Nov 29

Many congratulations to School of the Americas Watch and the other organizers of the annual protest at Fort Benning ten days ago. A record number of people, 16,000 to 19,000, gathered to demand closure of the military-training institution that is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

Those kinds of numbers are usually unthinkable for an activist cause that is specific to Latin America, especially at a time when the news is overwhelming us with horrific accounts of U.S.-sponsored torture, indefinite detentions, secret prisons, white phosphorus, and civilian casualties elsewhere in the world.

Perhaps, though, all the bad news from the Middle East and beyond is the reason why Fort Benning is becoming more of a destination than ever. After all, you can’t protest at the gates of Guantánamo, thanks to the Cuba travel ban. You can’t really get a big group to go to Baghdad to protest the Iraq war – despite what the White House says, it’s just not safe there. We don’t even know the locations of the former Soviet prisons where the CIA is practicing “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” so on-site protests are out of the question. Meanwhile, most Colombian military bases where aerial fumigation planes operate, or where units with troubled human-rights records are trained, take place in rather dangerous parts of the country.

A much more accessible symbol of all that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy can be found at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia on the border with Alabama. The WHINSEC offers protesters a military institution designed specifically to assist the militaries of Latin America – of all institutions in that region’s fragile democracies, the one that least needs assistance. WHINSEC offers protesters a U.S. facility that has yet to make an effort to come to terms with its nasty cold-war past. WHINSEC offers protesters a place where the U.S. government has committed mistakes in Latin America that it is now repeating elsewhere in the world, such as strengthening friendly dictatorships, teaching illegal interrogation techniques, or cultivating closer relationships with military leaders than with civilian ones.

The protesters’ main demand is that the WHINSEC be closed. The Bush administration, and even many moderate Democrats, unsurprisingly refuse. They argue that the School of the Americas reformed itself when it became the WHINSEC, an institution dedicated, as its website reads, “to promoting peace, democratic values, and respect for human rights through inter-American cooperation.”

The resulting debate has hardly budged during the last few years. One side cites the school’s many evil graduates and questions the need to give special attention to Latin militaries. The other side insists that the past has been abandoned and that the school now inculcates respect for democracy by developing relationships with key officers. The arguments and demands seem to be frozen in time, like a bug trapped in amber.

This may not seem like a big problem now, since the number of marchers and activists is growing every year. But if it doesn’t change, it poses a long-term challenge. It is hard to harness activists’ energy when your demands and arguments – however justified – remain unchanged for decades (ask anyone who has worked to end the 45-year-old Cuba embargo). In order to become “unstuck,” the close-the-SOA movement will have to at least address – if not answer – a few key questions.

1. Should nearly all energies still be directed at an institution that is a shadow of its former self? Though the movement has not closed the SOA/WHINSEC, it has had remarkable success. Constant pressure and scrutiny have brought about much more than a name change. Most of the old SOA’s combat courses, and all interrogation or “foreign internal defense” courses, have been eliminated (or taught in other venues, such as by teams of Special Forces sent to the trainees’ countries). With a few notable exceptions, most of the curriculum is now made up of non-lethal classroom education. All training has a human-rights component, unlike what is taught in most other U.S. military institutions. Unlike most facilities where U.S. military training occurs, the WHINSEC opens its doors to inquisitive visitors and its staff responds promptly to requests for information about what happens there.

Years of pressure to close the school have led to a strange paradox. While WHINSEC still remains open for business, it is now more transparent to citizen oversight, less lethal in its course content, and more aware of human rights than any other U.S. military training effort in Latin America. If only the rest of the U.S. training program operated similarly.

Meanwhile, though it is still a significant destination for Latin American military trainees, the WHINSEC today is not the center of the action. Its 800 or so students are just over 5 percent of the 15,000 or so Latin American military and police personnel whom the United States trains every year. Today, there are even fewer students at WHINSEC – not because of pressure from peace activists, but because of legislation promoted by conservative U.S. members of Congress. The “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act” has cut non-drug military aid to eleven Latin American countries (soon to include a twelfth, Mexico) that refuse to exempt U.S. personnel on their soil from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. The result is a preponderance of students from countries whose aid is not frozen, such as Colombia, Panama, El Salvador and Chile.

If WHINSEC has become more benign and is no longer the “death star” of Latin American military training, will closing it make much difference? The close-the-school movement’s main legislative vehicle seems to be asking that same question.

