The RW Interview:
Father Roy Bourgeois:
Father Roy Bourgeois is a leading activist in the School of Americas Watch (SOAW). The SOAW is dedicated to shutting down the U.S. Army's School of Americas, which trains military officers and soldiers from pro-U.S. regimes throughout Latin America. Among the 60,000 graduates of the School are notorious pro-U.S. dictators such as Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have been involved in many atrocities such as the massacre of 900 people at El Mozote in El Salvador.
The Revolutionary Worker interviewed Roy Bourgeois last July at the Federal Correctional Facility in Estill, South Carolina. At the time, he was serving a six-month jail term, and he had just gotten out of solitary confinement. He was among 22 protesters convicted for criminal trespass--what the SOAW calls "crossing the line" into Fort Benning, the Army base where SOAW is located. Since this interview was conducted, Bourgeois has been released from prison. In November, he took part in the SOAW's annual protest at Fort Benning, and he has been on a national speaking tour.
How does it feel to be a political prisoner in the United States?
Roy Bourgeois: Prison is hard, it's a lonely place. I've been in now 14 months. Six months, another six months--over the years, it adds up. It doesn't get any easier. But let me say this: I feel free in prison, because the truth cannot be silenced. And this is what I said to the judge. Before we were sentenced we had an opportunity to speak. Each of us spoke from the heart, and my message was a simple one. The judge, Robert Elliot, has been sending us to prison now for years, giving us the maximum. "Maximum Bob"--longtime racist who jailed Martin Luther King and caused a lot of problems for the civil rights movement. I said, "You are sending us to prison with the belief that you are going to scare us off and instill fear in our movement. It will not work. You cannot silence the truth. We will speak from prison. When we get out of prison, we are going to return in larger numbers. We are going to keep returning until we shut that School of Assassins down." So here I am, in prison. It's hard. What was really difficult, I spent 38 days in the hole, solitary confinement.
How did that come about?
RB: You have to work in prison. And I simply said, "Those soldiers who did the killing, the raping, the torture--when they go to prison, I will work." I went on a work strike. I was handcuffed, brought across the street to the big house, maximum security. It was very difficult. I was confined to a small cell, about this size, six by nine. We were allowed outside one hour a day. Food was brought to you there. You have a lot of time to think. You're with yourself. A lot of solitude. People say, "Well, I like solitude." You don't like solitude! Toughest thing I've ever been through. But, like Martin Luther King said, when you're in prison, you say long prayers, you think long thoughts. And I wrote some long letters, kept a diary. I got through it. Not only did I survive, but it strengthened me. It was a time, I think, to renew my hope and energy in the struggle, because when I get out of here, we got a lot of work to do. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of work, a lot of hope. You can get burned out in this work. The demands are so intense at times. You don't get enough sleep. You don't get enough rest, it starts tearing us down. And often, it starts having an effect on your compaņeros and compaņeras. I really believe this work for justice, for peace, should be joyful work. It's heavy, it's heavy. It's about suffering, it's about death. I feel we've got to hold on to our hope.
A lot of my time is spent answering correspondence. We get a lot of letters--from college students, senior citizens, priests, nuns, high school kids, grammar school kids--expressing their solidarity. Those letters have to be answered, and that is a full time job. What I do, though, is not just say, "Thank you." It's also to encourage them. I have a list: "What you can do to help close the School of the Americas." Letter writing to newspapers, to Congress; take our excellent videos and show them to your co-workers, your fellow students, your friends, relatives. You don't have to be a big organizer, you just need the desire. Spread the word. A big thing is: Come to Columbus, Georgia every November 22 and join the thousands gathering there. Cross the line. We are looking for over a thousand first-time offenders. We will have a number of second-time offenders who are willing to go to prison for six months. Martin Sheen and Jennifer Harbury will be with us, crossing the line for the very first time.
Will you be trespassing again?
RB: There's a time for me to cross the line, there's a time not to cross the line. I need the next year or two to stay out of prison. This coming year will be full-time travelling--educating people, mobilizing people, calling people to action. Something very important also: We are going to set up around the country School of Americas Watch (SOAW) in every state, in major cities.
