The House of Representatives rejected an effort Friday to close down an Army school for Latin American military officers that opponents called a “School of the Dictators.”
The 217-175 vote killed an amendment that would have barred the Pentagon from spending any money on the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga. It marked the second time in less than a year that the House has backed the controversial school.
The House took the action as it worked on a $263-billion defense authorization bill for next year.
Opponents, led by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the school’s graduates include former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega and some of the El Salvador officers accused of killing six Jesuit priests.
“The fact is that this is a school that has (produced) more dictators than any other school in the world,” Kennedy said. He said it is called the “School of the Dictators.”
But supporters said only a few of the school’s 58,000 graduates have been human-rights abusers and said the school promotes democracy and military respect for human rights in Latin America.
“Jesus Christ had 12 apostles, one of whom went wrong,” said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). “You wouldn’t tell the other 11 to disperse because one went wrong.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland) said many Latin Americans believe that the school is where “their most brutal and vicious oppressors honed their military skills.”
“What better form of symbolism than to say that we walk away from the tyranny of training oppressors,” Dellums said.
Church activists who had been fasting on the Capitol steps for 40 days to protest the continued operation of the school left shortly after the vote, vowing to take their message to the constituents of those lawmakers who supported the school.
“It is disappointing, I must acknowledge that, because so many of us around the country have been working so hard,” said Father Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest who led the fast. “But I feel that the spirit is strong, that our hope will not be diminished.”
Friday’s vote was considerably closer than the 256-174 vote last September against an amendment that would have cut $3 million from the school’s operating budget. Although opponents of the school picked up only one vote, supporters lost 39.
In other action, the House rejected, 229 to 166, an effort to terminate production of D-5 long-range nuclear missiles for Trident submarines.
President Clinton told the House in a letter that termination of the program “would severely limit our ability to support the U.S. Trident program which is the backbone of the U.S. (nuclear) deterrent well into the next century.”