WHINSEC Remains Open: Congress Narrowly Fails to Halt Funding the Former School of the Americas

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On Thursday June 21, 2007 at 11:52 p.m., Congress voted on the McGovern/Lewis Amendment curtailing funds to the former School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) after PR consultants suggested a name-change to improve its image. With an outcome of 214 to 203, the school survived by a slender margin of six votes, leaving the amendment defeated and the military school open. Of Democrats voting, only 42 out of 180 cast ballots to continue funding the institute, while 172 Republican Representatives voted against the measure.

According to the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a human rights organization and advocacy group founded in 1990 by Father Maryknoll Roy Bourgeois, “the WHINSEC PR machine and high ranking Pentagon officials used taxpayer money to put a lot of pressure on members of Congress.” Thus, Congressional representatives—who initially had committed themselves to cut funding to the WHINSEC—succumbed to these Pentagon pressures and shifted their votes.

The Recent Fight Against the SOA

Despite the failure to pass the amendment, those opposed to the WHINSEC were still able to gain support from some incoming Republicans and other new members of Congress. This year those opposing WHINSEC came closer to victory than last year, when the amendment to reduce funding to the institute failed by a margin of 15 votes. The SOAW mentioned the remarkable grassroots mobilization effort at work this year that consisted of “tens of thousands of emails, faxes and calls [that flooded] the halls of Congress,” three days before the amendment was introduced. Veterans, students, clergy and union members from around the U.S. traveled to Washington and visited scores of Congressional offices “to communicate clearly that there is no room for institutions like SOA/WHINSEC in the future.” The SOAW stated that their movement not only has brought to light the issue of an unjust organization being funded by the U.S. treasury, but also showed that House members opposed to the school have “tremendous power” when they come together and fight for justice.

SOAW’s response to its most recent defeat was brimming with optimism; it vowed to continue its fight against the WHINSEC despite the current legislative setback. The communications coordinator for SOAW, Joao da Silva, emphasized that the human rights organization and advocacy group has “gained a lot of ground in Congress” and that achieving its goal to shut down the “school of death is coming closer and closer.” The SOAW also warned, “If we can mobilize around the vote the way that we have, we can mobilize around targeted primary elections and make clear to constituents in those districts how their candidates feel about supporting the Pentagon policies and this school of shame.”

SOAW’s Passionate Protesters
For the past two years U.S. protestors have rallied for the closure of the WHINSEC, most notably on November 16, the anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests and two Salvadorian women who where brutally murdered by a Salvadorian military unit led by a WHINSEC graduate in 1989. These plucky activists have protested on the Fort Benning campus where they have often been arrested and later spent time in federal prison for their demonstrations. According to the news organization, Toward Freedom, “since 1990, 211 SOA Watch human rights defenders have collectively spent over 92 years in prison, while over 50 people have suffered probation sentences.”

The SOA Loses Support in Latin America

Over the past two years, the SOAW has succeeded in convincing several Latin American leaders to remove their military and police attendees from the school. In 2005, Venezuela withdrew its troops. A year later, Argentina and Uruguay followed suit and, according to Bolivian president Evo Morales, La Paz as well will gradually pull out their military personnel from the WHINSEC as well. After serious talks with SOAW representatives, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias announced on May 16, 2007, that he would stop sending his personnel to the school. Even though Costa Rica does not have an army, the Central American country, over the years, has sent 2,600 police officers to WHINSEC and its predecessor for training. Arias stated, “We agreed that when the courses end for the three policemen we are not going to send any more.”

Criticism Against SOA Opposition
In a heated letter from WHINSEC’s Public Affairs Officer Lee A. Rials, to COHA, he criticized the research organization’s negative position toward the WHINSEC. He called COHA’s recent article, School of the Americas: A Black Eye To Democracy, “a work of fiction.” However, it is important to keep in mind that almost half of Congress voted for the closure of WHINSEC, based mostly upon the same facts that were presented in this recent COHA article. Convincing evidence against the WHINSEC in the past has made it increasingly obvious that a strong argument can be made for closing down the school, and that this would be a step that would advance Latin American democracy.