Article from SC about SOA
This article was written for the newspaper at Winthrop University in SC to inform students there about the SOA.
Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Aurora Fiengo-Varn must fight back tears as she recalls her experiences as a university student in Panama. It was during this time that she first encountered men, women, and children who had been victimized by political oppression and torture.
"Getting in touch with these victims was a big change for me; an impact on my life," she said.
Through conversations with both these victims and her fellow students as well, Fiengo-Varn learned about the United States Army School of the Americas (U.S.A.R.S.A.), at that time located just 20 miles away from her hometown of Colon, Panama.
Originally established in 1946 as a means of stabilizing Latin American governments and charged with the duty of protecting democratic interests in the western hemisphere, the school has been accused of instructing paramilitary groups in the arts of counterinsurgency and torture. In 1977 the U.S.A.R.S.A. was relocated to Fort Benning, Ga., as a concession of the Panama Canal Treaty. At this time a group of concerned U.S. citizens came together to form the School of the Americas Watch (S.O.A. Watch) and began meeting annually at the gates of the school to demand its closing. Since 1998, Fiengo-Varn has helped Winthrop students to organize and attend the protests.
"Initially it was not my plan," she explained. "Students came to me with their concerns for the people of Latin America and they asked me to get involved."
On the weekend of Nov. 21 - 23, 2003 the professor will once again lead students on a trip to Fort Benning.
Senior painting major, Kelly Keith, 22, attended last year's protest and describes the experience as overwhelming.
"There were just thousands of people. It was an extremely diverse crowd. One group even walked all the way from Atlanta as a statement against the school," said the Greenville, S.C., native.
Keith went on to describe the various activities that were held throughout the weekend's protest including speeches made by Latin Americans who blamed the school for the loss of their loved ones, performances by musical groups including the Indigo Girls, and the reading of speeches written by celebrity activists such as Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen. For Keith, however, the most moving event was a mock funeral procession held to honor the hundreds of victims whose deaths S.O.A. Watch links to the U.S.A.R.S.A..
"Everyone carries a white cross with the name and age of a victim," she said. "As we approach the gates the person's name and age is read aloud and everyone yells "Presente!"
Keith explained that those who actually entered the gate did so in an act of non-violent civil disobedience and were consequently arrested.
"Most of the people arrested were in their twenties, but I also saw some women in their sixties and seventies being dragged away by police," she said.
Keith says that the point of these actions is to spread the word about what she and other opponents of the school see as an injustice.
The efforts of protesters have attracted attention on a national level. In 2000 a congressional investigation of the school uncovered the involvement of U.S.A.R.S.A. graduates in the murders of six Jesuit mission workers, their housekeeper, and her 15-year-old daughter. On Dec. 20, 2000 the U.S.A.R.S.A. was officially closed and was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (W.H.I.N.S.E.C.). S.O.A. Watch alleges that this new institute is merely a cover-up of continued abusive foreign policy and the annual protests continue.
However, Lee Riley, officer of public affairs for W.H.I.N.S.E.C., believes that these continued protests are misguided.
"The new law which created the institute mandates eight hours of instruction in human rights and democracy as part of every course that we teach. This includes instruction in due process, the role of the military in democratic societies, respect for the rule of law, and respect for civilian authority," he said.
Riley also explained that W.H.I.N.S.E.C. is under close scrutiny by an annual board of visitors whose members include college professors, a human rights lawyer, a priest, and a former ambassador.
"These are not people who would tolerate any violation of the law on our part," he explained.
Riley sees the continuation of the institute as vital to U.S. national security.
"In these times it is extremely important that we build strong international relationships not only in the Middle East, but in our own hemisphere as well. That's what we're doing here," he said.
Riley challenges opponents to the institute to review W.H.I.N.S.E.C.'s web site as well as S.O.A. Watch's web site. He also invites any interested person to tour the institute which is open with an appointment.
"People should try to see what connections they can make, if any," he said.
Despite this challenge Fiengo-Varn says that she has done her own research and holds firmly to her opposition of the institute.
"The Latin American experience has shown that the military has not protected democracy and has created an unstable environment for the people to organize in defense of their rights," she explained.
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