When I heard about the school in 1990, I was living out of the Maryknoll Center in Minneapolis. I decided to come down to Georgia to investigate. I spent four, five days in Columbus and went on to Ft. Benning. Talked with the soldiers there, was able to go on the firing range. I saw all those soldiers from Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico--they were from 17 countries in Latin America. When I saw them on the firing range with those M-16s, that noise, that noise! This is where they practice! This is where they are armed and trained to kill! And it became very clear: We have to come here! I went back to Minneapolis to clear my schedule. Meanwhile, I started calling friends. We had some peace activists, two Salvadorans, couple of Vietnam vets, Jesuit and Dominican priests. We came and we started a very serious hunger strike, right at the main gates at Ft. Benning. We camped out there. We had 10 of us fasting on our hunger strike.
After 37 days, we ended the fast. The first anniversary of the massacre of the six Jesuits and the two women in El Salvador was approaching--this was November 16, 1990. Charlie Litecky, myself and his brother Patrick, we drove on to Ft. Benning, to the Headquarters. And we had with us in our pockets these containers of blood, our blood, drawn by a nurse. And we had a letter to the commandant, calling for the closing of the School. And we had photos of the massacre. We went in, unexpected, into the School's "Hall of Fame" where they had pictures of all the graduates of the School. We took the blood and threw it all over the walls. The photos and the letter to the commandant were left there. We said the blood was a symbol of the bloodshed all over Latin America, which is connected to this School. We were arrested within minutes. That got us a year and two months in prison.
At that point, did you know that the SOAW was something that you would be doing for a long time?
RB:The first year or two, we didn't have a long-range plan. What we had was this rage, this immediacy: This is incredible, that this School is operating! No one knew about it in our country. We wanted to call attention in a dramatic way. I believe in civil disobedience to educate people, to shake people up.
Shortly after I got out of prison, the United Nations Truth Commission report on El Salvador was made public. What we had was the UN reporting on those atrocities in El Salvador. It showed that 73 percent of those cited for human rights abuses in the report were graduates of the SOA. In the case of the massacre of the six Jesuits, 19 out of 26 were graduates. Archbishop Romero, gunned down at the altar--of the three responsible, two were graduates of the School. The biggest massacre, El Mozote, when 900 men, women, and children killed--of the 12 officers responsible, 10 had trained at the School. We discovered that it wasn't only El Salvador. We had human rights reports coming out of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras. These reports were very difficult to get out of those countries. In every case, we could be sure of one thing: that that atrocity, that rape, that torture, was connected to the SOA. We discovered a School of Assassins!
And among them, some very famous people: Noriega, Cedras, Banzer...
RB: General Hugo Banzer! I came to this issue having spent five years in Bolivia, working with the human rights commission, working with the poor, building a school or hospital, a clinic or daycare center. The oppression under General Banzer, a brutal dicator, whom the U.S. supported. My work with the human rights commission led to my arrest.
You were arrested in Bolivia?
RB: Yes. Lots of university students and professors were being arrested, too. Banzer came into power through a violent coup. I didn't know anything at the time about the SOA. We formed a human rights commission there--students, tin miners, factory workers. This led to my arrest. I had to leave the country in 1976 as persona non grata, and could not return. I left, I came back to the U.S., got involved in El Salvador. This was shortly after Bishop Romero was killed. My focus became El Salvador. Like a lot of people, I was filled with rage and anger about what my country was doing to the people of Latin America. At that time, I was involved with CISPES. Nobody knew anything about the SOA. The SOA was still in Panama, operating out of the jungle there.
In 1983 they moved the school from Panama to Fort Benning. Hundreds of Salvadoran soldiers were arriving at Ft. Benning. I came to Columbus because I read in the New York Times that these Salvadorans were being moved to Ft. Benning. I rented a little apartment, called it "Casa Romero." We talked to churches, students. After three months, we said, "It's time to stop talking. Let's take the message to the soldiers." And this is where civil disobedience came in. Three of us, with support from our larger group, went on to Ft. Benning. Friends from Chicago had sent me a tape of Archbishop Oscar Romero's last sermon in Spanish, that he gave at the cathedral the day before he was assassinated. He made this special appeal to the men in the military--"appeal to those in the barracks," he called it--where he said, "Stop the killing! Lay down your arms! Disobey your superiors who are telling you to kill! Cese la opression! Stop the oppression!"
