October 19, 1999
by Greg Speltz
Fr. Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, visited Mobile last summer to publicize the School of the Americas. He spoke at the U.S.A. campus to an audience of about 80 people on the evening of June 3, and on the previous day he spoke to a larger lunch-time audience at Spring Hill College. Fr. Bourgeois met with Archbishop Lipscomb to discuss the School of the Americas, and he was also interviewed on the radio by David Underhill of WABB-AM.
The following is excerpted from an interview with Fr. Bourgeois.
Q: Fr. Bourgeois, for about ten years youíve dedicated your life to trying to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Why is that so important to you?
A: I have seen first hand the implication of this military training in Latin America, and especially among the poor. The School of the Americas turns out every year about 1,500 soldiers from 18 countries from Latin America trained in combat skills. They return to their home countries and have killed many people and have been involved in many human rights abuses like torture and rape.
Historically in Latin America, the military have been used to support an economic system that has kept the rich rich and the poor poor. The victims throughout the years have been the poor and those who have worked with the poor -- human rights advocates, labor and church leaders. Those who have worked with the poor have been killed and disappeared, tortured, and raped, and this school is a big part of that. It keeps the military entrenched in power. Until civilians come into power, there really cannot be a better life for the poor in Latin America. While there are civilian presidents now in some countries, they were dictators and the real power is still in the hands of the military. They have the power to call the shots.
Q: How did you first get involved?
A: After college graduation with a degree in geology from Southwestern Louisiana University, I became a naval officer. I thought of making the military a career. In my last year I volunteered for shore duty in Vietnam, believing our leaders that we had to go there to fight communism. Vietnam was a turning point in my life. Losing friends and being wounded while I was there caused me to think seriously about things Iíd never thought about before and to look at my faith more seriously. I met a missionary in Vietnam caring for some 300 orphans near the base where I was stationed, and that led me to think about missionary work.
After Vietnam I entered the Maryknoll community. Then after being ordained a priest I was assigned to Bolivia. It was in Bolivia that I saw first-hand the brutality of the military and the School of the Americas. I was living there under the dictator General Hugo Banzer, who had come into power through a violent coup. General Banzer was not only a graduate of the School of the Americas, but in 1988 was inducted into the Schoolís Hall of Fame. I saw first-hand the brutality of the military toward the poor. The poor taught me about my countryís foreign policy, about the CIA and the multinational corporations coming into the country seeking profits. Of course, itís the military there that allows these sweatshops and the miltinational corporations to exploit the resources and the people.
I was forced out of Bolivia during my fifth year because of my work with university students in a human rights commission. Ten of us at the university were arrested. I was forced out and became very involved in addressing US foreign policy in Latin America.
In November, 1989 there was a massacre in El Salvador. Six Jesuit priests, their co- worker and her young daughter were dragged out of their rooms at the University at San Salvador. Most of these priests were well-known scholars at the University. After the massacre of the six Jesuits and two women, a U.S. congressional task force from Washington went to San Salvador to investigate and reported that those responsible were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Thatís when I went to Columbus, Georgia, the home of Fort Benning, where the School of Americas is located. I found a small apartment outside the main gate of Fort Benning and started the School of the Americas Watch. It was there that friends and I began to document the school.
Q: Can you comment on the development of your movement? How many people are involved now?
A: In the early days we had a handful of college students, a Vietnam veteran who had a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Jesuit priest, a couple of Dominicans, and a couple of San Salvadorans. Every November we gathered at the main gate to commemorate the massacre of the six Jesuits and the two women and all other victims who were killed by the graduates of the School. Last November we had 7,000 people gathered there, including sixteen people from Mobile. Over the years we took the documents we gathered from members of Congress, through human rights groups from Latin America, and through the Freedom of Information Act, and we began to piece together what we found. What we saw was the School of Assassins operating on US soil, all paid for by US taxpayers. This coming November we want 10,000 people at the main gate of Fort Benning to call for its closure. Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, another victim of the School killed for his defense of the poor, said: ďThose who have a voice must speak for the voiceless.Ē We have a voice and we are speaking for people whose voices have been silenced.
Q: There are people who defend the School. In fact, the legislator who represents this area in Washington is among the defenders of the School. Their claim is that there may have been some irregularities in the past, but those irregularities have been corrected. What is your response to that?
A: You know, theyíve done a little window dressing; they put a four-hour human rights course in their curriculum, which is a joke really. This is not going to change the behavior of these soldiers, who came here from very violent institutions. The issue is not complicated. Itís about men with guns, and itís about suffering and death of the poor. Itís about oppression. Before they said the School was important during the Cold War to fight communism. Now, with the Cold War behind us, they say, ďThe School is important to teach democracy to the soldiers and to fight the drug war.Ē About the democracy issue -- you donít teach democracy through the barrel of a gun. If you want to teach democracy, close down the School and send those soldiers to US universities. Thatís where they learn democracy. As for fighting the drug war: As a former instructor at the School told us in a recent video called ďAn Insider Speaks Out,Ē it is common knowledge that in Latin America and at the School of the Americas, these soldiers from Latin America, especially many of officer rank, are involved in money laundering.
