A blog by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration about justice and peace issues

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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.

Crossing the line: School of the Americas trial

Tomorrow, January 5, 2011, SOA Watch activists Nancy Smith from New York and Chris Spicer from Illinois will appear in federal court in Columbus, Georgia. They will stand trial for crossing the line during the 2010 November vigil to close the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

The two carried the protest against the SOA atrocities onto the Fort Benning military base. They now face up to six months in federal prison for their courageous act of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Nancy and Chris will use the courtroom to put the SOA itself on trial and to take a stand against the SOA, torture, militarization and oppressive U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

The presiding judge, Stephen Hyles, sentenced two other human rights advocates last November to the maximum allowed prison sentence for the same action. Father Louis Vitale and David Omondi, who also crossed onto the base during the November vigil are each currently serving six months prison sentences.

Please write to our Prisoners of Conscience David and Father Louis and send Nancy and Chris good thoughts, strength, courage and love as they speak truth to power in the Georgia Middle District Court tomorrow.

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!

Memory and Resistance! 21st annual School of the Americas Watch Vigil

This week I leave for Columbus, Georgia, to join the vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning.  We will gather to remember and resist as we approach the 30th anniversary of the four women who were killed in El Salvador.  We will gather to celebrate and commemorate  as we move forward with the challenge of creating full peace with justice.

This year I will blog each of the days leading up to the vigil. I invite you to journey with the School of the Americas Watch Movement as we ready to Close It Down (subscribe if you want to get my posts right in your inbox)! To get us started I would like to offer the following excerpt from a letter by Ita Ford, M.M. to her niece.

A Letter from Ita to her niece

Dear Jennifer,

The odds that this note will arrive for your birthday are poor, but know I’m with you in spirit as you celebrate 16 big ones…

What I want to say…some of it isn’t too jolly birthday talk, but it’s real…yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-year-old who had been killed a few hours earlier. I know lots of kids even younger who are dead.  This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment is getting snuffed out here now…

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is at, and at whatever age. What I am saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be – that is for you to find, to choose, to love.

I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in the search. Maybe this sounds weird and off-the-wall, and maybe, no one else will talk to you like this, but then, too, I am seeing and living things others around you are not.

I want to say to you: don’t waste the gifts and opportunities you have to make yourself and other people happy…I hope this does not sound like some kind of sermon because I do not mean it that way. Rather, it is something you learn here, and I want to share it with you.

In fact it is my birthday present to you. If it does not make sense right at this moment, keep this and read it sometime from now. Maybe it will be clearer.

A very happy birthday to you and much, much love…Ita

Ita Ford, Presente!

Memory as resistance…the call to close the School of the Americas

“It is time to take the funeral out of the funeral parlor…” Hector Aristozabol, Puppetista

Dear All – This past week I went again to Georgia to join in witnessing with thousands of others the call to close the School of the Americas and the transformation of oppressive U.S. policy.

I was especially honored to see one of our partners there, Padre Alberto from Colombia who I work with on the Ethics Commission. From the stage, he spoke of the deep need for the continued joining of hands between the north and the south to build a new future and transform a very painful history.

This year there was a slight change in the traditional funeral procession that usually occurs within the area permitted by the police. This year a group of folks and the Puppetistas (an artist group that joins us and makes puppets and pageantry for the weekend) left the permitted space.

This group walked through the police barricades, past lines of officers and marched into the street taking our witness as Hector had said…out of the funeral parlor. This was not to damage or change the traditional witness, but to raise up the idea of memory as resistance.

Our grief is not private for if we make it private we make it individual denying the necessary whole to which our grief flows from. Our grief is public because the story of what created all the loss and tragedy in Latin America belongs to all of us as one human family, as one nation of participative democracy, and as one faithful spirit led community.

Our ritual then of reading the names of all those killed and calling out Presente! cannot stay in the “funeral parlor” or permitted area but needs to flow out beyond the arbitrary borders enforced by authorities for grief, for recognition, and for healing. It was a powerful act and I was proud to be part of stretching the boundaries.

