PABLO STEELE AND THE SCHOOL OF AMERICAS
by Ted Schmidt
"Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when its violating all its laws."
"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and killers themselves."
George W. Bush
One of my great friends and one of the most amazing people I ever met in my life was a Scarborough Foreign Mission priest named Harvey Steele. Pablo, as he was widely known during his long missionary career, was a legend in the co-op movement in Latin America. His fascinating life took him from China to the Dominican Republic in 1946, Panama in 1960, and finally Scarborough in 1978 when I met him.
To the day he died (in April,1999) Pablo was a voracious reader and student of history. Early in his priestly life, he understood that it was foolish to attempt to preach the Good News to poor people without feeding them and meeting their basic needs. He was light years ahead of his contemporaries so caught up with institutional concerns, and a sacramental theology which bordered on the magical so much so that they missed the great sacrament, Jesus in the marginalized of the world.
Pablo’s success in establishing co-ops in the Dominican Republic made him a rival to the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. Known as a dictadura (a harsh dictator) Trujillo, in his 31-year reign of terror, had tortured or murdered over 200,000 people. It was inevitable that in Pablo’s 14 years there, and because of his phenomenal success in establishing worker-run co-ops, he would run afoul of the brutal dictator. In 1959 he was spirited out of the country with a gun to his head. After a year of discernment in Guyana and Toronto, he relocated in Panama.
It was in Panama where Pablo enjoyed even greater success. His institute, ICI, taught students from all over Latin America the principles of the co-op and credit unions movement which Pablo had learned from legendary Canadian priests, Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins. By 1973 Pablo’s ideas had crystalized, and he had come to understand that the reason that poverty persisted was not because of the stupidity of the campesinos, but because of their exploitation by multinational corporations. He realized that a local elite could always be found to co-operate and aggrandize themselves. In 1973 he wrote a book Quienes tienen Latin America? (Who owns Latin America?) which caused a sensationin the southern hemisphere, and ran through several printings. Pablo’s book exposed the utter ruthlessness of American exploitation, and proposed co-ops as a way of locals gaining control of their lives
Unknown to Pablo at the time, but since come to light in the unfolding of history, two legendary American figures had within five years of each other come to the same conclusion. The first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Just before his untimely death in 1945, in response to a staffer’s complaint that Anastacio Somoza, the U.S. supported dictator in Nicaragua was "a son-of-a-bitch," Roosevelt replied, "Yes, but he’s our son-of-a -bitch." Nicaragua at that time had been ruled for 20 years by the US Marines. It was a nation occupied by its own army. Roosevelt meant that Somoza could be relied upon to keep the locals in line, unions out, and cheap goods flowing to the USA.
In 1941 as the U.S. entered the war, President Roosevelt had reiterated what Americans were fighting for, the famous Four Freedoms, the noble ideals of the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. In reality, the U.S. was well on its way to becoming an empire. By 1941 it had lived up to what critic Noam Chomsky calls, "the fifth and most important freedom, to rob and exploit."
In the immediate post-war period Europe lay in ruins and the USA stood as a colossus, the one great superpower, undamaged on its own soil (unlike the Russians who had lost 20,000,000 citizens defeating Hitler), a brilliant diplomat named George Kennan wrote the following:
We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to retain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague objectives like human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."
Pablo Steele was haunted to the day he died by the terrible thought that dozens of students he had taught at ICI, young men and women, idealists and believers in the Four Freedoms, had been murdered by soldiers schooled in state terror in the United States, largely at the School of Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. These security forces were trained not as most armies are, to thwart external aggression, but to stifle internal dissent and engage in political oppression.
And it still continues, largely unknown by the American people while President George W. Bush prattles on about "American values." Graduates of the SOA include some of the biggest thugs in Latin America: Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia; not to mention those who manufactured coups in Guatemala and Chile. Since1946 when Padre Pablo landed in the Dominican Republic, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen among them notorious torturers, mass murderers and dictators. Just this past June, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, a former alumnus, was convicted of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala City. Another proud graduate was the late Roberto D’Aubisson, described by US ambassador to El Salvador as "a pathological killer," and the one who masterminded the death of Bishop Oscar Romero.
In the week of November 17 and 18, several Canadians will be making the trek to Georgia to demand the closing of the SOA, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation (WHISC). For 11 years now, more and more people of faith and conscience have been streaming to Ft. Benning to demand the closing of this terrorist training camp whose victims, as The Guardian writer George Monbiot writes, "massively outnumber the people killed by the attack on New York, the embassy bombings and the other atrocities laid, rightly or wrongly at al-Qaeda’s door." Among those arrested last year were 88-year old nun Dorothy Hennessey, and The West Wing star Martin Sheen. This year thousands will again demonstrate against this cancer on the body of democracy, this embarrassment to the "American values" which George W. Bush trumpets to standing ovations from amnesiacs who steadfastly refuse to countenance the shadow side of American history.
Their witness would have helped dry the tears that Pablo Steele shed those many years ago, when he heard that another student had been murdered for attempting to build democracy in a poor Latin American country.
Ted Schmidt is editor of The Catholic New Times. His memoir Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood was published this fall.
For information on the School of Americas go to: www.soaw.org