Dissenting on Reagan on Latin America

  • Iran-contra debacle was only one of Reagan’s major flaws regarding Latin America.
  • The Reagan White House showed far more interest in narrowly defined national security concerns than authentic democratization, social justice and anti-poverty efforts.
  • His strategy towards Panama, Grenada, Argentina, El Salvador and the war on drugs all revealed major shortcomings.
  • Reagan’s legacy is now being whitewashed and his role in one of the most scandalous foreign policy initiatives in recent years—the Iran contra arms-for-aid swap—is minimized, if recalled at all.
  • The former president’s hemispheric foreign policy initiatives were characterized by simple-minded formulations, unprovoked aggression and unflinching embrace of some of Latin America’s most unsavory dictators, all in the name of anti-Communism.
  • The tradition of amoral and ill-conceived international blunders continues to be carried out by Reagan’s longtime ideological protégé, President George W. Bush.
  • One can respect Reagan’s life and his patriotism, but one can’t easily forgive and forget the tens of thousands of innocent victims who lost their lives because of his extremism when it came to the fight against Latin American membership in the so-called evil empire.

As journalists and Sunday talk show hosts struggle to surpass each other in coining panegyrics for the late President Ronald Reagan—just as they did when another villainous former president, Richard Nixon, died years before—surprisingly little has been heard about the most significant and scandalous, foreign policy debacles of his presidency. While one can respect the late president’s personal values and his patriotic fever, his administration must also be remembered for implementing a series of ill-conceived and illegal policies that served neither this country’s national interests nor its much-vaunted security. President Reagan’s disservices to Latin American were legendary, but it was the infamous Iran-Contra affair, in which an “iron triangle” of hired mercenaries—known to President Reagan as “freedom fighters,” but to much of the remainder of the world as Nicaraguan contras—as well as Middle Eastern arms dealers and Reagan-appointed right-wing ideologues were linked in a mutually self-serving arms trade that broke a number of domestic laws, destroyed billions of dollars worth of Nicaragua’s infrastructure, cost tens of thousands of lives and seriously weakened the country’s democratic prospects for at least a decade to come.

Iran-contra was a top-secret initiative involving the shipments of missiles and other arms from Israel to Iran (later to be replaced from U.S. inventories in their entirety), paid for with funds that were then diverted to the contras at a time that U.S. legislation banned such aid because of the contras’ abysmal, and well-documented, human rights record. As a result of the sale, Teheran agreed to use its influence to release a handful of U.S. hostages being held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian militants. The scandal eventually became public in the course of an investigation by Congress (in which Senator John Kerry was instrumental in uncovering the connection in a trip to Nicaragua); Lawrence Walsh, a Republican, was then appointed as special counsel to investigate the full scope of Iran-contra. The scandal proved immensely damaging to the Reagan administration but not necessarily to the president himself, who dealt the probe a severe blow by repeatedly denying any knowledge of the entire affair. Yet no foreign policy initiative absorbed more of the president’s time and vision than destroying the Sandinista government, with which the U.S. had normal diplomatic relations. Iran-contra ultimately proved to be one of the most blatant examples of an ends-justifies-the-means foreign policy ethos of an administration that allowed no legalistic obstacles to stand in the way of its extremist anti-Communist goals, however trampled U.S. laws might be in the process.

Other Reagan Obsessions

While the Iran-contra affair was among the most significant of the foreign policy excesses of the Reagan years, it was by no means unique. When not dealing with Iranian arms traders, the administration enthusiastically supported a series of bloody military dictators in Guatemala, including the infamous evangelical General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was responsible for a severe escalation of the army and paramilitary’s attacks on Mayan peasant villages. Further south in El Salvador, more than a billion dollars of U.S. aid flowed in to finance a brutal guerrilla war that caused 75,000 deaths in a decade. Among the most blatant of Reagan’s anti-Communist initiatives was the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in 1983, a maneuver that was ostensibly initiated to protect a small group of American medical students studying on the island (who in fact were forced to remain there when the U.S. cut all air links with the island), but was almost certainly executed in response to the leftward drift of the island’s government—deemed a threat to the United States’s strategic interests by a group of rather paranoiac policymakers.

Dismissed as relics of the Cold War era, the Iran-contra affair as well as other lesser-known hemispheric escapades of the 1980s in fact represent a crucial—if at the time almost unnoticed—portent of foreign policy explosions that would unfold during the tenure of Reagan’s ideological heir and reverent protégé, George W. Bush. What was later to become a reckless and unilateralist aggression in Iraq, began under Reagan as the Central American wars of the 1980’s, marked by a driven rightwing ideology, a contempt for both international organizations and pesky mechanisms of congressional intent and oversight, and the utter subversion of democratic processes. Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, John Negroponte and Admiral Poindexter—all highly placed ideologues who conspired in Iran-contra and who are once again in power— fervently believed that only they understood the full scope of the danger posed by the Soviet Union and its Latin American allies (which has never been authenticated following the fall of the Soviet Union.)

The Iraq Parallel
Even more dismaying, the remarkable continuity between the contra war and Washington’s game plan for Iraq is not merely a coincidence, but rather reflects the return of a host of key players in the Iran-contra affair. Among these are Abrams, who as the State Department’s chief policymaker for Latin America under Reagan helped formulate and implement its strategy of unremitting support for Central American death squads and the contra cause. Cynically enough, he is now serving as the National Security Council’s director for democracy, human rights and international operations. Negroponte oversaw the supplying of the Contras as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, and was recently appointed to the enormously important post of U.S. ambassador to the newly formed Iraqi government. Reich served until a few days ago as a special presidential envoy for Latin American affairs; from 1983 to 1986, Reich headed the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, which the Comptroller-General of the U.S. found to have engaged in “prohibited, covert propaganda activities” on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras.

The Past is Being Repeated
As Mr. Reagan’s funeral processions come to a climax, analysts and policymakers alike might do well to recall this enormous blemish on his supposedly “teflon” record—and more importantly, to take note of the increasingly compelling evidence that equally skewed policy initiatives are being implemented in the hemisphere today by the current administration, most notably in its crusade against leftist presidents Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and the deposition of Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as the strengthening of a decades-old and utterly ineffective embargo against the Cuban government as part of an anti-Havana rant aimed at placing Florida’s electoral college votes firmly in the Bush column this November.

While the Iran-contra affair may be in the distant past, the dangerous brand of quasi-legal and ideologically driven foreign policy initiatives it represented is undoubtedly alive today. Then, as now, selective memory, multiple spin and protestations of patriotism are the substitutes being offered for responsible policy-making. America has had many great presidents. To pretend that Mr. Reagan was one of them represents an arrant miscarriage of responsible analysis and journalism, does his truly great predecessors a grave disservice, and provides further evidence that much of the U.S. media is most comfortable on bended knees.