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Trading Fear for Hope: SOA Watch in Latin America

Wes Enzinna
Date Published: 
August 01, 2006
    Roy Bourgeois knows fear. As a Maryknoll Catholic priest working for human rights in the poor barrios of La Paz, Bolivia, during the 1971-1978 dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, Bourgeois saw many of his activist peers disappear and return with torture scars tattooed across their bodies or not return at all. One day in 1978, within less than a year of the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Catholic Priest Luis Espinal, Roy too was abducted, dragged away in the night, and thrown into a La Paz prison cell. Luckily, he was released shortly after and exiled.

This March, almost thirty years later, Roy returned to Bolivia. During the long interim between his exile and return, Bourgeois founded and led to notoriety School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), spearheading the movement to shut down the school that Manuel Noriega, the infamous Panamanian populist and drug lord, accurately described as a “training ground for death squads and repressive right-wing militaries” throughout Latin America.

As part of a new strategy in SOA Watch’s fight to shut down the School, Bourgeois returned to Bolivia with Lisa Sullivan, a US-born activist and Maryknoll layperson who has lived and worked in Venezuela for the past 29 years, and Carlos Mauricio, a Salvadorian torture survivor and human rights lawyer. In addition to the visit to Bolivia, the trip included stops in Uruguay and Argentina. The goal: to take advantage of the left turn in Latin America by asking potentially sympathetic governments to stop sending their nations’ troops to train at the SOA.

If not for a previous experience in Venezuela, SOA Watch probably would have considered such a strategy too simple to work. In 2004, Bourgeois, Sullivan, and Mauricio went to Venezuela, a country with over 4,000 SOA graduates, hoping to speak with President Chavez. They wanted to know why Chavez continued to send troops to a school that represented the antithesis of his “Bolivarian Revolution”—not to mention that two head organizers of the suspected CIA-backed 2002 coup attempt against him honed their counterinsurgency chops at the SOA. After meeting with popular movements and speaking on Venezuelan public television, Bourgeois and crew got their meeting with Chavez.

A month later, Chavez’s vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, publicly announced the end of Venezuela’s involvement with the SOA.

New moment

This surprise success in Venezuela sparked SOA Watch’s imagination. To Lisa Sullivan, it seemed the time “to reach out to movements in Latin America. It’s a new moment there, where many governments in power reflect people who have received SOA’s repression.” And so was born SOA Watch’s March visit to Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina—three countries they believed might be sympathetic to their appeals. In each country they would meet with social movements, publicize SOA atrocities as well as SOA Watch campaigns, and meet with heads of state to request that their countries stop sending troops to the SOA.
Despite overwhelming enthusiasm, when the crew arrived in La Paz on March 14, Bourgeois did not know what to expect. “I hadn’t been in Bolivia in a lot of years,” recounts the spunky Father in his molasses-like Southern drawl. “I had a lot of hard memories about the place.” But Roy could only have dreamt how different his reception would be this time in Bolivia. Upon arrival in the early dawn the crew was personally greeted by the Americas’ first indigenous President, Evo Morales. He led them from the plaza over which the Presidential Palace towers, Plaza Murillo, where only fifty years earlier indigenous people were forbidden to enter, into a chamber. Once in the chamber, they quickly got into discussion. “It’s pretty simple: it’s about men with guns,” Bourgeois explained. Morales acknowledged this simple truth, its efficacy still fresh in his mind: Victor Hugo Daza, a 17-year old boy murdered during the 2001Water War in Cochabamba—one of the revolts that helped catapult Morales to power—was shot dead at the hands of a military sniper trained at the SOA.

Yet, while in full agreement with SOA Watch’s argument, Morales could not make a commitment to cut off sending soldiers, 500 of which have been sent in the last ten years. Most likely Bolivia’s precarious position in its US relations—the developing nation receives around $170 million a year in conditional US aid—contributed to this indecisiveness.

But despite the uncertainty, SOA Watch took as a good omen the mural beneath which they had been seated throughout the conversation with Morales, the Palace’s newest piece of artwork and the President’s favorite: a giant Che Guevara portrait made entirely of lacquered coca leaves. “Evo’s gotta talk it over with his advisors, but he’s gonna sign on…. It’s just a matter of time,” assures Bourgeois.

