In June 2010, grassroots activists from across the Americas will come together in Venezuela.
Representatives from 16 Latin American countries will join an equal number of representatives from North American SOA Watch grassroots groups.
This South-North SOA Watch Encuentro will connect activists from both sides of the Rio Grande to find ways to work together to close the SOA, while opening new doors of relating to one another with dignity.
This gathering builds upon the efforts of SOA Watch’s Partnership America Latina (PAL), an initiative that seeks to connect the SOA Watch movement in North with those affected by the school in the South. From 2006 to 2009, PAL organized SOA Watch delegations to 16 Latin American countries that were sending troops to the SOA. These visits led to meetings with 8 Latin American presidents, 13 Defense Ministers and with scores of individuals who had suffered at the hands of SOA graduates. It also led to profound connections with grassroots groups working against militarization in their countries.
These visits had significant results. Five countries announced the withdrawal of their troops from the SOA/ WHINSEC, a sixth announced a significant reduction of students, and two other countries expressed openness to withdrawing their troops in the near future. This energized the SOA Watch movement and affirmed the importance of working together - South and North, to close the school.
It also brought the attention of those who run the SOA. Pressure from the U.S. government was put on one country to reconsider their public commitment of withdrawal. Activists from the South saw this as a call to organize rather than lament, stating that while politicians, presidents and promises come and go, a strong grassroots movement is far more difficult to erase.
Among those who will represent their country at the Encuentro is Bertha Oliva. Bertha is the director of the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared (COFADEH), a human rights organization that she helped to found after her husband was “disappeared” in Honduras by SOA graduates in the 80’s. Thirty years later, Bertha finds herself once again accompanying families who are burying their dead, killed at the hands of SOA graduates who recently orchestrated a coup in her country. The urgency that Latin Americans feel about closing the school will find expression in the participation of representatives such as Bertha.
One of the representatives of grassroots SOA Watch groups in the North is Laura Slattery. After studying war for 4 years at West Point, then working as an Army officer for several years more, Laura decided to devote her life to peace. This commitment to peace led her to leave her military uniform at the gate of the SOA and cross the line, resulting in a six-month sentence in a federal prison. Laura’s presence at the Encuentro, and that of other prisoners of conscience, will be a powerful witness to the level of personal commitment of many to the struggle to close the SOA.
At a recent PAL delegation to Paraguay, a meeting took place with the Defense Minister. Accompanying the group was Dr. Martin Almada, an educator who was tortured and imprisoned for several years at the hands of Paraguayan SOA graduates. His wife died of a heart attack after listening to his screams as he was being tortured. As the meeting began, Dr. Almada quietly told the Defense Minister: “between you and me lies a river of blood.”
As I listened to his words, I realized that a similar river of blood has also separated the Americas for too many years. And, it has been made deeper, wider and bloodier by the existence of the SOA. Perhaps the South-North SOA Watch Encuentro might be one small step towards purifying those waters, and laying a few stones for the foundations for a bridge.
At the same meeting, Dr. Almada added: “It´s not enough to just close the SOA.We must now open another kind of School of the Americas, or better yet, Schools of the Americas. So much money, so much effort, to teach others how to torture. Now, we need to teach one another how to live. I will bring these words and this hope to the Encuentro.”