School of the Americas Graduate Led Honduras Coup

By Jennifer Svetlik 6-30-2009

Sunday morning, a military coup took place in Honduras led by commander Gen. Romeo Vasquez, ousting democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Like many other Latin American military coups over the past 50 years, this one was led by a School of the Americas graduate.

Early in the morning, 200 troops surrounded the presidential palace, took the president into custody, and exiled him to Costa Rica. A national vote had been scheduled for Sunday to consult citizens on a proposal to hold a Constitutional Assembly this fall, but the military opposed the vote. After the coup, the Honduran military teargased Zelaya's supporters outside the palace and also cut off electrical, telephone, and mobile phone lines. Additionally, the public television station was shut down and a curfew was set for Sunday and Monday nights in the capital city.

Immediate international response condemned the coup, and the Organization of American States demanded the reinstatement of Mr. Zelaya. President Obama, however, failed to go so far. While his statement expressed deep concern, he added that "any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference."

While, in principle, I agree with Obama's statement, the U.S.'s history in Latin America has not been one of peaceful dialogue nor refraining from interference. On the contrary, over the past 60 years, the U.S. has meddled frequently in the affairs of Latin American governments to serve U.S. interests and has also trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare and interrogation tactics at the School of the Americas (SOA)/WHINSEC located at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Many of these graduates have been convicted of human and civil rights abuses against their own people upon returning to their home countries. President Obama must acknowledge the link between our nation's history and the current realities in Latin America. If Obama wants to usher in a new era in Latin American relations, he should do all that he can to make sure that the SOA and other similar schools are closed.

Some progress has been made; last week, the House of Representatives voted to force the Pentagon to release information about SOA grads to the public. The House and Senate joint committees must approve the bill before it goes into law, but if it passes, it will be an important step in increasing the SOA's accountability.

Currently, the SOA/WHINSEC claims to practice transparency, however, since 2005, all Freedom of Information requests to the Pentagon have been denied, proof of WHINSEC's unwillingness to submit to oversight from the public. These denials began after research revealed that the SOA continues to train known human rights abusers. Access to information regarding SOA graduates of previous years has been a valuable asset to human rights organizations in identifying Latin American military personnel who have committed human rights abuses in their home countries after attending the school.

Click here to learn more about the movement to bring transparency (and closure) to SOA and to contact your Senators.

Jennifer Svetlik is an organizing assistant for Sojourners.

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