Ronald Reagan: Efraín Ríos Montt is “totally dedicated to democracy”

by Corey Robin on May 11, 2013

So much of the discourse around the US and genocide focuses on the sin of omission, the failure of the US to prevent or stop genocide elsewhere. Now that former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison—a fact established by a UN truth commission in 1997 but often ignored in the literature on genocide and intervention, which tends to focus on Rwanda and Bosnia—perhaps we can attend to the sin of commission. For the US support for Rios Montt was extensive. I wrote about just a little of it in the London Review of Books in 2004:

On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.


 

{ 44 comments }

1

Ronan(rf) 05.11.13 at 12:51 am

Have you read Hal Brands’ “Latin Americas Cold War” (if so what do you think?)..I dont know what I make of it as I don’t know enough about US policy in the region, but it pushes back a little against Grandin (saying US influence is overstated)

2

Corey Robin 05.11.13 at 12:57 am

I haven’t read it.

3

Cleisthenes 05.11.13 at 1:19 am

Now, what was it that Roosevelt said about Anastasio Somoza García again…..?

4

P O'Neill 05.11.13 at 1:29 am

Somewhere this evening, Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich are drawing straws to see who types up a defence of him for one of the conservative outlets over the weekend.

5

rm 05.11.13 at 1:55 am

The “small wars” in Latin America during the era between the World Wars had a lot of similar atrocities. The differences from the Reagan era were 1) more Americans liked it that way and 2) there was a less critical press which was less quick to report. But Reagan was a monster. And nothing in the Bush era should have been surprising knowing who the people in charge were.

6

Ken 05.11.13 at 2:07 am

I’m really not able to evaluate his rule until I know whether Jeane Kirkpatrick considered him an authoritarian or a totalitarian.

7

C. Gallagher 05.11.13 at 2:09 am

For anyone who hasn’t read it, this is an amazing, heartbreaking story about just two of those victims of Dos Erres. Yes, sorrows can swim, and criminals the like of Elliot Abrams are still honored speakers at CPAC.

8

rootless (@root_e) 05.11.13 at 2:23 am

Which makes statements like “If capitalism worked 30 years ago with higher taxation, with strong labor power, with a good property tax, and with affordable houses, it can work again.” ( Michael Hudson, 2012) truly remarkable.

9

rootless (@root_e) 05.11.13 at 2:27 am

The similarities between the atrocities of this US trained battalion and those in Salvador might have been coincidental.

10

Rich Puchalsky 05.11.13 at 2:54 am

One of the most stunning things for me about the Iraq War was when the Bush administration openly floated the idea of winning the war using death squads … the Salvador Option. It was stunning because it was openly accepted. No one had learned anything, and we were still the same country we’d been back in Reagan’s day.

And Obama, of course, saw to it that none of our current death squad trainers will be prosecuted, at least during his term.

11

bad Jim 05.11.13 at 3:28 am

One of my mother’s caregivers grew up in El Salvador during the civil war. She remembers the dead bodies of rebels lying in the street for days because the government would not allow them to be removed.

12

Ken 05.11.13 at 3:44 am

@bad Jim: How do you say pour encourager les autres in Spanish?

13

John Quiggin 05.11.13 at 3:56 am

@8 Things went pretty well in lots of countries that had those things, and more, and didn’t operate or finance death squads.

14

shah8 05.11.13 at 6:24 am

The cognitive dissonance is greatest with Cambodia, where the US pretends it didn’t have anything to do with Pol Pot.

15

Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.11.13 at 9:44 am

#12 normally, in French, as the phrase is well known, and frankly I cant think of a catchy translation for encourager. “Para incentivar a los otros” sounds like manager speak, and “Para advertir a los otros” loses the euphemism for a clear threath.

16

gatherdust 05.11.13 at 11:58 am

Academic hacks will debate to absurdity the precise role of the U.S. in genocidal violence. But something good may come from so much academic masturbation. And the Rios Montt verdict may be one of those hegemonic turning points where genocide in Guatemala grows into a mainstream interpretation.

