Each November thousands of people gather in Columbus GA, on the anniversary of the 1989 slaughter of six El Salvadoran priests, their housekeeper and her 14 year old daughter, and to urge the closing of the School of the Americas (SOA), the USA run and USA taxpayer funded school that trained the El Salvadoran military responsible for their murders.
The School of the Americas was first established as the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center in Panama in 1946 to help professionalize Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1984, under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaties, the school was renamed and forced to move from Panama to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia where it continues to train Latin American security personnel.
The school is frequently cited as an example of United States' support for regimes in Latin America that have a history of employing death squads and SOA graduates are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America.
Among the SOA's nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Suarez of Bolivia.
Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in the assassination of religious leaders and the massacre of civilians.
In 2000, as SOA opponents were poised to win a congressional vote to dismantle the school and conduct an investigation, the Department of Defense came up with a proposal to solve these pesty human rights and public relations problems.
To deflect public criticism and disassociate the school from its dubious reputation, the SOA was "closed" in December of 2000 and "reopened" on January 17, 2001 with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).
To rectify the human rights issues the school introduced courses that cover democracy and human rights topics. Clever, huh? However, in reality these classes are only taken by a few students and the minimum of eight hours of ethical instruction mandated by recent law is not high enough to be effective. So, the courses and name change engineered by the Pentagon is simply a "cosmetic" change that would ensure that the SOA could continue. And continue it does.
It is cetainly a victory that in 2004, Venezuela and in 2006, Argentina joined Uraguay in not sending their country's soldiers to train at the School of the Americas.
This weekend once again thousands gather in Georgia, including civil rights activist, torture survivors and survivors of murdered civilians and human rights workers, along with concerned citizens. They will participate in workshops, concerts, meetings, marches, and be possibly arrested for civil disobedience by stepping inside the Ft. Benning military base gate.
This weekend simultaneous demonstrations will take place in our hemisphere, in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and in Davis, California! Thousands of people will be raising their voices, demanding the closure of the SOA/WHISC.
It bothers me that the USA is presently involved and dedicated with our money and U.S. lives in securing freedom and human rights, yet as evidenced by U.S. crisis response to Rwanda, Darfur, and Katrina, these USA gifts are very selective.
It bothers me that we presently have a dedicated priorty to fight terroists
yet, a U.S. Army facility that trains terroist is knowingly allowed to exist.
It bothers me most that this school is run on US taxpayers money and the message it sends is in our name.
Closing the School of the Americas would send a strong human rights message to Latin America and the world.
This weekend about a dozen members of University Church, including Rev. Donald Coleman, are at the memorial/SOA protest in Georgia working toward a peaceful future in the Americas. I am very proud of them.
Last year the memorial/demonstration drew 19,000 people. This year's gathering at the gates is shaping up to become the biggest demonstration at a U.S. military base since the Vietnam war. Last count was 22,000 strong and 14 arrested, so far.