Thursday, February 14, 2008
Father Roy Bourgeois Urges Nicaragua to Withdraw Troops from the School of the Americas
"Our God does not bless war, does not bless killing, does not bless violence"
On February 14, we heard from Fr. Roy Bourgeois at Casa Ben Linder. Nearly a hundred people gathered to hear the leader of the School of the Americas Watch organization to recount the history of the movement to close the U.S. military school that trains Latin American soldiers. The purpose of his current visit to Nicaragua is to meet with President Daniel Ortega to urge him to withdraw all Nicaraguan troops from the SOA.
What is the School of the Americas?
The School of the Americas (SOA), in 2001 renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Initially established in Panama in 1946, the SOA was kicked out of that country in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Former Panamanian President, Jorge Illueca, stated that the School of the Americas was the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” The SOA, frequently dubbed the “School of Assassins,” has left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned.
Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins (History of the SOA).
Origins of the Movement
Fr. Roy remembered Benjamin Linder, a young engineer from the U.S. who came to Nicaragua in 1983 to accompany the poor and to work on creating hydroplants to provide villages with electricity. On April 28, 1987, Ben was ambushed along with his colleagues by the U.S.-backed Contra forces and shot at point-blank range. "Ben reminded us what it is to be in solidarity with the poor," said Fr. Roy. The Ben Linder group was created in remembrance of Ben and as a way that foreigners working in solidarity with Nicaraguans could create a network and denounce U.S. support of the Contras. Around the time that Ben was killed, Fr. Roy and others were being jailed for their peaceful protests against the training of the Contras in Florida.
As a young man, Fr. Roy believed the rhetoric surrounding the Vietnam war. After graduating from college, he enlisted in the Navy. He spent four years in Vietnam before being discharged . He had been wounded in a bombing raid which killed several of his friends and was awarded a Purple Heart. "We thought that we were liberators," he said, "but something happened to us--we are not made for war." His experiences in war forced him to examine his faith. "Our God does not bless war, does not bless killing, does not bless violence," he said. After leaving the Navy, Fr. Roy entered the Maryknoll community. He became a Catholic priest and was sent to live in Bolivia. "I came home [from Vietnam]," he said, "wanting to be a peacemaker."
"For the next five years, the poor became my teachers," Fr. Roy said. He was shocked by the U.S.'s role in the Bolivian dictatorship and was eventually exiled for speaking out against the repression. "It saddened me," he said, "to see my government in Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and so many other countries, on the wrong side. I saw so many crimes against humanity."
Returning to the U.S. gave Fr. Roy the opportunity to speak his fellow citizens about the effective of U.S. military intervention in Latin America, and he realized how little people in the U.S. knew about the situation. He became increasingly aware of the situation in El Salvador after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and massacre of four American churchwomen (two of whom were Fr. Roy's friends and fellow Maryknoll missionaries).
Protesting at the SOA
When 500 Salvadoran soldiers arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia to train, Fr. Roy rented a house nearby with several friends. He and two others disguised themselves as high-ranking military officers, and entered the School of the Americas for the first time. They made their way to the barracks of the Salvadoran troops, climbed a tree with a boombox, and waited until the lights went out to blast Oscar Romero's last sermon. Near the end of the sermon on March 14, 1980, Romero made an appeal to the armed forces:
"I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill." No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression."
Soldiers threatened to shoot Fr. Roy and his two friends. They were brought to the country jail, and were later sentenced to 1.5 years in jail. During the trial, while they tried to put the U.S.'s foreign policy on trial, they were silenced by the judge repeatedly.
After getting out of prison, Fr. Roy and his friends joined the growing movement of people protesting U.S. aid to El Salvador. Following the massacre of the 6 Jesuits and two women at the University of Central America in San Salvador, a U.S. Congregational task force was sent to El Salvador to investigate how U.S. military aid was being spent. The task force reported that 19 of the 22 soldiers responsible for carrying out the UCA massacre were trained at the SOA.
The first protest at the SOA carried out by Fr. Roy and his friends was a 35-day water-only fast. Each following year, on the anniversary of the UCA massacre, they gathered to protest, and the small group of protesters grew, from a few, to several dozens, hundreds, and thousands. In November, 2007, 25,000 people came to protest. They gathered to demand the closure of the SOA and to keep alive the memory of people who risked their lives to speak out against injustice, and for the many nameless who have been killed, raped, and tortured by U.S.-backed armed forces in Latin America.
In the early years of the movement, SOA Watch was able to obtain the names and countries of SOA graduates, as well as SOA training manuals (which contained torture techniques), and other materials under the Freedom of Information Act. In this way, SOA Watch was able to track graduates and expose human rights abuses attributed to them. Since 9/11, however, information from the SOA is much more difficult to obtain, and the names of graduates are no longer released.
The ILEA- International Law Enforcement Agency
I wrote in my November blog about the ILEA, the police training force in El Salvador to train Latin American troops in "counter-terrorism" tactics. As efforts to close the U.S.-based School of the Americas mounts, the treat of training schools in Latin America and other regions increases. For more information about the ILEA, see: The ILEA: Exporting "Criminal Justice" to Latin America from a Base in El Salvador.
Action in Nicaragua
On February 15, Fr. Roy and his team from SOA Watch and local activists met with President Daniel Ortega to share with him the history of the SOA and encourage him to withdraw Nicaraguan troops. While Ortega pledged his support to SOA Watch's cause, he did not commit to withdrawing his troops from the school.
We are hopeful that Ortega will decide to withdraw troops from the SOA to prevent future U.S.-supported violence in Nicaragua.
Posted by Laura Hopps at 11:46 AM