Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Congress Has Its Say on WHINSEC

(June 2006 newsletter)

On June 9, I watched the debate in the House of Representatives on the future of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas), televised on C-SPAN.

Representative James McGovern’s bill, the Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005 (HR 1217), was offered to the House as an amendment to the Foreign Operations appropriations bill. The amendment was named for two sponsors, James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and John Lewis (D-Georgia) and was titled the McGovern-Lewis amendment.

As the individual who introduced the amendment, McGovern was the first to speak about why it needed to be approved. He talked about the “notorious legacy” of the SOA. WHINSEC, he said, is no improvement over the old school. It has welcomed several well-known human rights violators as students. Keeping the school open is “sending the wrong signal to Latin America.” Furthermore, WHINSEC and the SOA are on the same base and they offer the same curriculum. “Excuse me if I don’t get the difference,” McGovern commented.

The opposition to HR 1217 was led by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona), chairman of the Foreign Operations Committee. “WHINSEC is a Department of Defense facility, which replaces the SOA. It trains civilians, military, and law enforcement officers to support our democratic principles.” While he acknowledged that some SOA graduates were “bad,” he claimed that more of them “uphold human rights.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) had questions about Rep. Kolbe’s assertions that the majority of SOA graduates support human rights. “The Department of Defense refuses to monitor the careers of graduates,” she said. “The vetting process is broken. WHINSEC is just another name for SOA.”

Representative Barbara Lee (D-California) pointed out that “people in Latin America are not fooled by a name change.” Representatives debating in favor of HR 1217 talked about an incident that occurred in Colombia on May 19. Members of the Farallones High Mountain Battalion of the army’s Third Brigade killed ten members of an elite judicial police anti-drug squad during a thirty-minute firefight took place near the town of Jamudi, south of Cali (source: the Center for International Policy). CIP raised questions as to whether the killing of the police, which involved unprovoked shooting and the detonation of hand grenades, was “friendly fire” or something more sinister. General Mario Montoya, commander of the national army, said, “We are not going to wait for a group to arrive before opening fire. The men were simply deployed in response to a suspicious situation that presented itself in the zone.”

Hmmm, the old “shoot first, ask questions later” tactic. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, Montoya is well-known for his scorched-earth policy and for his connections with paramilitary units. He is not well known for upholding human rights. Did he learn his techniques at the SOA? It appears that he paid attention in class and applied his newfound knowledge well.

Members of Congress who argued against the amendment said that the institution is noted for its human rights training. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) identified himself as a member of WHINSEC’s Board of Visitors. He said, “All students and instructors receive comprehensive human rights training” and that graduates are “not brutal and murderous thugs. The vast majority make positive contributions and serve with honor and distinction.”

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Massachusetts) completely disagreed. WHINSEC, he argued, is the “breeding ground for unsavory thugs” who “repress, abuse, and kill their victims.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) commented that WHINSEC/SOA is notorious for “graduating human rights violators” and that people targeted by these graduates include educators, student leaders, and union leaders.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) talked about the February 21-22, 2005, massacre at San Jose de Apartado, Colombia. Shortly after eight persons, including three children, were killed in this peace community, the 17th Brigade, directed by SOA graduate Brigadier General Hector Jaime Rincon, was seen there. Rincon had graduated from the SOA’s “small unit tactical operations” course. “This is not an isolated matter. It is a shameful policy,” Schakowsky said.

Rep. John Mica (R-Florida) started by referring to opponents of SOA/WHINSEC as the “caffe latte crowd,” an odd comment, considering that Colombia is well-known for its coffee. Returning to the topic at hand, he expounded upon the virtues of WHINSEC and declared that it trains officers who share our values and that the program should be expanded, not cut. He didn’t mention problems concerning our own government and military with massacres, extraordinary rendition (deporting someone to a country that practices torture), Guatanamo, secret prisons, etc. Are these the values that the SOA students share with us?

Meehan addressed those issues directly. “The U.S. administration has done little to hide contempt for human rights,” he stated. “Cutting funding is a small step in the right direction.”

The new WHINSEC graduates are becoming fewer in number, however, as demand for the program falls. So far, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina have announced that that they are no longer sending students to the school, and the list could soon get longer. Enrollment has declined by 40 percent. Most of the students now come from five Andean nations, and U.S. students are filling empty seats. As enrollment declines, the budget for the school does not.

None of the opponents to HR 1217, from the cantankerous Mica to the genteel Gingrey, were able to explain why funding for WHINSEC has remained the same while the number of students has declined. They also were unable to explain the lack of accountability and the fact that no independent investigation of this school and its graduates has been performed. School supporters simply repeat public relations offerings from WHINSEC. They also do not mention Amnesty International’s November 2002 report, “Unmatched Power, Unmet Principle.”

After the allotted thirty minutes, the debate was over, and a roll call vote was held on the McGovern-Lewis amendment. It was defeated by the vote of 188 to 218.

Our work continues.

Alice E. Gerard

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