Activists protest against School of the Americas

Monday, November 22, 2004

FORT BENNING, Georgia — According to the Associated Press, around 16,000 protesters demonstrated outside a Fort Benning, Georgia, military school this weekend, demanding it be closed in connection with accused human rights violations. Indymedia reports 20 people were arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Among the crowd were celebrity-actors Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon; Sarandon narrated the 1997 documentary School of Assassins about the school's history. Indymedia web site quotes Elizabeth Nadeau, a 27-year-old student, as saying "Prison will not deter us. We will be here until we close the school and change the foreign policy that it represents."

In 1946 the military Latin American Training Center U.S. Ground Forces was established in Panama; in 1949 it became the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center and during 1963 the training center expanded and became the U.S. Army School of the Americas (USARSA or SOA). The SOA mission was to counter the influence of Communism in the region, and to assist Latin-American nations in fighting armed Communist movements. In 1984 the school was moved to Fort Benning, near Columbus. At the end of 2000, the SOA was closed as its reason of existence as an anti-Communist school was rendered unnecessary. In 2001, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation was opened in the same location. WHINSEC offers training to Latin American military and civilian forces in combat, counter-narcotics, and counter-insurgency techniques, with training completed mainly in the Spanish language.

Activists claim that both SOA (in the past, during 80's) and WHINSEC (at present day) trained militias in tactics of violence that are/were used against political dissidents in their native countries. They accuse SOA graduates of been responsible of death squads, drug deals, murders, rape and torture. They say the school is responsible by these acts and that many techniques of torture its graduated students have used in their countries had been learned at the military American school. A list of allegeds SOA graduated students's crimes can be seen at the Virtual Truth Commission, an anti-SOA webpage.

Pro-SOA say the school was important in the maintenance of the security in the Latin America and United States during Cold War. A list of death victims by communist groups between 1935-1972 only in Brazil can be seen at the Ternuma (Terrorism never), a Brazilian alleged anti-terrorism webpage. Also, the US Department of Defense maintains a list of significant terrorist incidents between 1961-2003, among them are several crimes committed by communist groups. The UK version of IndyMedia distributes a copy in English of the Manual of the Urban Guerrilla which details techniques of urban terrorism for communism, written by Carlos Marighella, a communism fighter. The Cuban dictator Fidel Castro advocated armed revolutionary struggle in Latin America. The USSR or Soviet Union gave trainning, military and economic help through Cuba to various communists groups in American continent.

The protest at Fort Benning which involved a mock funeral procession is an annual event organized by the School of Americas Watch (SOAW) to commemorate the first assassination attributed to school's graduates, the November 16 1989, killing of six Salvadoran Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, at the University of Central America (UCA). Of the 27 soldiers cited for that killing by a 1993 UN Truth Commission, 19 were SOA graduates. SOAW lists 11 former Latin American dictators as graduates of the School. USA deny they supported dictators and they protest against Fidel Castro, the long-time dictator of Cuba, who has received support, military and economic help from USSR for a long time.

SOA officials say thousands of soldiers have been trained and about 300 of them have been accused of human rights violations. "The connections that critics make between the school and the crimes allegedly committed by its graduates are tenuous at best", says Joe Leuer - who worked at SOA.

Pro-military activists planned a concurrent gathering called "God Bless Fort Benning Celebration," to honor the soldiers and history of the military base where WHINSEC is located. "If they have 10,000, then we have 10,001," organizer Miriam Tidwell told Associated Press. Unverified reports of this counter-demonstration put attendance figures between 10,000 and 15,000.

WHINSEC operates with an annual budget of approximately $8 million, the school curriculum now includes a mandated 8 hours of training in human rights which includes "human rights, rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society."