[Marxism] NACLA remembers Reagan

Christopher Carrico ccarrico at temple.edu
Sat Jun 12 07:34:48 MDT 2004

I hope this wasn't posted already...

Fighting Reagan’s Legacy

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 part—as during his years 
in office—Reagan’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 
cohorts—including John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Elliot 
Abrams—populate 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 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 

—Garry Leech 

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. 


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