School's Out

by James Weinstein

In These Times magazine, October 1999


In January 1961, almost exactly two years after Fidel Castro marched into Havana and overthrew the Batista dictatorship, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson briefed the incoming president, John F. Kennedy. "Large amounts of U.S. capital," Anderson said, "[were] planned for investment in Latin America." But the investors were holding back, "waiting to see whether or not we can cope with the Cuban situation." Just in case Kennedy didn't get the message, Eisenhower added: "We cannot let the present government there go on."

Eisenhower was not just giving an opinion. He was already experienced in overthrowing governments of sovereign nations that threatened U.S. corporate interests. Eight years earlier in 1953, he had ordered the CIA to topple Premier Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran-after Mossadegh had nationalized British- and American-owned oil companies. And in 1954, he had ordered the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman's democratically elected government in Guatemala- because Arbenz had distributed United Fruit Company land to dispossessed peasants. Eisenhower also was training more than a thousand Cuban exiles in Guatemala to overthrow Castro. That effort, the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, failed, to Kennedy's great embarrassment.

This was an important lesson. It's OK, Kennedy reasoned, to overthrow recognized leaders and governments of countries that threaten the sanctity of American capital, but not in the light of day. So after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy-while continuing his efforts to get rid of Castro with a series of secret assassination attempts-pursued another path.

Kennedy and his advisers decided to train others to secretly do our dirty work. The young president proposed in September 1961 to establish "police academies" to teach the Latins "how to control mobs and fight guerrillas." Kennedy wanted to increase "the intimacy between our armed forces and the military of Latin America."

Three months later, Kennedy ordered Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to set up the first of these secret facilities on U.S. Army property in the Panama Canal Zone. Its task: to train South and Central American police forces in riot control, intelligence and interrogation techniques. "We're going to get control of the streets away from the Communists down there," said first brother Robert Kennedy, the most enthusiastic supporter of the new schools.

Thus the seeds were planted for the School of the Americas, which for the past 38 years has cultivated the intimate relations that Kennedy desired between our armed forces and those of Latin America and the Caribbean. The results have been no secret to those who cared to know, but they mostly had been kept from the public until August, when the New York Times reported on a lawsuit in Paraguay that produced five tons of reports and photos detailing the arrests, interrogations and disappearances of thousands of political prisoners during Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's 35-year dictatorship of that unhappy country.

These documents trace the activities of Operation Condor, a secret plan of the security forces in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia to crush left-wing political dissent. The plan formalized and deepened cooperation among police and military forces in these six countries. And it tied these generals closer to Washington, which provided much of the funding for their operations. Among other things, Operation Condor allowed security officers to take part in joint interrogations, pursue people across borders and order surveillance on citizens who sought asylum in other countries.

Like the state-sponsored terrorists in Haiti, the genocidal generals in Guatemala and the leaders of El Salvador's death squads, most of the officers involved in Operation Condor were trained at the School of the Americas, either in Panama or at Fort Benning in Georgia. During the Cold War, the rationale for their training was that the citizens they eliminated were agents of Moscow. In fact, in almost every instance, these U.S.-trained assassins used what the Times termed the "club of anti-communism" to attack indigenous insurgencies and to "snuff out" any calls for democracy or labor rights.

For a decade or so, progressive members of Congress, led by former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), have tried to shut down the School of the Americas. Support for this effort grew slowly each year. Last month, the House voted to eliminate funding in the $12.7 billion foreign aid bill for the training of foreign officers at the school, effectively closing it down. This funding cut, however is not in the Senate bill, which means the school may survive in the conference to iron out the differences between the two chambers.

Call your senator to help preserve this rare victory for human rights.

School of the Americas Watch