SOA/WHINSEC: What's with the fuss?

As the sun fought through a tattered blanket of grey clouds Tuesday morning, Col. Felix L. Santiago became the third commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He took the reins from Col. Gilberto R. Perez, a 31-year Army veteran who commanded the institute for four years and five months. Before him, Col. Richard D. Downie was in charge. Prior to 2001, the school did not exist, at least not under the acronym, WHINSEC. It was formerly known as the School of the Americas.

The purpose of the institute, according to WHINSEC officials, is to provide professional education and training to eligible men and women of the Western Hemisphere. Ten percent of the content of every course taught at WHINSEC is devoted to democracy, ethics and human rights training. The institute prides itself on its ability to develop leaders in Latin American countries who are interested in learning and applying democratic values, respect for human rights and an understanding of U.S. customs and traditions.

For more on the school's mission, faculty and staff, students and accreditation visit www.benning.army.mil/whinsec.

The School of the Americas (SOA) was established in Panama in 1946. According to watchdog organization, SOAWatch, both SOA and WHINSEC were established as combat training schools for Latin American soldiers. SOAWatch has, for years, called for the closing of the school, citing numerous human rights violations at the hands of many of its graduates. According to the SOAWatch Web site, SOA/WHINSEC has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Contrary to what WHINSEC leaders say, SOAWatch maintains the school is anything but transparent.

Col. Perez, who has over the years repeatedly countered SOAWatch's claims, did so again Thursday in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

"First, the reality is that there has never been a direct linkage of anyone committing a crime or a violation of human rights that has been linked to anything the School of the Americas or WHINSEC taught.

"The second thing we have done is we have continuously engaged with the public, with protesters, with non-governmental organizations related to human rights organizations. We have invited them, we have opened our classrooms, our institute to the media, both national and foreign, to government officials, ministers of defense, diplomats, members of Congress, pastors.

"So the openness of this institution, the willingness that we've had to allow just about anyone to come here, sit in a classroom, see what we teach, read our manuals, read our classes, engage with students, go to the field and see what we're doing in the field. There isn't a single institution in the United States military I believe that is more transparent and more open to the general public to just anyone than WHINSEC. And I know my successor, Gen. Santiago, will continue to follow that kind of policy because it's the right policy. This is paid for by the taxpayer and they have every right to come and see what I'm doing."