For Zoe Palitz ’05, America’s focus on eliminating terrorism makes government funding of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — formerly known as the School of the Americas — all the more ironic.
“We are creating terrorists with our own tax dollars,” Palitz said.
Palitz drove to Ft. Benning, Ga., this weekend to participate in an annual protest of WHINSEC, along with four other students and thousands of other demonstrators. Protesters gathered outside the gates of WHINSEC, a government-run school that trains military personnel and civilians from predominantly Latin American countries in counterterrorism, regional conflict resolution strategies, and human rights.
More than 10,000 people attended the event, according to the Web site of the School of the Americas Watch, which organized the two-day protest.
The Yale chapter of Amnesty International organized the five students’ trip.
Protesters claimed that the school is responsible for graduating individuals who commit human rights violations. The school advocates controversial tactics such as torture, kidnapping, execution, and extortion, protesters said.
But Lee Rials, public affairs officer for WHINSEC, said the school is not responsible for any human rights violations.
“You can’t see [WHINSEC] as responsible for crimes committed by graduates of the school unless there is something specific we taught that told the students to violate human rights,” Rials said. “I don’t see that connection.”
Rials also pointed to human rights training courses the school offers as proof of its benign intentions.
“The irony is that the protesters want to help the poor in Latin America but they protest a school that is trying to do the same thing,” Rials said.
The event featured speeches by people who said they were affected by WHINSEC graduates. “Prisoners of conscience,” who have been arrested at previous SOA protests, also spoke.
“My parents were killed by the government of Argentina,” said Eva Urrutia, a human rights activist who attended the protest. “I hold [SOA] responsible because it trained soldiers how to torture and kill my people.”
Protesters participated in a series of events, including a funeral procession in which they carried coffins to signify the victims of WHINSEC graduates, Palitz said.
Palitz said that fewer protesters were arrested this year than in previous years because the school erected a fence around its perimeter after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. According to SOAW’s Web site, 96 protesters were arrested. In the past, hundreds of protesters have crossed onto the school property and were arrested.
On Saturday, Yale Amnesty members who did not travel to the protest circulated a petition on Beinecke Plaza that called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to support the closure of WHINSEC. The group collected about 80 signatures, Kevin Abels ’05 said.
“SOA/WHINSEC training has resulted in civilian massacres, assassinations, disappearances, and death threats,” the petition said. “Establishing reasonable living conditions for the people of Latin America and strengthening civil institutions will do more to stabilize the region than training militaries.”
“Even if people didn’t sign the petition they had an idea of what we were doing out there,” said Abels. “It was a success.”
Tom Deere ’03, who attended the protest this weekend, said he hoped the school would be closed.
“I find the school repugnant,” Deere said. “There is a long and well-documented history of the school teaching torture and other human rights violations to its students.”
Palitz said she was happy she decided to attend the protest.
“Our voices were heard,” Palitz said. “This is a winnable cause.”