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And Father Roy returned to the United States preaching about the evils of Ft. Benning, Georgia's School fo the Americas, a military school that trains Latin American soldiers how to kill their countrymen.
It was during these years that the publicans cried, "Beware the Communists! Beware the Communists!" and used "foreign policy" to encourage brother to kill brother throughout Latin America. The reign of Communist Russia ended in 1991; foreign communists could no longer feed themselves, let alone travel to Latin America to threaten the western Hemisphere. The publicans were sore lost, but said not.
And it came to pass that in 1995 Father Roy and twelve apostles were arrested for crossing the property line of Ft. Benning, to reenact the Nov. 16, 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests killed by SOA graduates; and in 1996, 500 protesters gathered as 60 crossed the line; and this year, 2500 protesters gathered and 604 were arrested.
I know. I was there.
A 90s Protest
My daughter and I arrived at Ft. Benning in time to watch a movie, "An Insiders Speaks Out, " and attend passive-resistance training. (Were protests this high-tech in the 60s? I don't know--the 60s missed San Marcos until the late 80s, when long-haired hippies discovered fertile land and complacent police.) During the motel conference-room training, I watched Veterans for Peace chatting with dreadlocked rainbow heads and Grandmothers for Peace exchanging pictures of their last march.
While SOA leaders explained the schedule and our role in the vigil/march, Willie Nelson's voice slipped under the door from the motel bar adjoining us: "Hello, America, how are you" Don't you know me, I'm your native son?" And around the room hundreds of earnest faces from Everywhere, U.S.A., nodded yes, either to Father Roy or to Willie.
Sunday 2500 apostles gathered for the vigil, sharing loaves of bread, listening to speakers from unions, central American Indian tribes, priests, ministers, missionaries, high schools, and colleges. Probably the major difference between the 60s civil rights marchers and these 90s human rights advocates was median age: 62? 65? Numerous priests and nuns who had served as missionaries and doctors in the Americas dominated the crowd.
Father Roy was visibly absent, praying for a peaceful reception from the U.S. military police (MPs).
At the anointed hour, he and his self-chosen crossed the line into the Army post, carrying black coffins filled with more than one hundred thousand signatures protesting the SOA. Drummers pounded a beat on plastic drums, and we entered two by two. Between beats, the name of a dead or disappeared was read, and the entire crowd responded: "Presente!" We are present for those who have been silenced. Each of us carried a cross bearing the name of a dead or disappeared.
Two by two, the lines snaked their way on to forbidden land, land that belongs to the U.S. taxpayers and that is open to the public the rest of the year. Silent MPs lined the hilltops on the left, resembling Indians in old cowboy movies. Midway to the farthest knoll, MPs took our white crosses and shoved them in the coffins. Unbelievably, the Latin American dead were being buried in a common grave again!
At the high turn in the road, I witnessed a marvel: genko tress, shedding golden leaves, were showering the marchers with God's confetti. When the last group of MPs motioned us into waiting buses, everyone was calm, triumphant.
For seven hours we were searched, patted down, informed of our "crime", photographed, researched and fed. Yes. First, coffee and water; later, choice of three entrees and warm buses. A self-proclaimed Bolivian freedom fighter near us leaped with joy; "America! You gotta love it! In Bolivia, soldiers who arrest you hit you and kill you. Here they feed you!"
Indeed, those on the march do love American, especially the U.S. Who could not like 17-year-old MPs whose hands shook as they tried to appear stern? Or the experienced colonel who, seeing the bird-like necks of many marchers disappear into their coats, took pity and ordered the warm meals?
We signed agreements that allowed us to leave Ft. Benning--if we wouldn't return next year. That seemed fair to me.
What wasn't fair was the consequence for this year's repeaters: sincere, loving Americans have been sent to federal jail for half a year because they marched to help end an evil war on the poor of Latin America. That's outrageous. Father Roy has already spent two terms in federal prison for his "disobedience."
Urging Chicago worker to march for equality, Martin Luther King, Jr. said during the early 60s that nothing exposes injustice as well as the tramp-tramp of marching feet. King organized marching feet throughout the U.S. Perhaps it will take all fo that, again. Perhaps, though, calls and letters to our congressmen insisting that they close the doors of this "school" can create justice without even more nun, priests, social workers, retired college professors from spending six months in jail for tramp-tramping onto Ft. Benning next fall.
And now, in the year of our Lord 1998, when unDemocrat Bill Clinton is president, George Bush, Jr., governor, and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Graham our representatives to the Senate, it is time: time to use the money we spend on the SOAs to keep our legitimate military bases open; time to condemn a foreign policy that trades training of murderers for industrial favors; time to honor the 25 protesters who accepted prison to bring this evil to the public eye.
"Nations shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more."
