President Oscar Arias this week decided to make Costa Rica the fourth Latin American country to stop sending trainees to an infamous U.S. Army school.
The decision was the result of a meeting with U.S. activist and Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, who is on a whirlwind tour to shore up support in Latin America and the United States to close down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in the U.S. state of Georgia.
Nearly 2,600 Costa Ricans have been trained at the institute, based in one of the largest U.S. military training bases, FortBenning. It is the successor to the School of the Americas (SOA), a school founded in 1946 in Panama, moved to Georgia in 1984 and then closed in 2001 on the heels of protests about reports that the school was teaching torture techniques, and that graduates were involved in slaughtering churchwomen and priests in El Salvador.
Once Costa Rica’s three police-officer trainees and one instructor at the institute finish their courses, Arias will send no more Costa Ricans, according to Bourgeois and members of his group dedicated to closing the institute, School of the Americas Watch, who informed The Tico Times of Arias’ decision Wednesday night after meeting with the President and Security Minister Fernando Berrocal.
Casa Presidencial spokesman Esteban Arrieta confirmed Arias’ decision.
Today, WHINSEC, opened in 2001, is the U.S. military’s principal Spanish-language training ground, where Latin American military and law enforcement personnel come for schooling on the United States’ dime.
WHINSEC spokesman Lee Rials told The Tico Times this week that the institute was created by the same bill that closed the School of the Americas, but that the school today is very different than it once was.
“It’s amazing that people opposed are acting as if we’re operating in a place that is 30 years old,” he said.
Rials explained that WHINSEC gives test courses in democracy, ethics and human rights that teach students the role of military in a democratic society. Furthermore, he said the school no longer focuses on counter-insurgency as it did decades ago, but rather on teaching emergency and disaster response, counter-narcotics, engineering and medical assistance.
He also dubbed “inaccurate” a 1996 Washington Post report that said the School of Americas used a torture manual in training cadets. He said there is a lot of debate over what the manuals actually said, and that they were brought in by one officer in his
class but were never part of the school’s curriculum.
Bourgeois, who has served a total of four years in prisons in the United States and Latin America for nonviolent protests against the institute, successfully convinced the governments of Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina to pull troops from the controversial school during the past two years.
He made Costa Rica his latest target this week.
The school “is a symbol of U.S. foreign policy. It has provided the muscle for U.S. policy and has protected the economic interests of U.S. foreign corporations,” he told The Tico Times.
Rials downplayed the four Latin American governments’ decisions to stop sending officers to the school.
“The political statements are just that and they could change tomorrow,” he said. He added that he was surprised to see Arias support such an effort. Rials claims that before his presidency, Arias personally visited WHINSEC, where a guard of his had been trained. Arrieta, of Casa Presidencial, was not able to confirm this press time, and said he would need to ask Arias directly.
Rials also laughed at the fact that the Venezuelan Defense Minister and Uruguay’s Commanding General have been students and instructors at the institute.
SOA’s graduates have included some of the region’s most notorious human rights abusers, such as Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads; 19 Salvadoran soldiers linked to the 1989 assassinations of six Jesuit priests; General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the deposed Panamanian strongman soon to be released from Miami prison; six Peruvian officers linked to killings of students and a professor; and the list goes on, according to SOA Watch.
Rials defended the SOA, saying, “The fact that someone took a course here has no relation to the crime of which he is accused.”
Path of a Priest
Bourgeois, 68, was a Louisiana geology student when he was sent to the Vietnam War as a young naval officer. It was in Vietnam, after a bomb hit his barracks, killing 14 and leaving him with shrapnel wounds, that Bourgeois experienced a “turning point.”
He became a priest and went to Bolivia as a missionary for five years, working to help residents in a slum organize themselves until he was arrested and deported by the regime of dictator Hugo Banzer, himself a School of the Americas graduate.
“Dictator Banzer came to rule and my country was supporting propping up this thing,” Bourgeois said. “But I learned it wasn’t only in Bolivia, but in Peru, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala…”
Bourgeois is now a roving activist bent upon bringing to light the underbelly of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. He founded School of the Americas Watch in 1990.
Bourgeois’ group organizes a protest at the entrance of FortBenning each year in which thousands turn out to support the school’s closure. In recent years, protestors have been tossed in jail for trespassing on fort grounds during protests.
Bourgeois did U.S. jail time after dressing up like a soldier and entering FortBenning in 1983. Once inside, he and three others blasted a barracks full of soldiers with a boombox playing a speech by assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Salvadoran officers implicated in the populist church leader’s 1990 killing were trained at the SOA, according to SOA Watch.
In recent years, Bourgeois has been on a whirlwind Latin American tour meeting
with heads of state and government officials in an attempt to persuade them to withdraw officials from WHINSEC.
Bourgeois has also been working with U.S. congressmen such as James McGovern of Massachusetts, who along with 72 cosponsors has designed a bill that would cut funding for WHINSEC and launch an investigation into the school. He said the recent boost given to the Democrats in last year’s congressional elections give him hope for the bill.
The foreign operations bill could be taken up in Congress as early as June. However, Rial said there is also a defense authorization bill being discussed right now to which WHINSEC supporters in Congress have added language supporting the school.
Rials said passage of the defense authorization bill would make it tougher for WHINSEC opponents in Congress to vote to close the school later.
Bourgeois is fighting more than one battle in the United States.After SOA watch was able to get lists of all trainees at the school for 50 years, in 2005 the Department of Defense began blacking out the names on the lists. But Bourgeois remains hopeful about his 17-year-old cause.
“There’s a sea change taking place. Countries dominated by the United States are referring to our country as el imperio,” said Bourgeois, who met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2004. He personally asked Chávez to withdraw Venezuelan trainees from the school.
Upon learning that officers involved in the coup that temporarily ousted Chávez were trained in the school, Chávez agreed.
Costa Rica’s former National Police Director Walter Navarro is currently working as an instructor at the institute, according to Public Security Ministry spokeswoman Karla Arrieta. According to state prosecutor Federico Vanegas, Navarro is wanted here as part of an investigation into $21,000 of missing funds intended for the construction of a police station that was never built.