22,000 rallied in Georgia;
thousands more in ten other countries
At least thirteen arrested while taking protest onto military base
Columbus, GA – 22,000 people from across the Americas gathered this weekend outside the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia to demand a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy and the closure of a military training school that is synonymous with torture and repression for millions around the world.
Protest attendees cited the resumption of U.S.-backed military training in Latin America, the Bush Administration’s support for legislation allowing torture, and the results of the recent mid-term elections as catalysts for this growing, hemisphere-wide movement for human rights. The demonstration – at times lively and at others solemn – was the largest yet in a 17-year history of opposition to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly called the School of the Americas (SOA/ WHINSEC), a combat-training school for Latin American soldiers.
The gathering culminated today with a symbolic funeral procession to the gates of Ft. Benning led by torture survivors from Latin America, Father Roy Bourgeois and other human rights activists. As of 12PM, at least 13 people were arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, despite a 10-foot barbed-wire fence on the base’s perimeter. They took this action knowing that they likely face three to six months in federal prison. Since protests against the SOA/ WHINSEC began sixteen years ago, 211 people have served prison sentences of up to two years for civil disobedience.
The SOA/WHINSEC narrowly averted closure earlier this year when a bill to cut funding to the school lost in Congress by a margin of 15 votes. The mid-term elections saw 34 Representatives who opposed the bill lose their seats.
“The Bush Administration and the School of the Americas are out of alignment with the values of everyday Americans,” said Chris Inserra, 48, a teacher and mother of three who attended this weekend’s events. “We need a foreign policy that reflects our values of justice and democracy.”
Support for the SOA/WHINSEC is eroding across Latin America. Earlier this year, the governments of Argentina and Uruguay became the second and third countries to announce a cessation of training at the SOA/WHINSEC. In January of 2004, Hugo Chavez announced that Venezuela would no longer send troops to train at the school.
Thousands of people took part in simultaneous events calling for the closure of the School of the Americas throughout Latin America this weekend — in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay and Peru.
The SOA/WHINSEC, a military training facility for Latin American security personnel, made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Despite this shocking admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school over its 60-year history, no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place. SOA