Journalist and activist Allen Nairn who has won a number of awards for his reporting in Central America, from El Salvador to Guatemala, discusses Reagan’s foreign policy couched as a war against communism. [Includes transcript]
Rush transcript coming soon.
- Allan Nairn, veteran investigative journalist.
AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, won a number of awards for his reporting in Central America from El Salvador to Guatemala, wrote for the “New Republic,” “The Nation,” The Progressive.” Allan, we are now hearing in the United States a great deal about Reagan foreign policy couched as a war against communism. Can you respond to that and talk specifically about Guatemala and El Salvador?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, communism was the excuse for what Reagan did in Central America, but the victims were not Communists. The victims were priests and peasants and labor leaders and residents and student leaders and academics and journalists and others who — especially in the late 1970’s both in Guatemala and Salvador had coalesced into strong popular movements. The thing they were responding to was the fact that in both those countries, hundreds of thousands of people every year were dying unnecessarily from malnutrition, from diarrhea, from malaria, people were living on hillsides trying to eke out a living on corn crops that could only feed a family for three or four months because the plot was so small because the larger owners had all the good land. People tried to find a peaceful solution to this preventable death mainly of children. In many villages in Guatemala and El Salvador half of the kids would die through peaceful means. Through strikes on the plantations where they would ask for an extra 40 cents a day in wages, strikes in places like the Coca-Cola plant in Guatemala, calls for enforcement of the real minimum wage.
The response to this by the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala in both cases backed by the Reagan administration, the response was death squads. In Guatemala they had named like the Malablanca, the White Hand, the S.R., the Secret Anti-Communist army. They would often pass out leaflets listing the names of the people they intended to execute. Sometimes they were illustrated with the photos. They complied. They would follow up. They would roam the streets and in vans and would come into houses in the middle of night wearing hoods. They would drag people away, and in the next few days their mutilated bodies would turn up by the roadside often with the genitals removed, stuffed in the mouth, hands severed. This was effective. It worked. The popular movements in both Salvador and Guatemala were crushed. And in response, many of the survivors went to the hills. They joined up with the very small, until that time, guerrilla groups, several of which had a Communist ideology and were backed by Cuba, and they tried to fight that way. When they did that, that was seen by Reagan and his people, Alexander Hague, the Secretary of State, Jean Kirkpatrick, Elliot Abrams, the Human Rights and Latin American chief, John Negroponte, the ambassador to Honduras, this was seen as a strategic success because it made it that much easier politically for the U.S. to justify what it was doing. They can say, see, we’re fighting Communists. We’re fighting an armed insurgency. That’s why we’re backing these governments. What they backed was really one of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history. In Guatemala during Reagan’s time, about 200,000 civilians were massacred. A couple of thousand of armed guerrillas were killed in combat. In Salvador, probably on the order of 70,000 civilians massacred, again a couple of them were armed guerillas killed in combat.
When Reagan was running for president against Carter in 1980 his campaign and foreign policy team actually sent emissaries to Guatemala. They met with the military chiefs and the heads of CASIF, which was the Guatemalan chambers of commerce, agriculture, industry and finance, the convening body. They told them, according to the discussions that I had with the people that they met with, that once Reagan came to office, they would have a freer hand. They had been getting some criticism from the State Departments of Ford and then Carter and the U.S. Congress to its credit had brought correct and direct U.S. arms sales to Guatemala. So, with approval from National Security Adviser to President Carter, Israel stepped in to fill the gap and was selling automatic rifles and Uzi submachine guns and transport planes and military goods to Guatemala, but they had to do it indirectly. The U.S. was — it was difficult for the Guatemalan army. Reagan’s campaign emissaries told the death squad chieftains and the oligarchy and the military, don’t worry, when we come in, you’ll get a free hand. That’s basically what happened. One of the people that went down on behalf of president Reagan was Vernon Walters, who was his special emissary to Guatemala.
The ruler of Guatemala was General Lucas Garcia. Under his reign, the military focused its attacks on unions and on peasant groups, and also on the Catholic Church, which they saw as a subversive force because it was telling the poor that they also were humans in the sight of God, that they had rights and they had the right to ask for more. On two occasions, they actually — the military death squads actually went in and abducted the entire labor leadership of Guatemala which was holding conventions. They picked them all up. They disappeared never to be seen again. Walters went down, met publicly with General Lucas and embraced him and said, we love your devotion to peace, liberty and constitutional institutions. About a year-and-a-half later, when General Lucas was replaced by General Luis Mans, who took power in a coup, the strategy shifted. Mans shifted to the countryside, the Mayan highlands of the northwest where the indigenous population, and especially old and brave, and they were more impoverished than the people of the cities, and they had risen against the armies. They sent the army sweeping through the villages of the highlands and actually saw military documents where they estimated that 662 rural villages were, in other words, annihilated. They would go into the villages. They would gather everyone in the square. They would tell them that the army had arrived, that they were only — their only hope for survival was to come to the good to renounce those who were against the army and then they would read from lists compiled by the military intelligence of people who were supposedly giving food to the guerrillas or working with the priests or working with organizers, and then they would execute them in front of the other villagers. They would shoot them in the head with their Uzis. They would make their neighbors — dig a pit into which the bodies were thrown and then they would often grab several people from the crowd, shoot them at random, often the children. Then as they left, they would burn the homes, slaughter the farm animals and they did this day after day after day. On some days, three and four and five villages would be taken out in this manner. They would leave behind these burning hulks, decapitated bodies, often hundreds slaughtered at a time.
