Rebel With A Cause

April 7, 2000

By Michael Jessen

He's a true Castlegar rebel. But Francis Godderis doesn't play for the West Kootenay hockey team that uses the moniker with a capital R.

Like any faithful revolutionary, Godderis - nicknamed Bud at birth - comes well disguised, his gentle greenish-blue eyes and infectious smile masking a powerful passion to right wrongs. Dubbed a "Grasshopper of the Lord," Godderis doesn't use the feasting tactics of locusts, but rather the fasting methods of Gandhi to effect change.

On Thursday, April 6, Godderis - along with John Voykin of Pass Creek and Natalie Voykin (no relation) of Slocan Park - began a 10-day fast to urge the closure of an U.S. Army training school in Fort Benning, Georgia. They joined with thousands of other North Americans in Fast 2000, saying graduates of the School of the Americas (SOA) have been linked to murder, rape, and torture in Latin America. Each day of the fast is devoted to a different Latin American country where SOA graduates have been active.

The 53-year-old institution - also known as the School of the Assassins - has been the scene of nine annual protests calling for the closing of the school for Latin American military officers. Last November, Godderis, John Voykin, and Jack Ross of Argenta were among 12,000 protestors gathered for two days outside the SOA; only a dozen were at the first protest in 1990. All three risked arrest for trespassing by entering the military base.

As the names of the victims of SOA violence were called aloud - actor Martin Sheen, star of the NBC TV series "The West Wing" - led a wave of nearly 5,000 protestors across the line drawn on the pavement marking the entrance to the army post. Many in the crowd carried white wooden crosses bearing the names of SOA victims. In 1998, 2,319 people crossed the line.

"Certainly our participation in this gathering to close the School of the Americas enriched us with many new awarenesses," the 66-year-old Godderis says during a recent interview. "I personally am filled with an inner strength and stability that was not previously part of me."

During the protest, Godderis and the others were likened to a plague of locusts sent to close the SOA. "A Baptist minister from Atlanta called us 'Grasshoppers of the Lord' and said we would succeed," Godderis says with a smile. "I love that image." For three years protestors have succeeded in avoiding arrest as the sheer numbers have overwhelmed court resources. Those crossing the line are now bused two miles away from the base and let go with a letter of reprimand.

They are also inching nearer to forcing the school's closure. In a show of support that stunned the Pentagon, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last July to cut $1.2 million from the school's budget - the first legislative victory for the SOA's opponents. The Senate overturned the decision and restored the funding.

SOA Commandant Glenn Weidner denies that the School of the Americas has contributed to anything but greater democratization in Latin America through its human rights training and by exposing its yearly class of about 800 students to the U.S. system of a military under civilian control. Weidner concedes that less than 1 percent of 61,000 SOA graduates have engaged in atrocities in their own countries in the past, but says that the school cannot be held responsible for this.

Weidner and other SOA backers say Latin America has a centuries-old cultural tradition of torture and other abuses of human rights. The school, they say, promotes professionalism, respect for civil authority, respect for the law, and commitment to democratic institutions. But retired Major Joseph Blair, who was an instructor at the school from 1986 to 1989, told a different story in an interview on PBS last year.

"I have personal knowledge that the School of the Americas, while I was there for three years, taught two intelligence interrogation courses, which taught the U.S. Army position that it was appropriate to use physical abuse when interrogating anyone in their country, to also use false imprisonment, false arrest, and kidnapping of family members," Blair said. "We routinely had Latin American students at the School of the Americas who were known human rights abusers, and it didn't make any difference to us."

Ordained a priest in 1959 in Rossland, Godderis served as principal at Immaculata Secondary School in Kelowna from 1960 to 1973. When he ceased to be a priest, Godderis worked as a social worker at Trail Regional Hospital until retirement. He and his wife Ann are well-known activists for causes ranging from Third World issues to recycling.

Godderis is particularly concerned about the unacceptable massacre of innocent people worldwide. "We're part of the world," he says. "We have to do something about the things that affect us. I have never questioned that." He has visited the site of one of the most horrific massacres, El Mozote in El Salvador where all but two of the entire population of the village, over 900 men, women, and children were killed. Of 12 military officers cited for their involvement in the slaughter, 10 were SOA graduates.

"It is horrifying that peaceful people simply trying to introduce such basics as schools, health care or fair-wage jobs into a community quickly become targets of the SOA trained military which is deployed primarily to maintain the power of wealthy elites," Godderis decries.

In 1990, in El Salvador, populist Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass. Three-quarters of the Salvadoran officers implicated in the killing were trained at the SOA. The year before an army patrol executed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter at Central American University. Of the 26 officers cited for this atrocity, 19 were SOA-trained.

Asked to name the source of his sensibility for social justice, Godderis quickly credits his parents.

"My dad was a CPR guy who was always interested in social issues. My mother respected me and allowed me to make decisions for myself. I believe in respect for life and I'm motivated by justice. It doesn't make sense any other way for me. "

He says opposition to the SOA is only a small part of a global protest against organizations like the World Trade Organization. "This is not going to go away. This is a wave, a movement of energy. This gives me hope. They can't hold it back, they can't do it."

Godderis has fasted for short periods in the past, but never for 10 days. He says some of his Spanish friends point to his belly when they call him Poncho, the Spanish word for Francis. "I'll be remedying this if I can get through this fast," Godderis says with a laugh.

ONE SMALL STEP - Many Kootenay residents are supporting the fast by abstaining from food for shorter periods of time or donating moral and/or financial support. St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Trail and St. David's Anglican Church in Castlegar will be prayer and gathering centres during the fast. Those supporting closure of the SOA are encouraged to write The Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A6 or fax him at 613-996-3443. Donations to the work of The Christian Task Force on Central America can be sent care of P.O. Box 65899, Station F, Vancouver, BC, V5N 5L4.

RESOURCES - Godderis can be reached at 250-365-5077. He is willing to speak about his experiences at public meetings and show videos about the School of the Americas. SOA Watch, the group that organizes the annual protests and Fast 2000, has a web site at www.soaw.org/. The web site www.thirdworldtraveler.com has a detailed history of the SOA. The official web site of the SOA is at http://www.benning.army.mil/usarsa/. An excellent film by director John Sayles entitled 'Men with Guns' shows - without graphic violence - the senseless killing that has taken place in Latin America.


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