Ghosts of Dictatorships Past

By WES ENZINNA 11/16/06

“Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past–which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments” —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

This November 17-19, for the seventeenth annual time, an estimated 20,000 marchers will convene on Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the infamous school for Latin American military soldiers, the School of the America’s (SOA). As part of their protest to shut down the SOA, the marchers will line up at the gate of what critics call the “School of Assassins,” and will, as they do every year, perform a ritual: holding small white crosses, one for each of the more than 300,000 estimated victims of SOA-trained soldiers since the School’s beginning in Panama in 1946, a march leader will call out the name of each victim (it takes several hours), to which the crowd will shout back, “Presente!” But this November, something will be different: the ghosts of Latin America’s dictatorships past, as well as their living descendents, will also shout back, in unison with the voices of the marchers: “Presente!”

History of Brutality

Forty-three year-old Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos looked like your average blue-collar janitor, working for his daily bread along with thousands of other recent Latino immigrants in Los Angeles. His constant nervousness and avoidance of social interaction could have been chalked up to his discomfort living in a foreign land, or to his less-than-perfect English. Or it could have been chalked up to the fact that in 1989, while sub-lieutenant in El Salvador’s counterinsurgency Atlacatl Battalion, he had taken part in the massacre of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and her 14-year-old daughter, and was wanted by Salvadoran authorities for these crimes. As it turns out, the latter was the case, and Guevara Cerritos was arrested this October 16 by Los Angeles Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, tipped off by another Salvadoran who had recognized Guevara Cerritos’ face. He is currently awaiting deportation.

As part of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War-era Central America policies, throughout the 1980’s the White House supported an array of death squads and dictators – such as the Atlacatl Battalion – in the name of “rolling back” communist influence. The US infamously funneled money and guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, as well as to right-wing death squads in Honduras, Guatamala, and El Salvador. As historian Greg Grandin points out in is new book, Empire’s Workshop, “U.S allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.” They also supplied Central American forces with instruction manuals in psychological torture, as well as tools such as cattle-prods for torture of the more corporeal kind.

In 1988, one of the instruction manuals, titled Human Resource Exploitation, surfaced during a Congressional hearing sparked by a New York Times allegation that the US had trained Honduran military officers involved in mass torture. It also came out that these manuals were based in part on SOA classroom lesson plans.

But it was the 1989 massacre of six priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador that galvanized US public opposition to the SOA–Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos was trained at the Fort Benning, Georgia School. Also bad for SOA’s press was its connection to the 1980 rape and murder of four American Mary Knoll nuns in El Salvador, as well as to Panama’s dictator Manuel Noriega and Salvadoran death-squad architect Roberto D’Aubuisson, in addition to the killers of beloved Salvadoran Archibishop Oscar Romero–all SOA graduates. In the end, it is estimated that the 64,000 Latin American troops trained at SOA since the 1960’s have been involved in around 75,000 murders in El Salvador, 200,000 in Guatemala, and thousands more in other violence-torn countries such as Columbia.

In response to this laundry list of dirty deeds, in 1990 Roy Bourgeois, an indefatigably spunky Mary Knoll Priest who was kidnapped in Bolivia during Hugo Banzer’s 1971- 1978 dictatorship, moved into a tiny apartment in Fort Benning, Georgia, right outside the gates of the SOA, to start School of the America’s Watch (SOAW), with the goal of shutting down the SOA.

Since then, SOA-W has expanded from a one-man operation to an international movement with 30,000 unofficial members. Their successes have been numerous: they’ve tirelessly dragged the School’s skeletons out of the closet and into the pages of countless magazines and newspapers; they forced the School, in 2001, to change its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in an attempt to avert negative public attention; they’ve brought together a diverse coalition of Christian peace advocates and youth social justice activists at the annual marches at Fort Benning, where each year a handful of participants voluntarily go to prison for six to twelve months to raise public awareness about SOA–in 2005, for example, thirty-seven people went to jail, some of them over seventy years-old; and they’ve provided the steam behind several Congressional bills to pull funding from SOA, one of which, in 1998, lost by only eleven votes–and with recent Democrat victories in the midterm elections, twenty House opponents of the new “close SOA” bill, HR 1217, have lost their seats. Accordingly, SOA-W activists are predicting success.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

However, while SOA-W haven’t slowed their demonstrations or lobbying efforts, in the last year organizers have pioneered a new–and dramatically successful–strategy.

The new strategy involves directly working with Latin American social movements and sympathetic governments to get them to agree to stop sending troops to the SOA. To this end, in past months SOA-W activists have traveled to Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, meeting with movements and urging governments to deprive SOA of students. “The thinking behind this new Latin America strategy’ was simple,” writes Lisa Sullivan, one of the key organizers of this new campaign and who, to better coordinate with Latin social movements, has recently opened an SOA-W office in Caracas, Venezuela. “If there were no more students, there would be no more school.”

