National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

SOA Watch scores victory in Venezuela

President Chávez to withdraw officers from U.S. Army training school


Ever since graduates of the School of the Americas were linked to the assassinations of six Salvadoran Jesuit priests in 1989, peace activists have worked tirelessly to shut down the military school at Fort Benning, Ga. Opponents of the school have organized protests at the fort and the Pentagon, publicized atrocities committed by hundreds of its graduates, lobbied Congress and ultimately brought about a historic vote to cut its funding, only to see the school close and reopen under a new name.

This year, Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the movement SOA Watch that opposes the School of the Americas, is trying a new strategy: appealing directly to Latin American leaders to stop sending their officers to the school, which in 2001 was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC.

So far, the priest is batting a thousand. After Bourgeois made an appeal on Venezuelan national television and met with President Hugo Chávez, the government announced it will no longer send its officers to the school.

What’s more, Bourgeois’ organization has obtained, after a three-year battle, the names of WHISC graduates and has already linked several to corruption and human rights abuses -- including a Salvadoran officer involved in a massacre of 16 people, a Bolivian officer responsible for the torture of a human rights leader, and three Colombians implicated in a corruption scheme involving counter-narcotics funds.

In interviews with NCR, Army and school officials downplayed the fact that the institution is losing Venezuela, an oil-rich country and one of the school’s bigger clients with more than 4,000 graduates.

“Venezuela can’t send any more officers,” and Venezuelans now in training will be gone before summer, said Army Lt. Col. Linda Gould. Venezuela, she said, is a member of the International Criminal Court and has not signed an Article 98 waiver that the State Department now demands before approving foreign military assistance, sales and training.

The waiver is aimed at exempting U.S. officials and military personnel from prosecution by the court for war crimes. By signing it, Venezuela would agree to disavow its international obligation to extradite accused U.S. soldiers and officials to The Hague for trial.

Venezuela’s announcement about ending the training came six weeks after Bourgeois met with Chávez during a weeklong trip to the country organized by Maryknoll’s Office for Global Concerns and the Medical Mission Sisters’ Alliance for Justice.

Global Concerns director Marie Dennis said the January visit was organized to meet with a broad spectrum of people, including U.S. embassy and Venezuelan government officials, barrio residents, religious leaders and Chávez critics, some of whom, Dennis said, the government will need to engage if it is to succeed in redirecting the country’s resources to meet the needs of the poor.

Bourgeois was particularly impress-ed with the government’s health and literacy programs for the poor, who make up nearly 80 percent of the population: “I saw a lot of hope and joy in the barrios.”

“The Bush administration is trying to paint Chávez as something of a dictator,” Bourgeois said. “But they have freedom of the press. There were opposition papers everywhere, and Chávez gets a lot of bad press. They have the freedom to protest. There are large demonstrations all the time. And there are no political prisoners” -- a fact that even Stephen McFarland, a top U.S. embassy official, conceded to the delegation.

Bourgeois had gone to Venezuela in the hopes of talking to Chávez about the School of the Americas, but the meeting could not be prearranged and happened by chance. Bourgeois had broached the subject during a visit with the country’s vice president, José Vicente Rangel.

Immediately after that meeting, Dennis said, Venezuelan media filmed interviews with some members of the delegation, and Bourgeois mentioned the school’s track record. Minutes later, the cell phone of Lisa Sullivan, a Maryknoll lay missionary who had set up meetings for the group, started ringing. “It was the vice president,” Dennis said.

Chávez, he said, had seen them on television and wanted the group to join him for his weekly live television broadcast, during which he takes calls from the public and talks about a wide range of topics, including current events, unemployment, the economy and the plight of the poor.

During the live broadcast, Bourgeois made an appeal that the military stop sending its officers to a school linked to torture and terrorism, a school whose graduates have overthrown democratic governments, organized death squads and carried out the assassinations of the six Jesuits, Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador, he said.

Closer to home, Bourgeois said, two Venezuelan graduates -- Army Commander-in-Chief Efraín Vásquez and Gen. Ramírez Poveda -- participated in the failed April 2002 coup to oust Chávez.

Privately, Chávez told Bourgeois that he would pursue the matter.

Venezuelan newspapers quoted Chávez the next day as saying the school “deformed the minds of many Latin American soldiers.”

But Bourgeois heard nothing more until Feb. 26, when Rangel, the vice president, made an address to the National Assembly and announced that all training of Venezuelan soldiers at the U.S. school would cease, adding that the United States, which considers itself a democracy, shouldn’t have an institution like this on its soil.

School spokesman Lee Rials said three Venezuelan SOA graduates helped restore Chávez to power after the coup, but he did not know their names.

Venezuela, he said, isn’t the only Latin American nation that has not signed an Article 98 waiver, although he didn’t know which ones had not. The school at Fort Benning is not the only U.S. military institution affected, he said; no U.S. military facility can train members of foreign militaries whose governments have not signed the waiver. In 2003, the United States trained the militaries of more than 150 countries.

Bourgeois hopes other Latin nations will follow Venezuela’s lead in ending training at the school, whether Article 98 waivers are an issue or not. The Venezuelan action has energized the movement to close the school, along with the new revelations about WHISC graduates, said Eric LeCompte, SOA Watch’s coordinator of organizing. The revelations, he said, are just now surfacing because it has taken SOA Watch three years to obtain the full names of the graduates.

“We’ve had horrendous problems getting information from the school,” said SOA Watch’s legislative coordinator, Jacqueline Baker. In the past, the school refused to respond to requests and then released incomplete names making impossible any definitive links to abuses, she said.

Officials, she said, “claimed they didn’t have the information, which, if true, means they didn’t even know who was attending their own institution.”

So far, researchers have linked several recent graduates to corruption and abuse, Baker said, including:

  • Salvadoran Col. Francisco del Cid Díaz, a 2003 graduate, who was cited by the 1993 U.N. Truth Commission for commanding a unit that dragged 16 people from their homes and shot them at point-blank range.
  • Bolivian Maj. Filmann Urzagaste Rodríguez, a 2002 graduate, who was implicated in the 1997 torture of lawyer Waldo Albarracín, then the director of the Popular Assembly for Human Rights.
  • Three Colombian police officers under investigation for the personal use of counter-narcotics funds who took courses in 2002 and 2003: Capt. Dario Sierro Chapeta, Lt. Col. Francisco Patino Fonseca and Capt. Luis Benavides Guancha.

These cases, LeCompte said, call into question the school’s claims of openness, screening and accountability. The school is anything but transparent, he said. “It has made it as difficult as possible to get even the most basic information.”

When SOA reopened in January 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, it claimed to be a new school with a new mission, devoted to promoting human rights and democracy.

But even before the school’s use of manuals advocating torture and assassination came to light in 1996, an Army Training and Doctrine Command study suggested that it change its name to bury the past, LeCompte said.

The 1995 study said, “Concerns about the school in the post-Cold War period have surfaced, driven in part by adverse publicity over human rights violations associated with past students of the school.”

It concluded “that negative publicity about the school would probably continue and that a new name for the school may be an appropriate way to break with the past.”

The school’s aversion to releasing names and its enrollment of officers linked to human rights abuses show that it has broken with the past in name only, Baker said: “The del Cid Díaz case seriously undermines the ability of WHISC to claim that they are teaching human rights. It sends a message that our government is rewarding well-known human rights abusers.”

James Hodge and Linda Cooper are freelance writers from New Orleans. They are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Fr. Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas, to be published by Orbis next fall.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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