I think of Advent coming up and the ritual remembrance we do as a community of the journey of Mary and Joseph. We are not just remembering this beautiful piece of our tradition. We are recommitting ourselves to the inherent resistance within its lines. Mary and Joseph broke the norms of the day, resisted local authorities and had the courage and vision to accept Holy Mystery with no guarantees or promises.

Can we? Can we flow out of boundaries, out of fear, and uncertainties toward that which is unknown and waiting to be born if we can but say yes? I would love to hear all your stories this Advent season of how memory has served to teach, inspire and raise up new paths forward in your lives…Much Peace Liz

20th Anniversary of the El Salvador Martyrs

Dear All – I leave tomorrow to help with the annual organizing of the School of the Americas Watch Vigil. 8th Day Center for Justice has helped out at the vigil since 1996. This year, as in many years past, we will assist with the “Peacemakers Training.” Peacemakers are a presence of nonviolence and help to guide the procession and facilitate conversations with the local authorities…if necessary 🙂 .

This year the procession will be led by life-sized puppets that represent the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter. The idea is that these martyrs and the vision they gave their life for still guides us today. A vision of  a world that does not demand grinding poverty for the many while the few may be rich.  A world that does not demand crushing violence as an answer to the cries for peace, justice and dignity.

I will carry with me the beautiful and peace filled presence of the FSPA community and the prayer of St. Francis…God make me an instrument of your peace…Check out the link below for more info on the event…and blessings till the next time! Peace Liz

http://www.soaw.org/article.php?id=1737

Those who have endured the unimaginable…torture in the U.S.

“This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many victims and survivors of torture around the world.”   Kofi Annan

Dear All – We have heard much in the news these past weeks about torture and the U.S. involvement in torture programs. These conversations have been troubling on many levels but in particular that they frame torture as if it started after 9/11.

This “start date” for torture does two things: it “justifies” the action by placing torture in response to the tragedy of 9/11 and it erases the history of the people of Latin America and others who experienced U.S. sponsored torture programs long before 9/11.

Representative McGovern has put together an important piece of legislation that the torture debate could learn from. It is an amendment that calls on the SOA/WHINSEC who train soldiers from Latin America to engage complete transparency and make public the names of their students. The School, infamous for training torturers and dictators, refuses to provide the names of the students claiming it would violate their privacy.  What schools you attend is typically public knowledge it is not like asking the graduates to share with the world when they had their first kiss.

The importance of the transparency is that it says to the world and us, the U.S. taxpayers, we have nothing to hide here. No midnight memos, back doors programs, secretly approved CIA initiatives that even Congress does not know about only legal and ethical actions we have no reason to hide.

With the action below you can directly support Rep. McGovern’s bill and indirectly support the broadening of the torture debate. Transparency is vital for  democratic process and for attempting to begin a healing process with all those around the world who have suffered at the hands of U.S sponsored torturers.  Let’s tell congress and Attorney General Eric Holder that we value transparency as step toward creating justice for those who have “endured the unimaginable…”  Peace Liz

Urgent Action #2

On June 25, 2009 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to support the McGovern-Sestak-Bishop-Lewis Amendment, which would force the Pentagon to release the names of SOA/WHINSEC graduates and instructors. This amendment to FY 2010 Defense Authorization Bill is now being sent to a Joint House-Senate Conference Committee, in charge of debating this amendment. The Committee’s approval will send the proposed amendment to the Senate for a vote. Senator Burris was recently appointed to this Conference Committee.

 

Please urge your Senator to support the McGovern Amendment as part of the final draft of the Defense Authorization Bill. For a list of the 224 Representatives who supported this amendment, click here: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2009/roll454.xml.

 

Call your Senator this week and tell him/her to support this amendment and promote transparency within the SOA/WHINSEC and leave the following message:

 

“Hello, my name is ___________ and I live in __________ (city/state). I am calling to urge Senator _______ to support the McGovern-Sestak-Bishop Lewis Amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. This amendment would release the names of SOA/WHINSEC graduates and instructors, which are crucial to research and legislative efforts to close the school. Since many past graduates from SOA have been proven human rights abusers, it is important that the U.S. government commit itself to transparency and the priority of human rights. Can I count on Senator _______ to support this important amendment? Please let me know.”

 

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