A Voice for the Voiceless

Father Roy Bourgeois calls for U.S. contribution to peace in Latin America. by Melanie Breault ’11

Between 1946 and 2001, the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S. Department of Defense facility near Fort Benning, Georgia, trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers in professional military leadership and tactics. Some of the world’s most brutal dictators and military personnel, later convicted of heinous crimes against civilians, received instruction at SOA.While the school’s curriculum now includes a course on human rights, SOA — renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) — continues to generate criticism and controversy.

Vietnam War naval veteran, Purple Heart awardee, and Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois was among those who suffered during the 1970s at the hands of one of the school’s graduates — Bolivian dictator General Hugo Banzer. In 1980, two of Bourgeois’ friends were among four women raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers trained at SOA. Since then he has used the power of speech and com-munity activism to try to shut down the government-run school through the organization he founded, School of the Americas Watch.

In late September, Bourgeois came to Ithaca as the guest of the Committee on U.S.–Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) at Cornell University and Ithaca College’s Department of Politics, Park Center for Independent Media, Latin American Studies program, and Handwerker Gallery. He delivered a lecture, “The U.S. and Latin America: Recent Events in Honduras,” to a packed house in the Handwerker Gallery. Bourgeois focused mainly on the military coup against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya by two-time WHINSEC graduate Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez and others who were trained at the facility. “You don’t teach democracy behind the barrel of a gun,” Bourgeois says. “You don’t teach democracy behind a chain-link fence that says ‘no trespassing.’”

Patricia Rodriguez, chair of the CUSLAR board and assistant professor of politics at the College, invited two of her classes (Politics and Society, and Political Violence and Human Rights in Latin America) to the lecture. “Father Roy has such a commitment to issues of social justice in Latin America,” says Rodriguez. “This commitment comes from his experiences and from being with the people, and he pursues change through nonviolent means with passion and perseverance, identifying when and where questioning is needed. Along the way he inspires the community and young people to do the same.”

Bourgeois says he is no stranger to the anger that comes from seeing injustices. Yet he believes nonviolent actions, not just words, will bring peace to the world. “Anger cannot consume us,” he says. “If we let it, we will lose our joy.”

Originally published in IC View: A Voice for the Voiceless.

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