To date, they have made vital steps towards this goal. In recent months, the Defense Ministers of Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina have all agreed to stop sending troops to the SOA. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez had Bourgeois and Sullivan on his weekly television show, “Hello President,” to talk about SOA, before announcing Venezuela’s boycott of SOA. Uruguay, which has not sent troops since the inauguration of President Tabaré Vásquez, made its abstention from sending troops official with a public announcement. Argentina, which has typically sent 10-20 troops a year, made a similar public announcement, timed to coincide with the thirty year anniversary of the 1976 military coup.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has promised to dry-up Bolivia’s stream of soldiers to the School, 500 of whom have been sent in the last ten years. However, the more than $100 million in US aid money the poor Andean country receives a year has made a total withdrawal difficult.

In Peru and Ecuador, SOA-W has made vital links with activists there who are spearheading movements to force their governments to stop sending troops to the SOA; in Chile several members of Congress have offered to introduce a bill to demand President Michelle Bachelet withdraw troops from the School. “We have been astounded with the success of this new strategy,” Roy Bourgeois told me last March in Argentina.

But while props certainly go to SOA-W, the success of their new Latin America strategy has as much to do with the historical moment in Latin America today as with the well-crafting of SOA-W’s new program.

From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the vast majority of Latin Americans lived under the cloud of brutal dictatorships. When these dictatorships collapsed, with something of a domino effect occurring throughout the 80’s, newly elected democratic governments almost unequivocally took a soft approach to punishment for ex-dictators–whether because of remaining ties to these dictatorships, or because of fear or threats of renewed coups, these governments, from Argentina to Guatemala, gave sweeping impunity to ex-dictatorship members–let the past be past, work towards “reconciliation,” these governments argued.

Yet, in recent years this has all been changing. Critics in Latin America are arguing that “reconciliation” is just another word for “impunity,” and that, in the name of building strong democratic institutions, citizens need to critically engage with their past, especially the legacy of the past in the present. And just what is the legacy of past-dictatorships in present democracies? For many, it is a continued excess of power of the military in civil society.

In an attempt to hold both past and present human rights violators accountable, grassroots social movements from north to south have been successfully demanding past-dictators and present military offenders–often ex-members of authoritarian old guards themselves–be punished. In Argentina, this past September, prosecutors won the first significant conviction of an ex-member of the 1976-1983 dictatorship there when they sentenced ex-Police Chief Miguel Etchecolatz, responsible for the torture and murder of twenty high school students in 1976, to twenty-five years in prison; Pinochet, after years of stalled efforts to bring him to trial, is likely to be judged for crimes against humanity in a Spanish court; in Bolivia, a strong movement has emerged to extradite ex-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada for his role in the 2003 massacre of over sixty protestors in the city of El Alto; in Peru, the National Supreme Court has authorized the extradition of ex-Army Major Telmo Hurtado, who now lives in the US and has confessed to involvement in the 1985 massacre of 74 children, women, and old men, in an Andean village. The message Latin American movements are sending is clear: the era when the military, or anyone else, could torture and kill without fear of justice is over.

And here is where the SOA ties in to the new Latin American movements against impunity. The Latin America strategy of SOA-W has found such success because as Latin American movements fight against and work to build accountable and democratic governments, SOA’s role in both dictatorship and democracy-era military violence comes up again and again.

Guevara Cerritos is one example of an SOA-graduate turned human rights violator. Noriega, D’Aubiosson, and Hurtado are others. Leopoldo Galtieri, a chief architect of Argentina’s 1976 military coup and close associate of Etchecolatz, is also an SOA graduate. More recently, in the post-dictatorship era, the suspected kidnappers of Julio Lopez, an ex-torture victim who testified against Etchecolatz in Argentina, have ties to SOA; in 2000, a Guatemalan SOA graduate, Colonel Byron Disrael, was arrested for the 1998 murder of Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was documenting Disrael’s and the Guatemalan military’s crimes committed during the country’s thirty year civil war; and it has just been discovered–SOA keeps its students names confidential–that two officers, Generales Juan Veliz Herrera and Gonzalo Rocabado Mercado, involved in the October 2003 “Gas War” massacres in Bolivia, are also SOA graduates.

In short, SOA-W’s new campaign has met such success because of the coalescence between its goals and the anti-impunity mood in Latin America. “Everywhere we’ve traveledin South America, we’ve been amazed to realize that people are fully aware of the reality of the School of the America’s,” says Lisa Sullivan. “They have experienced firsthand the horrors of the tortures, detentions, imprisonments and disappearances’ caused by its graduates.”

