Watching the School of the Americas Watch
The War in Central America Continues

By Paul Mulshine

In 1985, I made my first trip to El Salvador. I had been commissioned to write some columns for a newspaper in Philadelphia, and, being young and naive, I assumed that most of these columns would deal with the harsh military dictatorship that kept the legitimate aspirations of the people for freedom and democracy in check.

Anyone who read the newspapers back in that era was left with the impression that the people of El Salvador were being held down by a harsh and repressive government. And I read a lot of newspapers. Books, too. Everything I read prepared me for a country in which the government was hated because of repressive treatment of the guerrilla insurgency.

Nothing prepared me for what I actually encountered in El Salvador. The government was hated, all right. But not for being too tough on the guerrillas. It was hated for being too lenient. Typical was the guy who ran the motel in which I wound up staying. His name was Rafael, and he was a very serious, hard-working man. He had spent years pushing an ice-cream cart through town to earn the money to buy the motel in La Libertad, a run-down, fading former port outside the capital. It wasn't much of a place—concrete rooms and cold-water showers—but Raphael and his family kept it spotless and offered excellent service.

During the day, I would run around and interview government officials, union members, and so forth. At night, I'd sit on the steps of the hotel sipping a beer and listening to Rafael describe Salvadoran politics. I could tell by the slow, patient way Rafael spoke to me that he thought I was a bit misguided. One night I asked him about some of the more questionable killings carried out by the Salvadoran anti-communists. There was the 1981 rape and killing of four American nuns, who had been based in a house not far from where we sat. Before that was the 1979 killing of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. These seemed to me to be not only acts of senseless brutality, but propaganda disasters as well. I gave Rafael a long dissertation on that theme and then asked: What about Romero?

"Fue communista," he said with a shrug. He was a communist. So were the nuns, for that matter, he allowed. Communistas, he said.

That was that. Case closed. The fact that the victims were religious people meant nothing to Rafael. They were communists and therefore it was good that they had been shot. (He didn't endorse rape; Rafael was a serious man who considered himself above such barbarities.)

His views seemed harsh to me, but I didn't feel up to arguing Salvadoran politics with a Salvadoran. Anyhow, I had no stake in the matter, other than a vaguely internationalist orientation. Rafael did.

A few weeks later I traveled down to Nicaragua for a week. The Marxists had won in Nicaragua, and life was not pleasant for small businessmen like Rafael. Those who opposed the party openly had seen their property confiscated. The rest got to pretend they still owned their property, but they were little more than caretakers for the Sandinistas. Both the police force and the army were branches of the Sandinista party and the secret police watched everyone, block by block, in a network based on the Cuban model.

Not only that, but the country was an armed camp. Soviet-bloc military equipment was everywhere, from the AK-47 rifles to the Russian jeeps and trucks to the MI-24 helicopters, huge flying tanks. I was amazed at the sheer volume of it all and even further amazed by the reaction of the fellow Americans I met in Nicaragua. Even the journalists would proclaim, sitting in a restaurant in the midst of all this armament, that the Sandinistas were not communists and were in fact nonaligned. The willful ignorance astounded me. It was as if they were sitting in the officers club at Fort Dix and declaring that the United States was nonaligned.

When I got back to El Salvador I had more empathy with Rafael. I started to imagine how I'd feel in a similar situation. How many people would I be willing to kill to keep from having my country taken over by the Marxists? Would I restrict myself to killing just the gun-carrying Marxists? Or would I kill the people who gave the Marxists logistical support? Who knows if Stalin or Lenin ever actually carried a gun? In a sense they too may have been "noncombatants." Yet wouldn't the world have been a better place if they had been shot before they grabbed power? These were tough questions but most Americans seemed to avoid thinking about them back in the mid-'80s by simply pretending that the Marxists weren't Marxists.

It was around this time that I began to develop something of a hatred for many of my fellow Americans who were playing the role of revolutionary tourists in Central America. So many Americans—whether establishment journalists or the Birkenstock-wearing political tourists who came to be known as sandalistas seemed incapable of understanding a guy like Rafael, by which I mean a Central American whom they couldn't patronize. Give them a Mayan Indian struggling along under the weight of a load of firewood or an Indian woman with a crying baby and they were off to the races. Grinding poverty. American imperialism. International capitalism. You name it. But a guy like Rafael, a hard-working owner of a small business who was financially independent and who needed nothing from an American but $6 a night for the room—a guy like this would cross their circuits because of the central point he insisted on making: he had as much right not to live under communism as they did.

