Thursday, July 23, 2009

The School of Coups: inadvertent American action against democracy in Honduras


         The interdemocratic peace hypothesis was once, during the Cold War, a dissident and interestingly argued view (Michael Doyle’s 1984 pieces in Philosophy and Public Affairs).  After the Cold War, it has become an apology for American imperialism, in the mouths of Clinton and Bush, to justify the overthrow or evisceration of the elected Aristide regime in Haiti (the coups by the two Bushes, Clinton’s restoration of Aristide for a year of his 6 year presidency, so long as he did push the social programs for which he had been elected), or to try to overthrow Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 or to engage in a large number of coups (perhaps 12) against non-white democracies during the Cold War.  The “operational” definition of a war, by political scientists, is 1,000 soldiers dead on each side.  Thus, democracies do not go to war against other democracies.  Being “value-free” in this case misguidedly about the truth,  these political scientists, I suppose, merely mean to “specify” their arguments very “carefully.”  But American democracy has been the lethal enemy of 15 or so nonwhite democracies during and after the Cold War, “intervening” to overthrow them.  In Barack Obama’s understated phrase with regard to the coup in Honduras, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies.”  But at least Obama, the head of the Empire, knows the right thing and is trying, to some extent to do it (previous Presidents, including Clinton, have done largely the opposite). See also what's wrong with the democratic peace hypothesis, here and Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? introduction.

        America arms dictators like Egypt’s Mubarak or trains those who engage in coups.  The latter is an ugly manifestation of empire, much protested by ordinary people including many Americans, but not  much noticed by mainstream political scientists and even by radicals.  A particularly sad case is the recent coup in Honduras where the United States did not apparently do the dirty work itself (although some in Washington are working with and legitimizing the coup and of course, one never knows how much dirty work the School of the Americas or other parts of the submerged apparatus of the Empire inspire or are ordered to do).  Instead, the United States trained the officers who plotted the coup at the School of the Americas. All over the world,  our military has worked to train the officers in repressive regimes (the joint combined training operations, not much known in Congress, are described in Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback).  Even where the US does not have large military bases – with its 250,000 troops abroad aside from Iraq and Afghanistan - and a total of some 800 bases (no one quite knows, even in the Pentagon)  and  even where the CIA is not actively trying to undermine or overthrow some democratic regime which clashes with American imperial interests, this training of officers itself has nasty, continuing effects, i.e. the coup in Honduras. America has elected a decent President; yet the military-industrial complex has an ugly inertia.

         Father Roy Bourgeois has long protested against the School nonviolently and been arrested many times (his and Margaret Knapke’s article below appears in the July issue of  Foreign Policy in Focus).  Two of my children go to the Open School in Denver ( a K-12 experimental school, with the idea that advisors mentor students in developing seven passages in their education; the education is student-oriented).  A few years ago, two of their colleagues studied Latin America and as a kind of apprenticeship went to protest at the School of the Americas with Bourgeois and many others.  They were arrested.  While these students were serving three months in jail in Denver, a philosophy professor from Red Rocks Community College came and gave them a course on nonviolence (this was probably the most “out there” experience chosen by students ever in the history of the Open School and a credit to the professor at Red Rocks). 

         Bourgeois and Knapke trace the role of the School of the Americas in training Latin American officers in murdering and disappearing dissidents.  To administer its post-9/11 torture programs, the CIA hastily chose the psychologists Mitchell and Jesson who had run the SERE program in which American prisoners are trained to resist torture and had never interrogated anyone.  See what the torturer knew here.  Perhaps that is responsible for their dismal record in getting any useful information (torture never does).  Recommended by Cheney for its willing depravity, the CIA paid no attention to Ali Soufan, the FBI agent, who through establishing rapport got important information about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed from Abu Zubaydah.  But really, one might say,  the Bush administration wasn’t paying sufficient attention – despite extraordinary rendition to other regimes that torture – to the experience of torturers in its own imperial orbit.  It could have asked the trainees from the School of the Americas, not to mention those who taught them.  Not that they would have gotten better information from torture, but these men are “professionals.”  But I guess it sounded more “scientific” – more like George Tenet knew what he was doing, rather than being incompetent, self-promoting and obsequious (or maybe just a coward, bowing before Cheney) -  to get Mitchell and Jesson.  The inter-democratic peace hypothesis in a genuinely democratic system, not an oligarchy with parliamentary forms of the sort we have, might well have more validity.  But political scientists had better watch out that they do not emulate the practices of Mitchell and Jesson.  For instance, the inter-democratic peace hypothesis has at least been used by Presidents to deflect attention from aid to repressive regimes and crimes against democracies.

      In chapter 5 of Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?,  I discuss the case of Ines Morales, a guerilla who was captured by Battalion 3-16 in Honduras and tortured for 80 days.  Her father was a General who threatened to release the name of “Mike,” the CIA man who oversaw the torture in the prisons, if they did not end her torture.  She was released, went to Canada, and after several years, told her story to the Baltimore Sun.  With  Latin Americans, Father Bourgeois names the School the School of Coups.  It is. He and Knapke note the role of School-trained officers in Batallion 3-16 and apparently in the coup itself.  This is a good empirical issue, easily amenable to the methods of empirical political science. But it is hard to achieve influence, let alone come to advise the government, if one notices facts like these.  And so, in mainstream political science, such research is not encouraged.  Still,  those who work on American foreign policy might want to take note of it. In any case, we could all support the 58 Congressmen, described below, who are trying to curtail the training of officers in Latin America to overthrow democracy.


School of Coups

by Father Roy Bourgeois & Margaret Knapke

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.


© 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus

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.

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