Thousands are gathering at Fort Benning in Georgia this weekend for the annual protest to shut down the US Army training center dubbed by critics as the "School of the Assassins" for having trained some of the worst human rights violators in Latin America. This year’s protest will mark the twentieth anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by the US-backed Salvadoran military. It comes days after the priests were posthumously bestowed El Salvador’s highest civilian award, marking the first time the Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths. To talk about the priests and the overall state of Latin American affairs, we’re joined by Blase Bonpane, director of the Office of the Americas. A former Maryknoll priest, he has worked for more than four decades to promote human rights in Latin America. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of human rights activists are gathering at Fort Benning, Georgia this weekend for the annual protest to shut down the US Army training center once known as the School of the Americas. The school, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC, is used to train Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics. Critics have dubbed the training center the "School of the Assassins," because some of its graduates have been responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America.
This year’s protest will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, their housekeeper and her daughter by the US-backed Salvadoran military. The Jesuit priests were killed November 16, 1989, twenty years ago this week, when a military unit entered the Central American University campus and shot them to death — the priests’ housekeeper and her daughter also killed. The Jesuits had been outspoken advocates for the poor and critics of human rights abuses committed by the ARENA government. Many of the soldiers involved in the murders were graduates of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.
Earlier this week in El Salvador, the Jesuit priests were bestowed the nation’s highest civilian award, marking the first time the Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths. El Salvador’s defense minister announced the military is ready to ask for forgiveness and open its archives to a long-sought investigation. The current head of the Central American University, Father Jose Maria Tojeira, welcomed the posthumous recognition.
FATHER JOSE MARIA TOJEIRA: [translated] As a matter of fact, this is the first time in twenty years that Salvadoran states, by one of its powers, recognizes Jesuits’ dignity. Many people from all parties — of course, ARENA, as well — commented before those priests were great men who helped to end war before, because their martyrdom pushed to accelerate peace talks. But never in twenty years an official word of recognition for those people’s dignity. This is the first time, and I think it’s a very important symbol that should be opened to all victims from El Salvador.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the 1989 killing of the Jesuits and the state of Latin American affairs, I’m joined here in Los Angeles by Blase Bonpane. He’s a former Maryknoll priest who serves as the director of the Office of the Americas here in Los Angeles. For more than four decades, he has worked to promote human rights in Latin America. He also hosts the show World Focus on Pacifica Radio’s KPFK here in Los Angeles and the author of many books, including Civilization Is Possible.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Blase Bonpane.
BLASE BONPANE: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this anniversary. You knew the six Jesuit priests.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes. Our last visit with them was in a labor gathering just about a year before they were killed. We all met at the university there in El Salvador, la UCA. And Father Ellacuria really was in charge of the gathering. He didn’t just welcome us to the university; he was part and parcel of chairing the entire meeting. We were heavily buzzed by the helicopters at that time, and there were a lot of threats. Febe Velasquez was killed during that week. She was head of one of the major unions in El Salvador. And we fanned out from there to the countryside and saw the particular rebel activity in the area. And that was just about a year before they were killed in 1989.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the chronology that year that included a series of murders.
BLASE BONPANE: Well, it goes on, actually, starting — you can start as early as 1971, when Father Ellacuria got there, and then the bombing of the university began in ’75. In ’77, there were twelve students killed, some from the university and some from the state university, and there were twenty wounded. They just opened fire on them. The bombing continued at the university of Father Ellacuria’s offices, of the library and of the high school. There’s a high school also in the area. So he was constantly under attack because of the charges of liberation theology. And if we read the torture manuals, which School of the Americas Watch uncovered, we see direct reference to theology of liberation as a subversive act, as a subversive organization on behalf of the people of El Salvador.
And then, of course, 1977, Father Rutilio Grande was killed, another Jesuit. And that was the time when Archbishop Romero said, “Me convertí,” “They converted me.” By that, he meant he was on — there on behalf of the poor and that he was no longer part of the oligarchic military connection, which used to be called the Holy Trinity in El Salvador. And, you know, the fact that he identified with the poorest of the poor, he became an object of threats, as well. And, of course, he was killed in 1980 on the 24th of March, and that was followed by the killing of the sisters, the four sisters, on December 2nd of 1980.
AMY GOODMAN: And for those who don’t know the history, which is not necessarily people’s fault —-
BLASE BONPANE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- since so much of the corporate media in this country whites out history —-
BLASE BONPANE: Oh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- the sisters, the nuns, you’re talking about.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes. Oh, yes. They were Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline sister and a lay sister, as well. And they were killed on December 2nd, 1980. And this continued —-
AMY GOODMAN: By who?
