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Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela Cease SOA Training PDF Print E-mail
Written by Lisa Sullivan   
Sunday, 14 May 2006
Ministra de Defensa de Argentina, Nilda GarréPopular Rejection of the SOA in Latin America: Argentina and Uruguay announced that they are joining Venezuela in ceasing the training of soldiers at the School of the Americas / Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
 
In March 2006, SOA Watch activists Carlos Mauricio, Lisa Sullivan and Father Roy Bourgeois set off on a three week journey to Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay to build relationships with social movements and to dialogue with popular governments in South America around sending their soldiers to train at the School of the Americas.
 
The following article was written by Lisa Sullivan:

Last November I stood before the fence at Ft. Benning and placed the Venezuelan flag that my 17-year old daughter Maia had carried throughout the procession. On it we had written: "Venezuela, the only country to withdraw its troops from the SOA". As we stepped back its bright colors stood out against the sea of white crosses, each with the name of a victim of one of the graduates of the SOA, which lay beyond the fence. Unexpectedly, we were overcome with emotion and tears flowed as we embraced. Maybe it was nostalgia for a country which had been my daughter's only home, or the image of so many crosses representing only a tiny fraction of the lives stolen by this school. But I believe it was actually a sense of awe in the face of so much love. Standing on this holy ground between a place of so much destruction on one side and the uncompromising love of 20,000 strangers for people they had never known on the other, we were overwhelmed by the power of this love.

It is this deep connection to those who suffered at the hands of the graduates of the SOA that has driven the movement from its onset. For many years, those who knew and loved these victims personally were unable to speak out, without risking the same fate. And so others spoke in solidarity with them – grandmothers from California, students from Philadelphia, nuns from Iowa, teachers from Maine. Meanwhile, transformations were taking place in Latin America, including countries where some of the gravest atrocities learned at this school were carried out.  Voices that were silenced were being raised, and in many cases those who had suffered atrocities were now part of their country's leadership.

Recognizing these emerging voices, Roy Bourgeois and others responded to an invitation to visit Venezuela in early 2004, a country where I worked for 20 years as a lay missioner.  Graduates of the SOA had helped to orchestrate a coup 18 months earlier, leaving behind a trail of bloodshed.  They did not have the final word, however, as Venezuelans poured down from the populous hillside barrios of Caracas to turn the coup around.  After being restored to power by those who had elected him, however, Hugo Chavez had continued to send troops to the SOA, where over 4,000 Venezuelan students had attended through the years.

We met with Venezuela's vice president early in the trip, and Roy wasted no time in making his request: "We ask that you consider no longer sending troops to the SOA which has brought nothing but tragedy to your country and to all countries in Latin America" I remember translating Roy's words and being a bit surprised by the boldness of such a request. More surprising, however, was the vice president's reaction. He picked up his cell phone and dialed the defense minister and before long, we were sitting in President Chavez's office deep in dialogue.  Within weeks we had an answer to our request. Venezuela was removing all of its students from the SOA.

This victory for the movement made a clear statement to all of us. The time had come to join hands with those people who had directly suffered at the hands of the SOA, If there were no more students, there would be no more school.  With the support of the movement, Roy, Carlos Mauricio, and I set out in early March to visit Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina to attempt this same request: no more troops to the SOA.

It seemed appropriate that this journey begin in Bolivia where Roy had served as a Maryknoll priest and was detained and expelled by the military dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer.  Banzer not only was a graduate of the SOA, but a member of its Hall of Fame. I had also worked in Bolivia a few years later when elected governments continued the practice of jailing their opponents, such as my young friend Juan Carlos. I had last heard from in a moving letter written from jail.  Learning of our visit, he invited us to give a talk on the SOA his workplace - the office of vice president, to whom he was now an advisor. Like Juan Carlos, more than half of the government officials with whom we met in Bolivia had spent time in jail as political prisoners, many of them at the hands of SOA graduates such as Banzer and Luis Arce. They were as open and anxious to meet with us as we were with them, affirming that a new moment had arrived in their country.