In Uruguay, whose populace experienced brutal repression under a 1973-1984 dictatorship trained in part in SOA torture techniques, the trio met with Defense Minister Azucena Berrutti. A former human rights lawyer well-versed in the SOA and the atrocities committed by its graduates, Berrutti did not need to be convinced of SOA Watch’s message; she explained Uruguay had not sent troops to the SOA since last year’s inauguration of the Tabaré Vázquez Administration. Several days after the meeting, Berrutti made Uruguay’s commitment official when she publicly announced that the nation would no longer send troops to the SOA.

SOA Watch’s Argentina visit coincided with the thirty-year anniversary of the coup that brought to power Argentina’s brutal El Proceso dictatorship. In the Plaza de Mayo, the main public square in Buenos Aires, the SOA Watch crew found a crowd of some 100,000 gathered to denounce the continued impunity of ex-dictators and to demand remembrance of the regime’s victims and justice for its survivors. Addressing the crowd, her voice amplified through towering stacks of speakers, madre of honor of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Hebe Bonafini shouted: “The dictators and torturers today remain unpunished, festering and infecting our society. We have waited long enough for justice. We have been patient. The time for patience has passed.” The crowd cheered wildly. She went on to say that the US had supported these dictators and mass murderers, many of them educated at the SOA.

Bourgeois and company picked a good time to come to Argentina—they did not have to do much convincing at their meeting with Defense Minister Nilda Garré. The intensely politically conscious mood in Argentina would have made a refusal of SOA Watch’s appeal a PR disaster for any administration. Argentina, who has typically sent 10-20 troops annually, promises that after the one troop currently there comes home, no more troops will be sent.

Challenges ahead

After this March’s successes, the next step for the movement to shut down the SOA will be to build on these victories. The most obvious step for SOA Watch—to spread its appeal to deprive SOA of troops in other Latin American governments—also represents one of its most immediate challenges. Even if acknowledging SOA Watch’s message, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile will prove difficult to persuade to action, and Colombia, SOA’s biggest supplier of troops and the world’s third-largest recipient of US aid, is doubtful to even entertain the idea of such an about-face in policy.
Another challenge lies in this new strategy’s seeming dependence on government sympathy. Anticipating the criticism that focusing primarily on governments is a perilous strategy, SOA Watch instead sees this new strategy as a compliment to the grassroots organizing that has typically characterized their work. Indeed, the success of this new strategy appears largely dependent upon the extent to which social movements in the targeted country exert pressure on the government.

This point is driven home by Morales’ administration in Bolivia who, despite its radical discourse and putative antipathy for the SOA, has still not made any commitment to stop sending troops. Popular pressure emanating from Bolivian social movements is likely the only force capable of forcing Morales to risk Washington’s repercussions. Popular pressure also appears to have been a significant factor in Argentina where the Kirchner Administration has proven itself opportunistic in regards to issues of social justice, rather than genuinely radical as Garré and others sometimes claim.

Further, this pressure is especially important because in the agreements reached between SOA Watch and Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina, no-troop promises are not institutionally guaranteed, nor is there any mechanism to carry the weight of the promises from one administration to the next. The relationship between SOA Watch and local popular movements, then, is of crucial importance for any future successes of SOA Watch in Latin America.

Despite the challenges ahead, SOA Watch’s 2004 trip to Venezuela and its March 2006 trip to Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina are undeniable successes. In concrete terms they represent significant blows to the functioning of the SOA and Washington’s influence in Latin American military affairs. These victories are also likely to add weight to protest and legislative efforts in the US against the School, where in 1999 a vote in Congress to close the School lost by a mere one vote.

Further, despite these tangible successes, perhaps the biggest achievement of the trip is to be read in symbolic terms. Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina’s rejections of the SOA, reached in accord with SOA Watch, signify a tacit uniting and merging of struggles for justice across the Americas. “SOA is a common denominator for movements across the Americas, and through it we are finding a common voice, a voice that goes far beyond just the SOA,” Lisa Sullivan explains.

SOA Watch’s trip is indicative of a powerful mood across the Americas: an emergent unified rejection of and struggle against state terror, US imperialism, and more generally against fear. Bourgeois recounts, “When I came to South America this time, I had a lot of fear. But what I found here wasn’t fear, but hope.” This echoes the words of Eduardo Galeano in a speech given to an overflowing and jubilant Plaza Murillo, Wiphala flags waving, at Evo Morales’s presidential inauguration this past February: “Our principle enemy in building a more just world is fear. Fear of remembering, fear of living, but most of all fear of being.” SOA Watch’s trips to Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina and their concrete and symbolic successes represent a promising blow against the instruments of this fear.


Wes Enzinna currently lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he is an intern at the Andean Information Network. Comments are welcome: he can be reached at [email protected]