Had you listened to the hot air coming from the television or radio at all last week, you probably came away with an impression of Ronald Reagan as a lovable old grandpa with a soft voice and a repertoire full of knee-slapping jokes. 'Grandpa reshaped the American economy and talked sense into those nasty Soviets,' commentators would have you believe. 'Even if you didn't agree with his politics, you had to admit he was the kindest man around,' went another sound bite.
Talk about a joke! What the American media forgot to tell us during its state of spellbound mourning last week was the story of the massive bloodshed in Latin America during Reagan's presidency that he condoned, encouraged, and even funded illegally. And the Iran-Contra scandal was only the tip of the iceberg. The Reagan administration engineered bloody military actions to suppress social and political change in El Salvador and Guatemala too, not to mention propping up, then tearing down the Panamanian caudillo (political strongman) Manuel Noriega, invading Grenada and 'getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals,' as The Nation's David Corn writes in his piece, '66 (Unflattering) Things About Ronald Reagan.'
Renowned investigative reporter Greg Palast recalls being in a little Nicaraguan town named Chaguitillo in 1987 when a local woman died needlessly of tuberculosis. 'People don't die of TB if they get some antibiotics,' writes Palast. 'But Ronald Reagan, big-hearted guy that he was, had put a lock-down embargo on medicine to Nicaragua because he didn't like the government that the people there had elected. Ronnie grinned and cracked jokes while the young woman's lungs filled up and she stopped breathing. Reagan flashed that B-movie grin while they buried the mother of three.'
The embargo, of course, went hand in hand with Reagan's grand scheme to illegally arm the Contras with secret money from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and break the will of the Nicaraguan people, who Reagan imagined were dangerous Commies 'only a 48-hour drive from Texas.' Palast continues: 'In Chaguitillo, all night long, the farmers stayed awake to guard their kids from attack from Reagan's Contra terrorists.'
That the Iran-Contra scandal didn't cost Reagan his entire career is a travesty. 'Sure the Iran-Contra scandal was a worse threat to American democracy than Watergate -- short-circuiting our whole system of government, as opposed to diddling an election that was a lock anyway,' writes Tom Carson in The Village Voice. 'But nobody was about to impeach smiling Ron over it, partly because nobody really understood how it worked.' Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) suggests that Reagan's charisma probably bailed him out of hot water several times. 'The Great Communicator, as he was called, was capable of charming millions of Americans with his soothing, grandfatherly demeanor. In 1984 there were polls indicating that most of those who voted to re-elect him disagreed with him on the issues.'
Then there's El Salvador and Guatemala, where tens of thousands of innocent civilians -- mostly Mayan indigenas -- were systematically slaughtered by roaming death squads, many of whom were armed by Washington during the 1980s and trained at the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA. In 1999 the United Nations determined that the Guatemalan massacres were not just a side note to the country's 36-year civil war and constituted 'genocide.' As Weisbrot reports, 'these massacres reached their peak under the rule of Mr. Reagan's ally, the Guatemalan General Rios Montt.' The United States Congress actually stopped funding the right-wing Guatemalan government's bloody drive to intimidate its rural Indians into submission during the early 80's. But Reagan personally flew to Guatemala City to meet with Montt and pledge his continued economic support, albeit through other, more clandestine channels, on the very day that the Guatemalan military wiped out an entire village in the western highlands and reportedly swung infant children against brick walls to smash their heads, writes Daniel Wilkinson in his excellent, yet sobering book Silence on the Mountain.
Reagan was the first politician I would ever despise when, in the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, I heard my normally sweet, innocent mother refer to him as 'that scary asshole.' Not knowing what those words meant, I used them in second grade the next day when our teacher asked us, one-by-one, whether we would vote for Reagan or Mondale if we had the choice. I received a sound slap on the wrist, though I didn't understand why.
My d?nouement came last fall in Guatemala when I took a break from studying Spanish to volunteer as an election accompanier for Mayan widows in a small municipality in those same western highlands where the military left their bloody trail. El General, Rios Montt, was back at it, using bribery and assassinations and intimidating journalists to steal the presidency. He was unsuccessful, thanks to the eyes of several thousand United Nations' monitors watching over the election, but Montt's mere candidacy proved that, even as Ronald Reagan sat in his California home, shielded from the public, his memory dying and his heart waiting to follow, the man's awful legacy is still very much alive in Central America today.