Q: Youíve got supporters but youíve got some detractors. I read in one of their reports, and this is a quotation referring to you: ďHe violated the principle of democracy by aiding the communist rebels that were attempting to take over the democratically elected government of El Salvador. He actively participated on patrols with the guerrillas.Ē Whatís your response to that?
A: Itís the old ďad hominemĒ argument. They attack the messenger, trying to discredit the person whoís bringing a message thatís very threatening to them. After the death of Archbishop Romero and four US churchwomen, two of the friends of the Maryknoll community, who were raped and killed by the soldiers from El Salvador who are graduates of the School, I returned to El Salvador to investigate what was going on. What I found was those M-16s that were used to shoot these four churchwomen were given to the soldiers by my country. I came back from El Salvador and became a real critic of US foreign policy and joined many, many people in speaking out against military aid to Latin America. I found that they do not want to debate the issue. ďLetís go after the Maryknoll priest, Roy Bourgeois. Letís call him a guerrilla. Letís call him a Marxist.Ē Thatís the way it works in Central America, especially in El Salvador. Anyone whoís opposed to the government, calling for land reform, talking about just wages, critical of the military, they label them a subversive, an insurgent, a communist. I mean the six Jesuit priests that were teaching at the university, discussing information about who owns the land and why thereís so much poverty in the country, they were branded insurgents and communists. That made them ďEl enemigo,Ē the enemy, and they have become the targets of those who have learned their lessons at the School of Americas.
Q: Youíre a Catholic priest. What about the position of the US Bishop? Do you have their support?
A: To be very honest, it disappoints me as a Catholic priest not to see more Catholic clergy and bishops working on this issue from the very beginning. I want to say that while itís very sad that they were not the first group to come forward and call for its closure, the Presbyterian Church USA with its 6 million members, way back in 1993, was the first church body to pass a resolution calling for the schoolís closure. Since then the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and other faith communities are on board. Though a little late, 117 of US Catholic Bishops have signed on to a resolution calling for the closing of the School of the Americas. We hope that sometime later this year they, as a body of Catholic Bishops, can denounce this School.
However, many clergies are silent. They see this issue as controversial. Well, I donít see anything in the scriptures that says, ďIf an issue is controversial, donít get involved in it.Ē I donít see how anyone can become involved in peace and justice issues without being seen as controversial.
Q: Now, if you succeed in closing the School, is that the end of your mission? Or do you see something else beyond that?
A: This School is the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that the majority of our sisters and brothers are struggling for survival. They live in shacks. No running water. No schools or very few. When their kids are sick, no medicine is available to treat them. So many of them die before the age of three or four. Itís out of that reality that weíve got their soldiers coming to our country, not to learn how to be teachers or doctors, nurses, health care workers or agronomists, carpenters, things that are going to improve the quality of life, but skills like commando operations and psychological warfare. Thatís outrageous; itís a crime.
I want to mention something very important too. Joseph Moakley, representative from Massachusetts, has introduced Bill HR 732 which calls for the closing of the School. Last year we came within eleven votes of cutting off the funding. Iím hopeful that we can change the views of your local representative, Sonny Callahan. During my visit here, I met with one of his senior staff members. Rep. Callahan supports the school, but I think heís also open to be educated on this issue. So letters to Mr. Callahan, asking basically how he can support a school like this with our hard earned tax money, are important. At least say, ďI donít want my tax money used this way. Letís use that money for our University here. Letís use that money for kids in schools in Mobile.Ē
Q: How much tax money are we talking about?
A: Weíre talking about $20 million. They like to say itís about $4 million, but according to our calculations, if you include transportation, the food and lodging, medical care, we are talking about $20 million. $20 million can go a long way here in Mobile.
Q: Youíve been at it ten years. What keeps you going?
A: What keeps me going is my experience, first of all in Latin America, the experience of seeing what the poor have gone through and continue to go through because of the military there. All of the poverty, all the land being concentrated in the hands of a small group, the oligarchies and dictators, the system thatís lived off of the poor, that caused untold suffering to millions in Latin America is propped up by our government through this School and its training and giving arms and aid to those soldiers. I see that still going on today; it hasnít changed. What I feel strongly about is that it doesnít have to be this way. I feel I want to dedicate the rest of my life in solidarity with the poor of Latin America and the poor here at home. I want to work for a foreign policy of our country thatís really going to be based on justice and compassion and not on greed and exploitation.