The “Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005” (H.R. 1217) would not in fact close WHINSEC for good. (This tactical shift may in fact be a bow to political reality in the hard-line 109th Congress.) It would suspend the school’s operations for two years while creating two bipartisan commissions. The first would evaluate the purpose of military training for Latin America in the 21st century. The second would be a “truth commission” of sorts, investigating and documenting the human-rights mistakes committed in the school’s past. If the commissions do not recommend that the WHINSEC be shuttered, it could re-open. Since it would force the U.S. military-training establishment to undergo two thorough internal reviews, one of the past and one for the future, the bill is very worthy of support and has well over 100 co-sponsors. It is likely, though, that if it became law, H.R. 1217 would end up calling for a series of reforms while neither closing WHINSEC nor limiting training of Latin American military personnel.

2. Is closing the WHINSEC the goal, or is the larger objective to stop all military training in Latin America (or worldwide)? That has never been clear, and in fact there is no consensus on this among those gathered at Fort Benning, who range from committed pacifists to plain old “liberals” outraged by the Bush foreign policy.

Either way, the idea of a cutoff in all military aid and training to Latin America is a very long-term goal. And it’s not necessarily desirable. The United States should be developing relationships with – and helping to strengthen – all institutions in democratic countries with whom it has good relations. That includes legislatures, courts, local governments, educators, central bankers – and also militaries and police.

Over the past century, though, a major failing of U.S. policy toward Latin America has been a neglect of civilian institutions and an overemphasis on relations with militaries. In the part of the world with the highest levels of inequality, the United States has routinely chosen to forge closest ties with governments’ repressive apparatus, the institution that has most threatened the work of would-be reformers in civil society.

Military cooperation has been so dominant, in fact, that the U.S. Army for more than half a century has maintained a special school just for Latin American military personnel. It is a shame that there is a school for Latin American militaries, but not one for Latin American judges or prosecutors (including those who have to investigate cases of military corruption or human-rights abuse), for Latin American congresspeople, for Latin American mayors and governors, for government health-care, education or social-service professionals, for energy, transportation or trade officials. Why is it that only the soldiers are elevated to this special counterpart status?

The U.S. government should treat Latin American militaries as only one of many institutions with which relationships should be developed and cultivated. The military should not be the main institution with which we interact, nor should it be the most important one. This means that there is simply no need to maintain a special school just for the region’s militaries.

On the other hand, since militaries are a part of the governments the United States works with, a total cutoff of military assistance is not appropriate (as long as the recipient country is democratic and does not systematically violate human rights). But this military aid should be reduced from today’s levels, it should be far less lethal than it is today, and it should be nowhere near as secretive as it is today. The military-to-military relationship should get far less emphasis than the relationship with civilian leaders.

3. If the WHINSEC did close, what would the next step be? It is reasonable to fear that if WHINSEC closed tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference for U.S. training of Latin American militaries. The numbers of trainees wouldn’t change, the course content wouldn’t change, and military-to-military relationships would remain paramount in too many countries. Only the location of the training would change. And Fort Benning would cease to be a destination and a symbol for a movement that has begun to take on a larger significance.

If WHINSEC did close, however, there would still be no shortage of targets for future protests.

  • Of the 95 percent of Latin American military trainees who don’t attend the Institute, roughly more than half get trained in their own countries by teams of U.S. military instructors. But the rest attend about 100 military installations in the United States (including two that teach in Spanish: the Air Force’s Inter-American Air Forces Academy and the Navy’s Small Craft school). For an idea of where Latin American military and police students have taken courses lately, visit the government’s annual Foreign Military Training Report, click on a year, then “Country Training Activities,” then click on “Western Hemisphere.” The resulting big PDF file lists all training events in that year, and includes the training location in the table’s third column.
  • There is no shortage of U.S. corporations that have profited from U.S. military aid to Latin America, such as contractors, arms manufacturers, or companies that have lobbied for military aid to help protect their investments in the region. Others have run into trouble for involvement in human-rights abuses, labor-rights violations, or environmental degradation.
  • Various parts of the U.S. government are worthy of outrage for their systematic neglect of non-military priorities in Latin America. In particular, the Congress repeatedly appropriates money for WHINSEC and other institutions, but does not offer similar educational opportunities to civilians in Latin America’s governments and civil societies. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for its part, must be encouraged to stick up for itself and demand greater resources to shore up democratic institutions and civil society in the hemisphere.

To those who made the trip to Fort Benning this year: congratulations, and please, keep up the pressure. Your work is extremely important and it’s sending a message about the centrality of human rights, overcoming inequality, and demilitarizing the U.S. approach to the entire world, not just Latin America. But while keeping your eyes on one building at Fort Benning, it’s important to have at least the beginnings of a strategy for dealing with the much larger problem it symbolizes. Moving on to the next step can happen now. It’s not something to put off until after the school finally closes.