The day after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed, President Barack Obama cautioned against repeating Latin America’s “dark past,” decades when military coups regularly overrode the results of democratic elections. Obama went on to acknowledge, in his understated way, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies.”
In fact, the U.S. government has often stood with — or at least behind — the coup-makers. Examples include Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, and Venezuela in 2002 (this last coup attempt, against President Hugo Chávez, was reversed). Also, throughout most of the 1980s, the Reagan administration subsidized and helped direct the “contra” (meaning counter-revolutionary) war against the Nicaraguan government and people.
Notably, the June 28 coup against Zelaya and the Honduran electorate traces back to the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). Originally established in Panama in 1946, the school was the U.S. Army’s premier site for training Latin American officers and soldiers in military intelligence and combat operations, supposedly within the letter of the law.
Within 20 years, however, it was known in Latin American military circles as “la Escuela de Golpes” — the School of Coups. And in the early 1980s, Panamanian President Jorge Illueca declared the SOA “the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” The “School of Coups” moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1984.
School rosters obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, leader of the recent Honduran coup, trained there in 1976 and 1984. He was assisted in deposing President Zelaya by General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, head of the Honduran Air Force, who in 1996 rather presciently took an SOA course in Joint Operations.
But the school’s fingerprints have long been evident in Honduras. A death squad known as Battalion 3-16 was organized in the 1980s and operated clandestinely for years — kidnapping, forcibly disappearing, and torturing political opponents, and killing at least 184 of them. Nineteen members of Battalion 3-16 are known to have graduated from the School of the Americas, including three generals who directed battalion activities.
School officials have long insisted that its graduates who flaunt the rule of law do so despite their training. They are, according to that argument, just inevitable “bad apples.”
But, to the contrary, documentary evidence indicates these students have learned their lessons well. In 1996, for example, President Bill Clinton’s Defense Department revealed that training materials used from 1982-1991 at the School had instructed Latin American military officers and soldiers to target civilian populations and use torture, intimidation, false arrest, extrajudicial execution, blackmail, and more inhumane tactics.
So, while SOA training has emboldened golpistas (coup-makers) to act against legitimately elected heads of state, it also has provoked crimes against citizens challenging illegitimate or antidemocratic powers. As Berta Oliva — who coordinates the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) — said of soldiers repressing anti-coup protests: “They view those who demand their rights as if they were enemies.”
Oliva will never forget the Battalion 3-16 years. She founded the COFADEH after her husband was kidnapped and disappeared in 1982. About the recent military coup in her country, she observed: “They’ve made a return to the 1980s…Friendly governments who hold democratic ideals simply cannot allow this to happen here.”
Shine the Light
Arguably the only way for Latin America to avoid repeating its “dark past” is to shine a bright light into it, for all to see. At the fifth Summit of the Americas last April, Obama noted the importance of learning from history. And he declared, “The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made.”
With H.R. 2567, the Latin America Military Training Review Act, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) and 57 co-sponsors are offering us a light to shine. This legislation would suspend operations at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) — the “successor institution” to the School of the Americas, which is still located at Ft. Benning. Then a bipartisan congressional taskforce would investigate decades of its activities and teaching materials.
Certainly “errors have been made.” Some at this moment are threatening to override the will of the Honduran electorate.
It’s time. It’s past time. Shine the light on the School of Coups.
Shine the light.
Father Roy Bourgeois is a Catholic priest, a former missionary, and founder of SOA Watch.
Margaret Knapke is a longtime Latin America human-rights activist. Both have served federal prison terms for nonviolent civil disobedience aimed at closing the School of the Americas and are Foreign Policy In Focus contributors, where this article originally appeared.