The Reagan quote in Corey Robin’s excerpt is just so surreal.

17

Barry 05.11.13 at 12:35 pm

Let’s not forget the ‘duty to protect’ scum, who at best are silent whenever it’s US govt-approved mass murder ‘Nothing Happening Here’.

18

Z 05.11.13 at 12:58 pm

This post made me sick. So thank you for it.

19

Uncle Kvetch 05.11.13 at 1:33 pm

You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.

The widely held notion that there was something uniquely doltish about GWB among US presidents required a healthy dose of amnesia.

20

Hector_St_Clare 05.11.13 at 1:41 pm

I’ve never been clear why so many people in the 2000-2008 period thought Dumbya Bush was worse than Reagan. Reagan was *awful*.

21

Randy Paul 05.11.13 at 2:30 pm

@ C. Gallagher: thank you so much for sharing Oscar’s story. I don’t think I have felt as many emotions reading one story as I did this one.

22

Murray Reiss 05.11.13 at 3:27 pm

Not to mention Nicaragua, where the revolutionary hopes of a generation were crushed by the US-financed contras (remember Oliver North? Iran-Contra?). I was there in 1989 just before the election that ousted the Sandinistas. Nicaraguans understood perfectly well that a vote for the Reagan-backed Violetta Chamorro was, if nothing else, an end to the otherwise endless contra war that targeted, especially, schools, clinics, all the hardwon gains of the revolution.

23

SN 05.11.13 at 5:04 pm

Rich you say:

“No one had learned anything, and we were still the same country we’d been back in Reagan’s day.”

Yes, they did learn something. Before the scorched earth campaign, the Guatemalan rebels were close to winning the war. In fact, all the Central American revolutions might have been successful had it not been for US intervention and support of such tactics as death squads. So they learned that genocide and other atrocities can win a war.

24

the anon 05.11.13 at 5:31 pm

@ 1. Read this devastating review of Brands: http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/content/116/5/1539.extract

25

Randy Paul 05.11.13 at 5:54 pm

The review of the Brands book is by Lars Schoultz, one of the foremost scholars of US-Latin American relations.

26

purple 05.11.13 at 6:23 pm

Latin America has changed, but the U.S. hasn’t.

As an aside, I wonder where this type of verdict fits in with Yglesias’ arguments vis a vis Bangladesh. Apparently poor brown people do value life !

27

Rich Puchalsky 05.11.13 at 6:27 pm

“Yes, they did learn something. Before the scorched earth campaign, the Guatemalan rebels were close to winning the war.”

Perhaps I should amend that to “the general public didn’t learn anything”, or “the general public (considered as a whole) always had liked supporting war crimes, and still dd.”

I think that the U.S. government / military learned about atrocities and war crimes as the route to victory back in the Philippines.

28

Tim Craker 05.11.13 at 7:10 pm

If this discussion is any indication, all adding to “the discussion of the US and genocide” its active role in supporting genocidal violence against the Maya will do is diminish the ethical issue of genocidal violence by making it a subdivision of cold war geopolitics.

What would we learn if we looked at Robin’s question in the context of shared experiences across all of the Americas, rather than in the context of a presumed difference between the US and the surprising (to Reagan) “individual countries?”

29

Dr. Hilarius 05.11.13 at 7:19 pm

I doubt any news organization will dig up the clips, but Pat Robertson of the 700 Club was an enthusiastic Montt supporter, calling him a “warrior for Jesus.”

30

Barry 05.11.13 at 8:01 pm

“What would we learn if we looked at Robin’s question in the context of shared experiences across all of the Americas, rather than in the context of a presumed difference between the US and the surprising (to Reagan) “individual countries?””

English, please?

