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Film reveals motive of 'School of the Americas'
By Courtney Wade
Protestors, students, and activists wearing solemn masks drifted into the drafty sanctuary of Casa del Pueblo, an aging multicultural church on Columbia Road, seeking to grasp the nature of unjust U.S. foreign policies that have transformed life for the families in many underdeveloped Latin American countries into a surreal, horrific nightmare.
The occasion was a screening of "Hidden In Plain Sight," an explicit documentary about the hidden agendas behind U.S. foreign policy and the execution of these policies through the graduates of the School of the Americas (SOA). The documentary was directed by John H. Smihula, and co-produced by Viví Letsou and Andrés Conteris.
SOA is a controversial military institute in Fort Benning, Ga. and sponsored by the U.S. government. It provides intensive training for soldiers from Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Columbia, Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico. It is notorious for teaching soldiers various brutal forms of torture, kidnapping, rape and murder, specifically in countries where the American government seeks to protect the interests of large corporations like Coca Cola, the GAP, and McDonald's. Conditions are so desolate in the countries affected by the violence and poverty that the native people have renamed SOA the School of the Assassins.
"U.S. forces impose status quo on other countries. Why? It is a rational goal: to make the world safe for the one or two percent at the top of the country that control the wealth," said Michael Parenti, a well-known political thinker, during an interview in the film.
The film featured interviews with Sister Dianna Ortiz, Sandra Alvarez, Hector Aristizabal, and others who all have connections to the struggles of Latin American nations and their people as a they call for reform, adequate wages, health care and other crucial human rights that are almost nonexistent in their homelands.
Sister Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, survived abuse from Guatemalan security forces. Ortiz has written book entitled, 'The Blindfold's Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth,' about her gruesome experiences as a missionary teaching the native language to Guatemalan students.
The film also illustrated what some Americans like Father Roy Bourgeois, have done to terminate SOA. He called for a change in American foreign policy contrary to the current one based on greed and cheap labor. Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch, initiated a protest in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s to convince government officials to close SOA. His and the efforts of many others were successful. However, since then, the government has created the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which has taken over the same operations of SOA.
Smihula, the film's director, is an English professor at the University of Nevada, where he teaches literature, composition, and film. He says it has taken him about two and a half years to produce "Hidden In Plain Sight."
When deciding to take on the immense task of this documentary, Smihula sought to answer key questions concerning U.S. foreign policy in certain Latin American countries. Some of the questions were: What is the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy?; Why has the U.S. been training Latin American soldiers at Fort Benning with U.S. taxpayer money? Is there a connection between this training and the human rights violations committed by hundreds of SOA graduates?
Aerial Longmire, a second year student at Montgomery College in Maryland, watched the film amidst shifting emotions and attitudes. Although she has known about the School of the Americas for over a year through radio programs like "Democracy Now" and "Free Speech Radio" on WPFW, she was still affected by the film's graphic nature.
"Initially I felt utter sadness and sympathy that my tax dollars pay to train others to torture others in other countries," Longmire said. "Then my feelings turned to anger because I am being lied to and taken advantage of [by the government]." Longmire, who also participated in the march and rally against U.S. Intervention in Latin America on Sunday, said she feels a sense of satisfaction that filmmakers like Smihula and Conteris are using their resources and talents to inform and create change.
Alyse Hammonds, a sophomore studying journalism at Howard University, thinks that the documentary lacked some aspects critical to the film's objectivity. "People do need help in their struggle, but at the same time, it needs to be said what the people are doing for themselves," said Hammonds. "Although they talked to some about the guerilla war people, they gave the impression that all efforts of these people are futile."
"Hidden In Plain Sight" has encouraged Longmire to initiate a revolution that will make issues of human rights, poverty, and violence a memory of the distant past. "The real revolution is a total revolution of our government and we put [in] new powers that are not controlled by international banks," Longmire said.
Contact Courtney Wade at District_Chronicles@hotmail.com.