Published on Saturday, May 20, 2000 in the New York Times
House Votes To Keep Army's School of Americas Open But With A Name Change
by Steven Lee Myers
by years of controversy over its mission and its graduates, the Army's
School of the Americas is on the
verge of getting a new charter, a new
curriculum and a new name. It appears likely, however, to face the
same old protests.
The Army's plans to reorganize the school, which has trained generations of soldiers from Central America and South America, cleared a major hurdle this week when the House narrowly rejected an amendment that would have closed it down.
If the Senate goes along, as expected, the school that critics have linked to human rights violations by former students will officially "close" and "reopen" later this year as the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation.
The Army proposed the changes last month, prompted by rising opposition to the school from religious groups and, more importantly, from some members of Congress, who nearly succeeded in cutting off the school's financing last year.
Opened in Panama in 1946 and moved to its current location at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984, the school has been the primary training ground for more than 60,000 Latin American military and police.
Some were later implicated in the region's most notorious abuses, like the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989.
The secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, said in an interview that critics have unfairly tarnished the school's reputation because of the actions of very few. Nonetheless, he said, the changes would give the school a focus that was more academic and less strictly military.
"I thought it would be a mistake to close the school down," Mr. Caldera said, "because that would be turning our backs on the countries of Latin America."
Because Congress chartered the school, the Army had to seek approval for its changes.
In addition to having a new name, the school would have an advisory board to review its curriculum and report to Congress. Authority over the school would be transferred from the Army to the Department of Defense, and students would be required to have at least eight hours of instruction in human rights in each course.
Mr. Caldera said the Army would try to increase the number of civilian students, and emphasize training political and military leaders in the proper role of the military under the region's emerging democratic governments.
The school would remain at Fort Benning and still offer courses involving purely military tactics and strategies, prompting opponents to denounce the changes as cosmetic.
When the Army's proposal came before the House on Thursday as part of the defense authorization bill, four members sponsored an amendment to shut the school and create a committee to review military training for Latin Americans.
"Even with a new coat of paint, the School of the Americas has trained far too many killers of innocent people to remain a part of our foreign policy," said one of the sponsors, Representative John J. Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts.
But the amendment lost on a roll-call vote of 214 to 204 after lobbying by Army, Pentagon and Clinton administration officials. A day before the vote, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sent members a joint letter saying the Army's proposal would "allow us to move past what had become a contentious annual debate on the school's legacy and focus on the question of how best to engage militarily our friends and allies in the hemisphere."
The Army's proposal won approval when the House overwhelmingly approved the larger authorization bill late Thursday.
The Rev. Roy L. Bourgeois, a priest who has organized protests against the school for a decade from his apartment at Fort Benning's main gate, said the changes would not diminish the movement against the school. The protests have grown from a handful of opponents to a crowd in November that was estimated at more than 8,000.
"After thinking this thing out, we realized what they're really talking about is a name change," he said in a telephone interview today. "For us, this is the same old school doing what it's always been doing."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company