31

Mitchell Freedman 05.11.13 at 8:25 pm

I always thought Joe Lieberman, as a young man, had it right in comparing the way the US treated Latin America with the way the Soviet Union treated Eastern Europe, and finding, sadly but firmly, that the US was worse in its treatment of Latin American people than the Soviets were of Eastern Europeans.

It seems radical to say, but one looks at the carnage of so many right wing dictators our nation’s leaders and its helpful handmaidens in American corporate media supported during the period of 1945-1989 and sees how obvious it is to reach that conclusion.

32

Bill Barnes 05.11.13 at 8:39 pm

Hal Brands’ work is no where near as reliable as Greg Grandin’s, particularly on Guatemala (as to which Grandin’s characterizations and judgments are more well-founded than some of what he says re Nicaragua and El Salvador). Grandin’s The Last Colonial Massacre is the best thing I know in putting Guatemala in Cold war context. But it’s not true to say that the Guatemalan revolutionary left was ever close to winning and only saved by Reagan & Co. – that probably is sort of true for El Salvador — and there was a “moment” in Iraq when the idea that similar counter-insurgency tactics could work there was all the rage in the Bush administration – complete with David Brooks columns and cover stories in Time and the NY Times Magazine – “The Salvadorization of Iraq” — remember? All complete horseshit of course (as many Central Americanists, including your truly, explained at the time). Iraq was much more comparable to Nicaragua — with the role of the U.S. flipped. Unfortunately, the new regime in Iraq, replacing the earlier U.S.-supported brutal dictator, has had, from the beginning and still, all of the worst faults of the Sandinista regime, and none of the Sandinista virtues.

33

Ronan(rf) 05.11.13 at 8:43 pm

@24, 25 thanks

I found this last night when it was in my head (another roundatable)

http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/roundtables/PDF/Roundtable-XII-27.pdf

Tanya Harmers input is particularly interesting

34

Ronan(rf) 05.11.13 at 8:47 pm

@Bill Barnes

is his argument that there’s an overemphasis on US influence and underemphasis on domestic agency legit do you think?

35

Antonio Conselheiro 05.11.13 at 9:03 pm

Numbers 31:

7 So they made war against Midian, just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. … 12 They brought the captives and the prey and the spoil to Moses…. 15 And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? …. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man …

“We want peace in our country, but we need to realise that Peace is a fruit of the Spirit. And the Spirit is a gift of God,” said General Efraim Rios Montt. The President of Guatemala made it clear in his speech to teachers in Retalhuleu, on the 24th of February, where he expected his help to come from: “God is the only one who teaches us correct principles.”….Of course, this charismatic President, who leaves us in no doubt that he understands the word “cambio” by first of all changing the individual and through that turning the whole nation to God, is a thorn in the side of the left wing propaganda. For in the Caribbean region, the Guatemalan example is the only real alternative to the Cuban one. If this example were followed, and if the wounds of this nation were healed, then this whole corrupt area could recover. While the mass-media in other countries are aiming their attacks at “the man of a sect,” leading Christians in the country itself call Rios Montt the “Nehemiah of Guatemala” – called by God to re-build the country out of its ruins – spiritually, morally and physically.

http://www.cai.org/bible-studies/failed-attempt-guatemala

36

Antonio Conselheiro 05.11.13 at 9:04 pm

He evangelised in his weekly sermons on radio and television to bring people to repentance and spiritual renewal. The church building of his local assembly was not big enough, so they started to meet in a mission tent. Of the 7 million inhabitants of Guatemala, 700,000 came to the centenary celebrations of the evangelical missionary work. Approximately 25% of the population call themselves born-again Christians. The “Asambleas de Dios” (Assemblies of God) in Guatemala City itself has 128 assemblies with 20,000 members. There are also other Biblical Pentecostal assemblies, Baptists and charismatic groups. The country has experienced a true revival. Of course, the new converts do not believe the left wing terrorists anymore and scores of people are leaving the Catholic church.

