Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, visited Portland State University on Wednesday to educate students about human rights violations funded by the United States government.
Sponsored by the newly restarted PSU chapter of Amnesty International, as well as Amnesty International groups from Portland and Bend, the lecture centered around Bourgeois’ activism and efforts to close the U.S. military training facility known in past years as the School of the Americas.
Having trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in tactics such as sniper training, psychological warfare and various interrogation techniques, the SOA, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has become a controversial component of the U.S. military. Estimated by SOA Watch to receive upwards of $18.4 million tax dollars annually, the center is located in Fort Benning, Ga.
Responsible for training “some of the most notorious human-rights violators in Latin America,” graduates of the SOA include Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia, General Manuel Noriega of Panama, Robert D’Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador’s “death squads,” and those responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
WHINSEC-SOA is notorious throughout Latin America for the brutality of its training techniques, and has been dubbed “The School of Assassins”.
Despite his dedication to the closure of the training camp, Bourgeois said his interests did not always lie in activism.
Born in Lutcher, La., he acquired his bachelor’s of science in geology before entering the Navy, where he served four years.
Serving in Vietnam caused him to question the military’s role in foreign affairs and he started to examine the events unfolding around him with “critical eyes.”
“In Vietnam, my hope was shattered,” he said.
Soon after his life-changing experience, Bourgeois encountered a missionary on a military base and decided to pursue a life of “peacemaking and healing.”
He then entered the seminary of Maryknoll Missionary Order and dedicated his life to nonviolence.
“What the president says, we say, what the generals say, we say, we’re like parrots,” he said. “I was a good parrot. I’m surprised no one threw crackers at me. Then I began to speak the truth, and I met kindred spirits who brought me into the struggle for peace and justice.”
After being arrested in Bolivia and forced out of the country for defending the poor, Bourgeois experienced a personal tragedy that changed the course of his life. In 1980 he found out that two of his friends, nuns from Maryknoll, were among three nuns and a lay missionary from the United States who had been raped and murdered by El Salvadorian soldiers and he felt compelled to investigate. He discovered that the SOA was connected to the murders.
“We found the United States government there, giving guns and training the soldiers who did the killings,” he said. “That was wrong. It was a crime against humanity.”
Upon returning to the United States, Bourgeois became an activist, fighting for the closure of the School of the Americas. Consequently, he has served over four years in U.S. federal prisons for his nonviolent protests, and he continues to speak out against U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
After founding the SOA Watch in 1990, Bourgeois placed its headquarters just down the street from the entrance to the SOA in Ft. Benning, Ga. He has had tremendous success finding support for the movement.
The annual SOA Watch march to the training center draws increasingly larger groups of participants, some of whom are willing to risk serving jail time and becoming prisoners of conscience.
“The first November there were 10 of us protesting,” he said. “Then 100 people came, and some of us went to prison, and 400 came, then 1,000. Then, last year, 10,000 came. It was a celebration of hope. There were 5,000 students from all over the country. Veterans and nuns.”
However, the demonstrations are not without risk. Throughout the existence of SOA Watch, more than 140 members have been imprisoned and have collectively served more than 60 years in federal prisons for charges of trespassing and protesting on military property, he explained.
“The prisoners have energized us in a way because they (the government) thought if they sent us to prison it would kill the movement off, but every time they sent someone to jail, more people would come,” Bourgeois said. “We have learned that truth cannot be silenced.”
Since its creation, SOA Watch has been responsible for making more transparent the SOA’s curriculum, the institutionalization of human rights training, and the establishment of internal and external oversight mechanisms at the school, it says on its Web site.
Though WHINSEC now requires graduates to participate in human rights training and is no longer known as SOA, Bourgeois believes the changes to be superficial and continues to call for the complete termination of the program.
“We need to understand why so many people in the world hate us, and what went on in the School of the Americas is just one example of why some people do,” he said. “Our military pays lip service to moving into the future, but this place is a cold war relic, a dinosaur. There are some institutions that are connected to so much death, suffering and horror that they cannot be transformed, and this is one of them.”
“It’s important for people to know not just the good things that the government is doing,” said Sherry Hanrahan, PSU AI organizer. “The U.S. tries to come off as this benevolent force, but it’s important for people to see the other side of the coin.”
SOA Watch’s future plans include the annual march to Ft. Benning, as well as the continued effort to spread awareness.
“Our enemy is here, in the U.S.,” Bourgeois said. “It is ignorance, and our weapon must be knowledge, it must be understanding and nonviolence.”
For more information about the SOA Watch, visit www.soaw.org. Or to contact the Oregon branch, call Celine Fitzmaurice at 503-281-4970. The PSU Amnesty International chapter is currently seeking members. Those interested can send an e-mail to [email protected], or call Portland AI U.S.A. Group 48 at 503-227-1878.