The term we heard most repeated to explain this new moment in was that of  "dignity" which we witnessed in the Aymara people of El Alto who celebrate their language, dress, and traditions. They also had no need for lengthy explanations about the SOA, having lived first hand its consequences in the 2000 and 2003 battles called the "water war" and "gas war" where repression at the hands of SOA graduates brought tragedy. After learning of our proposal, they leaped ahead to organize press conferences, radio shows, newspaper articles, talks and campaigns to push the idea of withdrawing Bolivian troops from the SOA. Likewise, human rights activists in the city of Cochabamba organized for weeks to host a series of events on the SOA, even facing abuse and threats from employees of the current governor whose attendance at the SOA they made public.

The most powerful symbol for the Bolivian people for this new moment, however, is their new president Evo Morales who like the majority of the population is indigenous and from a very humble background.  In spite of our positive meetings with other government officials, we felt it was essential to meet the president, a feat we were able to achieve helped by the fact that he shows up to work every day at 5 a.m. The meeting was positive and Morales showed great openness to looking Bolivia's involvement at the SOA.  He asked for more information and committed to meeting with military leaders to discuss this possibility. We now hopefully await his response.

Immediately after our visit with President Morales, we flew to Uruguay where the hard work of Andres Thomas Conteris opened up dialogue with many human rights groups and government officials. Andres was part of a coinciding delegation to Uruguay and Argentina, which was organized by the Marin Interfaith Task Force and Nonviolence International. Uruguay, this tiny country which was once considered the "Switzerland of Latin America" had gone on to achieve the unfortunate fame of holding the record for more political prisoners per capita than any where on the planet. During the late 70's and early 80's over one in every 50 Uruguayans were detained, deemed by the military government as a threat. To nobody's surprise, many of these officials learned their art of torture and repression at the SOA.

One person who was clear about the military's involvement in human rights abuse is Azucena Berrutti, a former lawyer who had defended numerous political prisioners and now was Defense Minister under Uruguay's President Tabare Vazquez. A gentle woman in her mid-seventies, she received us warmly into her office. Since Vazquez' inauguration a year ago, Uruguay had not sent troops to the school. Until our visit, this had not been made public.. However, a week after we left  Minister Berrutti made her announcement: no more Uruguayan troops  to the SOA.

Crossing the wide Rio de la Plata by boat, we entered Argentina the day after the 30th year anniversary of a military coup which led to unequaled brutality on the continent. Shortly after arriving we joined thousands of Argentines in marching for the first time into the notorious Campo de Mayo military base, where 6,000 people were tortured and killed. Tears flowed from mothers who were looking for the first time onto the place where their children had spent their last moments. Nobel peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel spoke before the crowd with words that we might have chosen: what happened here was not happenstance, but 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 más - never again - was their theme.

For me, it was hard to sleep above the busy streets of Buenos Aires, as I tried to make sense of how so  many people – 30,000 by most accounts  - could have been murdered at the hands of their own countrymen.  At the time, in the late 70's and early 80's, it was impossible to even denounce what was happening. With trepidation, mothers of the disappeared began to  gather at the large Plaza de Mayo in front of the government palace to gather information about their missing children.  Wearing a white scarf to identify themselves to one another, they began to meet secretly. One place was at Santa Cruz church, where Roy was asked to celebrate a mass on Sunday. It was there that the founder of this movement was picked up along with a nun from the church. They were tortured, then thrown from an airplane into the Atlantic – the likely fate of most of the disappeared. Their bodies washed up shortly after, but were buried in unidentified graves. Only in recent months, with new DNA testing, were they identified and now buried in this small churchyard where we gathering on this brisk fall morning in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was thanks to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo that we were able to bring good news back from Argentina. With their leader Hebe de Bonafini, we were able to meet with the Argentine Defense Minister, Nilda Garre. Like Uruguay's minister, she has a personal experience of the previous repression of her country's military, as her own husband was one of the many who "disappeared" at their hands. During the meeting, it was hard to say who was more excited: Minister Garre at the news that so many US citizens had mobilized to close this school, or ourselves upon learning of her decision.  She was able to share the good news with us. After the lone Argentine currently at the school finishes his course, Argentina will be sending no more military to this school.

This November I will return to the gates of Ft. Benning where like all of us I dream that there will be no  School of the Americas and Maia and I will shed tears of joy and dance in the street.  But, short of that ultimate dream,  I hope that the flags of Uruguay and Argentina, and perhaps Bolivia and others, will join that of Venezuela on the fence, and in their bright colors we may feel the strength and solidarity and unity of their people as we join together in this struggle for justice in our Americas.
 

Published in the Summer 2006 issue

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