Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Cutting Classes at the School of the Americas

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Nov 17 2006 (IPS) - Chilean activists are going to scream blue murder to get socialist President Michelle Bachelet’s administration to stop sending military personnel to the School of the Americas in the United States, notorious for teaching torture techniques, among other specialist courses.

About 40 civil society organisations will ask Bachelet to stop sending Chilean military personnel to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the U.S. Army School of the Americas, where a hundred members of the armed forces have been trained this year.

“In 59 years, the School of the Americas has trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers (3,000 of them Chileans) in combat techniques, commando tactics, military intelligence and torture techniques. The expertise acquired by its graduates has left an indelible trail of blood and suffering in their own countries.”

The above is a translation of a paragraph from the open letter to President Bachelet, signed by 37 social organisations and about a hundred citizens, “respectfully demanding” an end to Chilean participation at WHINSEC.

The controversial School of the Americas (SOA) was established in Panama in 1946 and relocated to the U.S. state of Georgia in 1984. It was renamed WHINSEC in 2001.

The Institute continues to operate at Fort Benning, the site of the former SOA, with the same instructors and techniques that were applied by the bloody Latin American dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s, say activists.

“Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, murdered and ‘disappeared’ by officers trained at that military academy,” the letter continues. It will be handed over to the president on Nov. 20.

Among the signatories are Amnesty International – Chile, the Association of Relatives of the Detained Disappeared, and the Peruvian Political Refugees Committee, as well as about a hundred Chilean and foreign citizens, including renowned U.S. linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

The interest of local activists was revitalised in August by the visit of a delegation from the U.S. non-governmental School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), led by its founder Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic Maryknoll priest.

SOAW members met with the minister of Defence, Vivianne Blanlot, who promised to “suggest” that the army cancel the sending of participants to the controversial military academy, but not to “impose” a decision on them.

SOAW said that it has already convinced the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina to stop sending officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers to Fort Benning.

On Monday Nov. 13, an information and protest campaign began in Chile’s capital with a film show of “Open Secret” (“Secreto a Voces”), a documentary portraying the debate between those who support and oppose WHINSEC, and interviews with Chomsky and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

On Saturday there will be a protest march through the streets of the capital, ending with a political cultural event at Londres 38, the address of a former torture centre during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The issue is also on the agenda of the 2nd Chilean Social Forum, to be held Nov. 25-26, as a panel discussion on closing down the School of the Americas, described by the organisers as “the school for torturers”.

“Amnesty International and other organisations like SOAW have been watching the School of the Americas for two or three decades, and there is evidence that a significant number of military personnel who attended that institution are implicated in serious human rights violations,” Sergio Laurenti, the executive director of the Chilean chapter of Amnesty, told IPS.

Chile is no exception. Among its SOA graduates are Manuel Contreras, the head of the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) – the dictatorship’s secret police – from 1974 to 1977. Contreras served seven years in prison for the assassination of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who was killed by a carbomb in Washington.

Another graduate was Humberto Gordon, the late former director of the National Intelligence Centre, which replaced DINA.

Other notorious alumni include retired majors Álvaro Corbalán Castilla, convicted of several human rights crimes, and Carlos Herrera Jiménez, who murdered trade unionist Tucapel Jiménez in 1982.

Even the present commander-in-chief of the army, Oscar Izurieta Ferrer, appointed by former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), underwent training at Fort Benning.

“There is a correlation between the School of the Americas and military personnel implicated in coups d’état, systematic violations of human rights, torture, and key positions in dictatorial regimes,” Laurenti said.

Although he clarified that not everyone who trained at SOA were automatically “pro-coup,” as it “depends on each individual’s morality,” he said there is definitely evidence of a connection.

He also said that the presence of U.S. trainers and advisers in armed conflicts all over the world was no coincidence. “Military cooperation is a tool of the political interests of the United States,” Laurenti said.

Although the campaign has been well received and widely publicised in Chile, the organisers are not certain that Bachelet will respond positively.

The secretary of the Ethical Commission Against Torture, Patricio Quevedo, was inclined to think that the president will be sensitive to the request, since she and her family were victims of the Pinochet dictatorship, but Laurenti was more sceptical.

“Chile has been very cautious in its relations with the United States, and if the long delay in ratifying the International Criminal Court (because of pressure from Washington) is taken as a precedent, it’s highly unlikely that effective measures will be taken against the School of the Americas,” said the director of Amnesty International Chile.

Social activism will continue, led by the national chapter of SOAW, until the government suspends training for its military personnel at Fort Benning, the activists say.

“The public generally isn’t aware that Chile still sends about a hundred army and police officers to the School of the Americas” every year, Quevedo told IPS.

Laurenti stressed the need to raise awareness that the position adopted on the School of the Americas is directly related to the kind of society and democracy that the country wants to build.

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