Activist speaks about US paramilitary training camps

Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and a leader in the movement to shut down the School of the Americas (SOA), lectured on his experiences as an activist to a spellbound audience on April 4. The lecture was sponsored by Students for Social Justice (SSJ).

The SOA, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) but still widely known by its old name, is a school for Latin American military personnel funded by American taxpayers located in Fort Benning, Ga. The institution has drawn intense criticism and a massive annual protest for its long record of graduating future human rights abusers.

Fr. Bourgeois traced his social concern to his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War and, later, as a missionary in the slums of La Paz, Bolivia. However, it was not until he was relocated to El Salvador that he committed himself to shutting down the SOA. Shortly after the assassination of the outspoken San Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and murder of four church women, Fr. Bourgeois “found [the U.S.] there, deeply involved, giving training and guns to those soldiers doing the killing. . . that was a crime against humanity.”

With a small group of fellow missionaries, Fr. Bourgeois “decided to take the message to Salvadoran soldiers.” They traveled to Ft. Benning and, posing as American officers, blasted a tape of Archbishop Romero’s last homily from outside the barracks at the SOA. Fr. Bourgeois was sent to prison for 18 months.

“We learned something very important, that they could send us to prison but they could not silence us,” Fr. Bourgeois said. “We continued to speak out.” Following the 1989 massacre at a Jesuit university in El Salvador at the hands of SOA graduates, he participated in a 35-day fast, consuming nothing but water.

Fr. Bourgeois then described how, in Latin America, the public knows the SOA as “a school for dictators, a school for assassins” while in the U.S. there is a “wall of secrecy” surrounding the institution. Each year, the school trains 1,200 soldiers from 18 Latin American countries in counter-insurgency techniques and psychological warfare.

“Who are the insurgents?” Fr. Bourgeois said. “They are who they have always been – the poor. . . and those who dare to walk in solidarity with the poor. They too have become targets.”

Fr. Bourgeois is the founder of the School of the Americas Watch, which organizes a protest outside the walls of the SOA each November and is lobbying the Congress to cut off all funding for the school. Last November, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the commander in charge at the SOA called Fr. Bourgeois and asked him to cancel the protest.

“I brought it to the movement, and everyone said that it was more important than ever for us to gather at the main gate in November,” Fr. Bourgeois said. “The president is saying, ‘We have to go after those terrorist training camps wherever they exist.’ Why not start in our own back yard?” He called last year’s demonstration, which drew 10,000 people, a “celebration of hope.”

Fr. Bourgeois concluded the lecture by quoting Archbishop Romero. “‘Let those who have a voice speak for the voiceless,’” he said. “You and I have a voice.”

During a question-and-answer session, Fr. Bourgeois explained how the SOA was founded during the Cold War with the intention of stopping communist threats in Latin America. However, the SOA has long outlived that function, and the recent change in its name and the addition of human rights and democracy courses to its curriculum are “window dressing” in Bourgeois’ opinion.

“We’re really not out to reform the school; our goal is to shut it down,” he said. “Shutting down the school would not end the poverty and suffering in Latin America, but would send a strong message to the military. . . and the poor. [The poor] know what side [the U.S. has] been on, and it’s been on the side of the military.”

“I think that Fr. Roy’s presentation was very valuable because the SOA is an appalling entity and many, many people from all sectors of society would feel strongly about shutting it down if they knew what it was about,” said Meg Bossong ’05, organizer of the lecture and an anti-SOA activist in her own right. “It was really gratifying to have such a great turnout for the lecture, and to have so many people express an interest in the kind of grassroots activism that Fr. Roy is doing.”