BLASE BONPANE: Well, they were killed really by the security forces. They were raped and killed. And that also led to the conversion of Ambassador White, who’s been speaking on behalf of the -—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the US ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, at the time.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes. Yes, they had had dinner with him the night before, and he entered into the fray. And, of course, that was a great turning point. Joe Moakley and other Congress people got into it at that time.
And then, years later, actually — we’re talking about nine years later — the Jesuits were killed. But in between that time, tens of thousands of people were killed. The religious people have no more right to live than anyone else, and so it was every day torturing and killing.
And it is so ironic that today the Congress of the United States has a special commemoration of the Jesuits, Resolution 761. They mention them all. It reminds me of the Scriptural statement that first they kill the prophets, then they honor them. You know, and so, here they are, all mentioned: Father Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, all of them mentioned in the congressional —-
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you read their names?
BLASE BONPANE: OK, the first is the rector, Ignacio Ellacuria, then his vice rector, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Amando Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, the housekeeper Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina Mariset Ramos. And that’s the twentieth occasion of their death at the University of Central America Jose Simeon Canas, located in El Salvador.
And they talk about how the military came in and murdered them all, and then they speak about the work that each one of them did, including the housekeeper and her daughter. And then they mentioned the Jesuit colleges in the United States. And, of course, they also mention that a Salvadoran jury found guilty two Salvadoran military officers, including Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno. And that was the first time in Salvadoran history when any of the military were charged.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you bring this to the present, because you have the honoring for the first time in El Salvador, you have this resolution, and you have this protest that’s taking place now?
BLASE BONPANE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: This is twenty years later at the School of the Americas.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, now has a different name: WHISC.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes. Well, it’s important to continue that, because we’re still involved in intervention. El Salvador has had its people in the streets for over 150 days. I spoke to President Zelaya this week. They are dealing with the junta in the same fashion.
AMY GOODMAN: This is in Honduras.
BLASE BONPANE: Yeah, in Honduras. They’re dealing with the junta as if the junta has as much right to be there as the actual president. And so, the battle goes on. And President Zelaya should be reinstated. And unfortunately, we’re not giving him the support we should.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, the US role in what’s going on right now in Honduras.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The democratically elected president, Zelaya, was ousted on June 28th.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: He snuck back into the country, still is holed up at the Brazilian embassy. A deal that was announced as being brokered that would return Zelaya in the last few weeks seems to have fallen apart, and now there are elections coming up. Explain what you think the United States has done and should be doing.
BLASE BONPANE: Well, at this very time, Senator DeMint made a deal with the State Department, with Hillary Clinton and others, to say, “Alright, I’ll support Tom Shannon as the ambassador to Brazil.” And he’s bragging about the fact that, as a result of that, he got their non-cooperation with the reinstatement of President Zelaya. And so, we have actually seen the open tension within the State Department at this time, and President Obama has remained on the sidelines on this one. I think he’s making a great mistake, because he said, “They’re asking me now to intervene,” as though we were asked to intervene militarily. We’re not asking that. We’re asking that the law be kept. The Organization of American States has jurisdiction to solve this problem. They decided entirely in favor of President Zelaya.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back for a minute. You mentioned Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what he has done and what he has said.
BLASE BONPANE: He negotiated -—
AMY GOODMAN: He went to Honduras, is that right?
BLASE BONPANE: Yes, he did.
AMY GOODMAN: With a delegation.
BLASE BONPANE: And then he said, “Alright, I am blocking Tom Shannon from being ambassador to Brazil. And I will unblock that if you lay off the reinstatement of Zelaya.”
AMY GOODMAN: This was his message to the Obama administration.
BLASE BONPANE: Yes, and he’s bragging about it quite publicly. And so, they did. They agreed, which is very strange to me, because Obama condemned the coup. At the same time, he is not allowing the law to be kept. The law is structured through the Organization of American States and the UN, all of which have condemned the coup.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go back to that point you say that President Obama made in an unusual comment. He said, you know, those who are opposed to intervention —-
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- are actually supporting some kind of intervention here, critical of those who are asking the US to somehow intervene in what’s happened in Honduras.
BLASE BONPANE: This is a very strange comment, because we were asking that the law be upheld and that criminals who had overthrown the government of Honduras not be treated on an equal basis. It’s as if someone stole your car, and the judge said, ”Well, maybe I’ll give it back to the one who stole it.” You know, there’s no logic in the behavior. So we were very disappointed in Obama in that case.
AMY GOODMAN: The Salvadoran defense minister says that the military is ready in El Salvador to apologize. What does that mean?
BLASE BONPANE: Well, it means someone high up may make an apology. But for years, they were torturing the Salvadoran people, and that’s why Archbishop Romero commanded them to mutiny. He said, you know, “I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.” And he was murdered very shortly after.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that famous last speech —-
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- before he was murdered was played in a boom box in the trees of Fort Benning by Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of the School of the Americas Watch.
