Institute on Religion and Democracy
September 20, 1999
With surprising support from more than a few conservative Republicans, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to slash $1.2 million from a U.S. Army training facility for Latin American military officers.
The vote was a victory for Religious Left activists, who fervently contend that the U.S. Army teaches torture and assassination at its School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. A vote against the school is a vote in favor of human rights, they insist.
But the same organizations arrayed so strongly against the school are largely responsible for the recent presidential clemency offer for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists, whose extensive bombing campaign on behalf of a "free" and "socialist" Puerto Rico in the 1970's and early 1980's killed six and wounded 70 persons.
Why the double standard? The evidence to support allegations that the school trains its students in torture is next to nil. The crimes of the FALN (Spanish acronym for Armed Forces of National Liberation) terrorists are irrefutable.
Groups like the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the National Council of Churches and the Maryknoll Society, a Catholic order, have waged simultaneous campaigns to free the terrorists and close the school without realizing the seeming hypocrisy of their stance.
In a way, there is some continuity to their logic. Left-wing church groups in the U.S. deeply identified with the anti-U.S. rhetoric and socialist dreams of Latin American liberation movements of two decades ago. "Liberation theology" formed a common front between Marxist rebels in El Salvador, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Puerto Rican separatists, all of whom viewed the U.S. as their colonialist enemy.
Religious Left groups in the U.S. are still infuriated that leftist insurrections and governments they supported in Latin America during the 1980's were defeated by the school's trainees. In seeming retribution, the Religious Left now charges that the school deliberately trains its students to violate human rights. They cannot bear to admit that Latin American militaries become more effective against Marxist guerrillas when they reduced human rights violations and yielded power to democratic, civilian governments - in part thanks to U.S. influence.
Through sheer persistence, the church activists over the years finally persuaded a congressional majority that the school is dirty. The House vote was 230-197, with 58 Republicans supporting a slash in funding, which would effectively wipe out all money for tuition and travel for the school's foreign students. A House-Senate committee will negotiate whether this cut remains.
Meanwhile, the church groups have for at least five years lobbied President Clinton to offer a full amnesty to the Puerto Rican "political prisoners." The general secretary of the National Council of Churches, a close ally of the Clinton Administration, personally visited the White House to request the prisoners' release.
A resolution from the church council, which includes 35 denominations totaling 55 million Americans, hailed the imprisoned terrorists for their "profoundly impressive moral character" and for their "profound spiritual depth, strength and gentleness." An ad in The New York Times calling for an amnesty bore the names of presiding officers of denominations, Protestant and Catholic bishops, and officers of Catholic groups such as the Maryknollers and Pax Christi.
Meanwhile, these same church officers were supporting a nationwide letter writing campaign directed at Congress to close the School of the Americas because of its supposed hostility towards human rights. Last year, after a similar vote barely fell short of a majority, I called the office of one normally pro-military Republican who opposed the school. A staffer explained to me that the congressman had received two dozen letters from religious activists who opposed the school but had heard not a word from its supporters.
The school's critics point to a few graduates such as former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the late Salvadoran right-wing leader Robert D'Aubuisson as typical trainees who later brutalized their countrymen. But these thugs comprise a tiny fraction of the school's over 60,000 gradutates.
No critic of the school has directly linked human rights abuses in Latin America to any specific training at Fort Benning. They instead point to some training booklets about counter-insurgency available at the school between 1989 and 1991. When the Pentagon released these materials in 1996, headlines across the country screamed about "torture manuals."
But of 1,100 pages of text in the manuals, two dozen mostly ambiguous phrases have been deemed offensive. The closest endorsement of torture is one sentence that refers vaguely to "information obtained involuntarily from insurgents who have been captured." More typical in the manuals is a warning that an interrogator should not: "be rude, or impolite...make fun of the interrogee...Lose his temper...Use profane language...[or] Argue." The Defense Department recalled all seven manuals in 1991, proclaiming they had never been properly authorized.
But for three years countless editorials and congressional speeches have indignantly referred to the "torture manuals," without actually describing their content. These same critics usually acknowledge the school teaches the importance of democratic, civilian rule. But they insist that Latin American officers merely sneer at these instructions.
Presumably, these critics think that human rights in Latin America will profit if military officers from that region receive their training from the French, or the Israelis, or even the Chinese. And they usually ignore the fact that the same religious groups opposing the school in the name of democracy were tireless defenders of regimes that have stomped on human rights, such as Fidel Castro's Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Maurice Bishop dictatorship in Grenada.
An overwhelming majority of Republican and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives voiced their opposition to Clinton's clemency for the terrorists. They seem not to have realized they were hoodwinked into opposing the School of the Americas by the same Religious Left groups that corralled President Clinton into freeing the Puerto Rican prisoners.
Perhaps most members of Congress are simply too young or too new to Washington to remember the main actors and issues of the final phase of the Cold War, when the religious and secular left joined together in undermining pro-democratic forces in Latin America.
The otherwise pro-military members of Congress who are listening to the shrill claims of anti-school activists should understand what really motivates the Religious Left campaign against the school before they cast their next vote.