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HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT (director/producer: John H. Smihula; cinematographer: Chip Holley; editor: Andrea Zondler; music: Luis Perez; cast: Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Eduardo Galeano, Representative Barbara Lee (Democrat of California), Representative Mac Collins (Republican of Georgia), Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne, Sister Dianna Ortiz, Father Roy Bourgeois, Ana Chavez, Martin Sheen (Narrator); Runtime: 71; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Vivi Letsou; Seventh Art Releasing; 2003)
“An informative and necessary political documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Martin Sheen acts as narrator for John H. Smihula’s “Hidden in Plain Sight.” It’s an informative and necessary political documentary uncovering in detail the folly of the United States Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), located in Fort Benning, Georgia, and its role in supporting the minority wealthy class in Latin American countries through its courses taught in Spanish and the training of Latin soldiers in guerrilla warfare and combat. Human rights advocates called it a way of encouraging torture chambers and suppressing the poor. In recent years, the biggest anti-war demonstrations since the Vietnam War have taken place outside of Fort Benning. This year’s nonviolent demonstration is set for Nov. 21 to 23.

The school’s history dates from the beginnings of the cold war in 1946, when it was located in Panama and Secretary of State George F. Kennan admitted the policy was for the United States to keep control of the Latin American countries by supporting its privileged classes and exploiting cheap labor and their natural resources. President Kennedy changed the emphasis from hemispheric defense to local security, as the school became a training ground for supporting dictatorships and overthrowing leftist regimes. Panama’s former dictator Manuel Noriega and a death squad leader like Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador attended the school, as through the years did 60,000 Latin soldiers. Demonstrators charged the SOA as a “School of Assassins,” contrary to the school’s firm defenders such as Maj. Gen. LeMoyne who maintains the school through its leadership program brought democracy and stability to the region. The general states that the 600 soldiers involved in immense atrocities that include serial killings, were only one percent of the school.

When things got too hot for it in Panama, the school was relocated in 1984 to Fort Benning.

Christopher Hitchens points out that the SOA through its questionable military actions reminds Latins of what bad things can happen to them if they oppose American policy, as the film derives its title as reiterated by Hitchens saying the tortures were purposely not kept that secret to keep fear in the air–as they were “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

The peace activists in the late 1990s came together in great numbers in nonviolent protests at Fort Benning to call attention to the SOA, where one of the familiar leaders Father Roy Bourgeois says this school was everything opposite of what this free country stands for and therefore should be closed. They sort of got their wish when Congress refused to fund it in 2000, and threatened an investigation. But in the same vote Congress authorized funding for the same school on the same grounds, only with the new name of Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). That school, which opened in 2001, basically teaches the same subjects and continues to bring out protesters calling for its closing.

This well-made, accurate and objective (though certainly not neutral) educational documentary should serve as an eye-opener for both those who believe our government means well even if it sometimes errs and those who never believed the government meant well and now can readily see how this school was used as a tool to help dominate the Latin countries and build an empire throughout the world by force if necessary. The film is especially relevant during these days of the ongoing post-Iraq War and America’s so far futile occupation of the country, where it is trying to export democracy as if it were Coca-Cola. If anything, this film shows that neither revolution nor democracy can easily be exported from abroad. This film minces no words in blaming the American taxpayer for blindly going along with these terrorist political policies, which they are paying for whether they realize it or not. It also infers that evil not only comes from evil people, but from good people who do not realize that what they are doing is evil.

Perhaps the most touching human rights violation of the many discussed was over Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was seized in 1989 by Guatemalan military security forces. She tells until overcome with bad memories about being placed in a pile of dead children, repeatedly gang raped and tortured for her “crime” of serving the poor of Guatemala. Ana Chavez was equally emotional in telling about her husband murdered by an SOA-trained death squad in El Salvador.

The heated debate is just warming up on this issue, as the film raises provocative questions about the purpose of a U.S. foreign policy that employs undemocratic principles to protect its national security and maintain its economic interests. For those who want to know what the U.S. has been doing in Latin America, this film will provide a spirited short history. It is a no frills documentary, where a host of talking heads on both sides of the issue have their say–from activists and scholars and those who suffered as a result of American policy, as well as military personnel and members of Congress. It includes the erudite MIT linguistic professor Noam Chomsky calling the school a tool for United States imperialism.

REVIEWED ON 11/13/2003 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”