On June 5, one of the most popular U.S. presidents of
the 20th century died peacefully in California. Yet, Ronald Reaganıs 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 part<as during his years in
office<Reaganıs 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 Armyıs 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
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. Reaganıs Contra war cost 30,000 Nicaraguan lives and devastated
the countryıs economy. Additionally, the World Court found the United States
guilty of "unlawful use of force," or international terrorism, for its mining of
Nicaraguaıs harbors. Never was Reaganıs Teflon-coating more evident than during
the Iran-Contra hearings when the president repeatedly answered the
investigating committeeıs questions by simply stating: "I donıt recall."
Reaganıs 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 administrationıs military exploits
extended beyond Latin America and also left a lasting legacy. It supplied
Afghanistanıs 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 Ladenıs Al Qaeda evolved out of the CIA-supported
Mujahideen rebel movement. Following 9/11, retired Soviet Army General Makmut
Goryeev, a veteran of his countryıs 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
Reaganıs 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 cohorts<including John Negroponte, Otto Reich and
Elliot Abrams<populate the current Bush regime.
Not only Reaganıs
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 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 Reaganıs 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. Annual audits, however, were not the only form of
harassment endured by NACLA; the organizationıs New York offices were
mysteriously burglarized in 1986.
On a personal note, I witnessed the
brutal consequences of Reaganıs 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 Reaganıs policies.
<Garry Leech is editor of the online
publication Colombia Journal
(www.colombiajournal.org) and author of the book Killing Peace:
Colombiaıs Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA
The next issue of NACLA Report on
the Americas (July/August 2004):
Access to water, an
element essential to all life, is a basic human right. Yet, one-sixth of
humanity lacks access to clean water. Indeed, a water crisis<largely of human
manufacture<plagues the globe with such severity that in 1995 the
vice-president of the World Bank declared, "If the wars of this century were
fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water." While
no country has yet been "liberated" by the military aggression of another due to
the value of its fresh water reserves, political battles over this indispensable
resource are already raging<arguably, nowhere more so than in Latin
Our up-coming issue surveys the water crisis in Latin America,
the human impact of the widespread privatization of water management in the
region, and the political responses these have provoked. With contributors:
Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, María Rosa García-Acevedo and Helen Ingram, David
Barkin, Margaret Keck and Rebecca Abers, and Carlos Vilas.
SUBSCRIBE TO NACLA Report on the Americas
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