Saturday, December 11, 2010

SOA Watch November 2010

We stand under clear sunlit skies, small white wooden crosses clutched to our hearts, thousands of us, gathered together to mourn the deaths – the murders – of the innocent in Latin America, victims to soldiers trained at the facility before us, the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

From the temporary stage set up in front of the School – carefully fenced and protected by a line of police against us cross-bearing, peace-wishing unarmed vigil-keepers – the announcers slowly sing out the names of the dead. We respond to each one in a single voice, ‘Presente!’. For the dead live on in our hearts.

My husband, son and I have come for the annual School of the Americas Watch, a Peace Vigil that gathers thousands from across North America and the world each year to call for the closing of the SOA. We have participated in workshops and listened to presentations on social justice and peace throughout the weekend. Those of us who are Christian have prayed and worshipped, and I have had the sense of coming home to a church that still believes peace is possible, that still tries to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Today we gather for the last procession in front of the SOA.

I wait, and listen for the name on my cross: Angela Del Mir, 5 years old. What crime did a 5 year old commit that soldiers trained at this school had to kill her? What sin could you commit at that age which would make it acceptable in anyone’s mind to gun you down in cold blood? I can find no answer. And Angela is not the youngest of the victims whose names are called.

The youngest is an unnamed baby, 3 days old.

I weep as I hold my cross, and we step forward slowly in one united procession. I weep and I wonder how it is possible in this great country of America, that there would be a school set up at taxpayers’ expense explicitly to train Latin American soldiers to oppress their own people.

For that is indeed the purpose of the SOA, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The School of the Americas had garnered bad press for itself. Apparently American taxpayers were less than impressed when word finally got out about the killing of unarmed villagers as in the case of the hundreds who died in the slaughter of El Mozote, or unarmed missionaries as in the case of the four Maryknoll women, or unarmed Bishops as in the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero, or unarmed priests as in the case of the six Jesuit priests in El Salvador and their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter. But why change the focus? Just change the name.

There are no wars between Latin American countries. There are only battles within Latin American countries. Why then does the US fund a school to train their militaries?

The answer is simple. By training Latin American militaries to oppress their own people, these militaries will facilitate the operations of American corporations. No US company need fear union formation within Latin American countries. They need not be concerned that they should ever have to pay a living wage, or benefits, or offer job security, or respectable hours. The military will take care of union busting. Slavery is safe with SOA graduates standing by.

No mining company need worry when they take over ancestral lands that the local villagers will stop them. The military will take care of evicting people. Where they go is of no concern to the company.

Safety regulations within mines or factories need not keep company presidents awake at night. The military will ensure that nobody says a word of protest, nobody speaks up for justice, nobody gathers to improve their lives or protect their land.

The graduates of the School of the Americas are in the business of creating silence. There will be no protest from the people. There will be no complaint from the workers. And if there is, death provides an easy solution. The illusion that American companies are bringing jobs to Latin America, that this is not modern slavery, will remain intact behind the guns and helicopters of the graduates of the SOA.

This is why we are here. This is why thousands of us have gathered. We must be the voice for those who have none. We must be the presence for the murdered, the threatened, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the forgotten, the silenced.

I look at the flimsy white cross in my hand, so delicate, so makeshift, no strength to it on its own, then I reach out and place it in one of the openings of the fence, as thousands of others do the same. I look at the faces of those around me, I see their tears, I recognize them as part of my Church, this church of conscience and peace, this church that tries to stand at the foot of the cross, this church that can and must speak for the poor, the mourners, the marginalized, the suffering, the dead. And suddenly my little cross becomes part of something bigger.

We gather here on the second weekend of November, on the anniversary of the deaths of the Jesuits. But speaking out against the SOA must be a year-long endeavor. Even as I write someone in Latin America is forced into silence because of the graduates of the SOA.

Join your voice to all those who call for an end to the SOA. Go to

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