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Coming to America: Running From the School of the Americas

November 15, 2010

In 2007, at an early stage in the national miasma of hysteria over immigration that’s been gripping ‘America’ (or more accurately, the United States, as ‘America’ could technically refer to any part of The Americas) for the last four years, I was spending the year working with an NGO in rural Nicaragua. During my time in a small town near the Costa Rican border, one of the experiences that most burned itself into my psyche was witnessing the return of a deported Nicaraguan family who had been living as undocumented immigrants in Miami since the mid-1980′s. The family had been the victims of the mass detention and deportation sweeps that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was conducting at the time, and which have only increased in the ensuing years.

Seeing them struggle as they attempted to adjust to life in Nicaragua was excruciating. The parents had come to the U.S.A. as teenagers; their children had never before stepped foot on Nicaraguan soil. It had been so long for them since they had been in Nicaragua, in fact, that the two children did not speak a word of Spanish between them, and the parents remembered very little of their native tongue. As I was the local English teacher, they requested that I please teach their children the lessons they would normally be learning in school in English, as it would take them a while to be able to comprehend lessons taught in Spanish at the local public school, and they did not want their children falling behind in their education because they were, for all intents and purposes, ‘foreigners’.

As I watched the family straining to adapt to these now-unfamiliar surroundings, the children continuously miserable over the loss of their lives back in Miami, the father reduced to selling discarded cosmetics and trinkets out of an old wheelbarrow he peddled around due to an economy that exists in a constant state of Great Depression, there were many things that enraged me about the situation. But one fact that did not escape my attention was the reason why the parents had immigrated to the U.S.A. in the first place, and how that exacerbated the injustice that had been committed against them ten thousandfold.

They had come to the U.S.A. in the 1980′s, fleeing the bloody civil war that was ravaging their home country. As anyone old enough to recall the Iran-Contra affair can attest to, that was also a very special time in the relationship between the United States and Nicaragua. The country was torn apart by war between the Socialist Sandinista majority, who had who had risen to power in a true grassroots revolution and had been voted in via popular vote in 1984, and the Capitalist Contra minority, who were attempting to overthrow the populist Sandinista government. It was the United States government, however, that was truly behind the violence and chaos in Nicaragua.

It wasn’t just that the U.S. had funded, armed, and trained in our very own C.I.A.-run School of the Americas (SOA) the right-wing Contra rebel minority who caused a long, drawn-out, and very bloody civil war against the populist Sandinistas who had overthrown the brutal Somoza dictatorship. Nor was it merely that the U.S. was continuing to fund and arm the Contras during the war through, it later turned out, the illicit sale of chemical ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to Iran even as we were also arming Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, and the funneling of cocaine from Nicaragua into the U.S. that sparked the ’80′s crack epidemic. It was also that the United States had installed the previous dictatorship that had strangled the country for the past forty-three years, leading to the Sandinista uprising in the first place. In fact, Nicaragua has no less a luminary than President Franklin D. Roosevelt to thank for the barbaric Somoza regime. In response to the militant stance taken by General Augusto Sandino against the U.S. military presence and corporate exploitation of the country and its resources, President Roosevelt offered a reward on Sandino’s head: whoever could take out Sandino and create an environment more friendly to U.S. military and corporate interests would be guaranteed, with U.S. National Guard-backing, to lead Nicaragua not only for the rest of his days, but for his children’s days as well.

Thus, the deed was done. Wealthy businessman General Anastasio Somoza assassinated Sandino in 1934, and two years later, a U.S.-backed military coup overthrew President Juan Batista Sacosa and installed the Somoza Dynasty, which then gripped the country for the next four decades in a deadly steel vice, leading to mass persecution, widespread poverty, executions, imprisonment, and torture.

Given the circumstances, one might logically conclude that the very least the United States could do would be to offer Nicaraguan civilians a refuge away from the disaster it had caused within their country for the past fifty-odd years. Unfortunately, the assumption of that small act of decency would be dead wrong. Nor is this story unique to Nicaragua; on the contrary, the U.S.-Nicaragua saga is one that repeats itself in various forms all across Central and South America, from Mexico to Colombia and Chile; Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama to Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru; and most recently, yet again in Honduras and Ecuador. A similar trail of covert U.S. violations extends to the Middle East, Asia, and beyond.

The raging debate surrounding undocumented immigration has incorporated many related issues. Those opposed to allowing undocumented immigrants to stay argue about the supposed burden it places on U.S. social service programs, the highly questionable ethics of allowing undocumented immigrants to supply Americans with a cheap/borderline-slave labor force, and the strain it places on an already tapped-out job market. The undocumented immigration issue has even been cited as a major obstacle to U.S. citizens supporting government subsidized health care, due to concerns that “they” will overload the system.

