SOA Watch Scores Victory in Venezuela; President Chavez to Withdraw Officers from U.S. Army Training School

Article excerpt

Ever since graduates of the School of the Americas were linked to the assassinations of six Salvadoran Jesuit priests in 1989, peace activists have worked tirelessly to shut down the military school at Fort Benning, Ga. Opponents of the school have organized protests at the fort and the Pentagon, publicized atrocities committed by hundreds of its graduates, lobbied Congress and ultimately brought about a historic vote to cut its funding, only to see the school close and reopen under a new name.

This year, Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the movement SOA Watch that opposes the School of the Americas, is trying a new strategy: appealing directly to Latin American leaders to stop sending their officers to the school, which in 2001 was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC.

So far, the priest is batting a thousand. After Bourgeois made an appeal on Venezuelan national television and met with President Hugo Chavez, the government announced it will no longer send its officers to the school.

What's more, Bourgeois' organization has obtained, after a three-year battle, the names of WHISC graduates and has already linked several to corruption and human rights abuses--including a Salvadoran officer involved in a massacre of 16 people, a Bolivian officer responsible for the torture of a human rights leader, and three Colombians implicated in a corruption scheme involving counter-narcotics funds.

In interviews with NCR, Army and school officials downplayed the fact that the institution is losing Venezuela, an oil-rich country and one of the school's bigger clients with more than 4,000 graduates.

"Venezuela can't send any more officers," and Venezuelans now in training will be gone before summer, said Army Lt. Col. Linda Gould. Venezuela, she said, is a member of the International Criminal Court and has not signed an Article 98 waiver that the State Department now demands before approving foreign military assistance, sales and training.

The waiver is aimed at exempting U.S. officials and military personnel from prosecution by the court for war crimes. By signing it, Venezuela would agree to disavow its international obligation to extradite accused U.S. soldiers and officials to The Hague for trial.

Venezuela's announcement about ending the training came six weeks after Bourgeois met with Chavez during a weeklong trip to the country organized by Maryknoll's Office for Global Concerns and the Medical Mission Sisters' Alliance for Justice.

Global Concerns director Marie Dennis said the January visit was organized to meet with a broad spectrum of people, including U.S. embassy and Venezuelan government officials, barrio residents, religious leaders and Chavez critics, some of whom, Dennis said, the government will need to engage if it is to succeed in redirecting the country's resources to meet the needs of the poor.

Bourgeois was particularly impressed with the government's health and literacy programs for the poor, who make up nearly 80 percent of the population: "I saw a lot of hope and joy in the barrios."

"The Bush administration is trying to paint Chavez as something of a dictator," Bourgeois said.

"But they have freedom of the press. There were opposition papers everywhere, and Chavez gets a lot of bad press. They have the freedom to protest. There are large demonstrations all the time. And there are no political prisoners"--a fact that even Stephen McFarland, a top U.S. embassy official, conceded to the delegation.

Bourgeois had gone to Venezuela in the hopes of talking to Chavez about the School of the Americas, but the meeting could not be prearranged and happened by chance. Bourgeois had broached the subject during a visit with the country's vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel.

Immediately after that meeting, Dennis said, Venezuelan media grimed interviews with some members of the delegation, and Bourgeois mentioned the school's track record. …