In Central America, Reagan Remains A Polarizing Figure
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
SAN SALVADOR -- Gerson Martinez, a rebel leader in the 1980s, remembers Ronald Reagan as the man who funneled $1 million a day to a repressive and often brutal Salvadoran government whose thugs and death squads killed thousands of people, including the mother of his two children.
Ricardo Valdivieso, a businessman and a founder of El Salvador's main conservative political party, said Reagan "saved Central America" and was "a great ray of light and hope for civilization and liberty in a dark hour for our country."
The memory of the 40th U.S. president, who served from 1981 to 1989, is still strong in the region, and the contrasting views are passionate and polarizing.
The United States was heavily involved in wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s in what Reagan described as an effort to stem Soviet influence in the hemisphere. The United States spent more than $4 billion on economic and military aid during El Salvador's civil war, in which more than 75,000 people were killed, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
The United States also organized Nicaragua's contra guerrillas, who fought that country's revolutionary Sandinista government. Reagan referred to contras as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers" and the United States spent $1 billion on them; the fighting in Nicaragua killed as many as 50,000 people. Honduras was a staging ground for U.S. Nicaraguan operations.
Reagan also supported the repressive military dictatorship of Guatemala, where more than 200,000 people, mostly indigenous peasants, died over 36 years of civil strife.
Reagan's support never led to a final battlefield victory in the region. Opposing sides negotiated peace in El Salvador and the Sandinistas were voted out of office in Nicaragua. But the same divisive sentiment about Reagan that existed a generation ago persists today.
Admirers credit Reagan with changing the course of Central America and helping to nurture democratic governments and free-market systems across the region. Many said Reagan's advocacy of open markets and U.S.-style capitalism sowed the earliest seeds of El Salvador's adoption of the U.S. dollar as its official currency.
"As time goes on, people are going to understand what he did for us," said Valdivieso, 62, a hotel owner and coffee producer. "I remember the first time I heard him speak, I thought, perhaps things will be all right, maybe we're going to be okay."
But for others, Reagan was an anti-communist zealot, whose obsession blinded him to the human rights abuses of those he supported with funding and CIA training.
"He was a butcher," said Miguel D'Escoto, who was foreign minister in Nicaragua's Sandinista government. D'Escoto, speaking by telephone from Managua, said "brutal intervention" by the United States under Reagan left "the whole country demoralized."
He said another Reagan legacy was that "Nicaragua continues to have people tied to U.S. apron strings. For some people, the lesson of the '80s is that you can do nothing without U.S. approval or you will have trouble."
Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista who led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, remains a leading political figure there. He said at a public ceremony this week that he hoped God would forgive Reagan for his "dirty war against Nicaragua."
But Adolfo Calero, a former contra leader who attended a special Mass for Reagan in the Managua cathedral on Tuesday, heralded the U.S. president's legacy. "We are very grateful to President Reagan. Without him, we probably would have been another Cuba," said Calero, former head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, which battled the Sandinista government.
In Guatemala, many remember that Reagan lent his prestige and backing to Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power in a coup and was an ardent anti-communist. Currently under house arrest for his alleged role in violent July 2003 riots, Rios Montt has been blamed by many international human rights groups for the massacre of tens of thousands of Guatemalans, including many women and children.
Carolina Escobar Sarti, a Guatemalan newspaper columnist, said many view Reagan's "interventionism" as part of a "difficult era."
"Of course," she said, "There are others, those on the ultra-right, who like Reagan," she said. "He has become a symbol of the conservatives."
In Honduras, where the little-known capital Tegucigalpa burst into the world's consciousness in the 1980s as a staging area for the U.S-funded contras, the Reagan era is viewed bleakly by many.
"It was a black moment," said Guatama Fonseca, a former Honduran security minister. "Reagan is remembered for events that are very unpleasant."
Reagan's critics contend that billions of U.S. dollars and U.S. arms and military intelligence inflamed and prolonged the 1980s wars because of Reagan's determination to leave no trace of communist sympathizers so close to U.S. soil.
In El Salvador, Martinez, the former rebel leader, said the U.S.-backed wars under Reagan created a massive wave of refugees who fled to the United States. He called that migration, which created a huge Salvadoran population in Washington, "the daughter of Reagan's policies."
He also said Central America's rampant street gangs were "the grandchildren" of Reagan's policies. Many gang members are people who had fled the wars, learned gang culture in Los Angeles or New York, then brought it home, creating the region's most critical security issue.
But in Nicaragua, reaction to Reagan's death included warm eulogies. President Enrique Bolaños was among those appearing at the U.S. Embassy in Managua to sign the book of condolences. He described Reagan a "great defender of Nicaragua's return to democracy," according to a spokesman.
Jordan reported from Mexico City.