SOA Closure Amendment Almost Succeeds in US House

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(APN) ATLANTA — An amendment to close the controversial School of the Americas or WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for National Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, failed in the US House late last night in a vote of 203 to 214, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

The vote was an improvement over last year’s vote on the same issue in the 109th Congress, of 188-218.

US Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), who sponsored the amendment, H Amdt 378, to a Department of State appropriations bill HR 2764, “is disappointed we didn’t win, but it was a good strong vote,” McGovern’s spokesperson, Michael Mershon, told Atlanta Progressive News.

The vote was “very close. We wanted to win. But we’re getting there. In no way are we discouraged. On the contrary the 203 to 214 vote has energized the movement,” SOA Watch Founder, Rev. Roy Bourgeois, told APN.

“To have [almost] half of our Members of Congress with us, saying this School should be shut down is very hopeful,” Bourgeois said. “It’s just a matter of time. I personally believe it’s on life support.”

Georgia’s Congressional delegation was split on this issue, with US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) being the only Georgia Representative to vote to close the SOA. Unfortunately, Lewis’s former colleague Cynthia McKinney was not in office to voice her strong historical opposition to the SOA.

US Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), currently in McKinney’s former seat, did not vote. Neither did US Rep. David Scott (D-GA).

“They chose not to show up for that vote. Sometimes when Members do that it’s because they’re getting so much pressure in their District but… they think it might be controversial… Johnson and Scott were under an immense amount of grassroots pressure,” Eric Lecompte, SOAW Director, told APN.

Democratic US Rep. Sanford Bishop voted no and “was working hard against this amendment,” Mershon said.

“It’s in his [Bishop’s] District. He’s always voted against us,” Bourgeois said.

Democratic US Reps. John Barrow (D-GA) and Jim Marshall (D-GA) also voted no.

All Republicans representing Georgia voted no, with District 09 having no representation as the late US Rep. Norwood’s (R-GA) seat is being replaced in a current Special Election, now in run-off phase.

Intensive lobbying efforts on both side of the issue occurred in the final days and hours leading up to the vote.

“The folks at WHINSEC were very nervous. Last year they didn’t expect the vote to be so close. They really stepped up their efforts and organized very hard. They were able to get high ranking members of military, the Chair of the Armed Services Committee [US Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO)], and a rightwing Bishop to go and make phonecalls and aggressively lobby,” Bourgeois said.

US Rep. McGovern is not sure what step to take next in terms of when, or whether, to have another vote. There will be an upcoming appropriations bill including funding for WHINSEC, Mershon said.

At the same time, McGovern has a stand-alone bill to close WHINSEC, HR 1707, which has 112 total co-sponsors, including US Rep. Lewis (D-GA). No other Georgia Representatives are cosponsors.

The bill was currently referred to the House Committee on Armed Services. On the HCAS, Chairman Skelton is opposed. However, “We had the majority of Senior Democrats on Armed Services,” Bourgeois said.

“You’ve got to be careful about this [how to proceed]. It was a good vote yesterday but we lost. You don’t want to do anything that sets you back… [like] continue to have votes in the wrong direction. The question is whether it makes sense to have another bill that failed in this Congress, brought up again,” Mershon said.

US Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) led the effort to oppose closing WHINSEC and said he didn’t see any problems with the School.

“WHINSEC’s mission is to train Latin American security forces, foster cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, and promote democratic values and respect for human rights,” said Gingrey. “The school has consistently accomplished each of these goals with distinction. I am particularly proud of its human rights record, with not one single legitimate complaint ever raised against the school,” Gingrey said, according to a press release reprinted by the Rome News-Tribune newspaper in Rome, Georgia.

“It’s an outright lie. It’s a denial of reality,” Bourgeois said.

“Part of the issue we were trying to raise last night is that, when we ask the School for its list of graduates, the names are blacked out. To sort of say, there haven’t been any problems, how can you possibly know that? If we don’t know who attended?” Mershon said.

“This is what we’re asking for, with the cutting off funding, we want a Congressional investigation of hundreds of graduates. And this is what they’re afraid of too. They know an investigation will reveal hundreds of soldiers who’ve participated in rape, disappearances, murders,” Bourgeois said.

“We have the most atrocious record of human rights in Latin America. They refer to our country as the empire. We have been dominating. But it’s so typical to have a politician very ignorant of US foreign policy in Latin America. They don’t know, or perhaps they know but won’t acknowledge,” Bourgeois said, adding that in the last year and a half, four Latin American countries–Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Costa Rica–have withdrawn their troops from WHINSEC.

“Our greatest enemy in this country is ignorance. There’s so little we know about foreign policy. And that ignorance gets us in trouble, as it’s doing in Iraq,” Bourgeois said.

One Georgia activist, Mike Vosburg-Casey is currently serving out a sentence at a Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Jesup, Georgia. Vosburg-Casey and over a dozen other activists from around the country this year were arrested for attempting to cross a wire fence on to the premises of the School.

“They’re going to talk about Democracy and human rights. The basic question we ask is how do you teach Democracy in an institution that’s not democratic? No trespassing. Two fences with barbed wire. This is not the place to teach Democracy. Nor do you teach Democracy at the barrel of a gun,” Bourgeois said.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor of Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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