The House voted early yesterday to effectively close the Army's School of the Americas, which trains officers from Central and South America and has long been accused of fostering human rights abuses by right-wing military regimes.
Lawmakers passed, 230 to 197, an amendment to a foreign aid bill that would eliminate funds for training foreign officers at the facility, located at Fort Benning, Ga. The vote in favor of the amendment, which included 58 Republicans, marked the first victory for human rights and church groups since they began campaigning to close the facility a decade ago.
"I think it sent a tremendously strong signal to the Army and the U.S. government as a whole that our relationship with Latin America ought to focus a lot more on democracy and human rights and a lot less on strengthening the nations' militaries," said Bill Spencer, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit research group.
The vote on the amendment, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), does not mean that the school will close. The Senate version of the foreign aid spending bill includes no such provision, and it is unclear whether Moakley's amendment will survive when House and Senate conferees meet later this summer to resolve differences between the two measures.
The amendment, moreover, affects less than half of the school's overall budget of about $4.5 million, according to congressional estimates. Lawmakers did not cut operating expenses for the school--about $2.5 million a year--which are funded out of the Army's portion of the defense budget.
Still, if the amendment becomes law, it is not clear how the Army could continue to operate the school in the absence of the training funds, analysts said.
A State Department official called the House vote mistaken.
The school, he said, "directly supports our objective of professionalizing Latin American militaries, and that's a fundamental component of our efforts to promote stability and strengthen democratic institutions and reduce human rights abuses." The official noted that the school has added a number of courses aimed at instructing foreign officers on human rights and the rule of law.
But the school remains burdened by the legacy of the Cold War, in particular its close ties to some of the most repressive Latin American governments of the 1970s and 1980s. Graduates have been linked to numerous human rights abuses and atrocities--such as the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989--and include military strongmen such as Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator serving a 40-year prison term in the United States for drug trafficking.
In 1996, the Pentagon disclosed that from 1982 to 1991 the school had used Spanish-language training manuals recommending torture, blackmail and execution in the fight against communist insurgents.
"Put simply, the School of the Americas has trained some of the most brutal assassins, some of the cruelest dictators, and some of the worst abusers of human rights the western hemisphere has ever seen," Moakley said in a statement. "If we don't stand for human rights down in Georgia, how can we possibly expect to promote them anywhere else in the world?"
A spokesman for the school, Nicolas Britto, called Moakley's charges "absolutely false." He added, "We have only one country in Latin America that is not a democracy, and that's Cuba, so I think we have had an impact on encouraging democracy in Latin America. . . . We have more human rights classes than any other military school."