Closing the Secret School

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

Something was missing when Father Roy Bourgeois and several companions traveled through South America last month: fear.

Or rather, as he said it, almost reverently, “FEAR-R-R-R” — a big, lingering, life-shaping word, clotted with grief and inexpressible rage. As he spoke the word, it was alive with the memory of midnight knocks and disappeared loved ones, the reality of life under the oligarchies and terror regimes that subdued the poor in Latin America for so long.

When I talked to Bourgeois the other day, he couldn’t conceal his wonderment at its absence: “I remember the fear that I had when I left there years ago. To see fear replaced by hope . . .”

Indeed, something remarkable is happening in the Southern Hemisphere, news of which we in El Norte get only in heavily filtered, ludicrously distorted doses. Women and indigenous people are suddenly ascending to ranks of power. In Uruguay, a former human-rights attorney is now defense minister. Unimaginable possibility is dawning, and the wounded and imprisoned of earlier decades are grieving openly for the first time and crying “Nunca mas!” — never again.

And three countries so far, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay — with more, almost certainly, to follow suit — have formally declared that they will no longer send their military personnel for training at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which is better known by its former name, the School of the Americas, housed in Fort Benning, Ga.

This barbed-wire-enclosed compound, where Augusto Pinochet’s ceremonial sword is said to hang in a place of honor, is also called the “School of the Assassins.” It’s America’s secret, long-discredited training institute for torture and repression, by which we guard our “interests” South of the Border. The only thing novel about the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is that the torturers there are U.S. soldiers and paramilitary personnel. In fact, we’ve been in the torture business for the last half century-plus. This is our shadow foreign policy: manipulate, overthrow, rule by fear. The best-kept secret in the Land of the Free is our own hypocrisy.

So it is with gratitude and awe that I salute the recent mission of Bourgeois — who founded SOA Watch in 1990, following the slaying in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, by, it turned out, graduates of the little known school — along with fellow activists Carlos Mauricio and Lisa Sullivan, to Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina. They met with government officials, including, in Bolivia, the newly elected President Evo Morales, representing — in a way someone like, say, Condoleezza Rice is incapable of doing — the American conscience. They met to talk about SOA/WHISC.

“I’m filled with hope and inspiration,” Bourgeois said. “We didn’t get any resistance — none. Defense ministers, high-ranking military leaders . . . we got nothing but positive results. They were very aware of the school and its effect on their country — the disappeared and the massacres. They know better than us about this school.”

After the meetings, the governments of Uruguay and Argentina both made formal announcements of withdrawal of military personnel from the school, joining Venezuela, which pulled its personnel out of the school a year ago. Bourgeois, who lived in Bolivia in the 1970s, under the brutal regime of SOA grad Hugo Banzer, expects that country to make a similar announcement in the near future.

“In Bolivia, it’s amazing,” he said. “Former political prisoners are leaders of government. What’s going on is a sea change. For the first time, the military is out of power and people are able to come forward and talk about missing loved ones.

“I was there for five years in the ’70s,” he went on. “There was a lot of fear then” — that word again, FEAR, drowning as he spoke it in the tears of the madres who once gathered silently in the plazas, demanding news of their children — “instigated by the military, throughout Latin America. There were nights I couldn’t sleep in my little apartment in the barrio for fear the knock would come. You had to keep moving there, to safe houses — students, tin miners, being sought by military, knowing if they were arrested they’d be tortured. The point was to get names. It was a state of terror. They started picking up more and more people . . .”

Bourgeois and his companions were part of some remarkable events: “Yesterday,” wrote Sullivan in a dispatch from Argentina, “we marched with mothers, grandmothers and children of many of the 30,000 ‘disappeared,’ and entered, for the first time ever, the military base where 6,000 of the ‘disappeared’ were killed.

“In the emotional sharing from the stage, two brothers spoke how it had taken them years to be reunited. One was born at the maternity clinic on the base which was set up for pregnant detainees who were allowed to deliver their babies before being killed. Children were then ‘given’ to military families who then raised the offspring of those whom they had killed.”

This is just a slice of the horror that overran a continent, which the United States condoned, blessed and instigated. The symbolic heart of this darkness is what was once called the School of the Americas.

“In August,” said Bourgeois, “we will go to Chile, Peru, Paraguay and Ecuador. We’ll meet with government and grass roots leaders, with a simple request: Do not send your troops there.”