The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), also known as the School of the Americas (SOA) is a major United States endeavor to prevent the creation of hostile regimes in the Western Hemisphere, thereby improving the National Security of the United States. It is a classic example of a good idea and a noble goal that was poorly executed.
It is undeniable that a handful of the graduates of the School of the Americas took part in crimes against humanity. The school trained Special Forces and police of many Central and South American nations in an effort to give those nations the means to successfully prevent hostile or abusive regimes in the region. The manuals given to students, however, contained methods to control a population through fear, rewarding the death of enemy combatants with bounties and methods that could be (and were) used to torture the populace of those countries. These policies are abhorrent and were a mistake on the part of the United States, the Department of Defense and the graduates of SOA that used them. However, this is indicative of the need to change those policies, not of a need to abandon the entire plan. To that end, in 1992 the Department of Defense retracted the offensive manuals, officially declared them to be contrary to the policy of the United States and stopped teaching things that violated human rights.
The School of the Americas was created during the Cold War to prevent the spread of communism to this hemisphere. This was consistent with the policy of the US government since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared that the US would not tolerate interference of European powers in the Western Hemisphere. Aiding and training friendly governments remains the policy of the US to this day. America and the Western Hemisphere is dramatically different today than it was in the Cold War, but the threats to freedom are no less significant and the needs of our allies are no less real. Venezuela, under the leadership of Hugo Chavez is moving ever closer to dictatorship status and it is influencing other governments to follow suit – Bolivia is a prime example under “President” Evo Morales. Venezuela has also threatened the security of a real democracy in the area in Columbia. Columbia is a good example of WHINSEC graduates appropriately using their training. The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia rebels (FARC), allegedly supported by Venezuela and the Drug Cartels, have been kept in check thanks to the training the Columbian military has received at SOA. Drug Cartels themselves have seen their power decrease markedly since the days of Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel’s army of mercenaries ruled half of Columbia, thanks in large part, to US training and assistance.
Closing the School of the Americas would be a grave mistake and would jeopardize the security of a region that more than ever needs to be able to protect itself. To be clear, SOA should not train its graduates to manipulate people through fear or to torture victims. However, it should provide true Democracies with a level of security available through a trained military, because the change in the world order has not removed the threat to freedom that continues to thrive where people are least able to protect themselves.
It is morally right and tactically sound to provide democracies committed to freedom with troops trained for excellence and imbedded with traditional values associated with Democracy and the US Military. No one can argue that the policies of SOA were abhorrent and demanded change. But if changes have been made and similar threats remain, abandoning the policy would be foolhardy and not in the best interests of the United States. The need for improvement is not grounds for the dismissal of a program. WHINSEC needed improvement, and it got it. It is probably true that there are many things that it could still do better, and if changes can be made to improve the end result created by SOA then let’s make them. No program in this country is perfect, nor is this country by any means perfect. The continual quest to better ourselves is a large part of what makes this country great, and it is a quintessential component to what it means to be an American. So let’s improve the SOA. Let’s teach not just skills and tactics, but values and decency. Let’s choose our allies with care and not out of fear or convenience. Ultimately, let us carry on the American tradition of continually seeking betterment and support the School of the Americas as a means to protect freedom and ensure the safety and security of this nation and our neighbors.