This message, we said, we want to take to the Salvadoran soldiers at Ft. Benning! How do we do that? You don't have to be a genius to figure out you dress like soldiers. We got these army uniforms, with ranks. Mine was a colonel--I should have gone as a general! It was night. We went in as these high-ranking officers. Security was a lot tighter then. They had these MP stations set up by the gate, checkpoints. We had a very powerful boom box to play the sermon. We penetrated the high security area right near the barracks. And we had with us some tree climbers. We had practiced this before out in the woods, on pine trees. I got up on a tree about 30 feet high with the boom box strapped to me. We waited until the last lights went out. And then we said, "Bishop Romero, this is for you, brother!" This was a powerful boom box. It just boomed into the barracks: "Stop the killing! Stop the oppression!" It was one of those special moments, sacred moments. They came out of the barracks, some of these young soldiers. They couldn't see us, they couldn't get to us. Some of them were scared, hearing this voice coming out of the woods! We messed up their training big time! They were very upset with us--got us down from the tree, worked us over, handcuffed us, kicked us around, called in the FBI. They charged us with criminal trespassing, impersonating an officer. We went before judge Robert Elliot for the first time. He gave us 18 months.
This is the same judge who pardoned Lt. Calley, the commanding officer at the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
You spent time in Vietnam. How does it make it you feel, to be sentenced by this man repeatedly?
RB: It's sickening. Let me say this about Vietnam. It's part of my history, you can't deny this. I came to this struggle in steps, through experiences. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, in a very conservative, hard working, working class family. Public high school. Sports were important. Off to college, at the state university, to study geology, hoping to get rich in the oil fields. I wanted to get rich, you know. How do you do that? Oil! The poor, the struggle, solidarity--they weren't a part of my vocabulary. I was a product of my home town, my college, football games. I got out of college, the Vietnam war was on. I was a patriotic young man--"My country needs me!" I became a naval officer. I got my commission, was on board a ship for two years, did a lot of travelling, loved the sea. I was a navigator, and it was a good life--see the world, my ticket out of Louisiana. I went to Athens, Greece for a year. I had another year to go. I could have had it out at the beaches of Greece. They started asking for volunteers for Vietnam. And this crazy Cajun--I'm serious! I wasn't critical. The President, the generals, they know best. They are saying, "We got to go there to fight communism. We stop it in `Nam, or we stop it in California!" [Laughs] Really!
When I got to Vietnam I said, "What the hell did I do?" Vietnam was a turning point. I lost some friends there, I was wounded, and I just wanted to come home. It was a bad place to be. A lot of suffering, a lot of death. But this is what happened. Near the base where I was stationed, there was this orphanage run by a missionary priest from Canada trying to care for about 300 kids. Working, working, working, with so little resources. I would go over, and talk my buddies into going with me, collect some money to buy some food, clothes, the basics. As the months unfolded, I'm doing volunteer work when I can. And I'm thinking, "This is what I ought to be doing. What am I doing here as a soldier?"
I started having problems because I was writing home and collecting donations for this orphanage. People were generous, and pretty soon we had enough for two orphanages. They started sending toys, other things. Guys organized a big Christmas party for the kids. The commandant said, "Hey, you're spending too much time at the orphanage." And I thought, "What do you have against kids?" But I was beginning to enter the culture of the people, seeing the Vietnamese as people. They sent us there, to a culture so much older than ours, so rich. We knew nothing about its history, its people. "We're going there to kill the communists, man!" Well, what happened was, I saw how these kids were suffering. A lot of their parents were killed with bombs, with napalm. A lot of these kids were wounded by the napalm we dropped. I got into some hot water, but it became evident that I wasn't called to stay in the military.
