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Eilerman, Imprisoned Nun, Speaks About Activism

During a recent CELTS event, Sister Marge Eilerman, a native of Booneville, Kentucky spoke about her activism and subsequent incarceration for protesting the School of the Americas (SOA), an organization now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHINSEC.)

Marge Eilerman

As a result of Eilerman's presentation, some Berea College students have been motivated to join other demonstrators at Ft. Benning Georgia, to protest WHINSEC, a government-funded program. According to its Web site, WHINSEC aims to increase political stability in Latin America by equipping soldiers with skills and a respect for human rights. However, detractors argue that the organization has produced the opposite effect. Since the inception of mass protests nearly ten years ago, many, like Eilerman, have been incarcerated for their convictions. Some of those will return this Nov 19 - 21, to join fellow protestors. Some Berea College students will be among the group.

Eilerman first found contention with the School of the Americas in 1994. Initially unaware of its purpose, she committed to learning more about it. During her research she learned of criticism of the SOA published in New Yorker Magazine by author Mark Danner. Eilerman states that she learned of the massacre of approximately 800 to 1000 civilians in El Mozote, El Salvador by the government sponsored guerilla battalion Altacatl, led by a graduate of the SOA who, according to Eilerman, like many other army commanders in Latin America attended the SOA as part of the U.S. policy against communist containment. With this knowledge, Eilerman committed herself to closing the SOA.

Eilerman's first arrest happened in 1995, when she incurred her lightest sentence - a five year ban from the premises. Returning the following year despite the ban, Eilerman was arrested again and given the option to return to Kentucky to turn herself over to authorities. Eilerman discovered some "real surprises in prison. I was astounded by the community there" she noted, describing prison social life which consisted of two groups. The first, fellow inmates were very encouraging and supportive. The second, prison personnel "always tried to break you."

While incarcerated, Eilerman sought to maximize her media exposure. "I was so upset, that I used every moment I could" to do radio and TV interviews. Although Eilerman stated that “We have to close it through our government," she has ironically taken a very divergent approach. Eilerman's intent has always been to further her cause through intentional imprisonment.

Public activism has, nevertheless, produced results. The SOA was restructured and renamed Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation in 2001. Whinsec's Web site asserts that the program enforces peace and builds cooperation among the Americas. "Libertad, Paz, y Fraternidad" (Liberty, Peace and Fraternity) is WHINSEC'S motto, and its new curriculum has a portion solely devoted to human rights and American democracy. WHINSEC was established by the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act and signed by President Clinton on October 30, 2000.

Eilerman and others still contend that WHINSEC is a façade for the former SOA, stating "different name, same shame." Nevertheless, more reforms may be forthcoming. The activist Web site School of the America's Watch, which promotes direct action campaigns against WHINSEC, claims that Rep. James P. McGovern of Massachusetts has promised a congressional vote next year on House Resolution 1258. The bill would strip WHINSEC of authority and authorize a congressional review. Submitted on March 13, 2003, the bill is co-sponsored by prominent Republican and Democrats including Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Robert Wexler (D) of Florida.

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