In a lecture last night, Father Roy Bourgeois, celebrated activist and Catholic priest, delivered the message, “Continue to speak clearly and to act boldly,” as he advocated support for a grassroots effort to oppose present United States foreign policy in Latin America. Bourgeois alleged that U.S. foreign policy, especially through training facilities such as the School of the Americas, aids the Latin American governments’ oppression of its peoples.
A number of Cornell student groups, including the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and the Cornell branch of the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, helped to sponsor the lecture.
Vivian Quan ’10 of CUSLAR introduced the speaker. She joined Bourgeois and 22,000 other activists at an annual vigil and protest of SOA policy outside the grounds in Fort Benning, Georgia in 2006, an area which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC, in 2001. Bourgeois’ yearly vigil, which he describes as a “celebration of hope … a wonderful way to teach peacemaking to our children,” has seen its attendance rate balloon over the years.
Though Bourgeois spoke mainly about U.S. foreign policy in Latin America as represented by the SOA, he began his lecture with a discussion of the situation in Iraq. He said he felt compelled to begin on this note because “this is a very serious, very challenging time.”
This is also a topic with which Bourgeois is deeply involved. He and fellow members of his organization, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), founded in 1990, managed to convince the heads of the governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Venezuela to withdraw their troops from the Middle East region through their Latin America Initiative.
Bourgeois and his fellow activists consider Latin America’s loss of men to Iraq indicative of its victimization by the U.S., as Latin Americans “have all of the responsibilities of our country, but none of the rights.”
A Purple Heart-decorated Naval Officer in the Vietnam War, Bourgeois said that the war in Iraq “saddens me and angers me. It brings back a lot of memories and nightmares.” It is Bourgeois’ experience in Vietnam that galvanized him into a life of political activism. He became convinced that the United States government needlessly waged war at the expense of the lives and souls of its people and of people of foreign nations.
“The poor became my teachers.” Bourgeois said of his five-year-long work with the poor of La Paz, Bolivia, after his entering of the Maryknoll Missionary Order seminary and subsequent ordination in 1972.
Through his interactions with the poverty-stricken indigenous people of Bolivia, Bourgeois discovered that “the vast majority of our brothers and sisters are living on the edge, struggling for survival. This is our world today.” Many of the poor felt victimized by the U.S., who supported repressive Latin American regimes.
“They called the U.S. ‘El Imperio’ — the Empire,” Bourgeois said.
Around this time Bourgeois’ resolve to further assist oppressed Latin Americans was strengthened by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and the subsequent rape and murder of missionaries, including two Maryknoll churchwomen, in the same region — all acts perpetrated by government troops. Bourgeois presented Romero as a model church leader in stark contrast to many church leaders today who look away from the plight of the poor and the horrors of Iraq.
“There are so many bishops who are silent.” Bourgeois said. “It is a betrayal of the faith and of the poor.”
When Bourgeois discovered that the soldiers of repressive Latin American oligarchies responsible for the murders of Romero, the Maryknoll missionaries, and, most infamously, several Jesuits in a 1989 raid on an El Salvador university, had been trained by the U.S. government at the SOA, he immediately set about protesting this “School of Assassins,” as he continues to call it in the pamphlets of his SOAW.
Bourgeois spoke of his activism on behalf of this organization and independently over the years. His activism has landed him in jail several times. Throughout his career of nonviolent activism, he has spent a combined four years in U.S. federal prisons.
Bourgeois remained optimistic about the anti-SOA movement. A Congressional bill to suspend operations of the WHINSEC and to investigate its graduates’ crimes only lost by fifteen votes last year.
According to Jack Gilroy, a prominent member of SOAW’s legislative team and an award-winning author and activist who spoke briefly after Bourgeois’ lecture, the bill has a better chance in the house this year, considering the thirty-five new, mostly Democrat members. When asked for comment regarding the bill’s chance in the senate, Gilroy was slightly less optimistic. According to Gilroy, Senator Charles Schumer (D) has said he will “be with us.”, while Senator Hillary Clinton (D) is “very noncommittal.”
“The American way is not always what is right. It is often ‘Are we going to win?’” said Gilro.
Bourgeois made it clear to his audience that he has no plans to cease his efforts, regardless of the outcome of the vote. He is confident that the SOAW and other grassroots efforts have made a positive impact upon the world and that they will continue to do so.
“We’ve got work ahead of us … the madness continues and we’ve got to stop it,” said Bourgeois. “They [the poor in Latin America] know we are here and that we are connected to their struggle … Joy and hope comes from our organizing and gathering together.”