The Miseducation of Latin America

In 1946, the School of the Americas (SOA) was established in Panama (and later relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia) to provide security and combat training for Latin American soldiers. Over the years, its graduates, including former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, have been implicated in human rights abuses and acts of political violence. Lesley Gill chronicles the history of the school, which is now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in her book School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Here, she speaks with Aaron Mandel about her book.

How did you get interested in the School of the Americas (SOA)?

I'm an anthropologist, and I've worked for about 20 years in Latin America. Most of my work has been in Bolivia, which is a country that has suffered its share of military coups d'etat and life under military rule. That's when I first saw the consequences of military rule for Latin Americans. I had a lot of colleagues from graduate school who were working in Central America in the 1980s, when that region was immersed in civil wars with militaries supported by our government and trained here. That was my initial exposure to militarism in Latin America. This was in the 1980s, and nobody outside the military knew much about the SOA; but beginning in the '90s, due to the work of [the protest group] SOA Watch, more information started coming out about it. It was quite shocking when they acquired a list of graduates through the Freedom of Information Act; many of those graduates had been involved in some of the most horrific human rights crimes in Latin America.

Is there any good in the mission of the school?

None whatsoever. The school should be closed. It serves no useful purpose. It continues to work with militaries that were never reformed after the dirty wars in Latin America. Nobody from the SOA has ever been held accountable for the kinds of training that have gone on there. A lot of the people trained at the SOA now go back to the Andes and are involved in the drug war, which has been a complete failure. Not only has it been a complete failure, but it has aggravated human rights abuses in places like Columbia and Bolivia. So no, there is no useful purpose for the institution. It's symbolic, really, of the abusive practices from the Cold War right up to the present. It would be better closed and made into a museum to commemorate the lives of the people murdered by SOA graduates.

Has the name change led to any other changes at the school?

Yes and no. There have been cosmetic changes -- new anodyne courses added, an alleged concern for human rights, and a name change. As I talk about in the book though, these changes represent less new thinking on the part of the military about military training and the U.S. mission than an effort by the military to divide the SOA movement. So in that sense, nothing has changed in the military's thinking about its mission and the way that it trains people. And because of the pressure of the movement over the last ten years, some of the darker side of military training has shifted from the SOA to probably other locations like Columbia, places where those sorts of practices can go on outside of public scrutiny, where there's no oversight. Torture isn't taught at the SOA anymore as it was in the '80s and '90s. But, as I think Abu Ghraib shows, that isn't to say that the U.S. military doesn't engage in torture. Because the SOA has been targeted by demonstrators, the military has had to shift things around a bit.

Is it fair to hold the entire SOA accountable for the actions of a small percentage of its graduates?

Yes it is, because they were trained at the SOA, and I think one has to not just put the spotlight on the SOA but to put the spotlight on the U.S. military and its training practices in general. Latin American security forces don't just train at the SOA; they train at other U.S. military installations as well. So most definitely our military has to be held accountable. All of these people have received training at some point in our country. Their security forces are underwritten by military aid from our government. They carry out policies that are enacted to support U.S. interests in the area, so, most definitely, the United States and its military have to be held accountable.

How successful has the protest movement been?

I think the movement has been a huge success in many ways. The school still exists under this new name, but the fact that the military has had to mount such a public relations campaign, change the name, and enact all these superficial changes to make it seem that life has really changed -- it's all to the credit of the movement. So in that sense, it has been extremely effective, and I think that the fact that people outside of the U.S. military today know about the SOA -- and people everywhere do -- is because of SOA Watch and because of the broad public education campaigns that it has developed.

Is the role of the SOA going to expand in the future to include training for proxy wars outside of Latin America?

Proxy wars, as you call them, have always been fought outside of Latin America from Vietnam to lots of places; that's been standard for most of the twentieth century. The SOA itself will not include militaries from elsewhere, because the school is geared to Latin Americans, and the training is in Spanish. However, the number of students trained there since September 11 has increased, and there is more money flowing through the pipeline to bring Latin Americans to the United States and train them.

Is September 11 being used as a way to build the program back up?

The war on terror has partially replaced the war on drugs, which replaced the war on communism. They're all just new labels for targeting the usual suspects.

How were you able to get such a high level of access to the school?

The officials at the school wanted to talk because of the timing of my arrival. In July 1999, the House of Representatives voted to cut funding for the school, but the Senate subsequently sustained the funding. I arrived in Georgia at the SOA in September, two months after the House vote but before the Senate vote. At that time the officials at the SOA really didn't know what was going to happen. They thought, and with good reason, that the school might close. They were desperately retooling their public relations strategy and looking around for anybody who would listen to get their version of events out. I think these events were very crucial in shaping my access to the SOA and its officials. At another moment, they might not have been as willing to put up with me. Although I didn't go out of my way to talk about my views of the military, and political violence in Latin America, and so forth, they're not stupid people, and they weren't under any illusions. They saw me as a potential critic.

Have you heard back from them?

No, and I don't expect to. I would love to hear from them; however, I would be surprised because I think that for them to make a big deal about the book would call more attention to it than they probably want to do. I think their strategy now is to ignore it.

Aaron Mandel is a Prospect editorial intern.