Eric Alterman: Remembering What Reagan Did in Guatemala





Eric Alterman, on his blog (June 16, 2004):

Remember how loveable and optimistic Ronald Reagan was? Remember how he did nothing but make us feel good about ourselves and restore respect for America; our moral values and our position of leadership in the world? I was reading the galley pages of When Presidents Lie yesterday and came across this episode. Funny how it didn’t make it into any of the SCLM coverage last week. Tim? Chris? I’m here for you guys if you need it. Footnotes are free:

U.S. leaders from Eisenhower and Dulles through Nixon, Ford and Kissinger ignored the regime’s brutality in deference to its anti-Communism. But the Carter administration complicated its position by denouncing the regime’s human rights record, ultimately leading Guatemala to reject U.S. aid as inexcusable interference in its internal affairs. By 1982, during the Reagan administration, the killing appeared to be reaching a kind of gruesome climax. Under the dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt, a born-again evangelical Christian, the army massacred as many as 15,000 Indians on the suspicion that they had cooperated with, or might offer aid to, anti-government guerrillas. Entire villages were leveled to aid the counterinsurgency and countless peasants were forcibly relocated to aid the counterinsurgency. At one point, as many as 40,000 survivors tried to find refuge in Mexico, Army helicopters strafed the camps. It was at this propitious moment that President Reagan took the opportunity to congratulate Rios Montt for his dedication to democracy, adding that he had been getting “a bum rap” from U.S. liberals in Congress and the media. Moreover, in the midst of this killing rampage, the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Frederic Chapin announced, “The killings have stopped…. The Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light.” In fact, the number of civilians killed by death squads doubled to roughly 220 a month by late 1983. In a secret report to his superiors, Chapin decried the “horrible human rights realities in Guatemala,” and argued that a consistent policy demanded that either the U.S. “overlook the record and emphasize the strategic concept or we can pursue a higher moral path.” The Reagan administration ignored his advice. Though Congress would not authorize additional aid, U.S. funds still reached Rios Montt through Israel and Taiwan, in addition to the still-secret amounts available via the CIA. Following an election in 1985, the U.S. embassy publicly declared that the “final step in the re-establishment of democracy in Guatemala” had taken place," and accordingly restored all of its aid moneys.



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