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Two sides of the Latin American Runway

Guest blogger: Lisa Sullivan

Report back on the Nicaragua Network/School of the Americas Watch Delegation to Nicaragua

I begin this article from the runway at Tegucigalpa’s Toncantin airport, infamous for its treacherous landings, as well as a recent coup and killing. This runway is actually a pretty fitting symbol of the visit that I am now concluding, a visit to two neighboring countries with two opposing realities Nicaragua and Honduras. It’s also a fitting symbol for all of Latin America today: the choices faced by them in the South, and the obstacles posed by us in the North.

One side of the narrow runway is jam-packed with U.S. fast food outlets, literally spilling their gaudy signs onto the asphalt where planes queue up. The other side is a clear and stunning view of emerald-green mountains covered with a patchwork of distant farms, evoking a sense of possibility, purpose, connectedness. Sitting here smack in the middle of both sides, I begin to reflect on the journey that I am concluding, a visit to both sides of the tracks, er… runway.

Nicaragua was my first destination. There is, perhaps, no other country that evokes more carino in the Latin America solidarity community than Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of sandalistas visited there after the youthful Sandinistas overthrew the brutal Somoza regime in 1979: to pick coffee, build schools, give vaccinations, then later serve as physical deterrents to U.S.-funded contra attacks.

Eleven years after the revolution’s triumph, a war-torn nation, spurred on by massive U.S. funds, voted the Sandinistas out of power. There followed 16 years of ruthless neo- liberal policies , plunging the nation even deeper into poverty. During those years Nicaragua climbed to the bottom of the economic rung, with only Haiti beating it out as poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere. (In recent years, however, Honduras has replaced Nicaragua in that unenviable spot).

I was last in Nicaragua 2008, just months after the Sandinistas had returned to power. The fragility of that electoral victory and the splintered condition of the party and the nation was visible. Then –and now – we had come to ask Nicaraguan officials to withdraw their troops from the School of the Americas. No Nicaraguan troops had attended the SOA under the Sandinistas, but soon after pro-Washington regimes took their place, Nicaraguans were back in their classrooms.

In 2008 our small SOA Watch delegation had a long conversation with President Daniel Ortega, who was only months in the presidency at the time. He spoke about the SOA impact on his nation, of their training, of the feared National Guard, Somoza’s henchmen. He affirmed that this school did not represent the interests of the people of Nicaragua nor any of the people of Latin America. But he also acknowledged his nation’s fragile position. After sixteen years of absolute economic dependency on the U.S., and with wounds of a U.S.-funded war still raw, the timing was just not right in 2008 to announce Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the SOA. Now, four years later, we decided to come back, to see if the time was right. This time  SOA Watch teamed up with Nicaragua Network to organize a delegation  to learn more about the “threat of a good example” that Nicaragua is becoming. Twenty committed people from around the U.S. and the U.K. took part.

From the moment we stepped into Nicaragua, it was clear that a lot had changed in four years. President Ortega was in a more solid position, having been recently re-elected by a resounding majority. Positive change was palpable at every turn: new roads, new roofs, new water systems, new schools. Even the massive Managua dump had been converted to a state-of-the-art recycling center with new homes and schools for former trash scavengers who are now employees of the new center. Former banana workers suffering diseases caused by exposure to the chemical nemagon, sported spanking new homes and gardens, right across the street from the National Assembly.

The positive spirit of people reflected this reality, especially that of women and youth. Thousands of micro loans are being given to small groups of women whose only collateral is one another. We listened to women share how their homemade popsicle business and corn grinder service had expanded with the loans, granting them a sense of independence and dignity.

Pregnant cows and pigs are being given to women at the lowest economic strata. From afar this might seem minor, but up close, it’s huge. Take Dona Martha, whose pregnant cow and pregnant pig went on to have three calves and five piglets respectively. Because of that, she and her family now have a new roof and new wooden planks on their small house, as well as a new outhouse and electrical hook up. Every inch of her tiny yard is producing something to eat. Squash climb up the branches of lemon trees that in turn shade lettuce and carrots, growing prolifically in the heat. The quality of her life and that of her family is dramatically better.

We met with young people from the Sandinista Youth brigade who talked about their local recycling program and weekend trips to remote communities to plant trees. Susan Lagos shared how this has improved the quality of the town of Ciudad Dario where she lives. She used to avoid a particular area of town where restless teens swarmed about aimlessly. Now, many of these young people joined weekend rescue efforts and environmental brigades. Not only is the town safer, she told us, but kids have shared with Susan a new sense of meaning in their lives.

The Sandinista government says these new programs respond to their three underlying values: Christianity, socialism and solidarity. These three words are not frequently used in the same sentence by most folks in the U.S., but they are found side by side on signs throughout the country and on the tongues of those who explained to us their new model of the society.

The value of solidarity rang clearly in the voice of President Ortega who agreed to meet with our delegation on the last night. The key agenda item was our request that Nicaragua withdraw its troops from the SOA. President Ortega reminded us his nation’s fragile situation, as he had four years ago. In recent years, however, the ALBA block of Latin American and Caribbean nations had offered Nicaragua the economic solidarity some degree of independence from the U.S. However, the U.S. still controlled a large amount of funds for Nicaragua, and they were reluctant to anger their giant neighbor.