BLASE BONPANE: Roy Bourgeois climbed a tree and aired that sermon at Fort Benning over the barracks where the Salvadoran troops were sleeping. And they came out hearing the voice of the archbishop. Then, of course, Roy was arrested. He has spent at least five years in federal prisons in his protests. And it’s a great testimony for peace that he’s given to the world.
And that was the beginning of the real strong opposition. So he’s had now support from all over the country, from universities and high school students. It will be at least 20,000 there this weekend to once again protest at Fort Benning. So it’s a very exciting time.
But the intervention in the Americas continues. Honduras is the — one of the ALBA nations. The ALBA nations, including Venezuela and Bolivia, and going into Ecuador and Cuba, as well, and Nicaragua, are a whole new direction for Latin America and a very exciting direction. They’ve come in with a new currency. They’ve come in with a new banking system. They’ve come in with a new political system, which the people of Latin America have had in their hopes, desires and anxieties for centuries. And we’re trying to break that link, striking at the weakest member of the ALBA nations. Next, if this succeeds in Honduras, Paraguay will be next, and then it will be Nicaragua, and then it will be El Salvador, because, you remember, the FMLN is now in charge in El Salvador. The FSLN is in charge in Nicaragua. It’s amazing. So, many of us never thought we’d see so much rapid change in Latin America so fast in our lifetime.
AMY GOODMAN: Blase Bonpane, you just turned eighty earlier this year.
BLASE BONPANE: Oh, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Happy birthday.
BLASE BONPANE: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your thoughts on Latin America, as you describe the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas —-
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- ALBA, the new leadership in Latin America, and how the US, you feel, should be dealing with Latin America?
BLASE BONPANE: Yes, I think the whole new movement is irreversible. It’s not going to return back where it was. And it’s a very exciting development. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. We operate on paranoia, of great fear, you know, of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and all the way down to Uruguay and Chile. The movement is in process. And it is such a shame that we can’t be part and parcel of that movement. When Obama went to the meeting with the thirty-two countries, Trinidad, Tobago, the parting shot from the ALBA nations was, quote, "Are you a prisoner?" They really felt that —-
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
BLASE BONPANE: Well, they felt that Obama seemed to be under the spell of the military.
AMY GOODMAN: Who said to him, “Are you a prisoner?”
BLASE BONPANE: I think it came directly from Hugo Chavez -— “Are you a prisoner?” — because they’ve seen prisoner. And I’ve seen presidents who were prisoners in Guatemala, that were elected and then immediately told by the military, “You will do what we say, or you’re out of here.” And we almost feel that happening with Obama now. It’s quite frightening.
AMY GOODMAN: His policy on Cuba?
BLASE BONPANE: His policy on Cuba has been to do a few small issues, nothing in the area that should be done. Our business with Cuba has increased massively in recent years, in spite of the fact that it may appear to be illegal. But the rice farmers of Louisiana and other places are doing a lot of business with Cuba.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
BLASE BONPANE: Well, they just — they’re tolerated by the Treasury Department. And the business goes on. But the whole thing should be ended, the massive blockade that has gone on for a half century, you know. And it still goes on, and it’s still very difficult for people to spend time in Cuba. If you go there as a —- for a vacation, you can be arrested and fined. Canadians have been going there for decades. It’s one of their favorite vacation places.
AMY GOODMAN: Blase Bonpane, the world peace march that’s coming through Los Angeles here?
BLASE BONPANE: We’re very excited about it. We’ve been working on it avidly. I just asked President Zelaya to endorse it, and I’m waiting for his response. We have -—
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been speaking to him directly?
BLASE BONPANE: Yes, I have. And I think he will give his full endorsement, together with many other heads of state that have given their endorsement. It will arrive in Los Angeles on the 1st of December. It will be here through the 2nd and then go on to San Diego, Mexico, and into Central and South.
AMY GOODMAN: And who’s organized it?
BLASE BONPANE: Well, it’s organized by the people who are marching. It’s a very unusual organization that started in New Zealand. And it’s going 99,000 miles around the world in ninety days, and it’s on behalf of peace, nonviolence, an end to the nuclear threat to the world. We feel that the environmental movement has got to include the threat of nuclear war, because, talk about global warming, if we have a nuclear exchange, there’s going to be an awful lot of global warming. So we want to see the environmental movement and the peace movement get married, you know, in other words, to join forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Blase Bonpane, for joining us, former Maryknoll priest, serves as the director of the Office of the Americas, a human rights institution here in Los Angeles. That world peace march begun October 2nd in New Zealand —-
BLASE BONPANE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- on the anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.