Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fernando Suárez del Solár Speaks at “Senseless Death” Screening

Activist Lost His Son in Iraq in 2003, Now Is Frustrated with Obama


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“Obama does not have the solution,” said Fernando Suárez del Solár at a July 8 screening of the French-Canadian TV documentary A Senseless Death at the San Diego Public Library downtown. “Obama is the representative of the other side of the big power in this country. The big power in this country is green” — meaning the money of large corporations and wealthy individuals who keep the U.S. involved in wars around the world to secure oil and other natural resources, and to maintain control of emerging markets.

Suárez del Solár’s story — and that of his son Jesús, who was killed in Iraq in the early days of the current war in 2003 — is featured in A Senseless Death, a film by Raymonde Provencher. The filmmaker, whose most famous previous credit was the 1999 film September 11, 1973 — a documentary on the military coup on that date which overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and replaced it with the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — seized on the fact that two of the earliest combat fatalities on the U.S. side of the Iraq war weren’t U.S. citizens at all.

Instead, they were so-called “green-card soldiers,” immigrants from less-developed countries lured into the U.S. military not only with the usual promises made (and broken) by recruiters — job-skills training, help with college and the like — but by the hope of legal immigrant status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship. Not all the “green-card soldiers” are otherwise undocumented — the Suárez family were already legal immigrants when Jesús enlisted, hoping the military would give him training he could later use to combat the drug cartels — but the other soldier profiled in A Senseless Death was.

He was José Antonio Gutierrez, a Guatemalan raised in a camp for homeless youth run by an American living there. He had to cross two heavily policed borders — between Guatemala and Mexico as well as between Mexico and the U.S. -— to smuggle himself into this country so he could sign up to fight its war. Much against the wishes of his American foster father, who wanted him to stay and help build Guatemala, Gutierrez saw his future in the U.S. and eagerly grabbed a chance to enlist as a way of becoming first a legal resident and then a U.S. citizen. All he got in the end was the macabre distinction of being the first U.S. servicemember killed in the Iraq war — and a posthumous grant of U.S. citizenship by Congress at the behest of the Bush administration.

“This is a good example of the use and abuse of immigrant people,” said Fernando Suárez del Solár. “Last week, La Opinion ran a story about a man who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now facing jail and deportation because he joined the Army with fake papers. They won’t hire you at McDonald’s with fake papers, but they will send you to fight, kill and die.” The film depicted another casein Los Angeles, in which an undocumented immigrant mother whose son was promised legal status for his family if he enlisted is being threatened with deportation — because her son was killed in the war before he turned 21.

Fernando reacted to his son’s death not by crawling in a hole with his remaining family and grieving in silence, but by lashing out at the U.S. government — especially when he couldn’t get a straight answer from them as to just how Jesús died — and becoming an anti-war activist. He hooked up with Activist San Diego and the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, and these organizations invited him to speak at virtually all of their anti-war rallies. At first he spoke in Spanish — usually with his friend, UC San Diego professor Jorge Mariscal, as interpreter — but as he gradually improved his command of English he began to learn to express himself and make speeches, including his library appearance, in his audience’s language rather than his own.

But Fernando’s activities to raise awareness of the war and the military’s recruitment strategies didn’t stop with making speeches to friendly audiences. In November 2003 he went to Iraq himself, insistent on seeing the place where his son had been killed, and brought back video footage (some of which is seen in A Senseless Death) and stills which he showed to San Diego audiences. In 2005 he organized a “peace pilgrimage,” marching from the San Ysidro U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint to San Francisco in 16 days — and Raymonde Provencher took his cameras along and shot the footage that makes up the bulk of A Senseless Death.

At the library showing, Fernando and his friend Mariscal both spoke after the movie, not only about the war but about the need to confront the deceptive strategies of U.S. military recruiters. Among Fernando’s programs was organizing the Guerrero Azteca (“Aztec Warrior”) Foundation to raise money for college scholarships so Latinos and other U.S. people of color can have alternative sources of money for college rather than joining the military. (During his presentation, he noted grimly that Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Canada all offer free higher education, while the U.S. does not.)

He and Mariscal have also worked with a long-existing organization, Project YANO (Youth And Non-Military Opportunities), to leaflet high-school campuses and make students aware of college and job training programs that would allow them to better themselves without putting themselves on the line as cannon fodder for America’s wars. “It’s not necessary that you study at a university,” Fernando said. “You can study at a technical school and have opportunities for free grants.”

“We always say go to college or community college, but now it’s really hard,” Mariscal added. “Colleges are capping enrollments and raising fees, and Pell grants [the major federally funded financial aid program] are being cut. With the economy down, the military is really having a field day. It’s really rough for working-class people now.” Like Ask Not, the PBS documentary on the military’s anti-Queer “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy also recently shown at the library, A Senseless Death makes the claim that the U.S. military is having trouble meeting its recruitment targets. That was true when both films were made — but it isn’t any longer, now that the U.S. economy is tanking, the supply of civilian jobs for young people is drying up and the military is looking better and better as a career option.

One of the best things that happened to the U.S. military in terms of its ability to suck up America’s young people — especially rural and working-class whites as well as people of color — was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This education “reform” contained a little-noticed provision requiring that all school districts receiving federal funding for anything give names, addresses and all contact information on their military-age students to the Department of Defense, so they in turn could assign recruiters to contact the students and sign them up. According to anti-war activists, the military is using this information to target the poorest people in this country, as well as opening offices in Mexico, the Philippines and other countries to recruit them from abroad.

What’s more, Mariscal said, school districts are becoming more responsive to letting Junior ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] and other military programs come to their campuses — especially as state and local budget cuts eviscerate school funding and make the military’s money an ever more attractive option. According to Mariscal, Obama’s appointee as secretary of education, Arne Duncan, did more in his previous job as superintendent of schools in Chicago than anyone else to turn public schools into military academies under the charter-school program.

“This is a massive movement to drain money from public schools and give it to the military,” Mariscal said. “This is a huge problem. Militarism is permeating the culture like never before. The work Fernando took on in 2003 is crucial.” Mariscal announced that the anti-war movement has selected Chicago as the site for its first nationwide conference of counter-recruiters.

But along with the critique of the U.S. military, its wars and its recruitment tactics, Fernando and Mariscal also expressed deep disillusionment with the Obama administration and frustration at how little has changed. “Soldiers and Marines are still dying in Iraq,” Mariscal said. “Afghanistan is looking like a long occupation. I voted for Obama, but I think we who opposed these wars have been paralyzed by Obama’s election and we don’t know how to criticize him.”

“A lot of people say we need to focus on the economic crisis, but the amount of money we are spending on the wars could help solve the economic crisis,” Fernando added. “The young people need to understand that we have the power to change the system. We need to change the Congress and the rules of the game, not just the faces in the White House and Congress. It’s immoral for the military to enter the schools and say, ‘We’ll pay for your education, but you’ll pay with your life.’”

Where Fernando sees hope is in the younger generations. “The boys and girls in high school have an opportunity to change things,” he said. “Middle-school boys and girls have even more opportunities to change. Boys and girls in colleges and universities have the real power to change the system. It’s important that people in the universities understand that peace is the way. The U.S. is addicted to war. The government is addicted to war. The military and the Pentagon are the real power. Young people today are trained by video games that teach them that to kill is to win. We need games that teach people that to help people is to win.”