For a candidate who talks the talk on human rights, Barack Obama has little to say about the infamous School of the Americas (SOA). Originally established in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946, the school later moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. Since its inception, the institution has instructed more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement tactics.
The Pentagon itself has acknowledged that in the past the School of the Americas utilized training manuals advocating coercive interrogation techniques and extrajudicial executions. After receiving their training at the institution, officers went on to commit countless human rights atrocities in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia.
Activists long lobbied Congress to shut down the school, and in the waning days of the Clinton presidency they nearly achieved their goal. In July 1999, the House passed an amendment that cut funding for the military institution, but the Senate decided to pass its own version of the bill that included funding. Compromise legislation between the House and Senate deleted the funding cut, effectively restoring public support for the school. Shortly afterwards Congress renamed the school Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and revised the institution’s structure and curriculum.
Now fast forward to the 2006 mid-term Congressional election: hoping to make use of their newfound majority on Capitol Hill, some Democrats sought to eliminate WHINSEC’s funding once and for all. Shortly after their victory in November they nearly succeeded with 203 legislators voting against ongoing public support of the school and 214 in favor. The closeness of the vote suggested that if the Democrats were able to increase their legislative majority in 2008, then the WHINSEC might indeed be history.
Outside the halls of Congress a number of prominent organizations joined calls to shut WHINSEC including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the NAACP, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and over 100 U.S. Catholic Bishops.
Still, the Democratic presidential candidates refused to take a stand against WHINSEC. In fact, the only two Democrats who expressed opposition to the institution were long shots Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich (on the Republican side, Ron Paul said he too would shutter WHINSEC).
In the early stages of the presidential race, Kucinich pledged to close the school if he were elected. A longtime foe of WHINSEC who had voted repeatedly to close the institution while serving in Congress, Kucinich even attended a political protest held at the gates of the school in late 2007.
But the question is: where does Obama stand? On International Human Rights Day last year the Senator remarked, “We in the United States enjoy tremendous freedoms, but we also carry a special responsibility—the responsibility of being the country so many people in the world look to… for human rights leadership.”
Obama then added that Bush had undermined human rights: “We were told that waterboarding was effective. We were assured that shipping men off to countries that tortured was good for national security. We were led to believe that our military and civilian courts were inadequate, and so we established a network of unaccountable prisons.” He continued, “We have not only vacated the perch of moral leader; we have also compounded the threat we face, spurring more people to take up arms against us.”
Obama lamented that the Bush administration had destroyed the moral credibility of the United States worldwide. In Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, Russia, and Pakistan, human rights violations were on the rise. Unfortunately, Washington no longer enjoyed any international respect and could not speak with authority on human rights.
Poignantly, Obama closed by stating, “The very depth of the anti-Americanism felt around the world today is a testament not to hatred but to disappointment, acute disappointment. The global public expects more from America. They expect our government to embody what they have seen in our people: industriousness, humanity, generosity, and a commitment to equality. We can become that country again.”
Obama likes to employ soaring rhetoric when discussing human rights. But late last year, he failed to take a strong position opposing WHINSEC. When pressed, the candidate praised Congress’ revision of the school’s curriculum but said that he wanted to continue to evaluate the institution.
What more information could Obama possibly need to reach a final decision on the matter? An Obama spokesman said the senator "has not committed to closing down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but he will take a hard look at the program and the progress it has made once he is elected." The spokesman reiterated Obama was pleased with the institution’s inclusion of human rights courses.
To put this in all in perspective then, on this issue Obama has staked out a position to the right of Ron Paul, many members of Congress, and mainstream labor and Church organizations.
Given widespread public disgust towards torture and the like, Obama’s meekness on WHINSEC is perplexing. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and revelations about so-called waterboarding, many U.S. citizens have soured on the War on Terror. Meanwhile, the prisoner detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has become an international eyesore. Even President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have publicly said they’d prefer to close the facility.
Obama also supports closing Guantánamo, which makes his statements on WHINSEC all the more befuddling. In the present political climate, what does the Senator have to lose by coming out against the former School of the Americas? Perhaps he fears the GOP might accuse him of being weak on defense. But Republican nominee John McCain is not likely to use torture as ammunition during the campaign—it hardly seems a winning electoral issue for the Arizona Senator. What’s more, many voters are oblivious to WHINSEC and have little knowledge of, or interest in, U.S. policy towards Latin America.
No, it’s not fear of GOP retaliation on the campaign trail that keeps Obama quiet on WHINSEC. What the Senator is really concerned about is offending the movers and shakers within the military-industrial complex. Closing WHINSEC would demonstrate that the United States has no interest in dominating the peoples of Latin America by military means. Obama however is reluctant to make a clean break from the United States’ imperialist past.
On the other hand, try as he might to skirt the issue, Obama will soon be obliged to take a clearer stand on WHINSEC. That’s because the House recently approved the McGovern-Sestak-Bishop amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009. The amendment obliges WHINSEC to publicly release the names, rank, country of origin, courses, and dates of attendance of the school’s graduates and instructors.
Legislators pressed for the measure because in recent years WHINSEC has withheld vital information that would have helped to identify the perpetrators of massacres, targeted assassinations, and human rights abuses committed in Latin America. In a resounding defeat for the Pentagon, the measure was approved by a vote of 220 to 189. The amendment now heads to the Senate where all eyes will be on Obama.
The vote, however, will not resolve the larger question of whether WHINSEC should be shuttered once and for all. If it chose to, the media could prod the candidates to address U.S. military policy towards Latin America during the fall campaign. So far however reporters and pundits have ignored the topic, preferring instead to ask Obama about his flag pin.
McCain has suggested the two candidates participate in town-hall style debates, potentially allowing more direct engagement with voters. The U.S. public would surely welcome this departure from the relentless and insipid questioning featured in previous debates. It would certainly be refreshing to see Obama questioned on issues of real substance such as the historic U.S. role in Latin America, military policy, and human rights.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). This article also appears on the site of the North American Congress on Latin America (http://nacla.org/).
For more on closing the School of the Americas please visit: http://www.soaw.org.