Nine days of having witnessed so many positive changes in Nicaragua made us sympathetic to the complexities of what we were requesting. All the other countries that had withdrawn from the SOA were more distant from the U.S. (physically and relationally) and had far more natural resources, giving them a degree of relative independence. Only two months prior, President Correa announced that Ecuador would join Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela in withdrawing troops from the SOA. Nicaragua would be the first Central American country to do so.

President Ortega explained that he had taken our 2008 meeting very seriously. He had subsequently reduced Nicaragua’s numbers at the school from 78 in 2008 to only five last year and none so far this year. The time had now come, he told us to stop completely. “The SOA is an ethical and moral anathema. All of the countries of Latin America have been victims of its graduates. The SOA is a symbol of death, a symbol of terror. We have been gradually reducing our numbers of troops at the SOA, sending only five last year and none this year. We have now entered a new phase and we will NOT continue to send troops to the SOA. This is the least that we can do. We have been its victims.” 

We were jubilant. Nicaragua had brought the effort to close the SOA a giant step forward. Six countries had now said NO – and two more in the past two months. This affirmed the importance of working together -North and South- to close this school. Over 300 people from the North have put their own lives on the line for this cause, going to jail to protest this school. Tens of thousands of others had traveled to Georgia to show their solidarity with the efforts. Thousands around the country have lobbied their members of congress to sign on legislation, leading to 52 co-sponsors. With pressure from many fronts, the SOA walls are cracking.

After the meeting with President Ortega and receiving the good news, we arrived at our guest house close to midnight. I was scheduled leave at 4 am by bus to Honduras. No time to shift gears.

But boy, did those gears shift themselves! By the next afternoon I was in Tegucigalpa, meeting with the PROAH team of international observers, accompanying people who have received threats against their lives. Dozens of teachers, journalists, farmers and students have been murdered in the past three years for the crime of denouncing the 2009 coup organized by SOA graduates. Honduras has gained the unenviable title of murder capital of the world.

Within hours, I was giving a talk on a panel on militarization. I painted a picture of optimism of citizen power and progressive governments standing up to U.S. militarization, still fresh with the victory in Nicaragua. My Honduran co-panelist began her talk by saying, “here, things are different.” She spoke of the continued murders and threats, and the increased U.S . interference. A recent shift in the high command of the Honduran military came on orders from the U.S. ambassador. Honduras had become a landmine of danger since the coup, and now it was losing its grip on very sovereignty.

After the conference I was introduced to a young boy who was holding his refreshment cup with a very bandaged hand. He was one of the victims shot by U.S. DEA forces in the Moskitia this past May as his passenger boat docked . The boy received the impact of a high-powered automatic weapon fired by the U.S. DEA forces from the helicopter without warning. They ripped a four-inch hole in his hand. His best friend was killed in the attack, as well as two pregnant women.

After the conference, I looked around the COFADEH office, and noticed that the paint had continued to fade and peel since my last visit. The only new things were more and more photos of disappeared and murdered victims. I realized how presumptuous it was for me to bounce into the room with a smile on my face. But I also remembered sitting in that same room in May 2009, writing about the hope I had experienced those days as Hondurans prepared to go to the polls to say yes to the possibility of a constitutional assembly. At that moment, the country was ecstatic. Hope, change, all through a peaceful democratic process, seemed just around the corner for Honduras. And then came the coup, on the morning of the election, organized to halt a process for peaceful, profound democratic change in a deeply poor nation.

As my plane makes its way through turquoise skies, I can still see a maze of patchwork farms on the this below. I’m not sure if I’m still in Honduran air space, or if we have passed into Nicaragua. From up above, the land looks so similar; from below, so very different. Kind of like those two sides of the runway from where we left. As I write these words, I find tears silently falling onto my little computer. I don’t feel sad, I feel angry. What right is it to steal the dreams of a people who are so poor? How much poorer and how much more wounded do we want them to be? There was so much hope here in May of 2009. With every dead journalist and every dead resistance leader and every dead Libre party candidate, that hope sinks further and further. The hope was ripped away in the middle of the night, behind the barrel of guns aimed at a president who dared to roll up his sleeves to work with the poor, at a nation that dared to dream. The orders came from graduates of the school from which Nicaragua had just withdrawn: the SOA.

I’m landing now, arriving at the nation’s capital, taxing on a runway filled with blue lights, an a sense of order. No fast food joints spilling into it, no stunning emerald mountains flowing away from it. I think back to both sides of that precarious runway of Toncatin and wonder. Which side will Latin America choose? Which side will we let them choose?

About our guest blogger: Lisa Sullivan is currently the coordinator for Partnership America Latina (PAL). This initiative of SOA Watch seeks to connect North and South partners in the movement to close the School of the Americas and promote peace in the Americas. Lisa has helped to organize numerous SOAW delegations to meet with leaders in Latin America, leading to announcements of withdrawal from SOA of five countries.

