January 19, 2008—Sen. Barack Obama prides himself in transcending the old ideological chasms that have divided the American electorate for decades, so much so that he recently cited Republican icon Ronald Reagan as a leader who “changed the trajectory of America.”
While Obama later clarified his point to say he didn't mean to endorse Reagan's conservative policies, the Illinois senator seemed to suggest that Reagan's 1980 election administered a needed dose of accountability to the U.S. government. In reality, however, accountability wasn’t part of Reagan’s medicine for America. Indeed, one could say the opposite.
On the domestic side, Reagan oversaw the dismantling of regulatory structures that restrained the excesses of Wall Street investment banks, the energy industry and other economic powerhouses. Many of today’s problems – from the mortgage meltdown to the nation’s wasteful energy policies – can be traced to Reagan’s contempt for that type of accountability.
Meanwhile, regarding Reagan’s approach to the world, the documentary record reveals a foreign policy that was one of the most brutal, most corrupt and least accountable in American history.
Reagan’s clandestine dealings with Iran and Iraq remain shrouded in secrecy and deception to this day. Also suppressed has been the full story of how Reagan tolerated drug traffickers who operated under the cover of his favorite covert operations (Nicaragua and Afghanistan). [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
Even more troubling, Reagan aided and abetted mass slaughters in Central America, including acts of genocide in Guatemala, but neither he nor any of his senior advisers faced any meaningful accountability for their actions. [For details, see below.]
Obama’s negative comparison of former President Bill Clinton to Reagan also could be viewed as a slap at the husband of his principal rival.
In the interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal on Jan. 14, Obama said, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.
“I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
But Reagan’s election in November 1980 also was welcomed in other quarters. His victory set off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central America. After four years of Jimmy Carter's human rights nagging, the region's anticommunist hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals had good reason for optimism. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of "disappearances," tortures and murders -- then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should "walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found virtually every anticommunist action justified, no matter how brutal.
From his eight years in the White House, there is no historical indication that he was troubled by the bloodbath and even genocide that occurred in Central America during his presidency, while he was shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.
The death toll was staggering -- an estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from the contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala.
The one consistent element in these slaughters was the overarching Cold War rationalization, emanating from Ronald Reagan's White House.
Yet, even as the world community has sought to punish war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, no substantive discussion has occurred in the United States about facing up to Reagan’s horrendous record of the 1980s.
Rather than a debate about Reagan as a war criminal, the former President, who died in 2004, has been showered with honors as a conservative icon. His name was attached to Washington National Airport as well as to scores of other government buildings around the country.
As part of this rosy view of the Reagan years, the U.S. news media rarely acknowledges the barbarities of the 1980s in Central America. When the topic does come up, it is usually a one-day story about how these little countries bravely are facing up to their violent pasts.
At times, the CIA is mentioned abstractly as a bad supporting actor in the violent dramas. But never does the press corps lay much blame on individual American officials – and especially not Ronald Reagan.
Though Reagan portrayed the bloody conflicts as a necessary front in the Cold War, the Central American violence was always more about entrenched ruling elites determined to retain their privileges against impoverished peasants, including descendants of the region’s Maya Indians, seeking social, political and economic reforms.
One of the most notorious acts of brutality occurred in December 1981 in and around the Salvadoran town of El Mozote. The government’s Atlacatl Battalion – freshly trained and newly armed thanks to Reagan’s supportive policies – systematically slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children.
When the atrocity was revealed by reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Reagan administration showed off its new strategy of “perception management,” denying the facts and challenging the integrity of the journalists.
Because of that P.R. offensive, the reality about the El Mozote massacre remained in doubt for almost a decade until the war ended and a United Nations forensic team dug up hundreds of skeletons, including many little ones of children.
In January 2007, the Washington Post disclosed another grisly detail. Several months after the massacre, the Salvadoran army returned to the scene and collected skulls of some El Mozote children as novelty items, the Post reported.
“They worked well as candle holders,” recalled one of the soldiers, Jose Wilfredo Salgado, “and better as good luck charms.”
Now, a quarter century later, describing his role piling the tiny skulls into sacks as souvenirs, Salgado acknowledged that he had “lost his love of humanity.”
The Post reported that “witnessing the aftermath of what his colleagues did in El Mozote and reflecting on those skulls changed his mind about how the war was being fought.” Salgada said his mentor, Col. Domingo Monterrosa, who later died in a helicopter crash, had ordered an act of “genocide” in El Mozote.
“If Monterossa had lived,” the Post reported, “Salgada said, he should have been prosecuted for ‘war crimes like a Hitler.’” [Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2007]
But what about the American officials who were the enablers and the protectors of Central America’s mass murderers?
While Monterrosa may have ordered massacres in El Mozote and other towns in El Salvador, President Reagan and other senior U.S. officials collaborated in and covered up those crimes, along with acts of genocide in Guatemala and terrorism in Nicaragua.
Yet, the U.S. officials who supplied the guns, helicopters, advanced technology and political cover have never been called to account. Some, like former State Department official Elliott Abrams, have moved on to oversee the bloody chaos in Iraq.
Criticism also should fall on Bill Clinton, who was the first President elected after the end of the Cold War but rejected suggestions that he authorize an American truth commission to investigate U.S. complicity in the era’s crimes, as was done in Argentina, South Africa and other countries.
