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Mar 17th
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Joining Voices to Close the SOA PDF Print E-mail
In 1989 an 18-year old Chilean student was caught spray-painting a wall in Santiago with a message of protest against the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. He was thrown into a car, blindfolded, then taken to where he was beaten by over 20 police officers until he was black and blue. Several officers proceeded to simulate execution, then tortured him with water and electricity. Today, Pablo Ruiz considers himself lucky. His stay "only" lasted two years in prison, shortened by the end of Chile's dictatorship in 1990. Three thousand other Chileans were not as lucky, losing their lives under the orders of SOA graduates who held top military leadership positions during Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship.

Rebecca Kanner and Sister Maureen Newman have also known the lonely side of prison bars. Their path to prison, however, was self-directed. In some ways, they chose to go to prison precisely because Pablo was forced into prison, even though they had never met or even heard of Pablo. But, they did know that throughout Latin America were thousands who had suffered torture, disappearance and massacre at the hands of SOA graduates. Both decided to cross the line into Ft. Benning, Georgia, home of the SOA, to call attention to the human rights atrocities linked to graduates of the school. They realized that this action would probably take them to prison, but it would also bring public attention to the SOA.

Ten days ago, Pablo met Rebecca and Maureen for the first time in Santiago, Chile – some 6,000 miles from their respective homes in Ann Arbor and Seattle. Rebecca and Maureen were part of an SOA Watch delegation to Chile that included four other prisoners of conscience – Fr. Joe Mulligan, Judith Kelly, Sister Kathleen Desautels and Vera Leone, along with Theresa Cameranesi and myself. This visit was part of the SOAW's Latin America initiative that seeks to engage governments and social movements in the countries that send troops to the school.  SOAW activists have visited 16 countries, leading to announcements of withdrawal from the SOA of five. The visit to Chile was key to this initiative, as Chile sent more students to the SOA in 2007 (195) than any other country except Colombia.

former Prisoners of Conscience in Chile
Pablo spent weeks organizing the SOAW visit along with fellow members of the Kamarikun human rights organization. With no office or funds, but a passionate commitment to human rights, the members of Kamarikun set up a tent every week at the local market to talk with neighbors about their rights. The group includes many young members who came of age after the dictatorship and are concerned about repression under Chile's current government, which they often call a "demodura" (a combination of Spanish terms for democracy and dictatorship). Kamarikun was the first group to raise public voices to call for Chile's withdrawal from the SOA. According to Pablo, as long as Chileans remain at this school, the promise of nunca más  - never again -  remains elusive.

Nunca más refers to 17 years of brutal repression that began with the coup to overthrow Chile's only socialist president, Salvador Allende.  The coup was directed by Army General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, and carried out with U.S. knowledge and approval. While Pinochet himself was not an SOA graduate, for years his sword hung in the office of SOA's commandante.  Among Chilean SOA graduates are many of the top military commanders who oversaw the disappearance of 3,000 Chileans and the torture of tens of thousands of others.

Ramon Gonzalez, a tax official under Allende, was picked up the very afternoon of September 11, 1973. His daughter Carolina poignantly shared his story with us last week.  She was only 10 years old when military officers stormed their home and dragged away her father before he could say goodbye. He was taken to an island in the bitterly cold southern tip of Chile. Months later, the family learned of Gonzalez's death via a TV bulletin that referred to him as a terrorist caught escaping. Years later, evidence linked two officers to what was actually a pre-meditated murder. One officer was sentenced to house arrest, the other to five months in prison. We realized, incredibly, that Rebecca's prison sentence for crossing the line to Ft. Benning was longer than that of the military officer convicted of murdering Carolina's father.

During our visit it became clear that impunity, along with fear, is a major tool still used in Chile to enforce a culture of silence. We also discovered that Pinochet's legacy did not end when he handed over the helm in 1990. He continued as commander-in-chief of the armed forces for eight more years and then became a lifetime senator almost until his death in 2006.  The constitution he drafted at the beginning of the dictatorship remains in place today, albeit with modifications. It grants more power to a constitutional tribunal, that includes commanders of the different branches of the armed forces, than to the president. Indeed, Chile's current president, Michelle Bachelet, was herself a victim of torture, as was her father – an army general who refused to accept the coup and died after being tortured. Most Chileans acknowledge her almost impossible task of curbing the military's power.

Arguably more damaging is the economic model imposed by Pinochet. In an era when protest was impossible, Chileans became a living experiment for an economic model dreamed up by Milton Friedman and the "Chicago Boys."  It privatized almost everything in Chile, including pensions and many roads. The model brought macro economic growth, but drove millions of Chileans into poverty. Chile continues to market an image of economic success to the outside world, but only a day on Santiago's streets is enough to debunk this myth. We continually saw worker protests by day and street children by night. Teachers and lawyers told us that their wages don't meet the daily demands of life; others told us that their academically stellar children dare not think of college.

Protest is increasingly criminalized and is usually met with police force, often as well with water tanks, rubber bullets and tear gas. We confirmed this as we tried to make our way to the Defense Ministry.  Our exit from the metro was blocked by a line of well-armed, masked policemen. We raced quickly through the noxious fumes of tear gas and slid across streets flooded by water tanks. The nonchalant gait of Chileans made us realize that this encounter was rather commonplace, as we continued to discover.

