Thanks, Ronnie, For The Debacle In Latin America

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

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
. ‘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

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

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
, 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.

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