It’s known as the School of Assassins among the poor of Latin America; a vessel for the spread of democracy among its U.S. military proponents; and one of the world’s most infamous human rights offenders for the thousands of protesters who gather in Fort Benning, Georgia, each November to honor the names of union leaders, campesinos, priests, and children who have been gunned down by its alumni.
This week, activists led by longtime peacemaker Father Roy Bourgeois are fasting in Washington, D.C. to demand the closure of the “School of the Americas,” a training center, funded by U.S. taxpayers, for tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers and police forces.
The institution was initially founded to curb the spread of communism in the region—training, arming, and supporting some of the 20th century's most deadly regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Bolivia, and on. With an eerily Orwellian turn of phrase, the school, originally founded in Panama in 1946 before it was relocated to U.S. soil in 1984, was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, in 2001.
According to Bourgeois' watchdog group, the School of the Americas Watch, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people—from Jesuit priests to village children—have been traced to the more than 60,000 graduates trained during the school's 59 years of operation.
Bourgeois, a veteran and firsthand witness to the carnage in Vietnam, first went to work in Latin America in 1972 as a priest. Five years living with the poor on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, exposed him to the United States' complicity in atrocities committed by General Banzer’s regime. “I met my country there,” he says. “We were the ones giving them guns and teaching them how to use them.”
Bourgeois' outspokenness eventually got him arrested and effectively deported, but it also got him rolling. Every Sunday, he spoke at different churches throughout the U.S., explaining how our own military might, money, and expertise were supporting some of the world's most merciless oppressors.
In 1989, a congressional task force investigating the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker, and her teenage daughter, revealed that some of the killers had been trained at Fort Benning. Bourgeois organized a 35-day fast at the base’s gate.
Two decades later, Bourgeois' activism has spread, with tens of thousands of participants from all over the world demanding the closure of the school. Bourgeois has personally petitioned leaders—from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Bolivian President Evo Morales—to discontinue their militaries’ involvement with the school.
Bourgeois believes that American people must find new ways to be in relationship with the rest of the world—with or without the official support of our leaders. Militarism, he argues, has been an American addiction for years. But with drastic unemployment, languishing social services, widespread insecurity, and the creeping consolidation of power, we may finally learn how to say, enough is enough.
Christa Hillstrom: These days the world is a dangerous place to be—with looming food crises, religious fundamentalism, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns. People are looking for security, and we tend to associate that with a strong military. But you’re saying that this whole “culture of militarism” is infectious, corrosive, and ultimately insecure. What do you mean by that?
Father Roy Bourgeois: For me it began in Vietnam. As a young man in the military, I didn't question the myth that we were the good guys. Our cause was noble. We were going to be the liberators. That's what they told us about Vietnam, and so I volunteered. That was the beginning of my awakening, and when I went to Latin America and started living in a barrio in Bolivia, that's when I saw up close my country's foreign policy.
At that time we were supporting a string of dictators: in Bolivia, General Banzer; General Pinochet nearby; the generals in Argentina; and the thugs in El Salvador and Guatemala. We were not in these countries as partners—we were there as conquistadors. We were there to exploit vast natural resources and cheap labor in order to enrich ourselves. To do that, you need men with guns. You can't get away with that top-down relationship without the guns.
Christa Hillstrom: So you saw this disconnect between what you first believed when you heard the language glorifying Vietnam and decided to be part of it, and then the reality on the ground.
Father Roy Bourgeois: Oh yes! When ignorance is so prevalent—and I see our greatest enemy in the United States as ignorance—we rely on what our leaders tell us is true, and we don't know what our foreign policy means to those on the receiving end. Our leaders told us we were going to free Vietnam from the communist enemy, but they saw us as invaders. It wasn't until I went there that I saw it too—the lie. They will try to get you to not ask questions, to not critique. So our only hope is to ask questions.
Christa Hillstrom: You were wounded there, came back and received a Purple Heart, went to seminary, and then joined the anti-war movement and returned the Purple Heart before you headed to Bolivia. That’s quite a winding road. How did you connect what you saw happening in South America with the militarism you experienced, from the other side, in Vietnam?
Father Roy Bourgeois: When I got out of language school in Bolivia, the people welcomed me into their barrio. I rented a little room there. We had a faucet in the backyard, an outdoor bath, and no running water. Most people didn't have access to health care, so a lot of the children were dying before three years old. That was kind of a microcosm: Most people in the world are living on the edge, and in this barrio they were struggling for survival. They were not receiving a living wage, and when they got sick they didn't make it.
What really angered and saddened me was when I went to visit the U.S. ambassador and asked what our relationship was to General Banzer. The ambassador said, "He's an ally.” We were friends! And I realized then that we were on the wrong side—in Bolivia and throughout Latin America.
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By my fifth year there, repression had intensified. The jails were filled. Many were killed, and I was among the many arrested. I was speaking out against the dictatorship and U.S. foreign policy, so I was kicked out of the country and denied reentry.
When I came back to the U.S. I was filled with anger. I would be talking in colleges, and most students had never heard of Banzer or Pinochet—you had to actually start with a map. But it reminded me again about how little we know about other countries, and that made me pause and stop blaming my audience—church folks, college students, and others—for foreign policies, and instead introduce them to the connection they had to the people of Bolivia. I was trying to surface this compassion we all have in our hearts. But ignorance is an obstacle to compassion.
