Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama, met with a delegation from the SOA Watch movement in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2012.
SOA Watch worked hard to meet with McDonough because he is a critical aide to the President and he has a deep Catholic justice background. A graduate of the College of St. Benedict and Georgetown, Denis comes from a big Catholic family which includes two priests.
Participating for SOA Watch were Congressional Representative James McGovern, Father Roy Bourgeois, Adrianna Portillo-Bartow, Sister Marie Lucey, Father Charles Currie and Bill Quigley.
McDonough admitted he has in the past been a supporter of SOA-WHINSEC but wanted to hear more from the movement. Family members and even former teachers have talked to him about closing the school.
Representative McGovern told him the U.S. underestimates how much of a bad symbol the school is in Latin America. On a recent visit to rural Colombia, grassroots people challenged the U.S. commitment to human rights because of the continued operation of the school. The school is a symbol of all that is wrong with U.S. policy in Latin America.
McDonough did not know and was concerned when McGovern told him the Department of Defense was stonewalling and not releasing the names of the students attending SOA-WHINSEC for the last several years.
Adrianna Portillo-Barrow told McDonough how troops in Guatemala, directed by SOA graduates, executed six members of her family including her 9 and 10 year old daughters. Hundreds of thousands disappeared at the direction of SOA grads. In Latin America, she said, the SOA-WHINSEC is a symbol of horror, pain and suffering and there is deep resentment that it remains open and unaccountable.
Father Roy, Sister Lucey, Father Currie and Bill Quigley highlighted for McDonough:
- A powerful letter from the UAW calling for the school to be closed;
- A multi-page list of religious, labor and human rights organizations supporting the movement;
- That 6 countries have pulled their soldiers out of the school;
- That 140 Catholic bishops in Latin America and even more in the U.S. call for its closure;
- 69 members of Congress have asked the President to close SOA-WHINSEC; and
- Four of the generals responsible for the 2009 coup in Honduras were SOA grads.
“SOA-WHINSEC admits they have a few bad apples,” noted Quigley. “But this is not just a few bad apples; this is a bad orchard that needs to be dug up by its roots.”
Father Roy told how the movement to close the SOA-WHINSEC started 22 years ago after the massacre of 14-year old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. “Closing it would send such a wonderful message to our sisters and brothers in Latin America and to the hundreds of thousands seeking its closure in the U.S.”
President Obama was quite moved when he visited the cathedral in San Salvador where Bishop Romero was assassinated, said McDonough. The justice legacy of Bishop Romero has great personal significance for the President.
McDonough said he has looked hard at this issue but does not support closing the school. He cannot refute the fact that the school historically has been a symbol of human rights violations but he still supports keeping it open. He will read the materials submitted by the delegation and brief President Obama. He said he thought the militaries in Latin America are institutions like the church, flawed but important for those societies. The U.S. has to find ways to work with and influence them to keep them under civilian control and WHINSEC helps that.
Near the end of the meeting, McDonough admitted that he has just recently met with the Chair of the Board of Advisors of SOA-WHINSEC and was impressed by reports of human rights trainings. At present he supports WHINSEC in concept, its reforms and its oversight.
McDonough promised to look into disclosing the names of the students at SOA-WHINSEC and possibly make changes to that policy. He thanked the group for the visit and respected the passion and intentions of the opponents but said he wanted to be candid about his lack of agreement.
As McDonough started to leave, Adrianna Portillo-Bartow made a powerful last plea. Her voice cracking and choking back tears, she asked him why so many hundreds of thousands have had to die and why so many more will have to die. Closing the school is an act of justice, she stated. It is time, she said, now nearly crying, for the U.S. to stand with the people of Latin America, the oppressed, the poor and the persecuted. Moved and respectful, McDonough excused himself.
Our meeting with the White House Deputy National Security Advisor surfaces at least three lessons for our movement.
First, Denis McDonough has not yet joined our movement. This was our first face to face advocacy with him. He was respectful because this is a movement of hundreds of thousands. His refusal to announce the closing of WHINSEC is instructive to all who hoped the re-election of President Obama would automatically open previously closed doors for justice and human rights. Those doors are going to be opened only because WE are pushing them open. So we will.
Second, the fact that he did listen to the movement is important. He is a very busy and important person. He now knows we can educate him with facts about the school that he did not know previously. He is a smart man. I wonder what he thinks about the WHINSEC people not disclosing to him and the White House that they are not even disclosing the names of their students?
Third, it is up to us to continue to educate and agitate the powerful about the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Adrianna’s pure voice of the victims of U.S. policy teaches us again the power of the individual witness and the power of listening to the organized voices of the people most impacted. In a few days we will gather at Ft. Benning to commemorate the martyrs and celebrate the resistance. We will write, lobby, educate, organize and protest. If the Obama administration keeps the school open, we will be back and converge on D.C. in April. The school will close. Accountability will come. Human rights will prevail.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer who teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and works with the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. You can contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.