Memory and Resistance

I was able to participate in a march and direct action to close the School of the Americas this weekend in Washington D.C. It was amazing to be there while the entire country was watching the debate on the “budget crisis” go down and never once hear a single congress person talk about cutting military spending.

Over 70 million dollars a year could be saved by closing the School of the Americas let alone the human lives home and abroad that would thrive with less military intervention and spending.

We gathered as a group at Dupont Circle and marched with  an artist collective that had made puppets honoring the resistance of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Led by the grandmother puppet we walked to the White House and 27 of us laid down in a “die in” front of the White House to symbolize the death and destruction that comes from the School.

We prostrated ourselves and begged from the heart to stop funding the military training that has led to torture, disappearances, death, dictatorships and the destruction of whole economies in Latin America.

The National Park Police who have jurisdiction over the sidewalk in front the White House arrested us for failing to obey a police order to move. We felt that by staying we could call – even if only for a moment – the attention of the White House and our Congress to the importance of the issue and give them a way to save money without cutting schools, health care or PBS!

It was an honor to take a step of resistance and hold up the memory and resistance of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo as we called to close it down. Click on the link below and you can see the puppets, march and even the arrests!


p.s. A quick note about my arrest: an arrest for civil disobedience is handled very quickly. I was held in a room (not in a jail cell) for about two hours and paid a small fine ($100) before my release.

From SOA Vigil to jail to court

On Saturday after the rally some members of the School of the Americas Watch community took action within the city of Columbus. They chose to take their message to Columbus instead of the military base. They chose a different space but the reasons for the action were the same: to close the SOA and bring justice to its victims. The police had a strong reaction to what they felt was the abuse of the permit. As people were attempting to leave the vigil site the police responded by arresting more than seventeen individuals who were doing nothing more than leaving the space – all together 26 folks were arrested.

I have attended the vigil for six years and never have I seen anything like what happened on Saturday. The police were directing people to leave and then accusing them of refusing to disperse and placing cuffs on them.  They picked up journalists, high schoolers, and even a member of their own Columbus community who simply stepped out of a barber shop near the road.

We began immediately to mobilize, to gather money for bond. We received our second shock of the weekend: the police had piled charges on the folks they arrested. Even though they were all facing misdemeanors their bonds were set as high as $5500. This would mean that roughly we would have needed over $100,000 to get our own people out of jail. 

Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we worked to get in touch with family and friends of those who had been arrested and to raise money for bond. By Sunday afternoon, after the vigil as we headed to the court for the arraignment hearings, we had managed to raise close to $20,000. Not all of what we needed but an amazing outpouring from those who were there.

We reached court and received our third big shock of the weekend: the judge!  He  said that if anyone whispered or passed notes they would spend the night in jail. We witnessed an arraignment hearing that was treated as a trial and when the judge was asked about this particular disparity he told us it was his court and he could do whatever he wanted.

After several hours of “trials” the judge retired to his chambers to watch police video footage of the arrests. The defense attorneys went to the back to watch the videos as well. The defendants were never allowed to see the evidence against them and several of them never even heard the police testimony against them.  The judge then came out and found every single person guilty (except one).  He applied hefty fines, sent some of the charges to the State court and  adjusted bonds.

After his threat to give all of them jail time the outcome of fines and a continuance of charges was a relief. However it was very difficult to feel that any justice had been served. Arrestees were denied a right to testify on their own behalf, the police were not made to provide the burden of proof and the judge ran the courtroom like a king rather than a public official.

It was difficult and discouraging. And yet, and yet…

Around ten thousand people gathered to remember those who were victims of the school. Four members of the SOAW community crossed the line onto the base. Seven people were willing to risk an arrest in the Columbus community and the other 19 who were arrested accidentally still stood by the call for justice of vicitms of the school. We raised all the money we needed to bond people out, supported them in court and will continue to support them as they get ready for state court.

Watching people gather in support, pitch in time, money and witness was amazing. It is community and community is the antithesis of arrest and the court process we experienced.  Community is the antithesis of the mindset and logic of the School of the Americas. It is a sacred sense of relationship that opens doors for change.

As Bill Quigley, a lawyer for the movement, qouted St. Agustine, “Hope has two beautiful daughters.  Their names are anger and courage.  Anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

We must be angry at the injustice we see but then also have the courage to change it!

Future leaders and Georgetown

Georgetown University has recently named former president Alvaro Uribe from Colombia to teach at its School of Foreign Service in the coming year.  While common for Georgetown to have former dignitaries and leaders as professors former president Uribe is a unique case.

Alvaro Uribe, while president of Colombia, oversaw and implemented some of the worst human rights violations in the hemisphere. From spying on his own Supreme Court to displacing small farmers off of their land Uribe was a human rights disaster.

Does this sound like a “distinguished scholar” who can can teach future generations about “global leadership?”

Join School of the Americas Watch and Human Rights Watch in sending a letter to the President of Georgetown calling on Georgetown to consider the impact of  human rights violators teaching the next generation.


Images of the "disappeared" at a human rights march in Colombia.

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