Reagan's legacy in Latin America marked by obsession, failure

Reagan's legacy in Latin America marked by obsession, failure
By Juan Blanco Prada
June 16, 2004

Now that President Reagan's funeral ceremonies are over, it's time to face one unflattering fact: He supported brutality in Latin America.

Reagan did more to spread war, state-sponsored terrorism and political repression throughout the hemisphere than almost any of his predecessors. He staunchly supported military dictatorships and cruel regimes from Central America to Chile and Argentina. He failed to support the movements that would eventually bring democratic governments to most of South and Central American nations.

Nowhere did his administration inflict possibly more pain and suffering than in Central America. Under the excuse of fighting communism, Reagan provided vital support to some of the bloodiest mass murderers in the hemisphere, including Roberto D'Aubuisson of El Salvador and Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala.

In Nicaragua, Reagan rejected overtures made by the Sandinistas to normalize the relationship with Washington. Instead, he threw one of the smallest, poorest countries on the continent into a 10-year civil war that caused an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 deaths, mostly civilian. The obsession to defeat the Sandinistas prompted the Reagan administration to violate American law by selling weapons to Iran to fund the Contra army. Many of those involved in that plot later lied to Congress about it.

In El Salvador, despite the murderous nature of the regime, Reagan poured money and weapons to help it wage its war against guerrillas. The administration also provided the training to one of the deadliest death squads ever seen in Latin America, the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army.

Reagan also declared the absurd war on drugs, which until this day has made little impact in the amount of illegal drugs sold in the streets of America. But it is an excuse for the expansion of military power, paramilitaries, torture, the repression of social movements and the death of thousands in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

After a decade of spreading blood and misery throughout Latin America, the Reagan administration ultimately failed to achieve its goals. Despite continued support for the military juntas of South America, democratic movements ultimately overthrew all of them.

Even in Central America, despite all the bloodshed, progressive movements were not suppressed, although they were significantly weakened by the civil wars. Both the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels have reorganized into political parties and remain viable alternatives to the current ruling parties.

It is fine and well to mourn the death of an American president. But we need to be honest about his record. And as far as Latin America goes, it was atrocious.

Juan Blanco Prada is a Latin American writer and activist living in California. He can be reached at