The 2008 foreign aid bill will go before the House of Representatives as early as tomorrow. It is likely that some Republicans may seek to reverse the billâ€™s balancing of military and economic aid to Colombia. We hope that they do not succeed.
During the same debate, meanwhile, several Democrats will be trying to cut funding to another Latin American military-aid program.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) and others will introduce an amendment to shut off funding for training at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The amendment would not shut down the WHINSEC, but it would cut off most of the â€œscholarshipsâ€ that pay for Latin American military personnel who attend it.
Based at Fort Benning, Georgia, the WHINSEC is the U.S. Armyâ€™s principal institution for training Latin American military personnel in their native language. It is the successor to the highly controversial U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which was located in the same building and taught many of the same courses.
The School of the Americas was a central tool of U.S. military aid during the Cold War, when Latin America was dominated by military dictatorships. The militaries who sent students there were among some of the most abusive in the hemisphereâ€™s history. The Schoolâ€™s graduates include some notoriously bloody figures. Books have been written about the Schoolâ€™s past, and a non-governmental organization, School of the Americas Watch, has performed extensive documentation and attracts tens of thousands to an annual protest at Fort Benningâ€™s gates.
In 2001 â€“ partly in response to criticism â€“ the School got a new name and underwent some changes to its mission and structure. Its courses began to include more instruction in human rights and respect for democracy. Several of the most troubling courses, including some whose manuals included abusive interrogation techniques, disappeared from the curriculum. Its staff became far more forthcoming with information requests, and sought out more interaction with critics.
I have participated in some of these interaction efforts:
- I paid my first and only visit to the Institute in early 2005, when its staff invited several non-governmental representatives to encourage input on their human rights instruction.
- The WHINSEC brings classes to Washington twice a year, and they have asked me to invite colleagues from other non-governmental organizations to participate in meetings where we explain, and answer questions about, our own work. I have had discussions with WHINSEC staff about how these interactions can be improved.
- Last week, I met here in Washington with members of the WHINSEC â€œBoard of Visitors,â€ a federal commission charged with overseeing the institution, before their regular meeting.
The Southern Command has also sought periodic dialogue with CIP and other non-governmental organizations working on security and human rights in Latin America. These exchanges have been useful and positive, helping us to understand each other a bit better.
This process has always gone smoothly and cordially when it leaves â€œoff the tableâ€ our more fundamental disagreements about the U.S. relationship with Latin Americaâ€™s security forces. It is one thing to focus on how to improve transparency or human-rights instruction. It is another thing entirely to ask, for instance, why military-to-military ties still play such a central role in our relationship with Latin America.
It appears that the upcoming McGovern amendment is forcing the issue.
On Thursday of last week, the WHINSEC held a meeting of its â€œBoard of Visitors,â€ a federal commission charged with overseeing the institution, on Capitol Hill. I did not attend, but I heard that, to my surprise, the Instituteâ€™s commandant and the head of its Board of Visitors both referred to me as an â€œimportant allyâ€ because of my past interactions with WHINSEC. According to several of those present, my name came up while this oversight board was discussing how best to fend off the McGovern amendment. It was intimated that I might be a resource for the upcoming legislative debate.
This is news to me. I have found our open lines of communication to be beneficial, and I value the exchanges we have had with WHINSEC. I have also not made closing WHINSEC a top priority for CIPâ€™s work, for reasons outlined below.
But I think it is too strong to call me an â€œally.â€ Right now, I consider myself to be a moderate critic of the Institute. This means that if I had to vote on the McGovern amendment, I would end up voting in favor.
First, there are several reasons why closing WHINSEC has not been an important priority for us lately. I discussed some of them in a post in late 2005.
- Largely because of outside pressure, the WHINSEC is by far the most transparent and open U.S. military training activity involving Latin America. Try getting similar information about studentsâ€™ origin and rank, courses taken, and detailed curriculum and course content from one of the other 100-plus U.S. institutions where Latin American soldiers and police can receive instruction.