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Christa Hillstrom: People today might say that Latin America has changed and these corrupt dictatorships are no longer the norm. Is there any truth to WHINSEC's claim that it helps train police to fight crime and insurgency and promote democracy?
Father Roy Bourgeois: They have made cosmetic
changes, including the name, but this school is still about men with guns. What's
so clear to those of us who come from the military is that you do not learn
democracy in the military.
Christa Hillstrom: What about in Colombia, where you are focusing a lot of your current work? WHINSEC argues that the government needs a lot of help when it comes to combating drug cartels. Can the training be used for good?
Father Roy Bourgeois: I don't see how, with the corruption in the military and police we see in Colombia. It's common knowledge there that many are involved with the drug runners. I don't believe that the answer is to have the military fighting the drug war. It's not necessary in a democracy. In a country with such a sad military history, there's not trust between the people and military.
Christa Hillstrom: But now you speak of a great "sea change" across the continent.
Father Roy Bourgeois: Yes. In these countries that were brutalized—Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador—they're electing presidents who are more closely aligned with the poor. They're distancing themselves from their militaries and the U.S. as they build human rights and democracy.
So I'm feeling a lot of hope. What I see in these countries, as in the Middle East and Africa—and especially among the youth—is that you can only oppress people for so long. And they're going to say—Basta! Not anymore. Every country is unique, but there is always the point where they will say no.
Christa Hillstrom: You've said before that solidarity and compassion, not war, breed security. What can people in the U.S. learn from those Latin American social movements?
Father Roy Bourgeois: That we all have power. I'll never forget that in Bolivia, there was so much division in the beginning. There were so many parties representing workers, the campesinos, the factory workers, the tin miners ... they just couldn't get together. That was part of the government tactic there.
What happened is that, eventually, they started coming together, as they did in Libya and Egypt. The poor make up the majority of the country, and they started uniting their voices. They discovered that there's something for everyone to do.
Christa Hillstrom: Do you see this kind of shift happening in the U.S. as well? Are people finding their voices?
Father Roy Bourgeois: Well, it's a bigger challenge. There's a lot of apathy here. And so many distractions. In the barrio, it wasn't as difficult to talk about oppression.
But I do believe that, with our high unemployment and so many getting poorer, this is the climate for change. I have a good friend here in Georgia who's losing his house. He's lost his job, and he's very upset. There are tens and tens of thousands going through that experience.
I meet a lot of people who are searching for some kind of meaning and hope and peace in life. A lot of people feel despair from the economic situation. They're working two or three jobs, or they're unemployed.
Christa Hillstrom: You once connected the suffering of the Bolivian barrio to the havoc wrought in Vietnam. Do you recognize those same forces at work here?
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Father Roy Bourgeois: Yes. I live in a military town where about 30,000 soldiers are being trained to go off to war. They're young. The vast majority are right out of high school. I see myself in them.
Kids can't find jobs in their own communities when they leave high school. So where are they going? They're going to the military. Recruiters are sweet-talking them, telling them how they'll be able to go to college. They play down the fact that they might not be alive to spend the money.
All over this town there are young people, many of them minorities coming from poor schools, preparing for war.
Christa Hillstrom: Meanwhile, the nation is facing massive budget cuts that will be debilitating for a lot of people, making fewer and fewer options available outside of the military. What about WHINSEC's funding?
Father Roy Bourgeois: The budget is in the millions, which is a big issue in the midst of cuts in Georgia and around the country. While schools and health care and services for the the elderly are getting cut, we've got millions of dollars going into the training of thousands of foreign soldiers—and it's all paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Christa Hillstrom: That's a lot to be angry about, especially for someone like you who's been witnessing injustice for decades. Don't you ever feel like hitting back?
Father Roy Bourgeois: When you see what we're really doing to the world, how many are being killed, and the people's money that foots the cost—I'm reminded how much you have to keep the anger in check. It can start consuming us, and when that happens we start to lose joy and hope.
What built our movement and other movements was that we have to also take care of ourselves. The struggle we're in is a marathon, not a sprint. We're in this for the long haul.
Christa Hillstrom: There are so many people who feel mired in rage right now, and it's a challenge to harness and channel that into something productive. Your movement, in a sense, has chosen civil disobedience as a tool. At one point, 2,000 of you crossed the line together at Fort Benning, and more than 300 of you have spent time in prison—you yourself for years altogether. What's so confrontational about disobedience?
Father Roy Bourgeois: Dr. King said that when you perform an act of civil disobedience, you expose injustice to the public. You call attention to something that's wrong when you protest, especially when you are arrested and go to prison.
When Rosa Parks said, No, I'm not going to the back of the bus ... well, that was an important moment. It just energized people. It caused people to say, wait a minute ... what's going on here?
In the early days of crossing the line, I remember old "Maximum Bob," a judge, sending people away to jail thinking he was going to stop the movement. He believed that others would not come back and cross the line. Well, he sent us to prison for six months or a year and a half. And what happened was that that brought even more people the next year.
Christa Hillstrom: Was there a Rosa Parks moment for you?
Father Roy Bourgeois: They actually have the actual bus Rosa Parks sat in in Birmingham. To be honest, going to the bus where she was arrested was my Rosa Parks moment. Really! I just felt: Wow. We can also do this. This is doable. And we can also do something to bring about peace.
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