November 24, 2003 - The News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)

School of the Americas Taught Sordid Lessons in Abuse

By John Lear

The Cold War is over, the U.S. training manuals "recommending targets for neutralization" are gone, and the name of the School of the Americas has now been changed to "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation."

Democratically elected governments now rule most of Latin America and violence has diminished significantly since the 1980s. So maybe we should let the new, improved School of the Americas be, and move on.

Right? Not so right. Just as it did before the Cold War, the United States through the same institution continues to support the militarization of Latin America, now in the name of the war against drugs, against illegal immigration, against political unrest and to protect US investments.

The most obvious example is Colombia, where the U.S. "war on drugs" hid a war against insurgents and the protection of oil facilities, and now has openly become part of the "war against terrorism." The School of the Americas has trained more soldiers from Colombia than from any other Latin American country, grads who not only are prominent in the army but who have formed paramilitary death squads.

According to the latest Amnesty International report, death squads operating in collusion with the army were responsible for the vast majority of "disappearances" and killings of civilians in 2002. In the same year, more than 170 trade unionists and journalists were killed, the majority by death squads.

These human rights abuses are reminiscent of the worst atrocities of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military in the 1980s. Since the initiation of NAFTA and the Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico in 1994, the number of Mexican officers trained at the School of the Americas has increased dramatically. As in the past, militarization undermines Latin American democracy and the security of its citizens.

The School of the Americas, by any name, is really just one part, perhaps the most obvious symbol, of a wrongheaded U.S. policy toward Latin America.

Today the U.S. government pushes for free trade but subsidizes U.S. agribusiness and protects domestic markets against the very products Latin America produces for export. It advocates the free flow of investment and goods, but consigns needed immigrant workers to illegality and marginality. And it assumes that markets by themselves will resolve the enormous inequalities and poverty that have always plagued Latin America.

The U.S. needs to begin a much different relationship to Latin America. Closing the School of the Americas would be a good way to start.

The School of the Americas Watch is a group of activists led by priests, retired military and community leaders who have been organizing for years to close the SOA, most prominently in annual November protests at Fort Benning and in cities across the nation like Tacoma, where one such protest will be held Sunday. (Note: the November Coalition's Journey for Justice attended this protest on Sunday, November 16. Pictures are available here.)

More than 70 priests, nuns and community activists (including Tacoma priest Bill Bichsel) have served prison terms for civil disobedience at these peaceful protests. The movement to close the School of the Americas is an important fixture in the movement for peace and justice, and it has been heard.

Pressured by these activists, the House of Representatives has periodically voted over the last decade on legislation to close the institute; in 2000, a House amendment to close the school was barely defeated by a vote of 214 to 204. A new proposal sponsored by 50 representatives is pending. Each vote brings us closer to closure and helps us reconsider the military role of the United States in the world.

As the Bush administration begins to intervene unilaterally across the globe the way this country often has in Latin America, closing the School of the Americas remains a more urgent task than ever. With the intervention in Iraq and threats to intervene unilaterally elsewhere, the U.S. "back yard" now includes most of the world.

Our government insists that global interventions are really about keeping our country secure and spreading democracy. But the lessons of the old and new School of the Americas should lead us to challenge these claims and ask hard questions about a U.S. foreign policy based primarily on military intervention and training.

Once we have closed this symbol of all that is wrong with our relationship to Latin America, we can begin to imagine a truly new School of the Americas, one that educates Latin Americans to be doctors and teachers, that forms community leaders trained in real democracy, and that encourages active citizenship.

Imagine a School of the Americas that promotes fairer trade, workers' rights, environmental protection and an economic development that benefits the majority of the population of the Americas. That would be a school worth opening.

John Lear is associate professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Puget Sound.

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