SOA protests continue; Church expels activist priest

The 22nd annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), brought several thousand activists to the Army’s Fort Benning base in Columbus, Georgia, for a series of events from Nov. 16 to Nov. 18. One demonstrator, Robert Norman Chantal of Americus, Georgia, was arrested when he climbed over the base’s fence during the concluding event, a symbolic funeral march, on Nov. 18. He was released later on his own recognizance, according to a Fort Benning representative. Chantal, who faces a possible six-month sentence, will be tried in a US District Court on Jan. 9.

The protest’s sponsor, SOA Watch, opposes the US Army’s training of Latin American soldiers, charging that SOA graduates have been among the region’s most notorious human rights violators. The group’s protests have gained some sympathy in Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela have ended their relations with the school, and in September Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega told a human rights delegation that Nicaragua will withdraw from SOA/WHINSEC. There may also some movement in US ruling circles. On Nov. 14 Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser to US president Barack Obama, met with an SOA Watch delegation; the group asked for the school to be shut down by executive order. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) is planning to introduce legislation in Congress in January to suspend operations at the school and investigate human rights abuses in Latin America. (SOA Watch press release, Nov. 18; Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Nov. 18)

On Nov. 19, the day after this year’s protests, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic religious order, issued a statement confirming that the Vatican was dismissing SOA Watch’s founder, Father Roy Bourgeois, from the priesthood and from his order for participating in an August 2008 rite ordaining a woman as a priest. Bourgeois said that the dismissal was “very difficult and painful” but that his “only regret is that it took me so long to confront the issue of male power and domination in the Catholic Church.” (Religion News Service, Nov. 21, via Washington Post)

The Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH) responded to the decision with a statement noting Bourgeois’ solidarity with Hondurans after the June 2009 military coup and praising him as “a humanist, a tireless fighter for the imparting of justice, a defender of the poor and a companion to social struggles throughout the continent.” (Adital, Brazil, Nov. 23) Bourgeois’ supporters have started an online petition where people can express their solidarity with his “decision to follow his conscience.”

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 25.