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The fight to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas or SOA) at Ft. Benning in Georgia has been an uphill battle. But the dramatic leftward political shift in Latin America might be giving the activist group SOA Watch something to be optimistic about.
The School of the Americas, founded in 1946 in Panama and relocated to Georgia in 1984, has trained soldiers from Latin American countries for more than half a century in the arts of psychological warfare and counter-insurgency. An integral institution during the Cold War, when Washington supported the brutal measures of anti-communist regimes in Latin America, it now focuses on the campaigns to fight drug trafficking and production. Many of its graduates have gone on to commit atrocities throughout South and Central America, including acts of torture and extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians. Its graduates include death squad leaders in various countries. It is believed the assassin who killed Oscar Romero, a Salvadorian monsignor known for aiding the poor who pleaded for peace in his country, was an SOA graduate. General Manuel Noriega of Panama studied there. The list goes on.
A delegation from SOA Watch, a group dedicated to closing the school and known for holding large annual protests outside Ft. Benning that include acts of civil disobedience, recently visited 12 countries in Latin America. They met government officials and activists in an effort to convince leaders to stop sending soldiers to Ft. Benning. Its amazing how many people will listen to us, says Lisa Sul- livan, a member of the delegation.
Venezuela was the first country to pull its students out of the school, followed by Argentina and Uruguay. Bolivia has indicated that it will dramatically decrease the number of students it will send over time. SOA Watch expects Nicaragua, now under the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega, to soon announce the same.
However, according to Sullivan, even in countries such as Chile and Ecuador where left-leaning political leaders have taken control of the government, it is still difficult for these civilian leaders to force the military to stop interacting with the school, as the military has sizable economic and political power.
The group is gearing up for a delegation to Mexico. While President Felipe Calderon, a conservative, will not pull students out, SOA Watch believes reaching out to him and his Administration may not be in vain.
The big fish SOA Watch has yet to catch is Colombia. None of its government officials agreed to meet with the delegation on its recent tour, says Father Roy Bourgeois, SOA Watchs founder. Colombia accounts for 50 percent of the schools student body. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that there are between 1.8 and 3.8 million internally displaced peoples in Colombia as a result of the conflict involving right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing insurgents and drug traffickers. At the SOA, the student body reflects where there is the most conflict, says Sullivan.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) has introduced a bill in the House Armed Services Committee to cut funding to the school while Congress investigates it. SOA Watchs legislative director Pam Bowman has hope for the bill. The way she describes it, the last time the House voted to cut funding to the school it lost by 15 votes. Since then 35 Republicans who voted in favor of funding the school were replaced by Democrats in the last midterm election. Since February, SOA Watch has engaged in lobbying efforts to persuade the new members of Congress to vote in favor of the McGovern bill. SOA Watch representatives have visited more than 200 Congressional offices, Bow- man says. SOA Watch also organized nearly 60 groups to hold public fasts around the country in April to highlight the McGovern bill and the movement to close the school in general.
The schools advocates say that the dirtiness of the past is over and that the school, with a reformed curriculum, one that teaches democracy, is necessary for security cooperation. But Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran, isnt buying it. Can a militaryan inherently hierarchical, authoritarian machineinstall democracy? Moreover, a school training combat soldiers with a long history of producing human rights violators cannot address the real needs of much of the Latin American people, who lack proper education and medical care, he insists. Its an obstacle to democracy, he says of the school. Its an obstacle to their liberation process.
Ari Paul is a contributor to Citizen Culture, Z, and Time Out Chicago.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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