Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Congressman Cooper: Shut Down That School!

A stunning, yet entirely predictable, turn of events: Via Sojourners, the progressive Christian group, I learn that graduates of the School of Americas (aka, “School of the Assassins”) at Ft. Benning, GA, led the coup which overthrew Honduran President Mel Zelaya this weekend.

Kristin Bricker reports:
The crisis in Honduras began when the military refused to distribute ballot boxes for the opinion poll in a new Constitution.  President Zelaya fired the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Romeo Orlando Vasquez Velasquez, who refused to step down.  The heads of all branches of the Honduran armed forces quit in solidarity with Vasquez.  Vasquez, however, refused to step down, bolstered by support in Congress and a Supreme Court ruling that reinstated him.  Vasquez remains in control of the armed forces.

Vasquez, along with other military leaders, graduated from the United States' infamous School of the Americas (SOA).  According to a School of the Americas Watch database compiled from information obtained from the US government, Vasquez studied in the SOA at least twice: once in 1976 and again in 1984.

The head of the Air Force, Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, studied in the School of the Americas in 1996.  The Air Force has been a central protagonist in the Honduran crisis.  When the military refused to distribute the ballot boxes for the opinion poll, the ballot boxes were stored on an Air Force base until citizens accompanied by Zelaya rescued them.  Zelaya reports that after soldiers kidnapped him, they took him to an Air Force base, where he was put on a plane and sent to Costa Rica.

I first learned about the School of the Americas (now renamed WHINSEC, for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security & Cooperation) when Don Beisswenger spoke at our church a few years ago. Beisswenger is a former Vanderbilt Divinity School professor who served time in a federal prison for participating in a non-violent protest at Ft. Benning. When people tell me liberal Christians aren’t working hard enough or speaking loud enough, I always think of Beisswenger and want to smack those folks upside the head. Shame on you for not knowing who he is or what he’s sacrificed--he wrote a book about it, for crying out loud!

Anyway, School of the Americas is where the U.S. military trains Central and South American soldiers in “counterinsurgency”:

Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.

This is the kind of thing that America did a lot of back during the Cold War and the Reagan years, when the idea of a communist government in Cuba or Nicaragua was deemed a huge threat to American security for reasons I never understood, other than Latin America being the playing field where America and the Soviet Union played their war games.

Now that the Soviet Union has fallen and Communism isn’t the threat it once was, the School of the Americas should have outlived its purpose. However, corporations have found SOA graduates willing allies in helping them exert their oppressive influence in the region. This is never good for human rights, the environment, civil rights, or anyone else save the corporations who profit from abusing the poor and powerless.

Same as it ever was. And so now we have a Democratically-elected leader of Honduras overthrown by a two-time graduate of the SOA, using the techniques he learned at the knee of the United States military.

Your tax dollars at work, teaching South American soldiers how to “disappear” union organizers, use rape to terrorize local villagers into submission, and how to torture. Huzzah!

Years ago, when I first learned of SOA, I wrote Rep. Jim Cooper, who serves on the House Armed Services committee, asking him to cut funding for the SOA/WHINSEC. He wrote me back saying yes, he was aware of the SOA’s previous abuses but since the school was renamed in 2001 and supposedly had a new mission, he was inclined to continue funding the terror school until there was more evidence of misdeeds.

You know, the irony of it all is, America was attacked by terrorists, we’ve been involved in a “war on terror” for years, and yet we are training terrorists.

You reap what you sow.