In the past two years I made several trips to Central and South America. This year, 2015, I travelled to El Salvador and Chile with School of the Americas Watch and in 2014 to Costa Rica and earlier this year to Cuba with CODEPINK: Women for Peace.
As most of you know, School of the Americas Watch is an organization that has documented by name many graduates of the U.S. military school initially called School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), who have tortured and murdered citizens of their countries who opposed their governments' oppressive policies-in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina. Some of the most notorious of these murderers that sought asylum in the United States in the 1980s are now being extradited back to their home countries, particularly to El Salvador, interestingly, not because of their known criminal acts, but for violations of U.S. immigration.
Over the past 20 years, SOA Watch has held an annual three-day vigil attended by thousands at the new home of SOA at the U.S. military base at Fort Benning, Georgia, to remind the military of the horrific history of the school. Additionally, SOA Watch has sent delegations to countries in Central and South America asking that the governments stop sending their military to this school. Five countries, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have withdrawn their military from the school and due to extensive lobbying of the U.S. Congress, SOA Watch came within five votes of the U.S. Congress closing the school. But, sadly, it is still open.
I want to recognize 78-year-old JoAnn Lingle who was arrested for challenging the School of the Americas and sentenced to two months in U.S. federal prison. And I would also like to recognize everyone in our U.S. delegation who has been arrested for peaceful, non-violent protest of U.S. government policies. We have at least 20 from our delegations who have been arrested and gone to jail for justice.
This year the SOA Watch delegation, in meetings with the President of El Salvador, a former FMLN Commandante, and the Minister of Defense of Chile, asked that those countries stop sending their military personnel to the school. Their responses highlight the web of U.S. military and law enforcement involvement in these countries. The President of El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, said that his country was slowly reducing the number of military sent to U.S. schools, but he could not totally cut ties to the U.S. school due to other U.S. programs on combating drugs and terrorism, including the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) built in El Salvador, after public rejection of the facility being housed in Costa Rica.
ILEA's mission is "combating international drug trafficking, criminality, and terrorism through strengthened international cooperation." However, many are concerned that aggressive and violent police tactics so prevalent in the United States would be taught by U.S. instructors. In El Salvador, police approaches toward gangs is institutionalized in the "mano duro or hard hand" approach to law enforcement which many say has backfired on police with gangs becoming more and more violent in a response to police. Tactics. El Salvador now has the reputation of "murder capital" of Central America.
Most do not know that a second U.S. law enforcement facility is located in Lima, Peru. It is called the Regional Training Center, and its mission is "expanding the long-term liaison relationships among foreign officials to combat international criminal activity and by supporting democracy by stressing the rule of law and human rights in international and domestic police operations."
On another trip with SOA Watch, when we visited Jose Antonio Gomez, the Minister of Defense of Chile, he said had received many requests from other human rights groups to sever ties with the U.S. military school and that he has asked the Chilean military to provide a report on the need to continue sending personnel to it.
However, the overall relationship to the U.S. is so important that Chile accepted $465 million from the United States to build a new military facility called Fuerte Aguayo purportedly to enhance training in military operations in urban areas as a part of peacekeeping operations. Critics say that the Chilean military already had facilities for peacekeeping training and that the new base is to give the U.S. larger influence in Chilean security issues. Chileans hold regular protests at this facility and our delegation joined in one of those vigils.
Reacting to the Fort Aguayo installation, the Chilean NGO Ethics Commission against Torture wrote about the U.S. role in Fuerte Aguayo and Chilean citizens' protest against it: "Sovereignty rests with the people. Security cannot be reduced to protection of the interests of the trans-nationals... The armed forces are supposed to protect national sovereignty. Its bending to the dictates of the North American army constitutes treason to the homeland." And, "People have the legitimate right to organize and to demonstrate publicly."
The annual military exercises the United States conducts with most countries in the Western Hemisphere should be added to the issue of foreign military bases as the exercises bring large numbers of U.S. military to the region for long periods using on a "temporary" basis the military bases of the host countries.
In 2015 the U.S. conducted six major regional military exercises in the Western Hemisphere. When our delegation was in Chile in October, the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington, a mobile U.S. military base itself with dozens of aircraft, helicopters and landing craft, and four other U.S. warships were in Chilean waters practicing maneuvers as Chile hosted the annual UNITAS exercises. The navies of Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand and Panama were also participating.
Long term individual contacts between military leaders, active duty and retired, is another aspect of military relationships we must consider along with the bases. While our delegation was in Chile, David Petraeus, retired U.S. four star general and disgraced head of the C.I.A., arrived in Santiago, Chile for meetings with the head of the Chilean Armed Forces underscoring the continuous relationships from the military to retired officers who have become private military contractors and informal messengers of U.S. administration policies.
Another aspect of U.S. military involvement is its civic action and humanitarian assistance programs in road, school construction and medical teams providing health services in hard to reach locations in many Western Hemisphere countries. Seventeen U.S. State National Guard units have long-term military-to-military partnerships with defense and security forces in 22 nations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. This U.S. National Guard State Partnership Program focuses in great measure on civic action projects that happen so frequently that U.S. military are continuously in countries, using host country military bases as their own during the projects.
U.S. military bases in the Western Hemisphere
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- Of course, the most prominent U.S. military base in the Western Hemisphere is in Cuba, several miles from here -- the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Station which has been occupied by the U.S. for 112 years since 1903. For the past 14 years, it has housed the infamous Guantanamo military prison in which the U.S. has imprisoned 779 persons from around the world. Only eight prisoners of the 779 have been convicted -- and those by a secret military court. And, 112 prisoners remain of which the U.S. government says that 46 are too dangerous to try in court and will remain in prison without trial.