SAN FRANCISCO - The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to take what advocates are calling a historic vote this week to close the largest U.S. military training ground for soldiers from Central and South America.
The vote comes on the initiative of Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), who has offered an amendment to the Foreign Operations and Appropriations Bill that would prevent any U.S. tax dollars from funding the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The institute is better known as the School of the Americas, which was its official name until the year 2000.
"Human rights abuses by graduates of the school have been widespread," argued Joao da Silva, communications coordinator for School of the Americas Watch, a grassroots group that raises awareness about the school's checkered past.
The School of the Americas was founded in 1946, primarily to prevent communism from spreading in Central and South America. During the 1970s and 1980s many right-wing military dictatorships came to power throughout Latin America; many of their leaders had attended the school.
Among the School of the Americas' more than 60,000 alumni 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 Banzar Suarez of Bolivia.
According to School of the Americas Watch, graduates were also responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador; the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; and the massacre of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador; among hundreds of other human rights abuses.
Representatives of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, also known as WHINSEC, did not return phone calls by deadline.
"The School of the Americas is not very well known in the United States, but it's very well known in Latin America," said Christy Thornton, director of the New York-based North American Congress on Latin America, which publishes a leading journal on Central and South American Affairs.
"The School of the Americas is for many a symbol of U.S. imperialism. Closing it would help restore credibility to the U.S. in the eyes of the rest of the world," she added.
Thornton said the rise of anti-American left wing leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is in part a reaction against past U.S. support for authoritarian governments in the region.
In recent years, four countries have decided to withdraw their soldiers from WHINSEC. In 2004, Chavez stopped sending Venezuelan soldiers to the school, and last year Argentina and Uruguay announced they would end co-operation as well.
Last month, they were joined by Costa Rica, which does not have a standing army but had sent police officers there for training. The country's president, Oscar Arias, won the Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago and has dedicated himself to international arms control.
Costa Rica's public safety minister Fernando Berrocal told Agance France Press that Arias made the decision with regard to "the most sacred principles of the country's history."
"We must understand that this decision does not in any way contradict our alliance with the United States in the struggle against crime and neither does it impede cooperation in security programs to professionalize our police," he said.
Opponents of the school are optimistic that their measure to close it will pass this year. School of the Americas Watch's da Silva said the Democratic tide at U.S. polls last November could prove decisive.
"Thirty-five representatives who opposed this last year lost their seats in the November midterms," he noted.
Last year, a similar measure to close the school failed by 15 votes in the House of Representatives. To cut off money for the school, measures would have to pass both the House of Representatives and Senate this year.
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