Our meeting was with the Defense Ministry's second-in-command, who held the title of Sub Secretary of War in spite of the fact that Chile has not been at war for over a hundred years (though many feel that Chile began to wage a war against its own citizens in 1973 that hasn't completely ended).  Two years earlier Fr. Roy Bourgeois and I had met in this same office with Defense Minister Vivienne Blanlot. She told us that while she agreed with us that the SOA had left a devastating legacy for Chile, the army had the prerogative to determine where they would study.

This kid-glove approach to the military by the government continues to hold, as we discovered at this meeting. It became clear that the Sub Secretary had far less information about the SOA than his military attaché, to whom he continually looked for answers.  We shared our concern that Chile had increased its numbers at the SOA in 2007. At the end of a long meeting, he indicated that 2008 would bring a marked reduction in numbers of Chilean students. We were pleased, but asked to see official word of this announcement.

One Chilean official who is convinced that zero is only acceptable number of Chilean students at the SOA, is Representative Tucapel Jiménez. A congressman who represents a modest district of Santiago, Jiménez's father was a prominent labor leader who was beheaded under Pinochet's regime. An unemployed carpenter was framed into signing a confession, then his suicide simulated. Years later, two military officers were found guilty of his father's murder and that of the carpenter. Both were SOA graduates.

Representative Jiménez invited us to speak to the Congressional Human Rights Commission, of which he is a member. Members of the committee expressed surprise that the SOA remains open, thinking that WHINSEC – the new name given to the school by the Pentagon in 2001 - was a totally different place. Their concern deepened when we showed the list of 2007 graduates that SOAW receives as a response to their annual FOIA request. Each graduate's name is blacked out, leaving only the country and course code visible. The secrecy was clearly contrary to the culture of respect for human rights that this committee was dedicated to creating in Chile.

A motion was passed by the Congressional Human Rights Commission to summon Chile's Commander-in-Chief to testify to the committee about Chile's continued participation at SOA, along with an invitation to the Defense Minister as well. The committee's president declared this to TV cameras only minutes after our meeting ended.

Perhaps due to this public pressure, we received an email the next morning from the Defense Ministry with the announcement that Chile would only be sending 41 students to SOA in 2008. This would mark a dramatic drop from the 195 soldiers that were sent there in 2007 and sends a major sign of hope.

While Chile's decision certainly isn't as strong as the total withdrawal of troops from Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Venezuela, it is a move in the same direction. Latin American countries today are questioning their participation at the SOA, a relationship formed in times of dictatorship. Many are taking the bold step to say nunca más, in spite of potential diplomatic and economic consequences. Costa Rica has shown less backbone. Although President Óscar Arias himself confirmed Costa Rica's withdrawal from SOA in May 2007, almost immediately afterwards the U.S. ambassador was pressuring them to reconsider. After months of silence, the Security Minister of Costa Rica reluctantly admitted to local human rights activists that they would be sending police to a limited scope of courses at SOA, mostly in the area of drug trafficking.  These activists think that this switch was brought about by economic and political pressure put on Costa Rica by the U.S.

On the very last meeting of a packed eight days, Pablo paused at a set of rusted prison bars taken from the same prison where he had lost two years of his youth. They were on display at the office of FACIS, a human rights organization that has aided thousands of political prisoners. Rebecca and Maureen reached through the bars from the other side, to grasp Pablo's hands. In that embrace, the meaning of the whole visit, and the necessary strategy to close once and for all this school of assassins, became clear to me.

The School of the Americas is on our soil, financed by our pocketbooks, and run by our government. It is our responsibility to close it. The victims of this school live south of the Rio Grande. In order to close the SOA we must reach out, connect and join together with those who have suffered its consequences. Latin Americans are raising their voices, both as individuals and as nations. Monseñor Óscar  Romero said that we must be the voice of the voiceless. I think that today he would say that we should join our voices North and South to create a new harmony.  A harmony so powerful it can close the door on a school of assassins.


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Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Dapo Sobomehin, November 18, 2008
I am still struggling with the fact that we have in our midst--human community some of us would take it upon themselves to murder some of us--to murder their own members of the community. My question is always--how do we get to this level as human beings. I try to study other animals that behave the way we do. We declare war on each other. We torture each other, we starve each other to death--meaning-- depriving each other access to good living. No lean water, no adequate food-no proper education to manage our communities. How did we get here? I want all of you--all of us to roll our sleeves--work indefatigably to stop war--stop torture--work to provide food to the hungry and clean water to where needed. Join me.
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¡Cierren la SOA!
written by jks789, July 27, 2009
El General Romeo Velásquez, el líder del golpe militar en Honduras, es un egresado de la Escuela de las Américas (SOA/WHINSEC), una institución con una historia larga de adiestrar dictadores, asesinos, torturadores, terroristas y conspiradores de golpes de estado.

Necesitamos exigir que el gobierno de los Estados Unidos cierre esta escuela de dictadores. ¡Envíele un mensaje a su oficial elegido ahora!

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Download the Spring 2016 issue of Presente

The Spring issue contains mobilizing information for the SOA Watch Border Convergence, which is taking place from October 7-10, 2016 at the US/Mexico border in Nogales, and also focuses on recent developments in Latin America and within the SOA Watch movement.

Click here to download a PDF version of the Spring 2016 issue.

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