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Update from Urugauy: No More Soldiers to the School of the Americas! PDF Print E-mail
In mid-March of 2006, Carlos Mauricio, Lisa Sullivan and Fr. Roy Bourgeois set off on a three week journey to Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay to build relationships with social movements and to convince popular governments in South America to stop sending their soldiers to train at the School of the Americas, a school synonymous with torture and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

March 27, 2006

Greetings SOA Watch friends! Roy, Carlos and I arrived here in Argentina by boat from Uruguay yesterday morning, and been on the move ever since. Before anything else, our huge thanks goes to Andres Thomas Conteris for doing so much to arrange this amazing visit to Uruguay! It would not have been possible without him!

The good news first!! Roy, Carlos and I were able to meet with the Defense Minister of Uruguay, Azucena Berrutti on Friday afternoon. Minister Berrutti is an exceedingly warm and gentle woman in her mid-70?s who is a former human rights lawyer. During the long dictatorship in Uruguay she defended numerous political prisoners including Andres?s uncle who spent 99 years in prison. Her office is dominated by a large wooden boat, which she explained was meticulously build by one of the political prisioners she defended during the dictatorship, built by tiny chips of wood that he was able to collect in prision. She keeps it there to remember those who suffered at under the hands of the past military leaders, to help guide her in this challenging role of trying to create a new, different and dignified role for her country?s military.

From the beginning of the conversation, Minister Berrutti told us that there was no need to explain the attrocities of the SOA, as she, and the people of Uruguay, were fully aware of this reality, having experienced first hand the horrors of the tortures, detentions, imprisonments and "disappearances" caused by its graduates. Over and over here in Latin America we have been humbled and realize that we do not need to explain these things to our public, but rather they have much to tell us, to put faces and emotions on the statistics which we have memorized so efficiently.

Minister Berrutti shared with us some very good news: Since President Tabar? V?zquez has been in office as president of Uruguay (1 year), no military personnel from Uruguay have been sent to the SOA, and none will be sent under this current administration. Given the history of the SOA in her country, she indicated that "we have absolutely no need for training at this kind of school". To the contrary, the Defense Ministry is sponsoring a large conference next week (we?ll bring the brochures describing the event) with the title of "What Kind of National Defense Do We Want?". Civil and military leaders from Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugual are participating in this open dialogue along with civil groups (including many Uruguayan human rights organizations with whom we met). Minister Berrutti suggested that dialogue about the SOA be included in this conference. We later met with Senator Jorge Saravia of the Senate Armed Forces Committee and gave him videos and material about the SOA to share at this conference. He also supported this view of not sending troops to the SOA along with Vice- Minister Jos? Bayardi with whom we also met. We feel like news from the Defense Ministry of Uruguay is indeed positive, and hope that you will share this information with the friends in the movement.

To give a little perspective of this decision, let me share a little bit with you about Uruguay, since you may be like me, in not knowing too much about the country?s history. We quickly shifted gears from our visit to Bolivia, since Uruguay is as differerent from Bolivia as any country could be. Uruguay consists of flat farmland along the sea, while land-locked Bolivia is known for its snow-capped mountains and river-filled jungles. In contrast to Bolivia?s 60% indigenous population, Uruguay has only 1/3 the population (3 million) of whom almost 90% are European descendants - mostly from Spain and Italy. Until the mid fifties, Uruguay was considered the "Switzerland of Latin America" with the most sophisticated democracy, highest education levels, and most complete set of social benefits for its citizens on the continent. All that changed in the 60?s and 70?s with the move towards the military dictatorship, and total domination of the military until the mid 80?s. Over 60,000 people were detained during these years, and over 20,000 held in prison - almost all of them tortured, and most held for over 5 years. This means that one in 50 Uruguayans were victims of illegal detainment and/or torture, by far a world record, and a far cry from Switzerland.

Nothing of these statistics though can speak as much as the faces and testimony of those who experienced these attrocities, of whom we met many. While Roy, Carlos and I were still making our way to Montevideo from Bolivia, the larger delegation met a young woman named Soledad who is the human rights director of the Ministry of Education. Her parents were picked up by the military when she was 7 months old, and her mother tearfully turned her over to another woman in their apartment as they were being dragged away. Her parents were never heard from again, and she was raised by her grandparents. Apparently she was lucky to be reunited with family, as most of these children of the disappeared were "given" to military families to raise.

