founder of the School of the Americas Watch.
Romeo Vasquez, a general who led the military coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya, received training at the US School of the Americas. The SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers, many of whom have returned home and committed human rights abuses, torture, extrajudicial execution and massacres. According to School of the Americas Watch, Vasquez attended the SOA in 1976 and 1984. The head of the Air Force, Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, also studied there in 1996. We speak with Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Almendares, I wanted to turn for a minute to Father Roy Bourgeois. By the way, the latest news, the World Bank president Robert Zoellick said that the World Bank has put on hold aid to Honduras during the political crisis, which he cautioned might be a setback for the region.
Father Roy Bourgeois, you’re right outside Fort Benning, where what used to be known as School of the Americas is. The new name, WHINSEC. What is the connection between WHINSEC, School of the Americas, and the coup in Honduras?
FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Well, first of all, we’re not surprised, you know, that there’s a connection to the School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC. This school is well known in Latin America as a school of coups, a school of dictators, a school of torture. There is a direct connection, which we expected.
The two main players in this coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya are two generals, well-known graduates of the school: General Romero Vasquez, who’s the commander-in-chief, the head of the military, not only a graduate, a two-time graduate; and, of course, also General Luis Suazo, a graduate of the school in 1996, who’s the head of the air force.
This school is well known in Latin America, again, as a school of coups. Whenever there is a massacre, cases of torture, human rights abuses, we have been able to document a direct connection to this school. This school has trained over 60,000 soldiers from fifteen countries in Latin America in combat skills, all paid for, I must say, by the US taxpayers.
And we, of course, are — like so many, are outraged by this coup. This is a scandal. We’re encouraged by the response, of course, from the international community and the tens of thousands in the SOA Watch movement, who are really walking in solidarity with the people of Honduras at this time and the poor throughout Latin America.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Father Bourgeois, I’d like to ask you — this reminds me very much of what happened years ago in Haiti, where you had basically a military coup against a legally elected president, Aristide, and where the — a Democratic administration, President Clinton, condemned the coup leaders, as has President Obama, at least in this in the early days here, but where the US military was playing a different role — in essence, had its own ties with the established coup leaders. I’m wondering if — your response to how this has played out previously throughout Latin America, these kinds of coups?
FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Yes, you know, when we’re talking about Haiti, the main players in what happened in Haiti were trained not at the School of the Americas, but at Fort Benning at that time, who were very involved in ousting President Aristide.
I don’t know what to say other than, you know, this school has a long history for this region. You know, many of us are very familiar with what happened in El Salvador and many other countries. The high-profile cases, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the six Jesuits, the four US church women who were raped and killed — all of these cases, along with the thousands of others, they have been graduates of the US Army School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC.
I’m happy to say that just last week, we had in Congress a vote. Last week, the House approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which would force the Pentagon to release the names of the graduates, including their rank, the courses taken, and the country of origin. For the last five years, they have refused to give us these names, all in the name of, you know, national security. While they talk about transparency and democracy, this school is an obstacle to democracy and the sea change that’s taken place in Latin America.
Very important also, we have an upcoming bill, HR 2567 in Congress. This bill will suspend all operations at the school, and there will be a full investigation about the school and its hundreds of graduates who have been involved in these atrocities and coups. Eleven dictators have gone through this school. Whenever there’s been a coup, like this one in Honduras, over the past decades, there has been a direct connection to this school.
And we are calling on our members of Congress, and we want President Obama to get involved here. He has the power to shut down this school of assassins, this school of coups, this school with so much blood on its hands. He has the power to close this school by executive order. That’s why we are appealing for people in our country to write President Obama and tell him, as he talks about a new relationship with countries, let us also involve these countries of Latin America. Let us have President Obama close the school.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois, the legislation that you say was passed in the House now has to be reconciled with the Senate version, which doesn’t have this amendment that would require the release of names that you at School of the Americas Watch have relied on before the five years that you haven’t been able to get them, all of these years, to show the connection between what these soldiers do when they go home.
Just a little background on Father Roy Bourgeois for our listeners and viewers. First went to School of the Americas soon after Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down, assassinated, March 24th, 1980. And you took a boombox and went onto the base and broadcast the last words of Oscar Romero, the speech that he gave specifically to the Salvadoran soldiers, urging them to — saying, “I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.” You broadcast his voice, and you were arrested and served a year and a half in prison.
But when did you actually set up SOA Watch right outside School of the Americas? I don’t think most people know about the Jesuits killed. I don’t think most people know about the four church women in El Salvador that were killed.
FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: Amy, a small group of us came to the main gate of Fort Benning at the beginning of 1990. It was right after the massacre of six Jesuits in El Salvador, well-known Catholic priest walking with the poor there and their struggle, along with their two women coworkers. We were pumping a lot of money into El Salvador, about a million dollars a day at this time into their military. A US congressional task force went to investigate the massacre of the two women and the six Jesuits, came back reporting that those responsible were trained at the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning. That’s when I went down, set up camp. I continued to live, since 1990, in a small apartment right outside of the main gate of Fort Benning, was joined by some friends, Charlie Liteky, Kathy Kelly and so many — and a few others, and that began our movement.
We started to do research, and it didn’t take long for us to discover that in our backyard there was a school of assassins, a school that trains terrorists, really, in Latin America, all paid for — millions of dollars being pumped into this school today is all being — coming from our tax money, millions of dollars. And we want that money to go into, you know, projects for the poor, for the elderly, for healthcare, right here in our own communities.
Our movement has grown from ten in the early days. Every November, we gather at the main gate for our vigil to call for the closing of the school, to express our solidarity with the people of Latin America. I’m happy to report that this last November, about 20,000 gathered — students, veterans, lots of nuns. Parents come with their children. And we welcome people to be with us in November. To get more information, of course, about the issue and our upcoming vigil in November, I ask our viewers to simply go to soaw.org.
One other thing I just want — every morning I get up, I open my blinds, I look right across the street, there’s Fort Benning. Two chain-link fences with these signs — I carry this around with me — that says “No trespassing.” And beyond these signs and that razor wire that reminds me of some of the prisons that we have been sent to, those who protest the school, there is the School of the Americas, called now WHINSEC. They say they’re teaching democracy there. Well, we say you do not teach democracy behind the barrel of a gun. You cannot teach democracy behind a sign that says no trespassing. And this is our problem. This is not a school for democracy. There’s no transparency here. And we’re calling really on President Obama and more and more people now to really look at this school for what it is. It is a school of torture. It is a school for dictators. It is, most of all, a school of coups.