For those involved in Latin American solidarity work over the past 20 years, the School of the Americas has been a common enemy in the struggle for justice. This new investigation by Leslie Gill not only provides some new information, but raises serious questions for the movement that has been attempting to close this US-based terrorist training camp.
Gill begins with some new information on what forces were behind the school’s move to Georgia in the early 80’s. A successful lobby campaign was spearheaded by local business people, particularly Sal Diaz-Verzon Jr. and his sister, Elena Amos. Gill describes them as extremely anti-Castro immigrants who made a fortune in the insurance industry.”Elena was married to the founder of the insurance giant AFLAC and Sal Jr. was the company president from 1978-92. Working with the local Chamber of Commerce and several Georgia legislators, the AFLAC fortune had a great deal to do with the school relocating to Georgia. In many ways it makes sense that Anti-Castro Cubans who were incensed with the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and the other insurgent campaigns of the early 80s would want to support an institution like the School of the Americas. So the next time you see that ridiculous AFLAC duck commercial, you have another reason to
turn the channel.
The book’s strength has to do with Gill’s ability to weave a great deal of interview material throughout the text. These interviews were conducted in recent years with former students, instructors and the current based commander. The commentary by many of the former students is instructive, in that it provides an insight into the mind of those who have continued to participate in the US-backed counter insurgency campaigns in Latin America. In many ways the interviews are the best element of Gill’s book and similar to the revealing commentary provided in Jennifer Schirmer’s book the Guatemalan Military Project.
Gill reveals that part of the indoctrination process at the School was to win over Latin American soldiers to the “idea” of the US. After experiencing the US through the lens of the School, students would act as recruiters to their fellow army members back home. A comment from Colombian General Alberto Gonzalez also reveals the 2-way benefits of students attending the School; “They learn many things, but that is really of second importance. The relations that they establish with others are at bottom the most important. The School also permits the US to have the future leaders of the Latin American armed forces in its hands.”
The book also deals with how the School has responded to the SOA Watch campaign to shut it down. The author spent a great deal of time with the base commander Glen Weidner. Weidner has taken an aggressive Public Relations approach to changing the School’s image and challenging the integrity of the SOA Watch campaign led by Fr. Roy Bourgois. Weidner’s position is very convincing and it raises some interesting points about the the SOA Watch campaign. One of those questions is if the School was not teaching torture techniques would the anti-School campaign still be opposed to its existence?” Here Gill does not pursue a larger issue which is, what is the real function of this School in the larger foreign policy agenda of the US. The author does acknowledge that some in the Anti-School effort do think that the School has “just made some mistakes.” It would have been more instructive to get at the heart of this question, since even if this School in Georgia was closed, it would have little impact on the overall military policy in the region.
The other area that this book falls short on has to do with the last chapter, which looks at the evolution of the SOA Watch movement itself. Gill does acknowledge that the movement has had to deal with the challenges of being a pre-dominantly faith based entity, which in recent years has seen more participation from student, labor and anarchist groups. SOA Watch has, according to the author, begun to allow affinity groups to plan their own actions outside of the official actions, but the author doesn’t really pursue it any further than that. There is no serious discussion about tactics, strategy, nor the campaign’s effectiveness. This would serve the movement greatly, since the military has been responding with their own tactics to the predominantly symbolic nature of the actions that take place every November in Georgia. These shortcomings aside, The School of the Americas is an important contribution to the struggle for justice in the Americas and could be an essential catalyst for new approaches to challenging US military hegemony in the region.
Leslie Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, (Duke University Press, 2004).