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Feb 21st
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Refusing to Forget History: Mixing it up at the ex-School of Americas PDF Print E-mail

By John Lindsay-Poland, Fellowship of Reconciliation.

This article originally appeared on John Lindsay-Poland's FOR blog .

Formally speaking, the federal government shut down the School of the Americas (SOA) in 2001, but a school with similar curriculum, structure, staff and mission re-opened on the same site in Fort Benning, Georgia, now christened the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The SOA is infamous for training dictators and human rights abusers, and using a manual that countenanced torture.

Army PhotoLike the SOA, the institute has a federal advisory committee, known as the Board of Visitors, that meets once a year. The BoV is made up of academics, retired ambassadors, military officers, State Department and Pentagon officials, and Congressional Armed Services Committee members, who assign staff.

Held on the vast training base of Fort Benning, the meetings are public, and allow a space for citizen comments. I went to see what I could learn at the June 27-28 meeting, and to offer a comment. Lou Wolf, formerly editor of Covert Action Information Quarterly, came from Washington and also made a comment.

I had the chance to announce that, the day before, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa announced his country’s withdrawal of students from WHINSEC.

My comment (link) focused on the importance of an external evaluation of WHINSEC’s impact on human rights conduct of those trained there. The day before, I’d encountered WHINSEC’s commander, Col. Glenn Huber, and asked him about evaluation, and he replied that they look at who rises high in rank. In my comment, I cited a Colombian officer who taught at WHINSEC in 2003, then returned to Colombia to command a brigade that reportedly carried out 57 civilian killings under his watch. He later rose to command a key task force as brigadier general. He would count as a WHINSEC success, despite the horrific human rights abuses under his command. I noted FOR’s study of human rights impacts of U.S. assistance in Colombia, and said WHINSEC should welcome the participation of civil society, especially human rights groups, in the work of evaluating impacts.

Ambassador Swanee Hunt affirmed the idea of an external evaluation, and Ambassador John Maisto asked what evaluation is being done. Huber said they did follow-up surveys of students, but Southern Command chief General Doug Fraser said he was looking at follow-up, and “assessments are not as good as I would like.” Professor Lou Goodman of American University affirmed the participation of civil society in the evaluation process, saying that first there should be “self-study,” then “independent evaluations from the outside.”

Maisto said WHINSEC has a “perception problem,” and asked how many soldiers have graduated from WHINSEC, and how many have been charged with human rights violations. Col. Huber stated that he knew of not a single WHINSEC graduate who has been charged with rights violations, but there clearly are such cases .

After hearing this, I decided to take a look at WHINSEC graduates from the country that has sent more soldiers than any other: Colombia. I found that of those studying or teaching at the school for a year, ten out of 29 were implicated in serious violations directly or through soldiers under their command. Here’s a link to my accounting of these Colombian WHINSEC grads .

Telling WHINSEC’s Story
During a discussion of “outreach,” Col. Huber proposed getting a Latin American documentary team to tell WHINSEC’s story, which generated significant discussion. Huber wanted to tell a positive story of WHINSEC (“I’m not downplaying the successful work that the School of America did for many years.”).

Ambassador Swanee Hunt, now at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, then said we need to have a real story. “It can’t be just ‘we’re no longer teaching torture.’” She said the story is to take a good curriculum and make it a great one, and that story is probably three years out.

Amb. John Maisto spoke up, saying, “The Mexicans and Central Americans never forget history, and the Americans never remember history. There are some members of our own society who refuse to forget history. There have been some things that have been done, let’s face it. You’ve just got to face up to it… Just a story about what a wonderful entity this is, without any reference, I don’t think will, in today’s atmosphere, there are so many memories, I don’t think it will sell.”

Joseph Palacios, a sociologist from Georgetown University, said that “having the truth come out makes WHINSEC a stronger institution.” Ambassador Hunt spoke again, saying “we have to be the story.”

WHINSEC Going Global?
Col. Huber threw out a proposal to have student soldiers from countries outside the Western Hemisphere at WHINSEC, mentioning Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Ukraine, so it doesn’t require additional travel. This courses would be offered in English for cadets from those nations as well as the US. Poland is sending two cadets next year, he said. He pointed out that there are regional centers for the Asia-Pacific and other regions, but these regional centers teach at the strategic level, while WHINSEC teaches at the operational or tactical level, and there is no ‘WHINSEC’ for other regions.

Gender and Sexuality at WHINSEC
Ambassador HuntAmbassador Swanee HuntAmbassador Swanee Hunt brought a consistent focus on gender and women’s perspectives to the discussions. Dressed in bright red in a room full of olive green fatigues, she urged WHINSEC to “bring in new voices” and “go way down deep” in understanding human rights. “It takes this bravado to say we’re going to go in and change this” to make sure a certain percentage of participants are women.

Col. Huber responded saying that no courses exclude women, and that there have been women officers in the captains course, and one at the aviation course. Hunt replied, saying “With due respect, you’re making my point.”

Professor Palacios raised a question about the participation of GLBT people in WHINSEC, and Hunt affirmed this. She referred to a promotion ceremony held during the meeting, in which a Colombian police captain was promoted to major, standing at attention with his wife at his side, General Fraser affixing the epaulets to his shoulders. Hunt asked, “We saw that proud moment; what if his partner had been a man? Would he have felt comfortable here with him at his side?” The Colombian deputy commandant of the school was visibly shaking his head as this exchange was taking place.

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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.

As this issue of Presente went to print, our hearts were heavy. The assassination of our dear friend and comrade Berta Cáceres, and the increased repression against social movement groups, have left us shocked and saddened. SOA Watch Latin America liaison Brigitte Gynther traveled to Honduras the morning after she learned about the assassination and has been coordinating SOA Watch’s response together with our partner groups on the ground. If you do not already receive Urgent Action emails from us, please click here to sign up now.

The recent decision by the U.S. judge in North Carolina to extradite one of the perpetrators of the 1989 massacre at the University of San Salvador gives us hope that justice will prevail in the end. It will take all of us to create change! Please join us as we mobilize to the U.S./Mexico border from October 7-10, 2016!

Other articles in this issue cover a protest by SOA Watch in Chile against US bases in Latin America, the FBI surveillance of SOA Watch, updates from Colombia and Mexico, news about the first Border Patrol agent to receive training at WHINSEC, background information about Direct Action, the Youth Encuentro in Guatemala, and more.

Download this issue of Presente here.

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- Dolores Huerta


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