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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April 13, 2021: Latin American Invasions: The School of the Americas

[April 17th marks the 50th anniversary of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy U.S. invasions and interventions of Latin American nations, leading up to a weekend Guest Post on the Dominican Republic from a colleague, friend, and DR scholar!]

On three telling stages in the history of a longstanding, controversial US government institution.

1)      The Latin American Ground School: In 1946 the U.S. government formed the Latin American Training Center-Ground Division (soon shortened to the Latin American Ground School) at Fort Amador in the Panama Canal Zone. The institution’s official purpose was to provide a location for “administrative tasks involved in training the increasing number of Latin Americans attending U.S. service schools in the Canal Zone,” and that certainly was a central function of the training center for its first couple decades (and remains one today, on which more below). But the 1946 origin point was far from coincidental, as from the beginning the center represented an overt attempt to use U.S. military and governmental power to push Latin America and the Western Hemisphere away from potential Soviet/communist influences. That would all become far more overt still after the 1959 Cuban revolution, as illustrated by President Kennedy’s 1961 order that the center teach tactics “to thwart armed communist insurgencies.”

2)      The School of the Americas: Just two years after Kennedy’s order, the center’s name was formally changed to the “U.S. Army School of the Americas,” and the official language of instruction was changed to Spanish. Those steps would seem to reflect an increasing emphasis on Latin American communities and audiences, and yet over the next few years, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and military personnel would train at the school. They did so as part of the Jungle Operations Committee and Course, a program which utilized the school’s setting to train soldiers and personnel destined for the unfolding war in Vietnam. At the same time, elements of the Vietnam conflict influenced the trainings offered at the school, including (according to both historians and former instructors like Major Joseph Blair), illegal subjects such as torture and assassination. The school’s relationship with dictators and death squads had long been a fraught one, but it was during this 1960s moment that such emphases (for US soldiers as well as Latin American students) seem to have been formalized and amplified.  

3)      The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC): Due in no small part to the long-developing controversies over such programs and practices, and in particular to 1990s Congressional debates over whether to defund and close the school entirely, in 2001 the school’s name was once again changed, this time to WHINSEC. The question of whether anything else has changed is an open one: Blair has argued that “there are no substantive changes besides the name”; while researcher Ruth Blakeley has concluded that after the change “a much more rigorous human rights training program was in place than in any other US military institution.” That debate is of course a crucial one, but in any case it is telling that this institution has continued to exist into the age of the “war on terror,” and that is has clearly exerted a significant ongoing influence over the hemisphere (more than 19,000 Latin American students have trained at WHINSEC since the name change).

Next InvasionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other US-Latin America histories you’d highlight?

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