Later, we all met with 89-year old General Victor Licandro. He retired from the military in the 70?s and begin to meet with some of the organizers of the Frente Amplio - a progressive coalition which is the party of current president Tabar? V?zquez. At the time, this organization was considered subversive. He was picked up for the crime of "giving a talk in front of a picture of Che Guevara". He then was tortured , and detained for ten years for this offense. (I showed him the recent photo of President Evo Morales, Roy and I in front of a painting of Che in the presidential reception room at the Palacio Quemado, and he was able to laugh about how times had changed). After being released from prison, General Licandro has been active in an organizations of Generals and Admirals for Peace and Disarmament. He applauded our efforts to close the SOA which he acknowledged as being the training school for so many of the incidious acts of the Uruguayan military. General Licandro is one of the many military officers we have met in on our journies who acknowledges the role of the SOA as a major contributor to the attrocities of Latin America, who feels indignant about being "used" by the Pentagon to protect US interests, to the point of leading many of his fellow officers to repress, torture and kill their own people. Like many US military veterans who speak out, General Licandro suffered the consequences of humilliation and imprisonment.

We had several meetings with human rights organizations, with former political prisioners, and with family members of the disappeared, where all the participants were very familiar with the SOA and its terrible contribution to the history of their country. They expressed their deep gratitude to us for our efforts to close this school, often to the point of tears. We also had several t.v., newspaper and radio interviews, as well as a public event in Montevideo where the names of family members who were "disappeared" were emotionally called out at the end to the response of "PRESENTE!".

Please know that you are all PRESENTE here for us as we now begin this new journey in Argentina. We arrived right at the 30th anniversary of the dictatorship. Yesterday we marched with mothers, grandmothers and children many of the 30,000 "disappeared", and entered, for the first time ever, the military base where 6,000 of the "disappeared" were killed. In the emotional sharing from the stage, two brothers spoke how it had taken them years to be reunited. One was born at the maternity clinic on the base which was set up for pregnant detainees who were allowed to deliver their babies before being killed. Children were then "given" to military families who then raised the offspring of those whom they had killed. Many of the mothers of the famous "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo" were present with their distinctive scarves, and wept as they faced, for the first time, the cells where their children spent their last days. Nobel prize winner Perez Esquivel reminded the crowd that the attrocities committed in this country were not random, but well planned at a place called "the School of the Americas". We raised our banner high which said "cierra la Escuela de las Americas". Young and old Argentines hugged us and thanked us for coming so far to share this moment. Nunca m?s - never again - was their theme.

This morning a friend and torture survivor, Patricio Rice, took us to Santa Cruz church, where Roy was invited to concelebrate mass. In December of 1977 a group of people held a meeting at this church to support the newly formed Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. An infiltrator in the group gave a kiss to certain of the leaders as they entered the church, and those who received the kisses where dragged into an unmarked car - a modern day chilling tale of Judas. A French nun, and several of the newly formed Mothers group were swept away, and never heard from. Later, it was discovered that they were taken to a naval base, tortured, then taken at night in a military plane and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. Theirs, like many bodies, washed on shore later, and were buried in unidentified graves. Only last April with new DNA testing, many remains were unburied and tested, and now the remains of Sister Leonie Duquet, and mothers Esther Ballestrino de Cariaga, Maria Pnce de Bianco and support group member Angela Auad lie in the tiny church courtyard of Santa Cruz.

Please hold the memories of Leonie, Esther, Maria and Angela with you as you all continue in your efforts to work for a world of peace and justice by trying to close this school of assassins.

On a personal note, this month marks my 29th year in Latin America. It is a journey which began when several young catequists disappeared in the tiny village of Chanmagua where I was living in Guatemala as a happy-go-lucky student in 1977. For some reason, their disappearance caused me to remain for all these years in Latin America. Perhaps I was searching to understand the role of my country in what I witnessed, and was to witness, or my own role as a US citizen and a follower of Jesus. Now, in the wake of so much suffering, there seems to be a new light dawning here in the South. It a privilege to bear witness to this, and to reflect it back to you. I hope that it will bring even more light to your own amazing efforts to bring justice to our Americas. Please know that we are connected on this journey.


Updates from Argentina & Bolivia

Argentina: On Monday, March 27, Lisa, Carlos and Roy met with the Argentinian Minister of Defense, Nilda Garré. Just days after commemorating the 30th anniversary of her country's violent military coup, Mininster Garré agreed that Argentina will stop sending soldiers to the SOA! This is an incredible victory for all those struggling for human rights across the Americas. Look for a more detailed update soon.

Bolivia: Read about Lisa, Carlos and Roy's meeting with Evo Morales in Bolivia.

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