Tuesday, June 02, 2009
"You don't teach democracy out of the barrel of a gun."
The Buffalo Common Council declared March 14th to be Father Roy Bourgeois Day in Buffalo. The Erie County Legislature also issued a proclamation in Father Roy's honor.
Father Roy Bourgeois was presented with those proclamations on March 14th, when he came to Daemen College to speak about SOA/WHINSEC and about other issues of war, peace, and justice.
Father Roy talked about his own life experiences, first as a young man in Louisiana, who studied geology and had hopes of becoming rich in the oil fields of Latin America. His sense of patriotism then caused him to go into the U.S. Navy as an officer. He volunteered for shore duty in Vietnam, where he witnessed the devastation of war. In an interview that I had with Father Roy back in 2001, he told me that volunteering to help at an orphanage in Vietnam changed his life. He came to the conclusion that God was calling him to be a missionary. After Father Roy left the military, he enrolled in the Maryknoll seminary near Ossining, New York. He was ordained as a Maryknoll priest in 1972 and was then sent to serve in Bolivia.
Father Roy said that he was shocked by what he saw in Bolivia:
"The men with the guns ran the country." Those gunmen were under the command of dictator Hugo Banzar Suarez, who had support from the U.S. government.
He said, however, that the poor people, with whom he worked, did not give up hope in the face of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles. "The poor became our teachers," he said.
His missionary work did not win him any points with the Powers that Be in Bolivia. Because of his work with Bolivia's human rights commission, he was arrested and was later forced out of Bolivia.
His next mission was in El Salvador. This Vietnam veteran could not believe the conditions in El Salvador in the late 1970s. "I've never seen anything like El Salvador. It was the slaughter of the innocents," Father Roy said.
When Father Roy came back to the United States, he learned that the Salvadoran troops, many of whom had been involved in such incidents as the El Mozote massacre, in which 900 men, women, and children in one village were massacred, were coming to the United States to be trained in military tactics. In fact, Father Roy said, 500 troops had come to Fort Benning, Georgia, for training in the early 1980s. When Father Roy realized what was happening, he organized a protest right in front of the Salvadoran barracks at Fort Benning. With two others, he walked onto the grounds of Fort Benning, dressed as high ranking officers. They were saluted! At night, they climbed a tree just outside of the Salvadoran barracks. When the lights in the barracks went out, Father Roy turned on a boom box, set to top volume to play Archbishop Oscar Romero's last homily. The lights in the barracks went on again and military police were called.
When military police arrived, the three intrepid protesters were ordered to get out of the tree or get shot.
The protesters got out of the tree and were taken to the Muscogee County Jail. Eventually, they were tried and sentenced to federal prison.
That protest, however, apparently had nothing to do with the School of the Americas.
At the time, very few people knew about the existence of the School of the Americas. Those few people were mostly Panamanians.
The School of the Americas had been established as a cold war school to train Latin American troops to fight against the "Communist menace" back in 1946. It was placed in the Panama Canal Zone. Eventually, Panamanians referred to the school as "la escuela de los golpes" (the school of coups) and "la escuela de los assessinos." Some of the coups that the Panamanians were referring to occurred in the Dominican Republic and Guatemala in the early 1950s and in Chile on September 11th, 1973. When President Jimmy Carter renegotiated the Panama Canal treaties back in the late 1980s, one of the issues that could not be resolved was the continuation of the SOA in Panama.
The SOA was kicked out of Panama and was reopened at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984.
In 1989, an event occurred in El Salvador that resulted in shock and horror and Congressional attention to U.S. military policy in Latin America. This event was the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Many members of Congress had attended Jesuit schools, so they were shocked and horrified to find out that six Jesuits, who had worked at the University of Central America, were killed by Salvadoran military, funded by the U.S. government.
It didn't take long before the existence of the SOA became known. The connection was made for many, including Father Roy, between military training and massacres when a Congressional panel reported that, of the 27 killers involved in the massacre of the Jesuits and their co-workers, 19 of them were SOA graduates. In 1990, Father Roy Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch and moved into an apartment across the street from Fort Benning's main gates.
Over the years, SOA Watch grew from a small group of people who protested and fasted at Fort Benning's main gate to a large movement that holds annual protests at Fort Benning and lobbies Congress to close the school, which has since been renamed "the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation." Father Roy has referred to these protests as "poking the beehive."
The bees don't like that, and they tend to sting. Over the years, many people have been arrested on the grounds of Fort Benning, have been charged with trespass, and have been sentenced to federal prison, probation, or house arrest.
The movement to close the school has been working hard over the years to encourage Congress to close the school through legislative action. A number of bills have been introduced to Congress to close the school, first by Rep. Moakley of Massachusetts and later by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
The current bill, introduced last month, is HR 2567 and is titled the Latin America Military Training Review Act.
Father Roy also talked about work that SOA Watch is doing to encourage governmental leaders in Latin America to stop sending troops to the school in hopes that, if there is no demand for the school, it will have to close down, due to lack of interest. So far, the following countries have stopped sending troops to the school: Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and El Salvador.
"There is a sea change taking place in Latin America," Father Roy said. "A lot of the fear that was alive in those countries has been replaced by hope."
When Father Roy is not speaking on behalf of SOA Watch or working on closing the School of the Americas (in his copious free time), he travels. He has been to Iran and Iraq.
"War destroys hope," said Father Roy, who has been involved in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said.