From the print edition
By David Hutt | Special to The Tico Times
MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Latin American support for the School for the Americas (SOA) has been falling like dominos over the past decade.
Based in Fort Benning, Georgia, in the United States, the military academy for Latin American soldiers, which now is titled the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has been associated with a number of human rights abuses committed by its graduates. From Southern Cone “dirty wars” to Central American civil wars, many graduates from the “school of assassins,” as some human rights groups refer to it, have been accused of rape, murder and massacres. Former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca called the school the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that his country would no longer send soldiers to be trained there. Two years later, Argentina made a similar announcement, and neighboring Uruguay took the opportunity to affirm its removal of troops from the school.
Bolivia was added to the list in 2008 and Ecuador in 2012. In 2007, Costa Rica juggled with the idea. At one point, then-President Oscar Arias stated he would stop sending his country’s police officers to the school (since Costa Rica has no military). He later reversed the decision, citing the need for training to combat international drug trafficking and organized crime.
This month, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced he would no longer send soldiers to the school. After a Sept. 4 meeting with a delegation from the activist group School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), Ortega called the SOA “an ethical and moral anathema.”
“All of the countries of Latin America have been victims of its graduates,” Ortega said. “The SOA is a symbol of death, a symbol of terror.”
Ortega noted that Nicaragua gradually has reduced the numbers of troops that are trained at the school, sending only five soldiers last year and none this year.
“We have now entered a new phase, and we will not continue to send troops to the SOA. This is the least that we can do,” Ortega said.
He said he expected backlash from the U.S. over the decision.
Ortega praised Latin American unity and economic solidarity, but said aid from other Latin American countries is “still not sufficient to allow Nicaragua to be totally independent of the U.S., a nation that continues to punish Nicaragua for any slight step out of line by withholding funding.”
The SOAW delegation has been touring Nicaragua for two weeks, meeting with government officials, rural community leaders and other groups.
Cold War Context
Stirred to action after the assassination on March 24, 1980, of Archbishop Óscar Romero by a right-wing death squad in El Salvador, Father Roy Bourgeois founded the U.S-based SOAW, and has been campaigning since 1990. He has called the school a “symbol of United States foreign policy whose role is always the same: to protect U.S. economic interests and control the natural resources of Latin American countries.”
Opponents of the school point to a number of figures in Latin American history who have received training and then committed human rights abuses. Recently, graduate Pedro Pimentel Ríos of Guatemala was sentenced to a symbolic 6,060 years in prison for his actions during the 1982 Dos Erres Massacre that resulted in more than 200 deaths in that country. In total, 11 dictators have attended the school, from Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri, to Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt, whose scorched earth campaign has been classified as genocide by a U.N. commission.
In 1996, the U.S. Pentagon was forced to release training manuals from the school that advocated attacking civilians, executions, torture, false imprisonment and extortion. All of these manuals had been distributed to Central American military personnel during the 1970s and ’80s, when the U.S. was funding counterinsurgency groups in the region.
However, according to a statement by the SOA, “no school should be held accountable for the actions of its graduates.”
Its mission statement promises a high moral standard. According to the statement, the school provides: “a professional education and training to eligible military, law enforcement and civilian personnel of nations of the Western Hemisphere within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of American States.”
Of the 64,000 soldiers the school has trained, only a small number has been convicted of human rights abuses.
In an attempt to distance itself from the past, the SOA underwent rebranding and remerged in 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Yet a former director at the school, Maj. Joseph Blair, said, “There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, changed the course names and use the same manuals.”
In 2009, attempts to forget its past were further quashed when two-time graduate Gen. Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez toppled Honduras’s democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, in a coup that received condemnation from around the world.
The eventual fate of the SOA is unknown. Fewer and fewer Latin American nations are sending their soldiers for training, and there is growing pressure in the U.S. to disband the school altogether.
In 2007, the McGovern/Lewis Amendment was put before the U.S. Congress with the aim of cutting off the school’s funding. It failed to pass by just six votes.
In a few days, another delegation from SOAW will meet with President Barack Obama’s administration and put their case forward for the closure of the school. But for Nicaragua, its stance on the SOA has now become clear: It aims to become the first Central American nation to withdraw its soldiers from the school.