Actually, at the time, I thought Raphael was overstating the case when he labeled those nuns communists. They were, after all, nuns. But rather than simply being godly angels of mercy, they were rendering unto Caesar and perhaps unto the guerrillas themselves during their Central American sojourn. I realized that just the other day when I came across a rather interesting book published in 1987. The title is Fidel and Religion, and the author, a Brazilian priest named Frei Betto, quotes Castro as saying that he met with the four murdered Maryknoll nuns in Nicaragua shortly before they returned to El Salvador and that Castro approved greatly of their work.

I came across that book because of a recent encounter I had here in New Jersey with a group called School of the Americas Watch. SOA Watch is headed by a Maryknoll priest named Roy Bourgeois. It is a curious group. Its sole purpose is to shut down the School of the Americas, a training facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, where soldiers from a number of Latin American nations take courses in various military specialties. More than 60,000 Latin American military officers have attended the school since its founding in 1946 and many have used their training to beat back the various Marxist guerrillas who did their best to put their countries on the losing side of the Cold War and of history itself.

In the fall of last year, I was dimly aware of this group only because I make a habit of listening to WQXR, a public-radio station in New York City that is still pushing the Marxist line with a side order of New Age diet and health tips. The deeply concerned people at WQXR were dripping with compassion for the SOA Watch crew. From the descriptions, I gathered that they were still committed to the nearly fifteen years' passe ideology of the sandalistas. It seems that several of them had been sentenced to six months in jail for trespassing at Fort Benning. They did it twice. The first time the judge gave them a slap on the wrist and told them not to do it again. The second time, the judge said the equivalent of "I thought I told you not to do that again," and sent them to jail.

You'd think they would have appreciated the judge's actions. After all, the entire point of civil disobedience is to get thrown in jail. But no, in true '60s-'80s fashion, they set up a loud and grating whine that eventually made its way north from Fort Benning. It seems that SOA Watch had somehow managed to talk the New Jersey Assembly into considering a resolution calling for the School of the Americas to be shut down.

I first learned of this in an article on the front page of the newspaper where I work. I was amazed. It was as if the state assembly were going to pass a resolution declaring there was life on Jupiter. Like most state legislatures, ours is incredibly parochial and usually contents itself by mishandling issues like car insurance. In fact, I would bet a year's salary that not a single one of our legislators could name the countries of Central America. Yet here they were considering a condemnation of the U.S. Army over an issue none of them understood.

Perhaps they were taken in by the religious aspect of the SOA Watch operation. Bourgeois is, after all, a priest. And the average priest you run into in New Jersey is a trustworthy sort with no political agenda. As someone who has had 12 years of Catholic education, I know the type.

But my 12 years of Catholic education also gave me some insight into the radically different way the Church operates in Latin America. The tradition of separation of church and state is two centuries old in the U.S., but it is relatively new in Latin America. The mainstream Catholic Church has accepted the idea of forswearing temporal power, but the left-wingers never quite got it. The so-called "liberation theologists" of the 1960s and after developed a love for political power that overcame their love for peace. When the wars broke out in Central America in the late 1970s, they didn't hesitate to endorse the use of modern weaponry to attain the old-world goal of gaining earthly power over their fellow men.

A wonderful irony here is that Pope John Paul II, known as a traditionalist, actually has the more modern view. He believes the clergy should stay out of politics. A pivotal moment for the liberation theology types occurred in 1982 when John Paul visited Nicaragua. He publicly scolded Sandinista Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto, a priest, for ignoring the Vatican's entirely sensible order that priests should not hold political office. For this, the pope was roundly derided by the liberation theology types, at least one of whom actually led an armed guerrilla group in Colombia.

All this is a bit obscure to the people in power in Trenton, New Jersey, and perhaps it says something good about them that they have a natural tendency to assume that a priest wouldn't bend the truth for some base political motive. One such assemblymen was Joe Azzolina. His name had appeared on the list of the co-sponsors of the resolution to shut down the School of the Americas on a press release. The night before the vote I called him and was about ask him some questions based on what my preliminary research had revealed: That Father Bourgeois was a blatant supporter of the Marxists who, though a priest, had once gone on patrol with the Salvadoran guerrillas. That the literature of SOA Watch was full of the standard cliches bashing both America and the American military. That few of their charges stood up to scrutiny.

Before I could get started, Azzolina cut me off. "I did some checking on this," he said. "When I first heard of this, I didn't really understand it. Being a military guy, I wanted to check things out."

It turned out that Azzolina had spent more than 40 years in the Navy and the reserves. Ironically, he had been an officer on the battleship New Jersey when it had been posted off the coast of Nicaragua in the 1980s to keep an eye on the shipments of Soviet arms arriving by sea.