37

Bill Barnes 05.11.13 at 9:08 pm

“is his argument that there’s an overemphasis on US influence and underemphasis on domestic agency legit do you think?”

You mean Brands, right? I’d have to go back through his book. There may be a few places where he’s more right than wrong about some particular set of developments, but overall he’s certainly more wrong than right. On the other hand, you can certainly find plenty of Leftist over-attribution of unilateral, decisive agency to the U.S. — re Nicaragua for example.

38

Hector_St_Clare 05.11.13 at 9:24 pm

Re: Unfortunately, the new regime in Iraq, replacing the earlier U.S.-supported brutal dictator, has had, from the beginning and still, all of the worst faults of the Sandinista regime

The Sandinistas weren’t without flaws, but I don’t think their flaws were nearly comparable to the faults of the various post-2003 Iraqi regimes.

Re: For in the Caribbean region, the Guatemalan example is the only real alternative to the Cuban one

If that is true (it isn’t, BTW) then that’s possibly the strongest argument I’ve ever heard in favour of the Cuban Revolution.

Can you seriously look at Guatemala and Cuba and then concluded that the former country has, historically, treated its people better than the latter?

Re: On the other hand, you can certainly find plenty of Leftist over-attribution of unilateral, decisive agency to the U.S. — re Nicaragua for example.

I think that’s true- Noam Chomsky can get annoying that way- but even without making stuff up and over-attributing, the *actual* faults of various U.S. governments vis-a-vis Latin America are bad enough.
.

39

Ronan(rf) 05.11.13 at 9:26 pm

Yeah sorry, I meant Brands..thanks fo the response. His account did strike me at times as an attempt to defend the US rather than understand what happened regionally during the cold war (and since I dont know the research on the region I couldnt work out whether he was adopting a genuinely original perspective or just attacking a strawman )

40

Bill Barnes 05.11.13 at 9:33 pm

Hector, Hector, please, for God’s sake, do not mix together what I say with the utter insanity expressed at #35 and 36. You and I will have enough disagreements without that. I agree entirely that the last 50 years of Cuba is vastly preferable to the last 50 years of Guatemala.

41

Justin Doolittle 05.13.13 at 3:34 am

(First comment here. Hope to be an active contributor. Great site.)

Post 38 said: “I think that’s true- Noam Chomsky can get annoying that way- but even without making stuff up and over-attributing, the *actual* faults of various U.S. governments vis-a-vis Latin America are bad enough.”

I don’t think Chomsky “over-attributes” (particularly not in the case of Nicaragua, actually). Whatever he has written about these countries just reflects his mode of political analysis, which is to focus almost exclusively on U.S. actions, because he is a U.S. citizen. Criticizing Nicaraguan actions, for example, that have nothing to do with the U.S. just has zero utility for Chomsky.

42

BGP 05.13.13 at 8:47 am

43

LFC 05.17.13 at 3:43 am

Barry @30:

“What would we learn if we looked at Robin’s question in the context of shared experiences across all of the Americas, rather than in the context of a presumed difference between the US and the surprising (to Reagan) “individual countries?” English, please?

I took the quoted language to be a reference to the U.S.’s own direct genocidal acts vs Native Americans. I don’t know for sure whether that’s what T. Craker @28 meant but that’s how I interpreted it.

44

LFC 05.17.13 at 4:10 am

B. Barnes:

there was a “moment” in Iraq when the idea that similar counter-insurgency tactics [to those in El Salvador] could work there was all the rage in the Bush administration – complete with David Brooks columns and cover stories in Time and the NY Times Magazine – “The Salvadorization of Iraq” — remember?

R. Puchalsky also referred to this El Salvador/Iraq ‘moment’. For some reason I don’t remember it. Perhaps a consequence of not often reading D. Brooks … I’m sure it is covered in the already-published histories of U.S. in Iraq from 2003 on — I’m thinking in particular of Tom Ricks’s books, which I haven’t read.

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