When you're listening to the many tributes to President Ronald Reagan, often for his talent making Americans feel better about themselves, you might want to spend a minute thinking about the many atrocities in Latin America and elsewhere that Reagan aided, covered up or shrugged off in his inimitable "aw shucks" manner.
After all, the true measure of a president shouldn't be his style or how he made us feel but rather what he did with his extraordinary power, what were the consequences for real people, either for good or ill.
Yet, even as the United States celebrates Reagan's centennial birthday and lavishes praise on his supposed accomplishments, very little time has been spent reflecting on the unnecessary bloodbaths that Reagan enabled in many parts of the world.
Those grisly deaths and ugly tortures get whisked away as if they were just small necessities in Reagan's larger success "winning the Cold War -- even though the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was already winding down before Reagan arrived on the national scene. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall' Myth."]
Yet, Reagan's Cold War obsessions helped unleash right-wing "death squads" and murderous militaries on the common people in many parts of the Third World, but nowhere worse than in Latin America.
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 forced 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
So, there was good reason for the right-wing oligarchs and their security services to celebrate when Reagan was elected president in November 1980. They knew they would enjoy a new era of impunity as they tortured, raped and murdered their political opponents.
Even before Reagan took office, four American churchwomen in El Salvador were kidnapped by elements of the right-wing Salvadoran military. Because the women were suspected of harboring leftist sympathies, they were raped and executed with high-powered bullets to their brains, before their bodies were stuffed into shallow graves.
The incoming Reagan administration was soon making excuses for the Salvadoran killers, including comments from Reagan's U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Alexander Haig.