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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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Jennifer - Q: What's better than a high paying corporate job? A: Bringing hope to Americans in poverty