The ‘School of the Americas’ (SOA) occupies a very dark place in Latin American history.
The U.S. military academy, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, has been training Latin American soldiers for well over half a century. More than 64,000 have passed through its doors, a significant number of which have been accused and convicted of human rights abuses. It has educated 11 dictators, including Panama’s former drug-dealing strongman, Manuel Noriega, and El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson, who controlled that country’s infamous death squads.
In March of this year, SOA graduate Pedro Pimentel Ríos of Guatemala was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for his actions during the 1982 Dos Erres Massacre that left more than 200 dead. Three years earlier, in 2009, two-time graduate Gen. Romeo Orlando Vásquez led the military putsch against Honduras’s democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.
This month, Nicaragua became the sixth Latin American country—and the first in Central America—to announce the end of its participation in the school’s officers’ training program. In practice, Nicaragua has been slowly reducing its participation in the program over the past few years; it sent no new officers to the school this year.
In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rather unsurprisingly severed his country’s links to the school, which he considers an “imperialist” training camp. Two years later Argentina made a similar decision. Neighboring Uruguay saw its neighbors’ pullout as an opportunity to affirm its long-standing dismissal of the school. Then came Bolivia in 2008, and Ecuador in 2012.
In 2007 Costa Rica, which has no standing army but sends police officers to the SOA for training, also toyed with the idea of discontinuing its participation. But the country decided to keep sending officers for anti-narcotics training.
In announcing his decision several weeks ago, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said, “The SOA is an ethical and moral anathema. All of the countries of Latin America have been victims of its graduates. The SOA is a symbol of death, a symbol of terror.”
Ortega went on to empathize that “We have been gradually reducing our numbers of troops at the SOA, sending only five last year and none this year. We have now entered a new phase and we will not continue to send troops to the SOA. This is the least that we can do.”
The decision came after Ortega met with a delegation from the “School of the Americas Watch” (SOAW), a campaign group that has been bringing awareness to the human rights abuses committed by SOA graduates since 1990. The group’s founder, Maryknoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois, was motivated to act after witnessing the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980. He describes the SOA as a “symbol of United States foreign policy whose role is always the same: to protect U.S. economic interests and control the natural resources of Latin American countries.”
In 2001, the school attempted to distance itself from the past by renaming itself the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” It also justified its existence by commenting that “no school should be held accountable for the actions of its graduates.”
However, there have been questions about how much has changed. Maj. Joseph Blair, a former director at the school, said, “There are no substantive changes besides the name. They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names and use the same manuals.”
The SOAW delegation spent 10 days touring Nicaragua meeting representatives from rural communities, Sandinista Youth brigades and the president. Lisa Sullivan, who works as the Latin America Coordinator for “School of the Americas Watch,” described her last meeting with President Ortega in 2008.
“After sixteen years of absolute economic dependency on the U.S., and with wounds of a U.S.-funded war still raw, the timing was just not right in 2008 to announce Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the SOA,” she said.
Four years later, the SOAW delegation found the Nicaraguan president better able to listen to their cause.
“From the moment we stepped into Nicaragua, it was clear that a lot had changed in four years,” Sullivan commentated. “In recent years, the ALBA bloc of Latin American and Caribbean nations had offered Nicaragua the economic solidarity some degree of independence from the U.S. Still, the U.S. still controlled a large amount of funds for Nicaragua, and they were reluctant to anger their giant neighbor,” she said.
David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990