School of Americas Closure Bill Gains Momentum

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(APN) ATLANTA — “I think there is a very high chance of [the bill] going through. We think Congress will make the right decision,” Joao De Silva, Communications Coordinator for SOA Watch (SOAW), told Atlanta Progressive News, after the recent SOAW Annual Strategy Meeting and Lobby Day in Washington, D.C.

From February 18 to February 20, 2007, hundreds of SOAW activists from around the country gathered to conduct strategy meetings, hold a rally, and visit the Offices of Members of US Congress.

The focus this year is to gain more sponsors for a bill by US Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to cut funding to the controversial School of the Americas (SOA), recently re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). In the last, or 109th, Congressional Session it was HR 1217, an amendment introduced June 9, 2006 to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill.

The amendment failed last year by only 15 votes–a slim margin–especially for the 109th Congress. But in November 2006, 34 US Representatives who opposed the amendment lost their seats, giving hope for a second chance in the 110th Congress.

The McGovern bill will be re-introduced some time this Spring with a new number to be assigned in March 2007, according to a release obtained by Atlanta Progressive News from the SOAW Communications Office. The focus of the bill is to suspend operations at SOA/WHINSEC in Columbus, Georgia, while investigators probe what exactly goes on there.

As a result of the investigation which would occur if the bill passes, there is a “high possibility of [the School of the Americas] being closed,” De Silva said.

“Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, disappeared, massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins,” according to SOAW.org.

Juliana Illari, an Atlanta activist who attended the SOAW event, told APN that activists met Monday February 19, 2007, to discuss strategy and talking points in addition to which activists would be visiting which US Representatives.

Tuesday February 20, 2007, was the day of action. Early that morning, activists held a rally at the Capitol South Station, where lawmakers and their aides get off the subway, Illari said.

Afterwards, activists divided up to visit the Congressional Offices grouped together by region. Activists made over 200 Office visits Tuesday, De Silva told APN.

Activists arrived at each Office equipped with packets containing talking points, information about the SOA/WHINSEC, the McGovern legislation, and a letter from US Rep. McGovern urging each of his colleagues to take action against the School.

The goal this year was to get as many co-sponsors as possible. De Silva told APN there are 21 co-sponsors so far and SOAW expects many more. There were 135 total co-sponsors of HR 1217 last Session.

Illari was one of two activists to visit 35 Offices of Southern Congresspersons representing 10 different Southern states, which De Silva said is always the toughest region in the US to find support for closing the SOA/WHINSEC.

“Out of 35, only 10 knew what the SOA was,” Illari said of aides she spoke to who specialize in foreign affairs.

This did not surprise Illari, who speculated one “could ask several people in Georgia what the School is and they would probably not know.”

“It’s not a one of a kind school,” she said.  “The SOA is the most notorious… school, but it is not the only type of this school.”

However, at the Office of newly elected US Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), the aide for foreign affairs did know about the SOA/WHINSEC. The meeting with Shuler’s aide was one of “several good meetings [we had] with legislative aides,” Illari said.

Of the 35 lawmakers targeted by the Southern delegation, “eight are new to the 110th Congress,” Illari said. “We had to spend the most time in new people’s Offices.”

The Southern delegation visited the Offices of US Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA.), who is new to Congress, and John Lewis (D-GA.), who already supports the School closure, and left information packets for their aides.

“Lewis and I have talked personally before about this issue,” Illari said.

Democrats like US Rep. Lewis will come out in full force for this bill but De Silva said, “there have always been Republican co-sponsors,” and he does not expect it to be any different this Spring.

De Silva is confident the legislation will pass this Congress, De Silva said, but the work of the SOAW will not end there.

He said the SOAW legislative work continues year-round. Even if the SOA/WHINSEC is closed for good, the SOAW will continue legislative work on related issues, such as talking lawmakers into considering repealing the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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