SOA Dinner Highlights Annual Trip

The School of the Americas Watch student organization held a dinner last Friday to raise awareness on the controversial School of the Americas. The dinner also served to collect donations to help 10 USF students, who will be traveling to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they will protest at the gates of the school this November, along with thousands of others.

The dinner shed light on the U.S. government-funded School of the Americas (SOA), a military training school for Latin American soldiers, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) after a bill was passed to close SOA in 2001. Formerly housed in Panama since its founding in 1946, the school relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. SOA Watch members gather annually to advocate for the shutdown of the school.

The U.S. began the school after WWII to enforce democracy among developing, third world Latin American countries.

Here at USF, club members actively support the closing of the school, including club President Patrick Sudlow, who plans to attend with nine other USF students the 2009 November Vigil. The vigil is the annual demonstration that has occurred since 1990 at the gate of Fort Benning.

Sudlow enlisted 10 students in the beginning of the semester to accompany him, and even got Superfund to cover $3,000 in travel expenses, with the exception that each attendee cover $200 individually. Sudlow, who will protest at the Vigil for the fourth time, planned the dinner in part to raise donations to cover the uncompensated expenses, which has interested at least five more students to go after the Superfund request was made, Sudlow said.

Junior Tam Nguyen is among the group of ten traveling to the protest, making it her third time attending. “I’m going because I’m renewing my commitment,” she said, “I feel strongly enough that [SOA] needs to be closed.”

Dinner guests watched the documentary film, “On the Line,” to get a complete sense of why SOA has been the center of controversy for years. Sudlow decided to screen the film because he said it would do a better job of depicting the SOA Watch’s cause, than if he were to make a formal presentation on it.  “A lot of people don’t know what the School of the Americas is,” Sudlow said.

According to the film, the SOA Watch was founded after the November 1989 murder in El Salvador of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter, which was allegedly committed by SOA graduates. SOA Watch founder, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, initiated the movement in 1990, not knowing what he would uncover upon investigating the SOA.

Keynote speaker and senior Ivana Rosas informed guests that since its opening in 1946, the SOA has trained over 60,000 graduates in sniper training, psychological warfare, and interrogation tactics, in which graduates have gone off to induce war and oppress their own people under their country’s military regime.

Upon learning of the SOA in courses like Liberation Theology in El Salvador and the summer service-learning program in Nicaragua, Rosas was moved to join the SOA Watch and the protest. “I need to go, I need to act. I can’t just sit,” she said.

Senior Joeline Navarro attended the dinner with some knowledge of what the SOA entailed. She said the title of the institution is misleading, because “School of the Americas sounds like a positive thing.” After reading up on the SOA Watch’s intent to close down the school, Navarro said, “I was really surprised, the issue was so new to me. Now I feel inclined to know more.”

SOA graduates have generally targeted those working for the rights of the poor, only to be tortured, raped, and killed, or simply known to “disappear.”

After attending the three-day vigil in November, Sudlow said the SOA Watch organization at USF will host a week-long event in the spring, to elaborate more on torture and to “share what we learned.”

Meanwhile, Sudlow’s dinner outcome exceeded his expectations. “I thought only 50 [people] were coming,” he said, “I had to ask for more plates!”

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