The first coup d'etat in Central America in more than a quarter-century occurred last Sunday in Honduras. Honduran soldiers roused democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya from his bed and flew him into exile in Costa Rica. The coup, led by the Honduran Gen. Romeo Vasquez, has been condemned by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization of American States and all of Honduras' immediate national neighbors. Mass protests have erupted on the streets of Honduras, with reports that elements in the military loyal to Zelaya are rebelling against the coup.
The United States has a long history of domination in the hemisphere. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can chart a new course, away from the dark days of military dictatorship, repression and murder. Obama indicated such a direction when he spoke in April at the Summit of the Americas: "[A]t times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."
Two who know well the history of dictated U.S. terms are Dr. Juan Almendares, a medical doctor and award-winning human rights activist in Honduras, and the American clergyman Father Roy Bourgeois, a priest who for years has fought to close the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga. Both men link the coup in Honduras to the SOA.
The SOA, renamed in 2000 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), is the U.S. military facility that trains Latin American soldiers. The SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers, many of whom have returned home and committed human rights abuses, torture, extrajudicial execution and massacres.
Almendares, targeted by Honduran death squads and the military, has been the victim of that training. He talked to me from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital: "Most of this military have been trained by the School of America. ... They have been guardians of the multinational business from the United States or from other countries. ... The army in Honduras has links with very powerful people, very rich, wealthy people who keep the poverty in the country. We are occupied by your country."
Born in Louisiana, Bourgeois became a Catholic priest in 1972. He worked in Bolivia and was forced out by the (SOA-trained) dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer. The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the murders of four Catholic churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980 led him to protest where some of the killers were trained: Fort Benning's SOA. After six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered in El Salvador in 1989, Bourgeois founded SOA Watch and has built an international movement to close the SOA.
Honduran coup leader Vasquez attended the SOA in 1976 and 1984. Air Force Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, who also participated in the coup, was trained at the SOA in 1996.
Bourgeois' SOA Watch office is just yards from the Fort Benning gates. He has been frustrated in recent years by increased secrecy at SOA/WHINSEC. He told me: "They are trying to present the school as one of democracy and transparency, but we are not able to get the names of those trained here-for over five years. However, there was a little sign of hope when the U.S. House approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill last week that would force the school to release names and ranks of people who train here." The amendment still has to make it through the House-Senate conference committee.
Bourgeois speaks with the same urgency that he has for decades. His voice is well known at Fort Benning, where he was first arrested more than 25 years ago when he climbed a tree at night near the barracks of Salvadoran soldiers who were training there at the time.
Bourgeois blasted a recording of the voice of Romero in his last address before he was assassinated. The archbishop was speaking directly to Salvadoran soldiers in his country: "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression."
Almost 30 years later, in a country bordering Romero's El Salvador, the U.S. has a chance to change course and support the democratic institutions of Honduras. Undo the coup.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.