By NANCY SCHWERIN
CHARLESTON — His heart aches for the tens of thousands who have died or disappeared. His passionate, nonviolent actions got him four years in prison, but that only served to strengthen his search for the truth.
Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois recently spoke in Charleston as part of a series, “Human Rights: A Universal Concern.” The series was co-sponsored by four organizations at the College of Charleston: the Communications Museum, Amnesty International, the Political Science Department, and the Program for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
In four seminars, Father Roy shared his story of growing up a patriotic young man in rural Louisiana who joined the Navy and was sent to Vietnam, to being a nonviolent crusader for human rights.
It was in Vietnam where he felt the call to defend humans and their rights. After being wounded and receiving the Purple Heart, he met a missionary who led him to a missionary community.
Returning from the war, he entered the Maryknoll religious order and became a priest in 1972. He was sent to Bolivia and then El Salvador to begin his missionary work. In both countries, he witnessed the same scenario.
“The poor were becoming empowered by their faith,” the priest said. “They struggled through the Scriptures (many couldn’t read) to find a merciful, loving God. They found that we’re all called to the same place.”
The poor in Latin America came to understand that the earth’s resources were to be shared by all. Eventually their faith brought them to speak out for their rights and retaliate against governments that were holding them back from equality and humanity.
The government responded: killing, torturing, some people just “disappeared.”
In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, while celebrating Mass, was assassinated. This led Father Roy to the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. After an investigation, it was found that two of the three officers cited for the offense were graduates of the SOA.
In Fort Benning, joined by two others, the Maryknoll priest began his crusade. The trio, dressed in U.S. Army attire, entered the SOA campus after dark. There, they climbed a tree and blasted into the night air a recording of Archbishop Romero’s last homily. In it the archbishop, an outspoken defender of human rights, asked his people to stand up to the soldiers, ask them to put their guns down, plead with them to stop the killing and ask them to obey a higher law: thou shalt not kill.
This act got the priest his first prison sentence. He served one and a half years, mostly in solitary confinement after organizing a work strike. With many days and nights to think, he questioned the effectiveness of his and other’s actions. After his release, he entered a contemplative religious order.
It wasn’t long, however, after living in the silence of the monastery that he went back to his work. His silence was broken by the words of Archbishop Romero: “We are the workers not the master builders.”
“We are called to be faithful, not effective,” Father Roy told his audience in Charleston. “We are to do what we can to the best of our ability.”
He said that keeping an active, healthy faith life and a life centered on God provides a stable base for faithful activism.
“As a person of faith, if I let my anger dominate me, I lose hope, burn out,” said the Maryknoll priest. “We need to integrate solitude into our lives … to keep anger minimized and be rooted in nonviolence.”
Another tragedy brought Father Roy back to the SOA.
On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed. Nineteen of the 26 soldiers involved were SOA graduates.
The priest and eight others gathered outside the gates of the SOA and fasted for 35 days.
After the fast, Father Roy formed the SOA Watch and spent his time and energy researching the school. He found that the SOA trained soldiers from countries all over Central and South America in combat skills. After a Pentagon investigation in 1997, manuals used by the school from 1982 to 1991 were released; torture, executions, kidnapping were taught from these manuals.
The SOA trains soldiers for countries in the midst of political strife. Manuel Noriega, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, Hugo Banzer Suarez, Rios Montt, all notorious human rights violators, are among the SOA graduates. Through Truth Commissions from the United Nations, human rights organizations and government agencies, and through the Freedom of Information Act, an extensive list of SOA graduates cited for criminal acts is available on the SOA Watch Web site (www.soaw.org). While some of those listed were convicted, most have never been brought to justice and live on the impunity sanctioned by their governments. In 1999, the House of Representatives voted 230-197 to close the SOA, but the motion was not passed by the Senate.
Latin American graduates who have been connected to heinous crimes number close to 600, about 1 percent of the school’s graduates since 1946. That’s a small army, which has killed, kidnapped and tortured tens of thousands of civilians in their countries.
In January 2001, the U.S. Army opened the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). The School of the Americas closed in December. The WHISC is located at Fort Benning, Ga.
Father Roy’s slogan for the new school is “New name, same shame.” He said that the new school no more teaches human rights than the SOA. The name change, he said, is an effort to increase public relations.
SOA Watch supporters and other human rights groups contend that the SOA is the military arm of the IMF and World Bank. They contend that the issue revolves around the interests of multinational corporations and the U.S. government, not the spread of democracy and the rights of Latin American citizens.
The school continues to enroll Latin Americans. Right now the largest number of students is from Colombia, according to Father Roy.
Currently in Colombia, the war on drugs is pushing the indigenous people off their land, destroying their food, medicinal, and water supply and making their children sick. Coca plants, harvested by drug traffickers to make cocaine, are spread throughout Colombia. As part of Plan Colombia, to which the United States gave $1.3 billion, glyphosate, manufactured by Monsanto, is spread aerially across the land to kill the coca plant. The plant, however, doesn’t die so easily. The chemical is instead destroying the life-sustaining resources of the people.
As drug traffickers see their crops being sprayed with glyphosate, they make more room for their coca harvest. Enhancing their crop involves eliminating large portions of the Amazon forest. As the land is made barren, vast oil reserves become more attainable.
Participants in the three-day series with Father Roy addressed the connectedness of drugs, politicos, and human rights. They upheld military personnel in Latin America as the strong arm of the law that keeps an unjust cycle flowing.
Father Roy travels extensively speaking about the SOA and sharing his story. Since 1990, he and SOA opponents have held a vigil in November at the gates of the SOA. The vigil has grown from 100 to 10,000. The school drew a large white line in front of its gate that has not stopped participants from crossing onto the property in protest. Each year more cross; in 2000 3,500 crossed. Many get arrested, and dozens have gone to prison. Father Roy has served nearly four years in total for nonviolently protesting.
In February 2000, the priest debated the former commandant of the SOA, Colonel Glenn Weidner, at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
The school now known as WHISC claims to have changed their curriculum and to now require human rights courses.
Families of victims and SOA opponents are still seeking answers to why tens of thousands have died, and why loved ones, who fought for the rights of the underserved, were silenced for doing so.
Retired Major Joseph A. Blair, SOA instructor from 1986 to 1989, wrote an editorial in the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer following the opening of WHISC: “If WHISC is a legitimate change for the advancement of democracy, human rights, peace, and social justice in Latin America, then it is time that WHISC be used as our instrument of foreign policy to promote the cause of bringing all past Latin American military criminals to trial. … There must be accountability for crimes against humanity, prosecution, punishment, repentance, and concrete evidence that SOA and now WHISC are making a moral, political, and military difference in our Western Hemisphere.” (Posted on the SOA Watch Web site.)
Want to learn more?
Visit the SOA Watch Web site at www.soaw.org and the WHISC Web site at www.benning.army.mil/WHISC/. For those interested Father Roy Bourgeois may be reached at the SOA Watch office, P.O. Box 3330, Columbus, GA 31903.