Only late in his eight-year presidency did Clinton agree to declassify documents for use by a Guatemalan truth commission examining three decades of political violence that had torn that Central American country apart and claimed some 200,000 lives.
The worst of the Guatemalan violence – like the bloodletting in El Salvador and Nicaragua – came after the election of Reagan in November 1980.
Once in office, Reagan chipped away at an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter who was offended by its ghastly human rights record. A fundamental part of Reagan’s strategy was to silence criticism of the atrocities whether the accusations were coming from the news media, human rights groups or the U.S. intelligence community.
In April 1981, for instance, a secret CIA cable described a Guatemalan army massacre of peasants at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops had attacked the area, which was believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, "the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas" and "the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved." The CIA cable added that "the Guatemalan authorities admitted that 'many civilians' were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants."
While keeping the CIA account secret, Reagan permitted Guatemala's army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. Confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan's roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala's military dictator, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, "made clear that his government will continue as before – that the repression will continue," the cable said.
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for "thousands of illegal executions."
But the Reagan administration sought to confuse the American public. A State Department "white paper" in December 1981 blamed the violence on leftist "extremist groups" and their "terrorist methods," inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were sold to the American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn about government-sponsored massacres. One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province, an area where descendants of the ancient Maya lived.
"The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance," the report said. "Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed."
The CIA report explained the army's modus operandi: "When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed. … The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike."
In March 1982, the violence continued to ratchet up when Gen. Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup d’etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he was hailed by Reagan as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign. In October, he also gave secret carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. But the political officers knew that such grim news was not welcome back in Washington and to report it would only damage their careers.
So, the embassy cables increasingly began to spin the evidence in ways that would best serve Reagan's hard-line foreign policy. On Oct. 22, 1982, the embassy sought to explain away the mounting evidence of genocide by arguing that the Rios Montt government was the victim of a communist-inspired "disinformation campaign."
Reagan picked up on that theme. During a swing through Latin America, he discounted the growing evidence that hundreds of Mayan villages were being eradicated.
On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as "totally dedicated to democracy" and declared that the Rios Montt government was "getting a bum rap."
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations.
In February 1983, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence" with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt's order to the "Archivos" in October 1982 to "apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit."
Despite these grisly realities on the ground, the annual State Department human rights survey sugarcoated the facts for the American public and praised the supposedly improved human rights situation in Guatemala. "The overall conduct of the armed forces had improved by late in the year" 1982, the report stated.
A different picture – far closer to the secret government reports – was coming from independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof that the government carried out "virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents."
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before execution, Kass said. Children were "thrown into burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are destroyed." [AP, March 17, 1983]
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face.
On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised "positive changes" in Rios Montt's government. But, in reality, Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued the killings.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal military operations and then sought to cover up the bloody facts. Reagan's falsification of the historical record became a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua, too.
In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his contra "freedom-fighters," Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him "one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo."
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the contras. At one point, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
In his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge recalled that "President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, 'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'" Clarridge also acknowledged that "the people then in power in El Salvador were an unsavory collection of rightist cutthroats with an abominable record on human rights.”
The election of Bill Clinton – as the first President to take office after the end of the Cold War – offered a unique opportunity to expose the real history of the era and hold American war criminals to account. But Clinton and his advisers saw such investigations as a distraction and chose instead to focus on economic and social legislation.
After 1994, with the Republican congressional landslide, the opportunity was lost. Instead, the Republicans transformed Reagan into an icon, naming scores of buildings and other facilities after him, including National Airport.
An honest accounting of what really happened under Reagan's presidency became a political taboo in the United States. Even when Clinton finally released incriminating U.S. documents to a Guatemalan truth commission, the evidence never got the attention that it deserved.
On Feb. 25, 1999, Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission issued a report on the human rights crimes that Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted – and concealed. The independent human rights body estimated that some 200,000 Guatemalans had died, with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. "The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala's history," the commission concluded.
The army "completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops," the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a "genocide."
Besides carrying out murder and "disappearances," the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. "The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice" by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the "government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some [of these] state operations." The report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money and training to Guatemalan military units that committed "acts of genocide" against the Mayas.
"Believing that the ends justified everything, the military and the state security forces blindly pursued the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal principles or the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance of human morals," said the commission chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
"For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake," Clinton said.
But the story of the Reagan-backed genocide of the Mayan Indians was quickly forgotten, as Republicans and the Washington press corps wrapped Reagan's legacy in a fuzzy blanket of heroic mythology.
Now, as Sen. Obama seeks to portray himself as a new kind of post-partisan politician, he seems to be buying into those old comfortable happy thoughts about Ronald Reagan. To the delight of right-wingers like Patrick Buchanan, Obama is paying deference to their hero.
While that might help Obama politically with some independents and Republicans, it doesn’t exactly define him as a new kind of politician. For a generation now, Democrats – eager to give themselves some cover on the right – have slipped praise for Reagan into their speeches.
If Obama really wanted to be a different kind of politician, he might instead stand for the truth, even when it is politically difficult and unpopular. He might acknowledge that while Reagan did put the United States on a “fundamentally different path,” it was not a path that led to either accountability or to justice.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on January 21, 2008.