Leftist Victories in Latin America Create New Opportunities for SOA Opponents
by Dan Bacher
The increasing number of leftist, populist led governments winning elections in Latin America means a new opportunity for Fr. Roy Bourgeois and other opponents of the School of the Americas (SOA) to close the institution down.
The left is on an unprecedented ascendance in Latin America. After years of suffering under U.S. backed dictatorships, the majority of the people in South America have rejected neo-liberal policies and have voted for left-leaning governments in the most recent elections. SOA Watch, the organization started by Bourgeois, now has the chance to ask the elected leaders of these countries to pull their troops out of training at the school.
The triumph of Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Lula's Workers Party in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner's populist government in Argentina, socialist President Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay and President Ricardo Lagos in Chile are the result of a popular upsurge by populations sick of corporate globalization and the predations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
"The victory of the socialist doctor, Tabare Vazquez, in February's elections in Uruguay has prompted analysts and left-wing presidents to talk of a 'new South America,'" observed James Painter, BBC Latin American analyst. "They point out that left-leaning leaders run the big three economies of Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, and now predominate in most of the rest of the region. The only exception is President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, who remains adamantly pro- Washington and free market policies."
Both President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva of Brazil did extremely well in recent local elections. Pro-government candidates won in 20 of Venezuela's 22 states, according to Painter. Lula's Workers Party in Brazil won the most number of votes nationwide and doubled the number of local councils it won in 2000 - even though it lost Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre.
In Central America, the left is also on the upsurge. The Sandinista Front (FSLN) won 87 of Nicaragua's 152 mayoral posts in the November 2004 elections. The victories will boost Ortega's chances in 2006 of winning back the presidency he lost in the election of 1990.
Likewise in El Salvador, the leftist FMLN saw an increase in seats in the parliament and municipal government posts in the 2003 elections, though the presidency is still controlled by the right wing. The FMLN won 31 deputy seats against the right wing ARENA Partys 27 deputies in the parliamentary elections, although ARENA won the presidential election of March 2004 by a margin of 57% to 35% against the FMLN.
The focus of SOA Watch, founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, continues to be the passage of legislation in the U.S. Congress to close down the School of the Americas. However, his efforts to get progressive Latin American governments to pull their troops out of training at the "School of the Assassins" are already beginning to bear fruit, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. A new front has been opened in the battle to close the SOA.
Bourgeois recently met with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a country that has sent 4,000 troops to the school. Chavez agreed to stop sending troops to the school - a historic moment in the long struggle to shut the institution down.
"We are very hopeful that we will get Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil and other countries to withdraw from participation in the school this year," said Bourgeois at an appearance in Sacramento this spring. "We are very encouraged by Chavez's decision to no longer send troops to the SOA."
"For many years, the eyes of Latin America were focused on Nicaragua," explained Bourgeois. "The Sandinistas did a lot of good things, like redistribute land, conduct a literacy campaign and empower the powerless."
However, the United States' intervention in Nicaragua resulted in many of the revolution's gains being set back after the U.S. battered the population with the brutal Contra War. The result was the loss of the presidency by Daniel Ortega to Violetta Chamorro in 1990.
The political situation now has changed dramatically from those bleak years right after the Sandinistas were defeated. "After years under the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies, the people and their governments are realizing these policies are not working and they are moving away from them. The majority of people are poor and struggling for their survival," said Bourgeois.
"The populist victories in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Uruguay are all about bringing poor people into the circle and addressing the issues of poverty and health care," he added. "This will cause a conflict with the people in Washington, but these countries have the right to self-determination. Our country has been on the wrong side, on the side of the small elite and the corporations, rather being on the side of the people."
The growing groundswell against U.S. military and economic domination makes this year a key time to pressure the U.S. to shut down the SOA. "We must close down the SOA because it provides the muscle for U.S. foreign policy and protects the economic interests of the corporate giants," said Bourgeois.
In March, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced legislation in the 109th Congress to suspend operations of the School of the Americas (now renamed -- WHINSEC -- the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).
HR 1217, "The Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005," had 78 bi-partisan introductory co- sponsors -- thanks to intense lobbying efforts by activists during the February Lobby Day and National Call-in Day by SOA Watch. The bill currently has 105 bi-partisan co-sponsors; Representative Doris Matsui became the 105th after a delegation by local SOA Watch activists Leisa Faulkner Barnes and Janice Freeman, supported by Lorraine Krofchok of Grandmothers For Peace, in May.
The School of the Americas has trained a majority of the dictators and military officers responsible for the killing, massacre and torture of hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America. Many of the soldiers and officers responsible for the Guatemalan Genocide of the 1980's, where over 200,000 people were killed and 637 Mayan villages were wiped off the face of the map, were SOA graduates.
Of the 28 soldiers involved in the slaughter of the 9 Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University in November 1989, 19 were SOA graduates.
Since SOA Watch has been demonstrating at Fort Benning, 200 courageous activists have been jailed, spending a total of 85 years in federal prison. Sacramento's Leisa Faulkner Barnes last year completed a three-month sentence in the women's federal prison in Dublin for participation in the protest at the SOA in November 2003.
"We will keep coming back to Fort Benning until we shut the SOA down," said Bourgeois. "We will again demonstrate at the school on November 19 to 20 this year."
Please take the time to call your Congress Member by DC office by calling the Capitol Hill Switchboard (202-224-3121) and ask them to support Rep. Jim McGovern's HR 1217. For more information, contact SOA Watch at: www.soaw.org. For more information about the Sacramento SOA Watch, call Janice Freeman, 916-812-7680, or Leisa Faulkner Barnes, 916-801-4184
Here is a suggested message for you to convey: "I am calling Congressman/woman ________ to remind him/her that Rep. Jim McGovern has introduced HR 1217, The Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005, which would suspend and investigate the School of the Americas, which now uses the acronym WHINSEC. I urge the Congressman/woman to contact Rep. McGovern's office to become a cosponsor of this bipartisan bill. This would be one very concrete step to support human rights and promote peace and justice for the people of Latin America."