"I talked with some of my old military buddies, retired Army and Navy people and they said, 'Joe, don't get involved in that.'"

The SOA Watch people had originally gotten Azzolina's attention with claims that the School of the Americas is what they termed a "school of assassins." Their propaganda technique is to take virtually every atrocity that ever occurred in Latin America—except, of course, the many atrocities of the Sandinistas—and link it to a graduate of the School of the Americas. Typical was their assertion that the assassination of Archbishop Romero was the SOA's fault because Romero was killed by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a Salvadoran colonel who had once attended the SOA. The impression created is that D'Aubuisson was coached in assassination by the evil Americans at Fort Benning. One problem: D'Aubuisson's sole link to the school was that he had taken a course in radio operations long before El Salvador's civil war began.

Then there was the Guatemalan general Hector Gramajo, derided by SOA Watch as a School of the Americas graduate. Actually, he didn't attend the SOA. He did attend Harvard, however, so perhaps that school should be shut down too.

It was illogic like that which created false impressions of the school, Azzolina said. He had since requested that the SOA Watch take his name off the press release and he told me he intended to oppose the bill.

Common sense. A rare quality in the New Jersey Assembly, it turned out. The next day I went to Trenton to see what would happen to the bill. It was a frightening experience. The group held a press conference in an Assembly hearing room. As I entered, the room I realized that I seemed to be the only journalist there. The rest of the room was full of SOA Watch people.

Bourgeois began to address the faithful. "New Jersey is going to send a signal to the rest of the country that we are not going to tolerate a school that encourages terrorism and torture," he said. All around the room faces glowed. The atmosphere was reminiscent of Managua back when the Sandinistas were denouncing the evil yanqui. Bourgeois uttered the usual string of lies and half-truths about the U.S. military and his apostles nodded approvingly.

The only surprise was the advanced age of many of the SOA Watch people. Along with the usual flock of '60s throwbacks there were a fair number of older people. They looked like nice, sincere Catholics who had somehow been bamboozled into signing up for the reverend's attempt to re-fight the Cold War so that the ending comes out right.

This was a new phenomenon. Usually the America-bashers tended to come from the college crowd, but these oldsters looked like they belonged at the parish bake sale, selling cakes to fund a RV trip to Disney World.

I spoke to several of these people and not one had the slightest idea what communism is, was, or had been. My favorite was a 31-year-old sandalista named Linda Panetta. Her picture had appeared in my newspaper a few days before. She sat there scratching her chin, looking concerned and wearing—and I know this is such a cliche that you will accuse me of making it up—a Mayan Indian vest. I swear to God.

Anyhow, when I had called her up the night before I asked her about a quote she had given to our reporter. She had told him that none of the Latin-American Marxists were Marxists and that "There has never been a Communist threat, in Latin America."

"What about Cuba?"I asked.

She began to hem and haw. Then she hung up. (A common pattern among SOA Watch people, by the way. They are so used to getting softball questions from the liberal media that at the first sign of critical thinking they end the conversation.)

In the good old days when a Marxist was a Marxist and had read the Marxist canon, our home-grown lefties—though horribly misguided—at least knew what they were talking about. But the people who now make up the left are incapable of perceiving complexity in the world, or of making a complex judgement based on ends and means. The few actual communists they've met, say a Guatemalan guerrilla or a Sandinista bureaucrat, did not seem to be evil. Therefore they could not be communist. The idea that communism is a system that actually accomplished many good things while being essentially evil is much too complex for them to handle. So they simply deny that communism existed. If Castro had never used the word "communist" to describe himself, they would be all too happy to argue that he was only a maligned peasant nationalist driven to extremes by U.S. hostility.

Bamboozling these buffoons must have been child's play for a con man of Roy Bourgeois' caliber. He is 57 and he grew up in an age when people actually learned things. He was born in a small town in Louisiana and served in the U.S. Navy before entering the priesthood and politics, so it is safe to say he is not an uneducated or naive man. But he has the bugged-out eyes that you see only in 15th-century saints and in modern-day fruitarians.

At the meeting I attended, Bourgeois eventually gave up the lectern to a Guatemalan immigrant who was introduced as Gennaro Jacinto. He took the microphone and began to spin a convoluted tale that started with the disappearance of his uncle in the mountain town of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in 1982, allegedly because of the Guatemalan military. Having established that in a sentence or two, Senor Jacinto then began a long speech that detoured into his travails in trying to sneak over the U.S. border and eventually ended with a description of his time spent wandering around homeless in Arizona.