Those in favor of granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants draw attention to the contributions they make to the economy via jobs that U.S. citizens wouldn’t accept anyway; to the negative impact of NAFTA and CAFTA and other “free” trade agreements imposed upon our neighbors South of the Border; to the diversity and cultural enrichment they provide to the tapestry of American culture, and to the simple fact of our existence as a country made-up almost entirely of immigrants, which makes us hypocrites for now taking on an attitude of xenophobia in the shadow of a Statue of Liberty who continues to beseech the world to give her “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Yet there is one major, glaringly relevant factor that has somehow been left out of the Great American Immigration Debate. And it is high time that anyone speaking on behalf of immigrants’ rights begins introducing this factor into the dialogue surrounding this issue.

Of all the undocumented immigrants streaming into the U.S., the vast majority are from Latin America. According to a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center report, a full 81% percent, or 4 out of every 5, undocumented immigrants entering or already in the United States are from Latin American countries, with 57% of those from Mexico alone. By 2009, the number of Mexicans had risen to 61%. (Thomas Frank, USA Today, February 2009). Other large Latin American immigrant communities include those coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Ecuador, to name a few.

While attitudes about whether so-called ‘illegals’ should be given a path to citizenship differ, the almost universal impression on both sides is that citizens of these countries, much like the European immigrants of the past, are fleeing poverty, strife, human rights abuse and sometimes war and dictatorships in their home countries, seeking a better life in the U.S., or a way to temporarily provide for their families back home until they can save up money.

The unacknowledged factor, however, is that unlike the Europeans of the past who came to America seeking a better life, in the case of these Latin Americans, the United States is directly responsible for the reasons why they need to leave their home countries in the first place.

This has been acknowledged–at least in independent media, activist, and academic circles–on the economic level. NAFTA, CAFTA, the FTAA, and the scourge of Monsanto and its genetically-’monsterfied’ corn have been rightly considered as factors in the uptick of Latin American immigrants seeking to enter the United States in the past decade. However, the dark shadow cast by the C.I.A.-trained dictators and death squads that accompany and enforce that economic policy has been virtually entirely overlooked thus far as a factor in the Great Immigration Debate.

The School of the Americas, recently renamed as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC), is a CIA-operated training facility in Ft. Benning, GA, that exists for the express purpose of undermining democracy, stability and human rights in Latin America. Indeed, according to Panamanian former President Jorge Illueca, who booted the SOA out of Panama in 1984 after it had been based there since its founding in 1946, it is considered ” The biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” SOA Watch, the SOA monitoring organization founded by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Father Roy Bourgeois, stated that, “SOA grads have been involved in the chain of command of virtually every major human rights atrocity in Latin America.” Congressman Joseph Kennedy concurred, observing that, “The U.S. Army School of the Americas…has run more dictators than any other school in the history of the world.”

In countries all across the southern part of the Western hemisphere, the stories are strikingly similar: a democratically-elected government that decides to reject U.S. corporate exploitation and military imperialism is overthrown by CIA-trained graduates of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, who then enforce a reign of terror, dictatorship, and brutal human rights abuse, all the while making ample way for U.S. corporations to utilize the country and its natural resources at will. In a large number of these cases, civil war ensues following the military coup. In certain instances, as in the case of SOA graduate Manuel Noriega in Panama, a U.S. installed dictator will attempt to break free of U.S. control, prompting the United States military to take direct action against that country.

In the past decade, examples of this pattern include failed coup attempts led by SOA/WHINSEC graduates in Venezuela (2002), Bolivia (2008), and Ecuador (just last month), as well as the June 2009 overthrow of the president of Honduras. In Honduras, two-time School of the Americas graduate Ramon Vasquez organized a coup that overthrew democratically-elected Leftist president Manuel Zelaya, who had recently become a member of the Bolivian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), a regional organization opposing the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade of the Americas Association (FTAA) whose members also include Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador. Even more recently, democratically-elected President Rafael Correa of Ecuador was temporarily overthrown after refusing to allow the Pentagon to build a U.S. army base in Ecuador, and attempting to protect the Amazon basin rainforest from oil exploitation via the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Only his overwhelming popular support, and the threat of a populist revolution, ensured that he was reinstated in the presidency—for now.

In short, not only does the United States not spread democracy in Latin America, but it literally rips it away.

While some of these countries, including Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela (for, say what you will about Chavez, he is in office due to popular support), have since restored some semblance of democracy and managed to at least partially break free of U.S. control  following the end of the Cold War, even in the best scenarios the ramifications of such interference are deep and lasting. Extreme economic instability, lack of infrastructure, lack of education, and other vital necessities delayed and denied by years of war and dictatorship continue for decades afterward.

The case of Mexico, which deserves special examination as the greatest source of undocumented immigration, is a slightly different story, but still very much a part of this pattern. Unlike Nicaragua and many other countries, there has been no overt recent revolution, coup, or civil war in Mexico, but rather, a series of under-the-radar political maneuvering that has led to the current crisis situation.

From 1953-1994, 766 Mexican military officers and paramilitaries were trained at the SOA, a relatively low number. Correspondingly, the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. without papers was also relatively low. All of that changed with the passage of NAFTA. In fact, it changed literally overnight.

On Jan. 1st, 1994, just hours after the passage of NAFTA, local indigenous communities rose up to protest against the mass evictions off their land that had already begun, and which were now set to increase exponentially. The Mexican military, led by SOA graduates and armed with U.S.-donated helicopters and artillery, immediately violently crushed the dissenters.

