The 1980s Aren’t Dead; They Aren’t Even Past
William Faulkner said that, didn’t he? Or something like that.
In any event, undoubtedly it’s my age, but if you listen carefully you can still hear the echoes of that god-awful-est of decades. As I’ve theorized before, seemingly all of America’s biggest problems have their genesis in the horrible, and sometimes vicious, policies of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations, particularly in the area of foreign relations. The crimes our country was involved in, directly or indirectly, caused enormous suffering from Latin America to the Middle East, from South Africa to Southeast Asia, and as we learned on so many occasions, the pain we helped inflict in those places can come boomeranging back to us in the worst way.
Often, though, the victims of our foreign policy were so weak and powerless, they had no means to strike back even if they wanted to. So it was in places like Guatemala, where this week the long suffering people began to see a glimpse of justice:
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – The trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity opened on Tuesday, the first time a country has prosecuted an ex-head of state in a national court on such charges.
For decades, Rios Montt avoided prosecution for atrocities committed during his 1982-1983 rule in a particularly bloody phase of the country’s long civil war, protected as a congressman by a law that grants immunity to public officials.
Rios Montt, who left Congress in 2012, was ordered to stand trial in January when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan executed under his command.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist insurgents and targeted indigenous people during a “scorched earth” military offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Ixil group.
Roughly 200,000 civilians, mostly of Mayan descent, were killed during the 1960-1996 conflict as a string of right-wing governments attempted to rid Guatemala of leftist guerilla fighters suspected of being in league with communists.
An additional 45,000 people went missing.
(Tip of the hat to my Twitter pal @BlueDuPage for the link.)
It will come as no surprise that, as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was one of Ríos Montt’s biggest fans. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported back in December 1982:
The security forces in both El Salvador and Guatemala have been accused of large-scale abuses of human rights, ranging from massacres of civilians in Guatemala to torture, disappearances and political murders in El Salvador.
But after talks in San Pedro Sula [Honduras] with Guatemala’s leader, General Efrain Rios Montt, Mr. Reagan praised the military Government’s “progressive efforts,” and pledged US support.
Human rights organisations have accused Guatemala’s Army and security forces of massacring more than 2,600 peasants since launching an anti-guerilla offensive after the military coup which brought General Rios Montt to power last March.
More recently, Robert Parry of Consortium New reviewed both newly discovered documents from the National Archives and documents that were declassified in the 1990s, all of which show the depth of the Reagan Administration’s involvement in Ríos Montt’s war crimes. Parry notes that Reagan began pushing for military aid for Guatemala in the spring of 1981, shortly after his inauguration, with minimal strings attached:
According to one “secret” cable also from April 1981 — and declassified in the 1990s — the CIA was confirming Guatemalan government massacres even as Reagan was moving to loosen the military aid ban. On April 17, 1981, a CIA cable described an army massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory, because the population was believed to support leftist guerrillas.
A CIA source reported that “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants.” [Many of the Guatemalan documents declassified in the 1990s can be found at the National Security Archive’s Web site.]
In May 1981, despite these ongoing atrocities, Reagan dispatched [Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s personal emissary, retired Gen. Vernon] Walters to tell the Guatemalan leaders that the new U.S. administration wanted to lift the human rights embargoes on military equipment that former President Jimmy Carter and Congress had imposed.
Now, forty years after Ríos Montt’s genocidal reign of terror came to an end, he will stand trial, and, hopefully, be convicted of and sentenced for his crimes. Reagan, of course, is long dead; but Reagan was beatified by the American public and the American media long before Alzheimer’s disease forced him into a hermit-like existence for the final years of his life. Consequently, there was no chance Reagan or any of his cronies – many of whom, like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, resurfaced in the George W. Bush Administration – would ever be called on to answer for their crimes.
You might want to remember that when you hear people excoriating the Obama Administration for failing to prosecute W’s crew over the Iraq war debacle. We have a long history of insulating from prosecution rich white men who cause death and destruction from the halls of the White House and the Pentagon. So, I’m not sure why people expected the Black guy to be the first to do it.
Meanwhile, the 1980s called. They want their rocket launcher back.