He was doing his best to make some point about the School of the Americas, but I still haven't figured out what that point might be. Guatemala was not receiving U.S. military aid in the years during which the civil war reached its apex. The government had turned it down, sad to say, because America's standards of human rights were too stringent. The Guatemalan troops carried Israeli weapons. The School of the Americas had absolutely nothing to do with the disappearance of poor Gennaro's uncle (and for all anyone in New Jersey knows, I might add, the uncle may be tending bar out on the Caribbean coast).

After Jacinto was done recounting his life story, two assemblymen got into the act. Assembly Democratic leader Joe Doria got up and said, "We in the United States should not be funding a school that trains assassins and that funds atrocities." And John Kelly, an aging and befuddled Republican, trumped that with an assertion that the school "teaches people to murder, rape, and massacre individuals."

The presentation ended. Though it was billed as a press conference, no questions were solicited. This was just as well. As a professional journalist, I like to conduct my interviews without intercession from a shouting mob of true believers.

I caught Assemblyman Doria at the door and asked if he was aware that virtually nothing uttered by SOA Watch was true. For example, I noted, Guatemala was not receiving U.S. military aid at the time the speaker's alleged uncle allegedly disappeared. "I have no idea why he was speaking," Doria said. He seemed extremely upset at being asked an actual question after this love-in. He began fuming and sputtering and he left.

I next got a hold of Kelly, but not before a woman who represented the Assembly Republicans tried to stop me from asking any more questions. "Quick," I said to her. "What's the capital of Nicaragua?" She stood there speechless for a moment and left.

I asked Kelly, a pleasant enough old gent who is a World War II vet, if he truly believed, as SOA Watch asserts, that the U.S. Army advisers directed Salvadoran soldiers to murder six priests in 1989. "I'm convinced they did," he said.

I asked him where he got the idea that U.S. soldiers were teaching people to murder, rape and massacre.

"I read a few pamphlets," Kelly said.

Well, at least he was honest. He could have claimed that he actually made an effort to comprehend a complex issue.

I assumed the next step in this process would be come sort of hearing at which both sides on this controversy would air their views. Nope. On the floor of the Assembly, I ran into Azzolina. He told me that the Republicans had had a caucus that morning at which he'd raised some questions about the School of the Americas Watch. But the deal was done. The Republicans were going to support the resolution on a voice vote. As for the Democrats, I didn't bother asking.

The only concession to sanity was that the Assembly leadership had canceled a speech by Bourgeois, Azzolina told me. In other words, the New Jersey Assembly came within inches of letting a man who had patrolled with a Marxist guerrilla group—one that was responsible for the deaths of 29 American servicemen during the 1980s—take its floor for a round of America-bashing.

The resolution passed as expected on a voice vote. I heard a couple of loud nays from the Republican side of the aisle, but that was the sole concession to rationality. When I later cornered some Republicans, they admitted the whole thing was a disgrace. But no one takes these resolutions seriously, they told me.

Well, no one should take these resolutions seriously. But people do. SOA Watch has a sophisticated propaganda machine that uses each tiny victory as a stepping stone to the next. In New Jersey, for example, the SOA Watch cited among its previous supporters an amorphous "California chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars." For all anyone in New Jersey knew, this chapter may have been a front for a marijuana buyers' co-op. Even if the chapter was legit, chances are its members knew about as much about Latin American politics as Kelly and Doria, which is to say nothing at all.

The Assembly vote, largely ignored in New Jersey, made it onto the Associated Press national wire. Roy Bourgeois was quoted: "I'm riding high. This vote will influence other states. It's an historic moment in that sense." He named New York and Pennsylvania as the next dominos in his theory.

The strategy is to pile these small victories upon each other in an attempt to convince Congress to close down the school. Last year, SOA Watch came within four votes of getting the House of Representatives to approve a $1.5 million cut in the school's operating budget. Leading the charge was Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Ironically, it was young Joe's uncle, President John F. Kennedy, who was responsible for the school's emphasis on counter-insurgency work in Latin America. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962, Kennedy rightly reasoned that Fidel Castro would be making an effort to subvert the rest of Latin America. He ordered the school to take the aggressive stance against communism that worked so well during the 1980s and was ultimately successful in keeping the Marxists from attaining their goals.

This may seem like ancient history, but it's important to remember that as recently as a decade ago the Marxists still had hopes of turning Central America into "another Vietnam." In 1987, I interviewed a number of Marxist students on strike at a university in Mexico City. They were quite sure of their agenda. They'd already won Nicaragua. El Salvador and Guatemala would be next. And Mexico was in chaos, ripe for revolution.

