Saturday, July 25, 2009

Honduras, School for Coups

By Fr. Roy Bourgeois, M.M., and Margaret Knapke
July 22, 2009
Foreign Policy in Focus

The day after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was
deposed, President Barack Obama cautioned against
repeating Latin America's "dark past," decades when
military coups regularly overrode the results of
democratic elections. Obama went on to acknowledge, in
his understated way, "The United States has not always
stood as it should with some of these fledgling

In fact, the U.S. government has often stood with - or
at least behind - the coup-makers. Examples include
Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, and
Venezuela in 2002 (this last coup attempt, against
President Hugo Chávez, was reversed). Also, throughout
most of the 1980s, the Reagan administration subsidized
and helped direct the "contra" (meaning counter-
revolutionary) war against the Nicaraguan government
and people.

Notably, the June 28 coup against Zelaya and the
Honduran electorate traces back to the U.S. Army School
of the Americas (SOA). Originally established in Panama
in 1946, the school was the U.S. Army's premier site
for training Latin American officers and soldiers in
military intelligence and combat operations, supposedly
within the letter of the law.

Within 20 years, however, it was known in Latin
American military circles as "la Escuela de Golpes" -
the School of Coups. And in the early 1980s, Panamanian
President Jorge Illueca declared the SOA "the biggest
base for destabilization in Latin America." The "School
of Coups" moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1984.

School rosters obtained through the Freedom of
Information Act show that General Romeo Vásquez Velá
squez, leader of the recent Honduran coup, trained
there in 1976 and 1984. He was assisted in deposing
President Zelaya by General Luis Javier Prince Suazo,
head of the Honduran Air Force, who in 1996 rather
presciently took an SOA course in Joint Operations.


But the school's fingerprints have long been evident in
Honduras. A death squad known as Battalion 3-16 was
organized in the 1980s and operated clandestinely for
years - kidnapping, forcibly disappearing, and
torturing political opponents, and killing at least 184
of them. Nineteen members of Battalion 3-16 are known
to have graduated from the School of the Americas,
including three generals who directed battalion

School officials have long insisted that its graduates
who flaunt the rule of law do so despite their
training. They are, according to that argument, just
inevitable "bad apples."

But, to the contrary, documentary evidence indicates
these students have learned their lessons well. In
1996, for example, President Bill Clinton's Defense
Department revealed that training materials used from
1982-1991 at the School had instructed Latin American
military officers and soldiers to target civilian
populations and use torture, intimidation, false
arrest, extrajudicial execution, blackmail, and more
inhumane tactics.

So, while SOA training has emboldened golpistas (coup-
makers) to act against legitimately elected heads of
state, it also has provoked crimes against citizens
challenging illegitimate or antidemocratic powers. As
Berta Oliva - who coordinates the Committee of
Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) -
said of soldiers repressing anti-coup protests: "They
view those who demand their rights as if they were

Oliva will never forget the Battalion 3-16 years. She
founded the COFADEH after her husband was kidnapped and
disappeared in 1982. About the recent military coup in
her country, she observed: "They've made a return to
the 1980s.... Friendly governments who hold democratic
ideals simply cannot allow this to happen here.

Shine the Light

Arguably the only way for Latin America to avoid
repeating its "dark past" is to shine a bright light
into it, for all to see. At the fifth Summit of the
Americas last April, Obama noted the importance of
learning from history. And he declared, "The United
States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where
those errors have been made."

With H.R. 2567, the Latin America Military Training
Review Act, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) and 57 co-
sponsors are offering us a light to shine. This
legislation would suspend operations at the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)
- the "successor institution" to the School of the
Americas, which is still located at Ft. Benning. Then a
bipartisan congressional taskforce would investigate
decades of its activities and teaching materials.

Certainly "errors have been made." Some at this moment
are threatening to override the will of the Honduran

It's time. It's past time. Shine the light on the
School of Coups.

Shine the light.

Father Roy Bourgeois is a Catholic priest, a former
missionary, and founder of SOA Watch. Margaret Knapke
is a longtime Latin America human-rights activist. Both
have served federal prison terms for nonviolent civil
disobedience aimed at closing the School of the
Americas and are Foreign Policy In Focus contributors.


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