The Commission on Human Rights, United Nations, tracks perpetuators of atrocities throughout the world; SOA Watch then compares those names to the names of SOA graduates. For spectacular example: The UN Truth Commission Report of 1993 cited twelve officers directly responsible for the largest massacre of people in the western hemisphere, those who killed 900 unarmed civilians in El Mozote, El Salvador. Of those twelve, ten were SOA graduates
Another remarkable example: in 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had repeatedly urged soldiers to stop killing their own countrymen, was murdered by three officers--who drew lots for the pleasure. Two of the three winners were SOA graduates
The marchers at Ft. Benning are honoring a vigil for the Nov. 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, El Salvador. They had been encouraging Salvadorans to reclaim their farm land. The UN Truth Commission cited 27 district officers for this massacre, 19 of them SOA graduates
Austin attorney Jennifer Harbury married a Guatemalan resistance leader who, in 1992, was abducted, detained, tortured, and murdered. Despite her continued requests for U.S. investigations, the CIA did nothing to help--and tried to cover its own role in supporting Guatemalan terrorists who systematically kill Mayans and other indigent Indians who argue their land rights. But on recent trips into Latin America, Ms. Harbury has been led to sites of her husbands's tortures--places discovered only through the Freedom of Information Act that blacked out 80% of the investigation but not CIA-supported sites.
Infamous graduate of the SOA include General Hugo Banzer, military dictator of Bolivia; General Hector Gramajo, creator of the scorched-earth campaign that starved the citizens of Guatemala; Roberto D'Aubuisson, Salvadoran death squad leader.
Why Close the SOA?
Apologists for the SOA insist that its presence in the training of Latin American troops helps spread the U.S. concept of human rights and, without the SOA, the killings would continue but without these chosen soldiers being introduced to human rights concepts. Indeed, a former instructor at the SOA acknowledges a newly created 4-hour block of human-rights instruction. The military at Ft. Benning exhibited some of that tolerance in November when 2500 protesters stood outside the gates and prayed. The military did nothing. When 604 marched into the usually open post, though, they were arrested. They were arrested under the eyes of the SOA students, and were arrested--not for violence or communism, but for disagreeing with the U.S. policy supporting murderers. Perhaps the SOA lesson book is mixed on the issue of human rights.
U.S. congress is currently closing military bases: it's a money thing. Why close a legitimate military base that trains our armed forces, houses the troops and their families, and contributes to the economy of its community--when the U.S. yearly spends $18.4 million (or, the SOA commander's estimate of $3 million) to support foreign armies? On U.S. soil, taught by foreign leaders? To fight against communists who aren't there any more?
Other visitors to the U.S. must obey U.S. laws, including backing laws. SOA visitors can open U.S. banking accounts without any of the required reporting and accountability. Maj. Joseph Blair, a former instructor at the SOA, reports watching SOA students opening briefcases filled with cash at bank teller windows that is immediately credited to the soldier's personal account. Of course, large packets of cash from Latin American countries might be hard-earned farm profits; it might also be drug money laundered through our two on-post U.S. banks. The country sending the most soldiers to SOA last year was Mexico--notorious for its drug-connected military.
U.S. Congress has sent U.S. troops into Bosnia, the Middle East, and even Africa to stop the massacre of civilian groups. It is a monumental contradiction, even for Congress, to simultaneously support armies that are massacring their civilians--with even more sophisticated techniques--in Latin America.
Killing 12 and 15-year old children with hoes in their hands is morally indefensible, even when the murderers label the children communist traitors. The U.S. should not allow mass destruction of indigent natives for any reason--even to obtain grazing land for cows that are ground into hamburgers at Maccheap price.
The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming
American policy makers continue to overlook these Latin American murderers because the economy of the United States is involved. Beginning in 1947, the SOA in Panama City had the mission of training Latin American armies to fight against the spread of communism in the western hemisphere. American policy makers knew, for instance, a well financed Cuba sitting a hop across the ocean. Since the fall of Russia in 1991, it's difficult to label SOA training as a deterrent to Castro: he barely feeds his own troops.
But American policy makers also recognized an opportunity to influence those countries' leaders by offering this help in exchange for preference in decision-making. If the U.S. needs fresh fruit, large acreages can be made available to United Fruit, making harvesting easier and more economical. If you review the history of land ownership in these countries, you will notice that under both political and economic pressures, Latin American governments gave, took away, and gave again plots of land to Indian tribes. Sometimes it was politically smart to offer the indigenous tribe a communal garden space--while the government claimed the individual's family plots. These new gardens, used for communal farming, later got in the way of industrial plans. Today's unrest throughout Mexico is a result of this give/steal, give/steal pattern that has left farmers with no land--not the land of their forefathers, not the communal land given in exchange to the village.
Latin America also provides a market for the U.S. Interestingly, U.S. sales of weapons is up 23% over last year, according to the November Vanity Fair. Eleven billion dollars in orders. U.S. Foreign policy has just shifted this year to lift trade restriction on Chili, and they are ready to buy 24 U.S. made F-16 jet fighters so they can point them at nearby enemy Equador.
The United States need strong relations to Panama, too. At the end of 1999, the Panama Canal reverts to Panamanian control although the U.S. and most other countries will still rely on it for shipping. Amid horrible political scandals (President Ernest Peres Balladares' son was seen shooting a U.S. Army sergeant but was ruled not guilty), the U.S. is counting on the friendship of Jorge Ritter to keep the U.S. ships floating right through the canal at reasonable rates. Ritter, you may remember, was drug-lord Noriega's right-hand man.
Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.
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Last updated: July 10, 1998