In the following years, a “counter/insurgency/low intensity conflict” (a military euphemism for civilian-targeted warfare) has been waged against the communities of the Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas regions, with massacres taking place in the communities of Ocosingo in 1994 and Acteal in Chiapas in 1997. There are eighteen confirmed SOA graduates who have led these “death squads” in this campaign of terror. Post-1994, Mexico became the top ‘client’ of the SOA/WHINSEC, where it remains today. From a total of 766 Mexican SOA graduates over the course of forty years combined, that number jumped to 315 SOA students in 1997 alone. Accordingly, with the rise of economic and militaristic misery sparked by NAFTA, so too rose the number of desperate undocumented immigrants risking their lives to cross the border; jumping from less than 400,000 pre-NAFTA to over 500,000 in 1994 and increasing steadily in the following years, according to a NY Times report on April 23rd,2007.

Compounding this situation further was the widely-disputed election of extreme right-winger and Bush administration ally Felipe Calderon in 2006. The election, which echoed our own U.S. election results in 2000, was considered so riddled with fraud that as of 2007, Karl Rove and his counterparts in the Bush administration were under investigation by both Mexican and Italian oppositional party officials on suspicion of manipulating election results in both Mexico and Italy, where the Bush administration is also suspected of having falsified votes in favor of extreme right-winger Silvio Berlusconi.

With Calderon in charge of Mexico until 2012, the oppression of the Mexican public in the service of NAFTA and of other U.S. economic interests intensified even further. According to SOA Watch, last year alone saw over 700 incidents of military violence against civilian populations, the most dramatic of which was the assault on 70,000 educators demonstrating against their insufficient pay rates in Oaxaca, which resulted in mass beatings, twenty-five deaths, and the illegal detention of three hundred people. Speculation within Mexico indicates that Calderon is also more heavily reliant on brutal military suppression of dissent due to his insecure legitimacy as leader of Mexico.

Perhaps not coincidentally, 2006 is not only the year that Calderon took office, but also the year that H.R. 4437, The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, was passed by the House of Representatives, which criminalized not only undocumented immigrants, but also those who aided them, with a felony-level offense. This was the trigger for the building of the border fence, the militarization of the border, and a wave of national protests in regards to immigration reform.

Meanwhile, in the last few years, the crisis in Mexico and at the border has only continued to intensify in severity. According to veteran indigenous journalist Brenda Norrell, reporting in Censored News in 2009, SOA-trained U.S. Special Forces are also responsible for the brutal murder of pregnant Mayan women in Guatemala and Chiapas. Several candidates and representatives were also killed or attacked before the Mexican state and municipal elections last year.

The much-publicized danger-zone at the U.S. border is also apparently linked to the culprits at the C.I.A.-run school in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Los Zetas is the most murderous drug cartel in the world, responsible for mass killings including those of the Juarez women. According to an ABC News report in 2008, the Zetas have now expanded to the stage where they are recruiting and training other gangs, and have extended their reach internationally, covering Mexico and much of the U.S. with links to gangs in Colombia and even Russia. It is also for this reason that Mexico is now ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, considered by many to rival or even exceed the danger of working within Iraq. In a Sept. 30th, 2009 issue of the New York Times, Mexican Deputy Attorney General José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos revealed that most of the original founding members of the Zetas were previously involved with the Mexican military, and had been trained at the School of the Americas/WHINSEC.

In Latin America, the role the United States has played in war, dictatorship, manufactured poverty, and human rights abuse is common knowledge. Yet, the vast majority of U.S. citizens have no idea of the existence of the SOA/WHINSEC, and in fact usually assume that the belief in the existence of such a place must be a conspiracy theory, upon hearing of it for the first time.

Taken in context, it is hard to imagine that any U.S. citizen with even the slightest conscience—or the desire to appear to have a conscience– would deny that, at barest minimum, those undocumented immigrants coming from countries thus adversely affected by our own government deserve amnesty and even, if they so desire it, full citizenship. It is only the veil of ignorance that allows this issue to even be up for debate in any sort of serious manner. Once the actual truth of the situation is known, the argument for immigrants’ rights shifts from one of charity, to one of responsibility and moral obligation. And for those U.S. citizens who are displeased with the numbers of immigrants crossing over the border ‘illegally’, they need only look to their own government to assign blame.


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2 Responses to Coming to America: Running From the School of the Americas

  1. [...] Schleifer, artist and social critic, wrote the following article in 2010 for The Leftist Review. Regarding the debate about immigration to the UK, this proves an [...]

  2. politicaljunkie on January 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    The US has, clandestinely in most cases, committed or been complicit in, what amount to crimes against humanity in countries all over South America; not always under Republican administrations (though usually). Many many of these crimes are well documented; some by ex-CIA agents; yet, no American politician will call for an investigation. Why? Because the super patriots and flag-wavers would try to destroy that politician’s political career. You see, America can’t do evil, no matter what the facts might prove. Better to pretend to be blind to those crimes, than risk losing your comfortable job in the House or Senate.

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