- The WHINSEC has gotten rid of most â€“ though certainly not all â€“ of the lethal combat and intelligence-oriented courses associated with the old SOA.
- The WHINSEC has made a point of including human rights content in all courses, even encouraging students to interact with U.S. human-rights groups.
- Nearly all of the U.S. military training that is of concern right now happens elsewhere. U.S. instructors are still teaching Latin American militaries how to set up an ambush or how to interrogate a prisoner â€“ but chances are they are not doing it at the WHINSEC. They are doing it in the studentsâ€™ own countries â€“ often with Special Forces teams doing the instructing â€“ or in other U.S. training facilities (usually in English).
- WHINSECâ€™s share of overall trainees from Latin America is small â€“ less than 1,000 out of more than 15,000 per year. It has not been central to the Drug War, the way it was to the Cold War.
- My impression is that the current management of WHINSEC includes people who really believe that teaching human rights and respect for civilian authority is central to their mission. The McGovern amendment will be a slap to them, while worse training continues unaffected elsewhere.
- If WHINSEC closed tomorrow, it would not stop any objectionable training. What is taught at WHINSEC now would quickly move elsewhere, funded by the same military-aid programs.
These are some compelling reasons for preserving the status quo. Why, then, do I support the McGovern amendment? I find the following arguments to be stronger.
- Symbolism and messages matter. Passing the amendment would send a hugely important signal to Latin America. The United Statesâ€™ image in the hemisphere is at a historic low after Abu Ghraib, GuantÃ¡namo, renditions, torture allegations, border walls and much else. Taking this step would make clear to Latin Americans that a key sector of the U.S. population â€œgets itâ€ and wants to change the way we interact. Passing the amendment would indicate a desire to break with the past and re-establish relations on a less militaristic footing. It would be akin to declaring a new â€œGood Neighborâ€ policy.
- While the Institute is much improved over the old SOA, the U.S. government has never had an â€œaccountability momentâ€ about the schoolâ€™s past. There has been no blue-ribbon panel, no â€œtruth commissionâ€ to analyze what role the SOA may have played in abuses and dictatorship during the Cold War. There has been no reckoning, no effort to put in place the changes necessary to guarantee that the SOA experience not be repeated. Until this happens, the WHINSEC will remain a problematic institution.
- While the current management of WHINSEC is inclined to do the right thing, they will not be there forever. Things could change, and quickly. There is very little to stop a future commandant from instituting a new curriculum of lethal combat training, interrogation techniques and military involvement in internal security, aligning the Institute fully with â€œwar on terrorâ€ priorities.
- Why is there a special institution offering Spanish-language instruction for Latin American militaries, but no similar institution offering Spanish-language instruction for Latin American judges, legislators, local-government leaders, economic policymakers, education administrators, environmental-protection officials, or similar government figures? Why is the military aspect of governance given this privileged priority?
- While there have been improvements to transparency, things may now be moving in the wrong direction. School of the Americas Watch used to maintain a database of SOA/WHINSEC graduates, but is now unable to update it, as Freedom of Information Act requests for graduatesâ€™ names have begun to be denied.
- Many people I trust on Latin American security and human rights issues, people who have been consistently proven right about what works and what does not for U.S. policy toward the region, remain very critical of the school. The list includes dozens of dedicated activists and academics, foreign leaders like Costa Ricaâ€™s Oscar Arias, and legislators like Jim McGovern.
These are mostly â€œbig pictureâ€ arguments in favor of the McGovern amendment. They are independent of the changes that WHINSEC has undergone. They go beyond the give-and-take we have developed with the Instituteâ€™s staff. Indeed, there is little the Instituteâ€™s staff could do on their own to address these concerns.
But they are strong and compelling reasons. From my perspective, they are strong enough to tip the balance. As a result, though we are not working for its passage, I do support the McGovern amendment.