOA since it began in 1946. Now wait a second, why are we training Latin American soldiers in the United States? Here's the scoop:

Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the US pledged a "Good Neighbor" policy towards Latin America. We tried to not intervene in their internal affairs and let the people of Latin America decide their own fates. Readers of Stephen's piece on Cuba or Jen's report on Nicaragua know that it's hard for the US to mind its own business. With the rise of the Cold War, the US became concerned about Communism in its own backyard. We decided to overthrow one government in Central America that we thought was too close to the Russians: Guatemala. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba though, made us reconsider our policies. Overthrowing governments because we didn't like them was rather risky. Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution had many admirers in other parts of the hemisphere who were tired of the poverty and inequality that also plagued their countries. All this greatly concerned President John Kennedy who feared that the Communist influence was growing.

This year, there are 30 students from 16 Latin American countries at the institute.
In 1961, JFK announced a new program to lift Latin America out of poverty. It was to be called the "Alliance for Progress." 19 Latin American (all except Cuba) countries signed on. Over the next ten years, $20 billion was poured into the program to help the region speed up its economic, educational and social progress. Sounds noble doesn't it? Unfortunately, the most lasting legacy of the "Alliance for Progress" may be the School of the Americas.

The School originally got its start in Panama in 1946 as a place to train Latin American militaries and make them professional institutions. During the Alliance for Progress, it was renamed the School of the Americas and the focus shifted to gearing up militaries to combat Communism. This means that instead of promoting "hemispheric defense" (which means training a country to ward off foreign invaders), the SOA would teach "internal security," a phrase that promises to teach how to wage war against your own people in order to control them. The legacy of death squads in country after country, from El Salvador to Chile, is chilling to read. With the end of the Cold War, the SOA's mission garnered new scrutiny, and criticism of its past became more widespread.

Spanish everywhere! The library subscribes to all the major Latin American newspapers.
The anti-SOA movement was spearheaded in 1990 by Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam vet, who after the war, became a priest. He founded an organization called the School of Americas Watch. My 9 year-old cousin, as she saw me reading some SOA Watch material, exclaimed, "Shut down the schools of America? Cool!" No, Lydia, not all schools…just the one that critics have deemed the "School of Assassins" and have been protesting on a regular basis since 1989.

The overwhelming criticisms did eventually cause the school to shut down in December. But it was reopened in January as WHISC, the institute that Irene and I visited.

Major protests happen annually at Ft Benning as well as Washington D.C.
If I was expecting to see a bunch of bloodthirsty assassins running around trying to chop off my fingers, I'd be severely disappointed. Everyone we met was incredibly nice and helpful, from the librarian to the security staff. But the connotations of the "School of Assassins," still linger in the air. Its reputation is something the Institute is trying hard to shake off. When we arrived, we met with Major Milton Mariani, the public affairs officer whose job is to create a more positive image for WHISC. Again and again, Mariani went out of his way to stress the Institute's commitment to human rights, from the mandatory 8-hour training undergone by all students to the human rights issues discussed during field exercises. WHISC also advertises itself as an open academic environment, easily accessible to anyone who wants to come visit. It is as if they are trying to say, "Look, we have nothing to hide."

Mariani denies that the allegations about the SOA are true. Although, in response to the claim that techniques of torture were taught, he does admit that there were some manuals found with "questionable material" in them. He quickly adds, however, that it was supplemental reading and not part of the curriculum. (Hmm, I don't know about you, but reading about torture doesn't seem like my idea of supplementing an education). Mariani also stresses that it's all in the past. The institute "has completely changed from what it was 54 years ago."

Major Mariani gives us a tour-classrooms, offices, and the library.
SOA opponents however, see the new changes as purely cosmetic and as not really addressing the issues. Father Roy claims, "It's like taking a bottle of poison and writing 'penicillin' on it - it is still deadly."

Mariani contends, "It was more than just the name that changed." The institute is now under the Department of Defense instead of the Department of the Army. The student population has been expanded to include civilians and law enforcement officers, as well as military personnel. Once more he points out that the curriculum is expanding with a greater focus on human rights.

Of course, having human rights training is a positive step, but is it enough? There is no change in purpose between the new school and the SOA. WHISC is still a military institution with combat-related training. Father Roy and the SOA Watch argue that keeping the school open under any name without investigating its connection to past atrocities sends a powerful message that we don't care about human rights. And since the Department of the Army is part of the Defense Department, isn't it the same people running the place anyway? I mean, how much change could really take place by closing down for a few weeks?


Grace in Gymnastics / "This is the kind of training I need!" My gymnastics skills leave a lot to be desired...

So, do we give WHISC the benefit of the doubt? Or do we assume that a simple name change and public relations push will not erase decades of alleged misconduct?

To me, it is important to look beyond the training institute to the larger problems it represents. What would happen if this one institute were to close down? It seems that the training would just continue elsewhere. In fact, the United States' International Military Education Training program (for students worldwide, not just Latin America) occurs at about 150 different military institutions. A significant amount of training also takes place outside the United States. In the year 2000, the U.S. provided more than $1 billion worth of training, equipment, weapons and other kinds of support to the Latin American military and police. This is almost twice as much as we spent on development aid to the region. It makes me think that what we are dealing with is more an issue of foreign policy than simply of a single institution's wrongdoings.

Protesters dramatize the massacres that have been committed by SOA grads.
As Father Roy told us, "You can't teach democracy through the barrel of a gun. How is the school helping to alleviate basic human needs and suffering when there is so much poverty in Latin America? Military training does nothing to alleviate those things."

Mariani admits that the criticisms are still out there. But he goes on to explain, "We're in a transitional period. We're still redefining…" Let's hope that it truly is a redefinition - one that includes a genuine commitment to defending human rights, not violating them.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - Q: What's better than a high paying corporate job? A: Bringing hope to Americans in poverty
Rebecca - Laying down the law of the land
Stephanie - Working for peace is a fulltime job
Stephen - It's not a race. It's your life!
Rebecca - America's royal family