The Dead Shout Back

Of course, not all Latin Americans favor punishment for past human rights violators, least of all those implicated in the violence. These detractors argue that the trials and demonstrations just put salt on old wounds and make it difficult for contemporary society to live together peaceably. They propose “reconciliation” through focusing on the present, charging that anti-impunity movements are living in the past.

Indeed, perhaps the defining characteristic of the new movements against impunity as well as the movement to shut the SOA, is their focus on remembering the victims of state and military violence. After all, what is the SOA “presente” ritual, or the giant tapestries woven with the names of the dead in Chile, or the towers of photographs of those “disappeared” in Argentina made by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, but acts of remembrance? We could even say that the ability of any given civil society to bring ex-human rights violators to justice is directly correlative to the degree of historical consciousness of a regime’s victims in the country, that is, the degree to which the history of the victims is not obscured and repressed. Thus, this also points to the importance of grassroots movements focused on creating memory, such as HIJOS, an organization in Argentina made up of the children of people disappeared,’ who do street-festival-slash-public-denunciations, called escraches, in front of ex-dictators houses.

This whole politic, I think we could say, is characteristic of these new movements, of what I want to call a “politics of remembrance,” the tools of which are the truth commission, the trial, the march and the escrache.

It is possible this politic represents a new type of Latin American social movement. In a January 2002 article by James Petras, the author argues that there have been three waves of social movements in Latin America in recent years. The first were the “new social movements” of the 1970’s and 1980’s, focused on “challenging the military and civilian authoritarian regimes of the time;” the second are the movements, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, running from the 1980’s to the present, “united in their opposition to neoliberalism and imperialism;” and the third are the new urban, neighborhood-based social movements, such as the FEJUVES that have come out of the city of El Alto in Bolivia. The new “politics of remembrance,” shot through with characteristics of these other movements, can be seen as a sort of “fourth wave.”

While this “fourth wave” of movements is clearly focused on the past, far from just being about a narrow idea of punishment, they actually have the potential to reinvigorate and open new possibilities for today’s left. Latin America is in a profound moment of self-reflection, interrogating the past to open up the question, what kind of future do we want?’ These movements and their “politics of remembrance” have the potential to act as a source of rejuvenation for left politics by virtue of their ability to draw out connections between yesterday’s dictatorships and today’s dominant economic and political order and by bringing up profoundly new questions and challenges in the present.

It seems clear that here at the “end of history”, with state communism de-legitimized on both the right and the left, leftist movements have found themselves profoundly lacking orientation and direction. In an interesting way, looking to the past gives coherence to the kind of future and goals the left pursues. In the first place, the practice of a politics of remembrance is a negative practice. It is about looking at the past–dictatorships, violence, militarism–and saying, we don’t want that.’

It is also, more importantly, about locating and rooting out the presence and weight of that history in the present. One example already mentioned is how the legacy of dictatorships has been preserved in the present in the form of impunity and unchecked military violence, and how remembering the victims of these regimes has highlighted the roots of this violence. In fact, the very language activists use to talk about the present-day persistence of rogue military violence demonstrates the importance of the past for understanding this violence–the dictionary defines “impunity [as] exemption from punishment”–we must not preserve impunity, activists say. This points to how today’s violence is rooted in the past. Public and collective actions of remembrance bring this relationship between past and present into clear focus.

Another way in which practices of remembrance are challenging the present is by bringing up critical questions about and challenges to neoliberalism and US imperialism in Latin America. In remembering dictatorships, social movements focused on ending impunity have highlighted how neoliberal economic policies were first implemented during dictatorships under protection of military governments–“armed privatization,” as Naomi Klein calls it.

This sheds a critical light on the present reality of the Washington Consensus in Latin America by highlighting the undemocratic nature of neoliberal policies; it draws a connect between how they were implemented (un-democratically) and who they benefit (a small elite), between how, as Noam Chomsky says in a recent article, “Latin American elites and economies [have] linked to the imperial powers but not to one another.” This historical connection and its invocation has strengthened and legitimized anti-neoliberal movements, and more clearly shown the political reality of neoliberalism–each protest that highlights this connection further popularizes the idea that, as Grandin writes, “the kind of free-market absolutism advocated by the Chicago School [of neoliberal economists] was only possible through repression.” Chomsky further explains how the development of this historical consciousness relates to the growth of democratic movements: “the new wave of democratization [in Latin America] coincided with externally mandated economic reforms’ that undermine effective democracy.” Thus, “to have [historical and political] consciousness,” political philosopher Wendy Brown writes, “is to live actively with–indeed, to activate politically–the spirits of the pastthe bearable and unbearable memories of the past.”

