By Garry Leech
On June 5, one of the most popular U.S. presidents of the 20th century died peacefully in California. Yet, Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House were far from peaceful, especially for Central Americans. Since his death, the mainstream media have heaped praise upon this cold warrior, constantly reiterating his “great achievements.” Occasionally, they briefly mention the Iran-Contra scandal or the record budget deficits run up by this champion of small government, but for the most partas during his years in officeReagan’s Teflon-coating remains as slick as ever.
While many in the United States remember this “American hero” fondly, millions of Central Americans recall the havoc caused by his military and economic policies. Reagan assumed office in the shadow of the Vietnam War; an era when popular opposition to U.S. jingoism made direct military intervention into Third World civil wars politically impossible. Despite this obstacle, Reagan successfully escalated U.S. military intervention in Latin America to levels not seen since the mid-1960s. Arming and training militaries in El Salvador and Guatemala, and counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua, he waged proxy wars throughout the region. His administration, and many in the U.S. Congress, turned a blind eye to the Salvadoran Army’s gross human rights abuses as they funneled more than $4 billion in military and economic aid to that tiny country. The Reagan administration also blocked regional attempts at achieving peace, while significantly contributing to the deaths of some 70,000 Salvadorans and the displacement of another million, many of whom came to, and remain in, the United States.
In the mid-1980s, the Iran-Contra scandal broke. In what was arguably a far greater violation of the U.S. Constitution than anything perpetrated by the Nixon White House, the Reagan administration illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to illegally fund counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua. Reagan’s Contra war cost 30,000 Nicaraguan lives and devastated the country’s economy. Additionally, the World Court found the United States guilty of “unlawful use of force,” or international terrorism, for its mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. Never was Reagan’s Teflon-coating more evident than during the Iran-Contra hearings when the president repeatedly answered the investigating committee’s questions by simply stating: “I don’t recall.” Reagan’s blatant obstruction of justice had little effect on his popularity ratings and he left office in January 1989 with the highest approval ratings of any president since FDR.
The Reagan administration’s military exploits extended beyond Latin America and also left a lasting legacy. It supplied Afghanistan’s Mujahideen rebels with billions of dollars in aid and high-tech weaponry, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which helped the Muslim guerrillas overthrow the Soviet-backed Afghan government. Both the Taliban government and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda evolved out of the CIA-supported Mujahideen rebel movement. Following 9/11, retired Soviet Army General Makmut Goryeev, a veteran of his country’s war in Afghanistan, reminded the U.S. public, “Let us not forget that [bin Laden] was created by your special services to fight against our Soviet troops. But he got out of their control.”
Reagan’s presidency laid the foundations for a return to pre-Vietnam era military intervention in Latin America and elsewhere. Less than a year after he left office, his vice president and successor George Bush Sr. invaded Panama to overthrow former-U.S. ally Manuel Noriega, setting the tone for a return to U.S. international bellicosity that led us to the present occupation of Iraq. While Reagan may be gone, his spirit possesses the White House as several of his cohortsincluding John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Elliot Abramspopulate the current Bush regime.
Not only Reagan’s military policies wrought havoc in Central America. His economic policies laid the foundation for the neoliberal onslaught of the 1990s. Reagan used his military intervention in Central America to restructure the elites in those countries, ushering into power what sociologist William Robinson has called the “New Right,” a more transnationally-oriented ruling group that replaced the old nationalist-minded oligarchy. This facilitated the implementation of the neoliberal policies that sent millions more Central Americans fleeing towards the United States, this time as economic refugees.
The last The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) report, “Beyond Revolution: Nicaragua and El Salvador in a New Era,” illustrated how the region is still reeling from the Reagan years with regard to violence, economic hardship and population displacement. In fact, NACLA critiqued Reagan’s Central America policies throughout his time in office. This “champion of freedom” responded in one speech by blaming NACLA for “targeting” and “destabilizing” the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. His administration also unleashed the IRS on this small non-profit institution. Regular audits, however, were not the only form of harassment endured by NACLA; the organization’s New York offices were mysteriously burglarized in 1986.
On a personal note, I witnessed the brutal consequences of Reagan’s Central America doctrine when I was traveling through El Salvador in 1982. In March of that year, I was arrested by the Salvadoran Army and imprisoned in the military base in La Unión. For eight days I was accused of being a mercenary, interrogated and beaten by Salvadoran soldiers. But my suffering was miniscule when compared to that endured by my fellow prisoners. I watched in horror as soldiers who had been armed and trained with my tax dollars tortured and raped prisoners.
So while many in the United States are busy glorifying the Reagan years, let us not forget that he left a legacy of terror and death in Central America. Sadly, while Reaganites proudly hail their late leader, many Latin Americans are still struggling, not only to overcome the trauma endured during the 1980s, but also against the legacy of Reagan’s policies.
Garry Leech is NACLA’s interim editor and editor of Colombia Journal and author of “Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention” and most recently “The War on Terror in Colombia.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org