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Notre Dame delegation to attend vigil-protest

Jenn Metz | Friday, November 16, 2007

This weekend, 35 members of the Notre Dame community will drive to Fort Benning, Ga., to join thousands of people in the annual vigil-protest of the controversial School of the Americas (SOA), a combat training school for Latin American soldiers.

Junior Michael Angulo organized the Notre Dame trip, which includes undergraduates, graduate students, theology professor Margie Pfeil and Liz McKenzie from the Center for Social Concerns.

The delegation is joining torture survivors, religious organizations and leaders, students, social movement leaders, “puppetistas,” (an informal group of puppeteers that denounce the SOA), presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, and the Indigo Girls, among others.

The School of the Americas Watch, a nonviolent grassroots advocacy movement, organized the vigil-protest, which will take place Nov. 16-18. The organization seeks solidarity with Latin Americans to close the SOA and to “change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that institutes like the SOA represent,” according to their Web site.

“School of the Americas Watch has done an incredible job at networking between many groups dedicated to the close of the SOA,” Angulo said.

The School is a Spanish-language training facility for elite Latin American military and police personnel. After controversy surrounding its reputation, the School was renamed The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001 after the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act to “provide professional education and training to eligible persons of the nations of the Western Hemisphere within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of American States,” according to the Institute’s Web site.

Graduates of the School include dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia and Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, according to the School of the Americas Watch Web site.

“Part of what [the United States is] helping and allowing to happen, by giving our blessing and training, is the military violence happening in Central and South America,” Angulo said.

This year’s protest includes lectures, a Mass, concerts and a memorial funeral service, which includes a presentation at the gates of the School, where white crosses with the names of the thousands of those who have died directly or indirectly at the hands of SOA graduates.

“It is an insanely intense experience,” Angulo said.

After spending 10 weeks in El Salvador this summer, Angulo witnessed, first hand, how the violence of the country’s civil war affected families.

“The government received money from the United States for military assistance,” he said.

Angulo’s host brother was drafted to the army when he was 16 and after fighting for “a couple of years,” he immigrated, illegally, to the United States, where he joined a gang.

“His comfort is in weapons and violence. I attribute that to the fact he was in the army at a very young age,” Angulo said.

He saw a photo of his host brother and some friends from their time in the army and “they were smiling, with guns,” he said. “I recognized immediately they were wearing American uniforms – green fatigues – and guns that we sold them.”

This weekend’s vigil-protest is “a lot more personal” for Angulo.

“In the past, it was a lot more about the ideals of social justice and what kind of country I want to be living in,” he said. “It still is about that, but now it means more.”

WHINSEC’s motto is “Paz, Libertad y Fraternidad” (Peace, Liberty and Brotherhood). According to its Web site, the Institute’s mission includes “fostering mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation by promoting democratic values, respect for human rights and an understanding of U.S. customs and traditions.”

The Institute is succeeding in its mission, Angulo said.

“The mission of any military institution where the United States is assisting other militaries is first and foremost furthering American interests in the region,” he said. “This is historic, we’re talking the Monroe Doctrine, where we say, ‘Basically, this hemisphere is ours.'”

The pursuit of American interests in Latin America has repercussions that touch the military, economy and immigration, Angulo said.

“It’s hard not to make the connection … it’s all right there,” he said. “We need to recognize historically what’s happening and work to stop future abuses.”

“Why are we against terrorism in some places, but we train terrorists in our own country?” he said. “Why is it okay when our allies or people we train do it, when in reality, terrorism is never okay?”

WHINSEC is a Department of Defense facility. It occupies Ridgway Hall on the military reservation of Fort Benning.

The trip is organized through the Progressive Student Alliance. With help from sophomore Jenna Knapp, who went on the trip last year, Angulo was able to secure $1,200 of funding from organizations such as Campus Ministry.