I left Vietnam, came home, was a hometown hero type of sorts. But then I left the military. I was accepted into the Maryknoll order, whose focus was working with the poor overseas, in the Third World. I spent the next six years in a comfortable seminary out east, was finally ordained a Catholic priest, and then assigned to work at our mission in Bolivia. And it was in Bolivia where I really was educated.
When we go overseas, the people we go to be in solidarity with become our teachers. And this is what happened to me. I got a small room in a slum of La Paz, Bolivia after I got out of language school. Cost me $12 a month, no running water. I just wanted to try to be with the people, learn about their culture, their struggle. They taught me about my country's foreign policy and how we were supporting Gen. Banzer. They taught me about the CIA. The CIA was very active there, working against the movement in the universities, in the tin mines. They taught me about the multinationals coming in to exploit the cheap labor, the resources. You've got a small elite, the oligarchies, the few chosen families, who, over time, confiscate more and more of the land. They've got in their hands the power and the wealth, but can't hang on to it by themselves. They are rich, but they are weak. The only way they can hold on to their power is through the military. The role of the military becomes to protect the oligarchies. When the poor, who are oppressed, struggle for adequate housing, food, medicines, running water, when they begin to organize in their unions, in their factories, when they begin to speak out--they are drowned in blood.
You got a system now in operation in Latin America--each country is somewhat different, but very similar. There's the small elite, the ruling class. You've got the military that's entrenched. But every now and then there comes a time--like in Nicaragua during the Somoza years. The Somoza family couldn't just hold on forever--the poor eventually will triumph as they organize. When the ruling elite can no longer do it themselves to keep the poor down, when the poor become too strong, that's where the SOA comes in. They send thousands and thousands of soldiers there. Six thousand of the Somozan National Guard. During the days of Pinochet in Chile they sent soldiers. At the height of the repression in Bolivia during Banzer, they sent many thousands of soldiers to the SOA where they were armed and trained, given the equipment to reinforce the system.
How would you describe then the relationship between the U.S. ruling class and their client rulers across South America?
RB: It's all interrelated, it's all connected. The wealthy elite of Latin America are connected to the wealthy here.
That's the funding for the school.
RB: Oh yes, surely. This issue, I have to say, is not a complicated one. It's about suffering. It's about death. It's about repression. It's about keeping the vast majority of the people of Latin America poor. Whenever I give talks, I'm going to make it very clear: The starting point of this issue is not this School, but it is the reality under which our sisters and brothers live in Latin America. And what is that reality? Go there, on a delegation, as a tourist. You will see intense suffering and pain and oppression. Just look around, you don't have to talk. Just observe. The vast majority of our brothers and sisters there are living on the edge. They will die before their time. Their children are going to bed hungry. They need medicines. They need schools. They need hospitals. They need adequate housing. And there is no reason, no reason at all, why human beings today in 1998 should live under those conditions. Just with a little research, we should be able to understand the role of Latin America's military. It's filled with horror stories. Their role historically has been very important--and that is to keep that system going that has kept the poor on edge and the small elite in power. The School of Americas is connected to that.
I believe that the vast majority of people throughout this country are compassionate people. If we have the right knowledge, the awareness, about what's causing this suffering, I believe people will respond. In this issue there are two sides. It's not a whole lot of complicated stuff here. There is the poor--that's the starting point. And the cause of their suffering is this system that the military has been protecting. It couldn't be done without the military. And there's the United States supplying the aid, the arms, the training. The way I see it, we've got to take a side: We've got to decide, are we going to be on the side of the poor who are watching their children die before their time--or are we going to be on the side of the military. There is no hope for a better life for the poor improving the quality of their lives and healing their suffering as long as the military is in control. And what the SOA is all about is keeping them in control.
There's been a lot of talk by the U.S. government recently, with the last two Summits of the Americas behind them, that now Latin America is "democratized." They say, "Well, there are these civilian leaders in office, aren't things different now." What do you have to say about that?
