The courage of the Guatemalan people and the integrity of their legal system to exact some accountability on a still-influential political figure also put U.S. democracy to shame. For decades now, Americans have tolerated human rights crimes by U.S. presidents who face little or no accountability. Usually, the history isn't even compiled honestly.
Yet, while Guatemalans demonstrate the strength to face a dark chapter of their history, the American people remain mostly oblivious to Reagan's central role in tens of thousands of political murders across Central America in the 1980s, including some 100,000 dead in Guatemala slaughtered by Rios Montt and other military dictators.
Indeed, Ronald Reagan -- by aiding, abetting, encouraging and covering up widespread human rights crimes in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala -- bears greater responsibility for Central America's horrors than does Rios Montt in his bloody 17-month rule. Reagan supported Guatemala's brutal repression both before and after Rios Montt held power, as well as during.
Despite that history, more honors have been bestowed on Reagan than any recent president. Americans have allowed the naming of scores of government facilities in Reagan's honor, including Washington National Airport where Reagan's name elbowed aside that of George Washington, who led the War of Independence, oversaw the drafting of the U.S. Constitution and served as the nation's first president.
So, as America's former reputation as a beacon for human rights becomes a bad joke to the rest of the world, it is unthinkable within the U.S. political/media structure that Reagan would get posthumously criticized for the barbarity that he promoted. No one of importance would dare suggest that his name be stripped from National Airport and his statue removed from near the airport entrance.
But the evidence is overwhelming that the 40th president of the United States was guilty as an accessory to genocide and a wide range of other war crimes, including torture, rape, terrorism and narcotics trafficking. [See Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Green Light to Genocide
Regarding Guatemala, the documentary evidence is clear that Reagan and his top aides gave a green light to the extermination campaign against the Mayan Ixil population in the highlands even before Rios Montt came to power. Despite receiving U.S. intelligence reports revealing these atrocities, the Reagan administration also pressed ahead in an extraordinary effort to arrange military equipment, including helicopters, to make the slaughter more efficient.
"In the tortured logic of military planning documents conceived under Mr. Ríos Montt's 17-month rule during 1982 and 1983, the entire Mayan Ixil population was a military target, children included," the New York Times reported from Rios Montt's trial last month. "Officers wrote that the leftist guerrillas fighting the government had succeeded in indoctrinating the impoverished Ixils and reached '100 percent support.'"
So, everyone was targeted in these scorched-earth campaigns that eradicated more than 600 Indian villages in the Guatemalan highlands. But documents from this period indicate that these counterinsurgency strategies predated Rios Montt. And, they received the blessing of the Reagan administration shortly after Reagan took power in 1981.
A document that I discovered in the archives of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, revealed that Reagan and his national security team in 1981 agreed to supply military aid to Guatemala's dictators so they could pursue the goal of exterminating not only "Marxist guerrillas" but people associated with their "civilian support mechanisms."
This supportive attitude took shape in spring 1981 as President Reagan sought to relax human-rights restrictions on military aid to Guatemala that had been imposed by President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic-controlled Congress in the late 1970s. As part of that easing, Reagan's State Department "advised our Central American embassies that it has been studying ways to restore a closer, cooperative relationship with Guatemala," said a White House "Situation Room Checklist" dated April 8, 1981.
The document added: "State believes a number of changes have occurred which could make Guatemalan leaders more receptive to a new U.S. initiative: the Guatemalans view the new administration as more sympathetic to their problems [and] they are less suspect of the U.S. role in El Salvador," where the Reagan administration was expanding military aid to another right-wing regime infamous for slaughtering its political opponents, including Catholic clergy.
"State has concluded that any attempt to reestablish a dialogue [with Guatemala] would require some initial, condition-free demonstration of our goodwill. However, this could not include military sales which would provoke serious U.S. public and congressional criticism. State will undertake a series of confidence building measures, free of preconditions, which minimize potential conflict with existing legislation."
In other words, the Reagan administration was hoping that the U.S. government could get back in the good graces of the Guatemalan dictators, not that the dictators should change their ways to qualify for U.S. government help.
Soliciting the Generals
The "checklist" added that the State Department...