Ellen Degeneres caught a lot of heat after she was shown being friendly with former president George W. Bush, a bona fide war criminal. Many were quick to point out the dangers in rehabilitating the image of people responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Bush should be held accountable, not celebrated as just one more retired celebrity. This standard should apply to all war criminals, even the ones who are venerated by much of the public.
For some reason, it is widely popular for conservative students to wear “Reagan/Bush ‘84” shirts out to parties, bars or just in their daily life. The president serves as a shining example of American conservatism at its best. What many of them don’t know, or simply don’t care about, is the fact that former president Ronald Reagan is a war criminal at or beyond the caliber of George W. Bush.
Let’s start with Nicaragua. After the Sandinista revolution of 1979 overthrew the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship, the nation underwent reforms that increased literacy, reduced infant mortality and improved the overall health of the country. U.S. planners at the time were concerned that this new government could serve as a model for other Latin American countries that sought self determination outside U.S. influence.
The CIA financed and armed a group of former Somoza national guardsmen to wage a campaign of terror against Nicaragua from neighboring Honduras. The contras targeted hospitals, indiscriminately killed civilians and left much of northern Nicaragua in tatters. At Reagan’s direction, the U.S. supplied weapons, communications and intelligence support through all of this, even after being condemned by the International Court of Justice.
After the CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected president in Guatemala in 1953, the country became more closely integrated into the U.S. sphere of influence. The Reagan administration backed a near genocide of indigenous Mayans during a popular uprising. Even though the U.S. intelligence was aware of the ongoing slaughter, the Reagan administration still supplied military aid in the name of anti-communism.
When asked about the Guatemalan dictator, Reagan said José Efraín Ríos Montt was getting a “bum rap.” The Guatemalan government’s war against its own population would go on to claim more than 200,000 lives. The U.S. kept up military support through all of it.
In El Salvador, the 1980s saw uprisings against an American backed dictatorship. The government controlled death squads that targeted activists and anyone else suspected of being a subversive. The U.S. supplied arms and training to the government despite the obvious human rights abuses. The civil war between the government and guerillas lasted 12 years and claimed 75,000 lives. According to the United Nations, 85% of those could be attributed to the government.
These are some of the many dark legacies of the Reagan years. Behind the friendly smile and the soft, soothing voice was a man who was either too indifferent or too ignorant to end American support for brutality in Central America. These countries are now gang-ridden and impoverished. The same people who wear the campaign shirts are the same people who complain about immigration from Central America the loudest. There is not a trace of irony in the fact that one of their heroes is responsible for destroying many of these immigrants’ home countries and forcing their migration. Reagan’s crimes are either justified as necessary in the fight against communism, or they disappear into what George Orwell called the “memory hole.”