Guatemala is taking steps to hold an ex-dictator accountable for genocide committed against Maya-Ixil Indians in the 1980s, even as the United States continues to honor the American president -- Ronald Reagan -- who helped make that genocide possible.
A Guatemalan judge ordered Efraín Ríos Montt to appear in court on Thursday in what could be the start of a process for trying the former military dictator on genocide charges for authorizing scorched-earth campaigns against Maya-Ixil villages suspected of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.
In the late 1990s, a United Nations truth commission investigated the slaughters, which involved the killing of men, women and children, and labeled the massacres carried out during Ríos Montt's 17-month reign in 1982 and 1983 as "genocide." Two of Ríos Montt's generals were arrested on war crimes and genocide charges last year.
However, while Guatemala, though beset by many serious problems, including widespread poverty, takes politically difficult steps to impose some accountability on these war criminals, the U.S. politician most associated with Ríos Montt and his genocide, remains the subject of endless adoration.
The mere mention of Ronald Reagan's name at Republican presidential debates is a sure-fire applause line; the American people are reminded over and over how the former actor made them "feel good"; he's credited with "winning" the Cold War though he actually may have prolonged it; his centennial birthday in 2011 was celebrated with lavish speeches and fawning documentaries; and a new Reagan statue was recently unveiled at Washington's airport, which has been renamed in his honor.
If there is one consensus in the mainstream U.S. news media, it seems to be that not a discouraging word can be spoken about Ronald Reagan. On those rare occasions when major U.S. news outlets do make mention of the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s, they circumspectly reframe the story to avoid mentioning Reagan's role.
Yet, it was Reagan's Cold War obsessions that emboldened right-wing "death squads" to slaughter tens of thousands of their own people across many parts of the Third World but no place more so than in the desperately poor countries of Central America.
An Ardent Defender
In the 1970s and 1980s, as Latin American security forces were sharpening themselves into finely honed killing machines, Reagan was there as an ardent defender, making excuses for the atrocities, and sending money and equipment to make the forces even more lethal.
For instance, in the late 1970s, when Argentina's dictators were inventing a new state-terror program called "disappearances" -- the unacknowledged murders of dissidents -- Reagan was making himself useful as a columnist deflecting the human rights complaints coming from the Carter administration.
At the time, Argentina's security forces were rounding up tens of thousands of political opponents who became subjects of ingenious torture techniques often followed by mass killings, including a favorite method that involved shackling naked prisoners together, loading them onto a plane, piloting the plane out to sea and shoving them through the plane's door, like sausage links.
However, since Argentina's rightists were devout Catholics, they had a special twist when the prisoners were pregnant women. The expectant mothers would be kept alive until they reached full term and then were subjected to either induced labor or Caesarian sections.
The babies were handed out to military families and the new mothers were loaded aboard the death planes to be dumped out over the sea to drown. The children were sometimes raised by their mothers' murderers. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Argentina's Dapper State Terrorist" or "Baby-Snatching: Argentina's Dirty War Secret."]
As ghastly as Argentina's "dirty war" was, it had an ardent defender in Ronald Reagan, who used his newspaper column to chide President Jimmy Carter's human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, for berating the Argentine junta. Reagan joshed that Derian should "walk a mile in the moccasins" of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Sympathizing with Torturers