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The U.S. School of the Americas

I've been enjoying the book Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. The authors, James Hodge and Linda Cooper, left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and now live here in Columbus, Ohio. They're very friendly and helpful people, and time flies during their twice-monthly book study at the Columbus Catholic Worker!

The book is about Roy Bourgeois, a priest from a small town in Louisiana. With a hawkish political outlook, he joined the Navy and fought in Vietnam as a lieutenant. There he worked to help orphaned refugee children in Saigon, becoming acutely sensitive to the havoc the U.S. can cause those in poverty outside our borders. Later, as a Maryknoll missionary, he traveled to Bolivia and El Salvador where living conditions were pretty extreme. He had a few brushes with arrest, torture, and kidnapping as right-wing governments started cracking down hard on dissent.

Death squads were targeting priests, nuns, teachers, health care workers, union leaders, cooperative members, and human rights advocates--anyone speaking against poverty and oppression. As he followed the trail of influence backward, Bourgeois found that many military officers involved had links to our very own country. One clear link was the U.S. School of the Americas training facility.

The School of the Americas is a U.S. military base at Ft. Benning, Georgia, which provides training and networking for high-ranking officers of militaries in Latin America. Hundreds of its graduates are linked to paramilitary death squads responsible for disappearing tens of thousands of "subversives." They're even behind many of the coups in Latin America, especially in the late 70's and 80's, and the Honduran coup of 2009. Bourgeois founded SOA Watch to monitor and demonstrate against the school.

The School of the Americas has earned a reputation in Latin America as the "School of Coups" or the "School of Assassins." People in charge insist that it promotes human rights, and that countries involved should value human rights and democracy. However, "countries with the worst human rights records had the highest school enrollment, including Bolivia under Hugo Banzer, Nicaragua under the Somozas, and El Salvador during the regimes of the 1980's." (p. 143)

The U.S. trains around 150 foreign militaries throughout the world, using our massive military budget. The School of the Americas has come to symbolize the worst of our government's international ambitions.


Looking at 1980's Nicaragua provides a good case study of how the U.S. sponsors human rights abuse and terrorism. (Page numbers reference Disturbing the Peace, itself thoroughly researched.)


* For decades, the Nicaraguan people suffer under dictators in the Samoza family. They are supported by U.S. presidents from Roosevelt through Carter, as well as U.S. business conglomerates such as United Fruit (now Chiquita).

* Left-wing opposition parties build up a resistance over a period of many years. The Sandinistas eventually win a landslide election in 1984 when Daniel Ortega is elected president.

* The previous dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, flees Nicaragua with $1 billion, much of it stolen from government.

* The right-wing Contra rebels attempt to regain power, armed and led by School of the America graduates. Ricardo "Chino" Lau was a Contra--the man accused of assassinating outspoken but nonviolent Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Galtieri, known for leading Argentina and overseeing the Dirty War in which 30,000 were disappeared, trained Contras for Reagan.


* The U.S. Congress passes the Boland Amendment which prohibits military funding of the Contras. Instead, the Reagan administration secretly sells arms to Iranians, tries to free hostages, and uses the money to arm the Contras for a covert war with no accountability.

* The Contras, under U.S. support, engage in terrorist activity--tortures, mutilations, executions, serial killing, destroying schools and hospitals.

* The U.S. falsely claims Nicaragua tried to invade Honduras. This might ring similar to other U.S. propaganda efforts such as the false "attack" in the Gulf of Tonkin justifying the Vietnam War, or the false threat of nuclear war justifying the first and second Iraq wars.

* The U.S. State Department, staffed with "psychological warfare" specialists, is cited by Congress for conducting "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" against Americans. The State Department plants false stories in the media about Sandinistas and discredits journalists who question administration policy. (p. 110)

* The U.S. mines the Nicaraguan harbor and sinks ships, an act of war. The International Court of Justice finds the U.S. guilty, but the U.S. doesn't recognize the ICJ in cases where it rules against us.

* The U.S. continues to impoverish Nicaraguan people with a full trade embargo.

* Oliver North testifies under immunity that he had approval from superiors for his actions in the now-public Iran-Contra scandal, including the CIA director William Casey. North's former boss, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, "testified that he had destroyed the document signed by Reagan authorizing the arms deal with Iran." (p. 121)

* The CIA wrote a manual on guerilla warfare tactics in use by the Contras. It contains, for instance: "how to justify killing fleeing civilians, how to seize power through acts of terrorism, how to create 'martyrs' by hiring criminals to kill Contra leaders, etc. The Reagan administration claimed the manual had not been approved and was the work of an 'overzealous freelancer' under contract with the CIA." (p. 108)

* President Reagan conducts low-intensity warfare as a matter of policy in Latin America without accountability. A few Special Forces are used for training, but most of the fighting is done by proxy. By hiding our responsibility, this prevents media attention, prevents demonstrations, keeps Americans in the dark, and guarantees only foreign blood is spilled. Low-intensity warfare is described by Michael Klare as "that amount of murder, mutilation, torture, rape, and savagery that is sustainable without triggering widespread public disapproval at home." (p. 144)

* The Contras assassinate a U.S. citizen, Ben Linder, a civil engineer who was 27 years old. (p. 117)


* In 1987, Bob Dole, who supported Contra aid and was a GOP presidential candidate, pressures President Ortega to free two opposition leaders who were arrested at a rally and got thirty days in jail. "Ortega said he'd release both of them if the senators would obtain the release of a U.S. political prisoner sentenced to nine months in jail for protesting Contra training. 'We don't do that in our country,' Dole told Ortega. 'You've got us mixed up with the Soviet Union.'" Ortega then told him about Roy Bourgeois who was arrested protesting in Florida against the Contra aid. (p. 122)

* Costa Rican President Oscar Arias negotiates a peace accord between the Sandanistas and Contras, "sidestepping the Reagan administration, which had earlier sabotaged the Contadora peace proposal." (p. 122) Arias' plan, known as the Esquipulas Peace Agreement, is signed in August 1987 and eventually ends the Contra war.

* Ortega and the Sandinistas lose the next Nicaraguan election in 1990. "When he freely gave up his office it was the first time in more than half a century that power was transferred peacefully in Nicaragua." (p. 128)


This is by no means an isolated example of U.S. humanitarian abuse. In fact Nicaragua is one in a long list, most of which happen under the public radar and don't lead to an Iran-Contra scandal. For more information, see my essay listing several U.S. injustices, or check out the book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II. Linda Cooper also sent me a link to an astounding laundry list of U.S. imperialist interventions.

To better understand and accept this picture of our foreign policy, it would be helpful to look into what would motivate our leaders to pursue these ends. Their motives stem from powerful interests at all levels, campaigning to maintain power, profits, and stability at any cost. Someday I may delve deeper into this here.


I think social justice and personal empowerment are worth fighting for. Some actions a regular citizen can take to call attention to this and put pressure on our government:

* Find local activist groups which meet and talk about these issues, such as the Catholic Worker. Meeting new friends and contacts will provide support and motivation and generate new ideas.

* Write a short letter or essay to a local newspaper or spread material online. The Catholic Worker may be running some writing workshops in the future for just this purpose.

* Contact your representatives. This site will let you print out a letter to all of your Congress people or help you call or e-mail them.

Powerful corporate interests are thoroughly represented in our government, yet they don't often reflect well on our country and its ideals. Shouldn't our country pursue a more honorable path? Who represents you? Who stands for democracy, empowerment, and social justice?

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