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SOA Watch Meets the White House PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Quigley   
Denis McDonough, who was named the White House Chief  of Staff in January 2013, met with a delegation from the SOA Watch movement in Washington DC in November 2012.
Denis McDonoughSOA Watch worked hard to meet with McDonough, who held the position of Deputy National Security Advisor at the time of our meeting, because he is a critical aide to the President and he has a deep Catholic justice background. A grad of College of Saint John’s University and Georgetown, Denis comes from a big Catholic family which includes two priests.

Participating for SOA Watch were Congress Representative James McGovern, Father Roy Bourgeois, Adrianna Portillo-Bartow, Sister Marie Lucey, Father Charles Currie and Bill Quigley.

McDonough admitted he has in the past been a supporter of SOA/WHINSEC but wanted to hear more from the movement. Family members and even former teachers have talked to him about closing the school.

Representative McGovern told him the US underestimates how much of a bad symbol the school is in Latin America. On a recent visit to rural Colombia, grassroots people challenged the US commitment to human rights because of the continued operation of the school. The school is a symbol of all that is wrong with US policy in Latin America.

McDonough did not know and was concerned when McGovern told him the Department of Defense was stonewalling and not releasing the names of the students attending SOA/WHINSEC for the last several years.

Adrianna Portillo-Barrow told McDonough how troops in Guatemala, directed by SOA graduates, executed six members of her family including her 9 and 10 year old daughters. Hundreds of thousands disappeared at the direction of SOA grads. In Latin America, she said, the SOA-WHINSEC is a symbol of horror, pain and suffering and there is deep resentment that it remains open and unaccountable.

Father Roy, Sister Lucey, Father Currie and Bill Quigley highlighted for McDonough:
a powerful letter from the UAW calling for the school to be closed;
a multi-page list of religious, labor and human rights organizations supporting the movement;
that 6 countries have pulled their soldiers out of the school;
that 140 catholic bishops in Latin America and even more in the US call for its closure;
69 members of Congress have asked the President to close SOA/WHINSEC; and
four of the generals responsible for the 2009 coup in Honduras were SOA grads.

“SOA/WHINSEC admits they have a few bad apples,” noted Quigley. “But this is not just a few bad apples, this is a bad orchard that needs to be dug up by its roots.”

Father Roy told how the movement to close the SOA-WHINSEC started 22 years ago after the massacre of 14-year old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. “Closing it would send such a wonderful message to our sisters and brothers in Latin America and to the hundreds of thousands seeking its closure in the US.”

President Obama was quite moved when he visited the cathedral in San Salvador where Bishop Romero was assassinated, said McDonough. The justice legacy of Bishop Romero has great personal significance for the President.

McDonough said he has looked hard at this issue but does not support closing the school. He cannot refute the fact that the school historically has been a symbol of human rights violations but he still supports keeping it open. He will read the materials submitted by the delegation and brief President Obama. He said he thought the militaries in Latin America are institutions like the church, flawed but important for those societies. The US has to find ways to work with and influence them to keep them under civilian control and WHINSEC helps that.

Near the end of the meeting, McDonough admitted that he has just recently met with the Chair of the Board of Visitors of SOA/WHINSEC and was impressed by reports of human rights trainings. At present he supports WHINSEC in concept, its reforms and its oversight.

McDonough promised to look into disclosing the names of the students at SOA/WHINSEC and possibly make changes to that policy. He thanked the group for the visit and respected the passion and intentions of the opponents but said he wanted to be candid about his lack of agreement.

As McDonough started to leave, Adrianna Portillo-Bartow made a powerful last plea. Her voice cracking and choking back tears, she asked him why so many hundreds of thousands have had to die and why so many more will have to die. Closing the school is an act of justice, she stated. It is time, she said, now nearly crying, for the US to stand with the people of Latin America, the oppressed, the poor and the persecuted. Moved and respectful, McDonough excused himself.

Our meeting with the White House Deputy National Security Advisor surfaces at least three lessons for our movement.


First, Denis McDonough has not yet joined our movement. This was our first face to face advocacy with him. He was respectful because this is a movement of hundreds of thousands. His refusal to announce the closing of WHINSEC is instructive to all who hoped the re-election of President Obama would automatically open previously closed doors for justice and human rights. Those doors are going to be opened only because WE are pushing them open. So we will.

Second, the fact that he did listen to the movement is important. He is a very busy and important person. He now knows we can educate him with facts about the school that he did not know previously. He is a smart man. I wonder what he thinks about the WHINSEC people not disclosing to him and the White House that they are not even disclosing the names of their students?

Third, it is up to us to continue to educate and agitate the powerful about the reality of US foreign policy. Adrianna’s pure voice of the victims of US policy teaches us again the power of the individual witness and the power of listening to the organized voices of the people most impacted. A few days after the White House meeting, we gathered at Ft. Benning, where we commemorated the martyrs and celebrated the resistance. We will write, lobby, educate, organize and protest. We will be back and converge on DC in April. The school will close. Accountability will come. Human rights will prevail.
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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.

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