This drawing out of the connection between dictatorial repression and neoliberalism in Latin America has allowed Latin American social movements to more clearly characterize neoliberalism for what they believe it to be: a new face of the same old imperialism, the “3rd Conquest of Latin America,” as historians have phrased it. Thus here, in the way that it is the popular and collective act of remembrance that highlights connections between dictatorships and neoliberalism, we can see how intimately the politics of remembrance are related to what Chomsky says are the continents “new independence movements,” to the myriad new movements for sovereignty over natural resources across the hemisphere. Critical historical consciousness, German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin argues, is developed through the cultural work of mourning.

The SOA, of course, figures prominently in all of this. It is tied to Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, where Washington-backed Finance Minister Martinez de Hoz experimented with radical new free-market policies as SOA graduates like Galtieri butchered real, imagined, and potential critics to these policies. It is tied to Chile, where Pinochet’s regime, with Washington’s full support, overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende and replaced his moderate social-democratic economic policies with a revolutionary new economic free-market program designed by University of Chicago economists, who also directly trained Pinochet’s Chilean economists on a US government-funded scholarship; here too, approval of the policies was achieved not through democratic means but through the massacre of critics–SOA and other US-trained soldiers helped achieve consensus for these new economic policies at the barrel of a gun.

Thus, it becomes clear that the murder of a whole generation of activists and labor leaders, Grandin explains, made it possible to implement the first neoliberal economic policies. SOA is of course not any sort of monolithic explanation for all or any of this. Rather, through its very real connection to countless of the murderers, it is accurately and viscerally representative of Washington’s role in Latin American neoliberalism, and how the northern neighbor uses its military influence in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course, in concrete terms, the legacy of US imperialism and militarism in Latin America are much bigger and bloodier than just the SOA. As Friday Berrigan writes in “Beyond the School of the Americas,” “the scope of [US] military training programs [in Latin America] is extensive–as many as 100,000 foreign police and soldiers receive training from the US government each year. There are more than 150 military institutions that train foreign officers in the United States. In addition, US military officers lead countless training programs in other countries.”

And SOA-W is very aware of this. Carol Tyx, an English Professor who participated in the 2006 march in Georgia, is quoted in a recent Z Magazine article saying, in regards to shutting down the SOA, “If we close the School, you know, that wouldn’t change Plan ColumbiaNot that closing the School is not important [but] we’re trying to change a whole foreign policy, a whole attitude about militarism. And the School almost feels symbolic.”

For their part, the main organizers of SOA-W’s Latin America strategy also recognize this. In addition to their efforts to get Latin governments to stop sending troops to SOA, Sullivan and company have been mobilizing, alongside Ecuadorian social movements, in opposition to a US military base in the city of Manta, as well as against a US military base, called “Nuevo Horizonte,” in Peru, where Southern Command is training Peruvian soldiers. Sullivan characterizes these bases as “different chapters of the same book,” and insists upon the need to organize in opposition to all of them. Accordingly, this November 17-19, as US marchers convene on Georgia, there will be simultaneous demonstrations in Manta, Ecuador, San Salvador, El Salvador, Asuncion, Paraguay, and in Columbia. Activists will also gather to protest Arizona’s Fort Huachuca, in Colorado. “When [activists] stand at the gates of Fort Benning this November,” the SOA Watch website proclaims, “[they’ll] be standing together with thousands of people in Central and South America calling for an end to US militarism and intervention and for closure of the School of the America’s.”

SOA, then, is perhaps best thought of as a window through which to look back into the past in order to make a political demand on the present–an occasion to “activate politically the bearable and unbearable memories of the past.” The politics of remembrance–of remembering dictatorships’ victims, of remembering SOA’s victims–is about bringing the dead back to life, resurrecting them, digging up their bodies so that their once-buried voices can be heard. In this sense, actions of remembrance give the left a sense of values to fight for. Wendy Brown again provides illumination: this kind of “justiceis less institutionalthan temporal: it pertains almost exclusively to a practice of responsible relations between generations. Justice concerns not only our debt to the past but also the pasts legacy in the presentJustice demands that we locate our political identity between what we have inherited and what is not yet born.” In this case, what kind of values do the dead have to offer us? Values of tolerance, peace, and justice in opposition to those of violence, militarism and injustice embodied in Latin American dictatorships and US foreign policy. “My daughter,” a woman said at an event in Buenos Aires, “fought for economic and political justice, she fought for democracy, and that is why they killed her. I am carrying on her struggle for a peaceful and just tomorrow.”

This November 17-19, activists in Georgia will also be carrying on the struggle already taken up by thousands of Latin Americans, the struggle for a peaceful and just tomorrow. When activists in Georgia march, call the names of SOA’s victims, and shout back, “presente,” they will be echoed in their call by a thundering chorus of Latin Americans–both live and dead. Increasingly, their roar is harder and harder to ignore.

Wes Enzinna is an independent writer, activist, and international man of leisure. Comments are welcomed at

Visit the SOA Watch website for more information.