RB: What's different? People are suffering more now than ever before! Nothing has changed. If anything, it's worse. I do have to say, there have been some steps forward. But nothing has changed for the poor, the vast majority. They are suffering as they did before. What hasn't changed is this: Who's in power? The same people! The oligarchies, the military, the small elite. Case in point: A reporter came to the SOAW office to do a story. She worked for La Prensa, the biggest paper in Guatemala. She goes to the SOA, spends most of the day there, then she comes to the SOAW office and talks with me. My first question was: "How are you going to do a story on Guatemala and the School of the Americas when some of the key players, like Gen. Hector Gamacho, former defense minister, is responsible for the death of thousands?" She said, "We have a civilian president. However the military is still in power. They control the press, they control the judicial system. We have in our newspaper what is called self-imposed censorship." They know what they can write and what they can't. You know something? That article didn't make it! Nor will it make it.
So about democracy: I know what Bill Clinton and some members of Congress and the School of the Americas are saying: "We are teaching democracy and human rights." This is their biggest lie.
Take a look at the course curriculum of the SOA. You can get the course catalog, a list of all the courses. The Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, a local paper, did a piece about this. They went to the School and dug out their records from 1990 to 1997. They checked out the most popular courses, which are the combat courses. The "human rights" courses, the "democratic sustainment" course, are very few, a handful. Thousands of courses deal with counter-insurgency techniques, guns, combat skills. They train the new soldiers to go back and do their dirty work.
At the same time that they are putting the "human rights" stuff front, it has come out that the SOA have been using these CIA training manuals all along.
RB: Very important! They've always denied that these manuals existed. We knew! We've heard! We went down to Latin America and documented cases of torture. But they've always denied it. In 1996, when we were doing time in the Atlanta Federal Prison for protesting, that's when the story broke in the front pages of the newspapers. There were these manuals used at the SOA which advocated torture, disappearing people, spying and infiltration of civic groups, going into any group that opposed the government.
This School is beyond reform. How can there be any reform? We don't want this School reformed! Let me say this: There is so much evil, so much horror, so much suffering, so much rape and torture connected to the School. It cannot be reformed. It's got to be shut down!
You don't want a "kinder, gentler" School of Assassins! Do you think that closing the School at that site in Fort Benning is actually going to signify any real change in U.S. foreign policy?
RB: This is what is certain: That School is going to close! That is certain. They are under intense pressure to try and put a good spin on this School. They're going to talk about the drug war. They're going talk about democracy. They're going to talk about their four-hour human rights course. There's no acknowledgement at all of the past atrocities and the hundreds of soldiers, the graduates, that have been involved in all these cases of torture. They say, "Maybe there were a few bad apples"! I would not want to have their job--trying to defend these thugs who have blood on their hands. I want to say this to them: You trying to defend your little soldiers, puts blood on your hands! How dare you defend these thugs, these bullies?
I am convinced that there's no turning back for us. The U.S. public is smart enough. And they are going to have to convince the public that the U.S. military and the Latin American military are the good guys. These are all lies. I have confidence in the public. As long as they keep the School open, we're going to educate! It's very difficult at times to find a teachable moment, to find something like the SOA, where you can put your hands on it. It's in our backyard and, very important, it's our money. Where does all the money come from to bring these soldiers in, to house them, to train them? It's our tax money. This is a big point, because people are angry to see how their money is being used this way, in the midst of budget cuts to the universities, to daycare facilities, to the elderly, to AIDS programs, etc., etc.
We'll close the school. And when we do, we'll have one hell of a big fiesta at the gates. Because we will have learned that when people come together--students, working people, retired people, church people, women and men, so many people, young and old--when we come together and organize, we can change things. But closing the school, I feel, will simply teach us that we can empower ourselves and learn from this, and move on. The struggle continues.
It's a step towards abolishing all oppression.
RB: Yes. It's got to be put into the bigger context of militarism, of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and throughout the Third World. Also, policies that affect the poor here at home. It's all connected. This issue is not a separate entity. It's not something that is separated from other causes. This is very important. What we will learn, again, is that closing the School is going to energize even more people.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary