SOA Protest Draws Scant Support From Candidates

Heading into its eighteenth annual protest at Georgia's Fort Benning, the movement to close the US Army's School of the Americas has continued to show signs of progress. The House nearly voted to eliminate funding for the SOA this session, with newly elected Democrats tightening the roll-call count to 203-214. Meanwhile, the governments of Costa Rica and Bolivia announced that they would cut ties with the SOA, becoming the fourth and fifth Latin American countries to do so in the past four years. But in a sign that the SOA protest movement has a long road yet to travel, only two of the eight Democratic candidates for President--Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska--would close the controversial institution if elected to the White House.

Established in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, in 1984, the SOA has instructed more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics. The Pentagon has acknowledged that in the past the institution utilized training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. SOA alumni, after returning to Latin America, have committed countless human rights atrocities, often in the course of creating and maintaining military dictatorships. Responding to that history, Congress intervened in 2001 by renaming the SOA the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and revising its structure and curriculum.

With Congressional reforms on the books for six years, the SOA may hold less practical significance now than in decades past. Nonetheless, the institution retains an unparalleled symbolic position, given Washington's continuing history of manipulating the hemisphere's politics through military training and funding. "The school is important because it's about US policy in Latin America and how we've been on the side of military dictators who oppress their own people," said Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch, in a recent interview. "Any presidential candidate who is serious about changing [that policy] has to address this school because from the beginning it's been more about protecting US economic interests than contributing to the development of these countries."

Though only Kucinich and Gravel called for closure of the SOA, all but one of the Democratic candidates for President offered comments (through their campaigns) in response to inquiries about the institution.

Kucinich, who has voted repeatedly to close the SOA, confirmed through a campaign spokesman that he would shut its doors if elected President. "Dennis has come to believe that the School of the Americas by any name is injurious to both the reputation of the United States and the people of Latin America," the spokesman wrote in an e-mail.

Gravel, despite having never considered the issue independently as a legislator, would close the SOA as part of his plan to eliminate US institutions associated with human rights violations in the past. "The senator would destroy Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as part of a message to the rest of the world," said Alex Colvin, a campaign spokesman. "And he would close the School [of the Americas]."

Two more Democratic candidates--Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois--praised Congress's curriculum revision but pledged to continue evaluating the institution.

"I have concerns about the history of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," Dodd said in a statement. "The Institute has made some reforms, for example introducing more courses on instilling an awareness of human rights and democratic principles. At the same time, I believe that continued reforms are essential. I will continue to monitor the Institute's operations closely in the interest of ensuring that it and its graduates hold to the principles and values of our country."

An Obama spokesman said the senator "has not committed to closing down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but he will take a hard look at the program and the progress it has made once he is elected." The spokesman added that Obama is pleased with the institution's inclusion of human rights courses.

The campaigns of two more candidates--Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico--framed the issue more broadly, opting not to address the institution's troubled past or their own plans for future monitoring.

Clinton, according to her campaign, would "ensure that all military training programs, including this one, promote professionalism and respect for human rights." As for Richardson, his campaign argued that the United States should set a human rights example, and as such "we must be impeccable in our own human rights behavior, and this includes all government-run...institutions, including [WHINSEC]."

Finally, the campaign of former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina dodged the SOA question, stating in generic language that Edwards would "adopt policies that will help Latin America move toward democracy, development, and human rights, and away from the authoritarianism, poverty, and instability that have done so much harm in the past."

Of the eight Democratic hopefuls, only Senator Joe Biden of Delaware declined to comment. (At least one Republican, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, said he would close the institution. However, it should be noted that Paul, the Libertarian Party's candidate for President in 1988, would also close the IRS, FEMA and the Education Department.)

Informed of the Democratic candidates' positions, Bourgeois said he was "inspired" by the support of Kucinich and Gravel and "disappointed" by the rest. But while he longs for a slate of candidates more attuned to concerns about US policy in Latin America, the activist priest said the current landscape reaffirms his commitment to nonviolent protest. "I learned a long time ago, when I was in Bolivia [in the 1970s], that change will not come from the top down, it will come from the bottom up," he said. "So we're going to continue to take to the streets."

The SOA protest, scheduled annually to commemorate the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her daughter by SOA graduates in San Salvador in 1989, is set for November 17-18 at Fort Benning's main gate.

(c) 2007 The Nation

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