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Schools of the Americas foes score with Congress, union

NCR Staff

Opponents of the School of the Americas scored two victories recently, as the House of Representatives voted for the first time to partially cut funds to the institution and the AFL-CIO’s executive council passed a resolution calling for the school’s closure.

The Aug. 4 statement from the 13-million member AFL-CIO labor federation called the training program for Latin American military officers “a relic of a previous era of violence.” The executive council endorsed proposed House legislation to close the school.

Less than a week before the labor organization’s resolution was passed, the House of Representatives voted 230-197 to partially cut funds for the School of the Americas.

Until the July 30 vote, efforts in the House to cut the school’s funds have been defeated every year since 1993.

“This is the first time Congress has cut a single dime from their budget,” said Carol Richardson, director of the Washington office for SOA Watch, which has led the campaign to close the school. “This puts the school on notice that its days are numbered.”

That is an optimistic assessment, since the current bill must first be endorsed by the Senate. If that happens, the amendment would cut all school funding from foreign operations appropriations — $1.5 million to $2 million that is primarily used for scholarships for foreign officers.

The remainder of the school’s approximately $4.5 million budget is funded through the Pentagon by way of a defense appropriations bill, which may become a target of protests in the future.

Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, called the House vote a “historic moment.”

‘A deep joy’

“It’s a deep joy after all these years of protesting at the Pentagon, fasting on the Capitol steps, writing thousands of letters, putting our feet at the gates of Fort Benning and going off to prison for years, to see our efforts bear fruit,” Bourgeois told NCR.

The amendment’s chief sponsor was Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., who said, “The School of the Americas has trained some of the most brutal assassins, some of the cruelest dictators and some of the worst violators of human rights that the Western Hemisphere has ever seen. It’s time for the United States of America to admit its mistakes and remove this horrible blemish from our military establishment.”

Moakley is also sponsor of a freestanding bill to close the school.

After years of failed attempts to cut the school’s funding, both Bourgeois and Richardson were stunned by the 33-vote winning margin. Previously, the closest vote to cut funding, two years ago, was 210 to 217.

Richardson told NCR that the 33-vote margin will improve the amendment’s chances as it faces Senate approval. In its foreign operations bill, the Senate kept the school’s budget intact. House and Senate members will meet later this summer in conference committee to reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill.

Richardson said opponents of the school planned to contact conference committee members to urge them to uphold the House amendment.

Ten-year campaign

For nearly 10 years, a coalition of religious leaders, labor organizers, peace groups and veterans’ organizations have campaigned to close the institution at Fort Benning, Ga. Graduates of the school have been implicated in some of the most notorious assassinations, massacres and other atrocities committed during Latin America’s civil wars over the last 30 years.

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said the school drew his attention following the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador. A U.N. Truth Commission report later found that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran soldiers involved in the murders were School of the Americas graduates.

“All you ever hear from the School of the Americas and the secretary of the Army and everyone else in the military establishment are rationalizations about a ‘few bad apples,’ ” McGovern said. “How many bad apples does it take before we shut this school down? It’s not just El Salvador or Guatemala in the past. It’s today in Colombia. It’s today in Peru. It’s today in Bolivia.”

Supporters of the school say that the institution is necessary to further U.S. policy in Latin America — in the past fighting communism, now combating drug trafficking.

Just before the House vote, Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army, defended the school in a July 27 column in The Washington Times, saying it was a crucial part of U.S. policy to promote democracy in Latin America. In particular, it is part of the effort “to make sure that Latin America’s military forces become the backbone of democracy — and not an impediment,” Caldera said. He noted that all courses at the school include instruction in human rights.

Caldera also wrote that only a small percentage of the school’s 60,000 graduates have been linked to human rights violations. “What these graduates did cannot be condoned but what they did was not a result of their attendance at the School of the Americas,” he wrote.

Nicolas Britto, public affairs officer for the School of the Americas, told NCR, “I want to make very clear that the school doesn’t teach torture, rape or murder. We don’t teach anything like that.”

Britto said he was not sure what effect cuts would have on the school’s operations if the amendment was approved in conference committee.

Even if the budget cuts receive Senate approval, opponents of the school emphasized that they still have a lot of work ahead of them. “The Pentagon will continue its fight to keep this School of the Americas going,” Bourgeois said. “While we are extremely encouraged with this vote, they will bring out the big guns to try and hold onto a school that keeps the militaries of Latin America entrenched.”

Still, Bourgeois marveled at how far the movement had come since 1990, when he and a small group fasted for 37 days to commemorate the deaths of the six Jesuits in El Salvador. That has evolved into an annual protest each November at Fort Benning, which was attended by 7,000 people last fall. SOA Watch expects over 10,000 people to participate in this year’s Nov. 10 protest.

For the past three years, SOA Watch has cultivated the support of labor leaders. The relationship culminated in the AFL-CIO resolution, which endorsed pending congressional legislation to close the School of the Americas.

In its Aug. 4 resolution, the AFL-CIO said it supported U.S. government policies that “promote democratization, political stability and the rule of law — especially with respect to basic worker rights.”

“The AFL-CIO believes that the continued training of Latin American military officers in practices which have led to the violation of human rights is out of step with the emerging climate of peace and democracy through the region,” the labor organization said. “The School of the Americas is a relic of a previous era of violence; its very existence undermines the credibility of U.S. government efforts to assist development throughout the region.”

Bourgeois said that for many labor leaders, opposition to the School of the Americas is “an easy connection.”

“We have been reminding them that in Latin America, many labor leaders are the targets of SOA graduates,” Bourgeois said. “Many of those killed and disappeared over the years have been labor leaders struggling for just wages.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999