Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Thoughts on WHINSEC/SOA

This blog doesn't get too many comments at this stage. You quickly learn that there is a high view to comment ratio, and that's ok. So when I saw that a very brief, linky post of mine had garnered a comment, I was interested. It was a post on Colombia and the commenter was Lee Rials, who describes himself as public affairs officer at WHINSEC, the US military training academy formerly known as the School of the Americas.

I felt privileged to have attracted the attention of a representative of a US state institution!* But a few seconds on Google deflated my pride, since it seems I have just joined the ranks of the many blogs to have been graced by the commenting ability of military public relations. Rials makes a habit of this: see here, here, and here. And in fact, if you google 'moral libel' in quotes the vast majority of the results are comments about WHINSEC/SOA from Rials. The comments are not particularly well tailored to the exact article, which explains why I got the standard 'moral libel' treatment even though I had expressed no judgement or causal link in my tiny post.

But ok, ok, we're on the subject now, so what DO I think of SOA/WHINSEC? Well, first things first: I'm not a US citizen or resident, so it's not my tax dollars paying for its existence, which may or may not be relevant. Second, can we just look up for a second? Yep, that's right, right up there - the title of the blog: Memory in Latin America. Because a lot of what I do is news compilation, and because I believe that the power of traumatic memory is its prevalence in the present, yes, I talk about the here and now. But ultimately, what brought me here is my interest in the past military dictatorships of Latin America and their aftermath. So really, I'm not so much coming from the WHINSEC direction, but am rather interested in the SOA and its legacy (lost by the acronyms? Get background here). The point being, I am still allowed to talk about what SOA may or may not have done wrong in the past even if the current institution is blameless.

You can read a lot about the activities of members of the Latin American military who had at some time attended a course or courses at SOA. They include two members of the Argentine junta (Galtieri and Viola); Ecuadorian dictator Guillermo Rodriguez; Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos and several perpetrators involved in the Cantuta massacre; and many, many, more. I'm not saying that the SOA caused every one of those people to become a torturer, a murderer, or a human rights abuser. That would be a nonsense. What I'm saying is that evidence suggests that the SOA was part of the machinery with which the US maintained its influence in the hemisphere, and that this influence did not have human rights as a priority - this is putting it about as mildly as you possibly can. The US throws its weight behind regime change when it considers this advantageous (Nicaragua, Chile); the democratic status of a country is not decisive in this, but rather the attitude of the country towards the Northern superpower. I don't think I have ever met a person who knew anything about Latin America who believed that US had anything other than its own interests - and solely those interests - at heart in its dealings with the hemisphere.

WHINSEC is the child of SOA, and a name change does not wipe away the past. Military violence against civilians is the plague of Latin America and it is not in the past, unfortunately, but continues despite democratic governments. We read daily of deaths, Peruvian villagers driven from their homes, Colombians lured with offers of job interviews, dressed as guerrillas and shot, politicians openly classifying human rights organisations as terrorists. I don't think that the efforts of Lee Rials' or those like him will ever be able to convince observers that continuing to train military officers in this institution is wise, effective, or a good use of funds, just as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were never going to be satisfied with the military continuing to control the ESMA, even though it was no longer a torture centre. Moral libel? Well, we're talking about crimes against humanity and the influences that surround them, so I think I'll take my chances with the thought crimes.

There is lots more information on this subject than I can include here, but I can give a few leads:
A Visit to WHINSEC (Plan Colombia and Beyond)
Torture is Un-American: The SOA and its Devastating Legacy (COHA)
WHINSEC transparency amendment today (Plan Colombia and Beyond)
SOA Watch
Lesley Gill's The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas [partly available free to view on Google books; not a perfect book, but informative]

*Not as privileged as the people whom the CIA drop in on, obviously.

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