Their theory was faulty. In 1989 the Salvadoran guerrillas had their "final offensive," which made for some dramatic TV footage of street-fighting in San Salvador but then petered out. Then the Sandinistas were pressured into holding a free election and were quickly shown the door. And of course, Mexico is always in chaos, but it's already run by a self-described "revolutionary" party. And no one knows better than a revolutionary how to thwart revolution.

All of these things happened so quickly that I suspect the sandalistas must still be in shock, especially the Maryknolls. Just a few years ago the liberation theologists had several priests in high-ranking positions in the Sandinista politburo. They seemed to be on the cutting edge of history. Now the dream is dead. Capitalism won, and in Latin America the Marxists have been reduced to arguing that they are better at managing capitalism than the right-wing parties. They have gelded themselves and become social democrats.

Having been so thoroughly rejected by history, Roy Bourgeois and his followers seem determined to find some sort of moral vindication. But they refuse to do so honestly. They refuse to stick to the arguments they made back when the Cold War was still in the balance. Then, they were internacionalistas, the term of honor conferred on foreigners who had come to Nicaragua to aid the revolution. But now that internationalism has failed they are isolationists. They say that now with the Cold War ended, it is no longer necessary for the U.S. to play the sort of role it once did in Central America. This argument has great resonance with many Americans who would not for a second support Castro, the Sandinistas, or any of the other Marxists so popular with SOA Watch. And if SOA Watch eventually prevails in getting the school shut down, it will be this isolationist impulse that will be responsible.

But that is just one of the big lies being peddled by SOA Watch. More significant is their attempt to argue that they oppose the School of the Americas because the school trained Latin American soldiers to kill the innocent. In fact, anyone who was in Central America in the 1980s knows that the single biggest problem the United States faced was trying to keep its allies from the sort of pointless slaughter that accomplishes little politically but gives the enemy a propaganda victory. The killings of Romero and the nuns were repellent for many reasons, among them that these events worked against the interests of the U.S. and therefore of the people of the region.

The SOA Watch crew's real gripe is not that the school trained soldiers to kill the innocent, but that it trained them to kill the guilty. If the SOA Watch crowd had had its way, not a single Marxist guerrilla would have died in Latin America during the 1980s. Those guerrillas would have retained the right to kill the soldiers of the government of El Salvador and elsewhere, however.

The core argument of the SOA Watch, one that they refrain from employing when cornering gullible legislators, is the old cliche about the evil American capitalists. I quote from their literature: "When economic leverage no longer keeps people and nations in line, the United States will likely revert to cruder methods of terror and torture."

Yes, we are a thoroughly rotten bunch, we Americans. And more rottenness is in the works. The latest atrocity that SOA Watch is blaming us for—get this!—is the massacre of 45 Indians in the Mexican state of Chiapas. From the editorial pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune, I quote a character named Ted Lewis, identified as "the Mexico program director for the human rights group Global Exchange":

"The recent massacre of indigenous people in Chiapas is a wake-up call to Congress and the Clinton administration. The U.S. government must halt training of Mexican military officers at the School of the Americas and shipment of weapons and riot-control gear to Mexico."

This is wonderful stuff, a conspiracy theory of the first order. Apparently the Mexican army was incapable of figuring out on its own how to facilitate a pointless massacre that accomplished no military purpose and was an international public relations disaster for the Mexican government. For a debacle like this, U.S. advice was needed.

But a more wonderful irony is that, now that the Cold War is over, the left is chasing its own tail. Mexico is, after all, headed by exactly the sort of political party that leftists love, a huge, centralized, big-government bureaucracy that rigs elections to screw the right wing. Its very name is a tribute to sappy leftist ideals—the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Though our lefties have adopted the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas, their revolt is at heart one of a neglected minority in a far-flung state against a faceless central government made up of callous bureaucrats. The Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos, has more in common with a leader of the Michigan militia than with the clowns who picket Fort Benning.

But the left is desperate for an issue these days, and they've got to work with the material at hand.This one was too good to pass up. Guys like Roy Bourgeois love ignorant peasants in places like Chiapas for the same reason they love ignorant legislators in places like Trenton.

But if there is indeed a God in heaven, this is what I would love to have Him require of his humble servant, Roy Bourgeois. Bourgeois would be required to sit down with a Latin American whom he could not patronize, namely my friend Rafael. And he would have to explain to him exactly why Rafael should be required to live under a Marxist government.

And I get to sit and watch.

Paul Mulshine is a columnist for the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.