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School of the Americas reforms merely cosmetic, critics say

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The U.S. Army’s strategy to silence the critics of its notorious Latin American training school has backfired and further galvanized opponents who want the academy closed.

Last year Army Secretary Louis Caldera pledged to reform the controversial School of the Americas after the House voted to cut its funding and a Senate conference committee narrowly restored it.

“We’re not going to allow the Army’s reputation to be dragged through the mud every year,” Caldera said. “I don’t want to go through another fiscal year with this torture.”

Yet, his “reform” plans -- to give the school a new name, modify its curriculum and sweep it under the control of the defense department -- barely passed the House May 18, despite intense lobbying by the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The close vote in the Republican-controlled House promises that Congressional battles will continue over the school that has trained hundreds of the worst human rights abusers in Latin American history. The proposals still need Senate approval.

An analysis by the School of the Americas Watch shows that the proposed changes are cosmetic, a charge that some Congressmen and even some school supporters concede.

The changes amount to “perfume on a toxic dump,” little more than “a new coat of paint,” said Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, whose attempt to close the school failed on a 214-204 vote.

“I was hoping I’d be out of a job,” said Fr. Roy Bourgeois who has led a 10-year campaign to shut the school’s doors. “But all they’re doing is putting a penicillin label on a bottle of poison.”

Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and former naval officer, added, “Their attempt to divide the movement has only energized it.”

Demonstrations to close the school broke out May 24 in a dozen cities, including Washington, Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia. At Fort Benning, Ga., where the school is headquartered, 11 persons were detained for a protest by Oberlin College students who entered the base with a timeline of atrocities committed by graduates.

A protest in November, an annual event in memory of the six Salvadoran Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, slain in 1989 by SOA graduates, is expected to draw even more than the 12,000 who showed up last year, Bourgeois said. That’s because this December is the 20th anniversary of the murders of four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and shot by Salvadoran graduates of the school.

If, as expected, the Senate goes along with the House measure contained in this year’s defense authorization bill, the school will be renamed the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation. The new name is an attempt to suggest the school is abandoning the role the Kennedy administration assigned it in 1963 when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced that Latin military leaders were responsible for internal security rather than hemispheric defense. Internal security refers to controlling dissent within borders of individual countries.

Among other proposed changes, the legislation creates an advisory board appointed by the defense secretary, but it will not even be required to provide an annual report specifically assessing graduates as is presently required.

The legislation, which will supposedly broaden the pool of candidates, authorizes the training of police and civilian personnel in addition to military officers, but that’s a practice already in place.

Similarly, the proposal calls for the institute to offer courses in leadership development, counter-drug operations, peace support and disaster relief. Records show, however, that these courses are already offered, although taken by only a small percent of the enrolled officers, according to Carol Richardson and Alison Snow of School of the Americas Watch.

The overwhelming majority of soldiers now take courses in commando tactics, military intelligence, psychological operations and advance combat techniques -- courses that will continue to be taught under the new guidelines. It was the commando course that was taken by several of the Salvadoran graduates cited for the killings of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter.

The legislation also calls for the institute to include at least eight hours of instruction in “human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military and the role of the military in a democratic society.”

Again, the proposals represent no significant change. The current policy mandates that officers be given eight hours of human rights instruction, which critics say is woefully inadequate considering that the commando course lasts 10 weeks.

In fact, the Army’s strategy to deflect criticism of the school, which has had three name changes, is nothing new.

After graduates returned to their countries and tortured political opponents in the 1970s, Congress banned urban counterinsurgency courses. The school cancelled the classes, then taught similar tactics under different course names.

The latest attempt, Bourgeois says, “is an insult not only to the people of Latin America, but to the martyrs like the Jesuits and the churchwomen, to the poor who’ve been victims of this school, and to people in this country who are trying to work in solidarity with the poor of Latin America.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000