Reflections on visiting inside WHINSEC
Wednesday 09 May @ 15:13:11
by DON IRISH
Any commentary about the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) needs to be set in a wider context. The U.S. is the world’s most powerful nation, and we, the New Romans, constitute an empire.
In building this empire, with rare exceptions, the indigenous residents of all these areas we entered were treated like commodities, to be bought and sold, conquered or “exterminated.”
Our media and leaders now refer to our “empire” without embarrassment. The U.S. has exercised its suzerainty over others by diverse means. (In earlier years, pre-World War II, “send in the Marines” was the usual response to Latin American challenges). Since then the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) was established and Chapter II, Article 3(c) specifies that “No state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatsoever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.”
Article VI of our Constitution states that “all treaties make, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land ….” Thus, violations of the OAS or U.N. charters also become impermissible under our Constitution. Nonetheless, since the founding of our republic, the U.S. military has intervened almost 100 times in Latin America, in some nations numerous times. In five of the countries, our forces occupied them for more than a decade.
Since the Vietnam War, our government has employed tactics of “low intensity warfare”—low for us, high for the recipients of our means. We have instigated coups (Chile, Haiti, Panama, Venezuela, Grenada, Guatemala). For information about low intensity warfare by the U.S. in Guatemala, read “Bitter Fruit: the Story of the American coup in Guatemala,” 1982.
We have created surrogates to do the fighting and dying for our interests (the Nicaraguan Contras). We manipulate Latin American media. We have supported numerous dictators for years (the Somozas, Batista, Noriega, Hernandez, the juntas of Uruguay and Argentina). We have employed almost complete embargoes, ignoring UN decisions (Nicaragua, Cuba). We continue to manipulate their elections with money, equipment, pay-ops, etc. (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela). (It is illegal under U.S. laws for those of other nations to influence our elections!) We (and the World Bank, IFM) encumber them with “perpetual debt” (maintaining leverage). (See John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” 2004.) In 1983, we blocked the Contadora agreement that the five Central American nations had approved. We ignore U.N. and World Court rulings (e.g., Nicaraguan indemnity). We impose “structural adjustments on their economies, we initiated NAFTA (1994) and CAFTA (2005) trade agreements that benefit our corporations but hurt their poor. (See Noam Chomsky, “Rogue States,” 2000). Our corporations exploit the Latins, without environmental controls or regulations.
Thus, empire is not about “fostering democracy” or “ensuring peace or prosperity” for others. Empire is about controlling peoples and gaining access to their resources! (The most powerful are not really interested in helping the weak!)
SOA/WHINSEC’s training of the militaries of the Latin American nations is one of the instruments of our support for the elite and powerful in Latin America to resist endeavors by their majority poor to secure more just societies.>B>Perceptions from the WHINSEC visit
The four of us noted aspects of the “military culture,” as contrasted to that of most civilians. Both the “Americans” and “Latins” wore distinctive uniforms with varied insignias. We sensed a strong ethos of community and mutual respect for their interrelated roles. A warrior culture has its own distinctive values and basic assumptions about life. Regrettably, we lacked time and occasion to explore those important aspects in depth. Warfare exacerbates societal conditions and brings horrendous tragedies. In a nuclear age, especially, war as a useful instrument of national foreign policy, should now be seen as obsolete! Given the degradation of the earth’s environment, the implications of global warming, and the human needs at home and abroad, we cannot afford diversion of talents, resources and funding for “a next war”! (Currently, at least 50 percent of the U.S. congressional discretionary budget is allotted to war-related endeavors.) Each of us needs to reflect on the occupations to which we are committed: Are they death-dealing or life-enhancing?
Several issues appeared that can be highlighted:
We sensed that the WHINSEC program lacks student exposure to an unvarnished history of U.S.-Latin American relationships. Civilian historians and other specialists can elaborate the above facts with expanded materials in the curriculum for all the WHINSEC classes. (See Philip McManus & Gerald Schlabach, eds., “Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America,” 1991; Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” 1980, 1984; and James Loewen, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” 1995.
We left uneasy that the Commandant (Col. Gilberto Perez), especially, seemed unable (or unwilling) to recognize the possibility that WHINSEC and its personnel might be in any way complicit in the assassinations, massacres and brutalities that Latin Americans experience. The repeated response was: “We don’t make policy! We implement policies! Those who disagree should contact the President and Congress!”
However, given the altered mindset, imposed changes in personality and values through basic training and desensitization, and faced with a stressful situation, peer pressures, even anger at an opponent, some military persons (e.g., those in Iraq/Afghanistan) may act beyond “orders.” Proving connection between a given individual and an action is admittedly difficult, especially when responses from the Freedom of Information Act to SOA requests result in extensive lists with all the data blacked out! Analogies (like the complicity of those who sell handguns, or those who manufacture land mines or cluster bombs, well knowing that civilians, over time, will be most of the casualties) come to mind.
We brought a different set of assumptions and values to WHINSEC. Each of us, and they, in our chosen roles, endeavor to be faithful and conscientious. Genuine peace-oriented persons don’t demonize opponents, hoping that the consequences of our and their respective endeavors will in time reveal the better avenues to peace and justice.
And what of the future?
Those thousands who have demonstrated at SOA/WHINSEC for more than a dozen years can believe they had some impact, for the following reasons:
1) The name change presumably was made by Congress to separate SOA from mounting criticism. 2) The institution of a “Board of Visitors” provides more independent oversight for the program, with congressional representation, greater “transparency.”3) Presumably, some changes were made in curricular offerings. We appreciated knowing that some of the students have gone to Washington, D.C., to meet with staff of Human Rights Watch, WOLS, and even SOA Watch and have also gone to New York for exposure to the United Nations. 4) If WHINSEC continues, perhaps some of the suggestions offered may be instituted.
My view remains that the U.S. should not be training military personnel of other countries. We then become even more complicit with their problems/solutions.
Militaries are not democratic institutions by nature of their purpose, organizational structure, values orientations and training. A Nonviolent Peace Corps would make better “peace keepers.” Militaries are not the experts on how to achieve peace. Our talents, resources and endeavors should be directed to enhance human situations for our own and other populations, with international sponsors and collaborators. We now confront tremendous challenges that threaten all aspects of “civilization” and human survival. War itself is a problem, not a solution.
We appreciate being invited to visit WHINSEC. We appreciate the graciousness with which we were received and aided. We are grateful for the extended efforts by public affairs officer Lee Rials, before our arrival and while we were there. We thank Commandant Perez and other staff persons who made generous time for us in their busy schedules. !Muchisimas gracias a todos!
Don Irish is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Anthropology and Latin American Studies, Hamline University, St. Paul.