Then in the midst of this campaign, Reagan personally went to Central America, met with General Luis Mans and said that Guatemala was getting a bum rap on human rights. There was a similar story in neighboring El Salvador. As with Guatemala, the U.S. policy of backing terror and backing an oligarchy which lived high while many thousands of children died from hunger, the U.S. policy of backing them went back a long way. In Guatemala in 1954, Eisenhower had sent them the C.I.A. to overthrow the democratically-elected government and put the army in power. Likewise in Salvador, a sophisticated military death squad apparatus had been built up under a program launched under JFK, the Kennedy Administration which actually sent in C.I.A. and State Department and Green Beret people to set up a communications system, at that time a radio teletype, which was the technology of the day, which linked the intelligence services of Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and they would exchange across borders information they had gathered on subversives, information they had gathered with C.I.A. assistance in files that they-I have actually been shown some of the files in Salvador by the officers explaining how the C.I.A. technicians had shown them how to put them together and maintain them. This was before the advent and wide use of computers. They did it with paper. But they managed to find their victims. Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, they carried out many assassinations. But when Reagan came in, it became larger scale. It became more systematic.
Reagan’s chief foreign policy thinker, Jean Kirkpatrick, who became his advisor to the UN actually by some accounts got her job in the Administration, first came to the attention of Reagan and his inner circle when she wrote an essay for the American Enterprise Institute in which she explicitly praised the operations of the Salvador ran death squads. This is the essay in which she put forward her idea that the U.S. should be backing authoritarian governments like those of Guatemala and Salvador, and she referred to the Martinez Brigades, which was one of the death squads in Salvador, which was named off an old Salvadoran General had staged a massacre of tens of thousands of peasants as U.S. naval warships hovered offshore. Kirkpatrick said that the modern day death squads who carried on in his name, invoked his name because he was seen as a civic hero by the Salvadoran people. Kirkpatrick was saying that these death squads were admired by the people because they restored a civic order. By putting forth the theory, she gained attention of the administration and became a driver of the foreign policy, and under Reagan, the U.S. not only gave extensive covert backing, as was done in Guatemala, but also overt. They sent in Green Berets, U.S. Army troops who openly assisted the Salvadoran military, National Guard and Treasury Police.
At one point, there was a — at the time there was a famous incident in which a group of American nuns and church workers were waylaid on a road, abducted by elements of the troops of the Salvadoran National Guard. They were raped and murdered. Afterward, Alexander Hague, Reagan’s Secretary of State, suggested that they had died in an exchange of gunfire, that these were pistol-packing nuns who apparently got what they deserved. Jean Kirkpatrick said that, well these were not real nuns. She suggested that they were up to some — they were up to no good, perhaps helping the poor of El Salvador. One of the people who in the mid 1980’s from 1984 to 1986 actually ran the U.S. military operation in El Salvador, Colonel James Steel, who is currently in Baghdad. He is the counselor for Iraqi security forces to Bremer. He’s in charge of putting together and training the Iraqi security forces. Elliot Abrams, who was really second only to Kirkpatrick as an ideologue and planner of the Central American massacres is now running Middle East policy at the National Security Council for the Bush Administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We have 30 seconds. Last comment, as you reflect back on the 1980’s in Central America?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I think if accurate history is written in the future this will be seen as one of the great crimes of history, and I’m not in the U.S. now, but when I — I’m hearing about how Reagan is being celebrated, and I don’t know, I suspect that a lot of people in Central America when they hear about that, maybe feel the same way that a lot of Americans feel when they hear the stories about people in other countries wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts. You know, a feeling of just complete dismay and disgust. How can people do that? How can people celebrate such a mass killer? That’s a complicated question.
There are various reasons why people celebrate mass killers. One of them that especially applies in the case of the U.S. is maybe they don’t know. Maybe they don’t know that he was a mass murderer, and that is largely the case with what happened in Central America because the way the U.S. press covered it and failed to cover it the facts never got through to the American public. If they did, people would not stand for it. But Reagan — one thing you have to say for Reagan, and one thing I think you also have to say for Bush now, they justly and appropriately for politics spoke in terms of good and evil. Because a lot of politics a good and evil. But he lied about it. What he did was evil. What Bush is doing now is evil when he causes the deaths of civilians. Americans have to face the facts. They have to look at things the way they really are, and then you can’t do anything about the victims of El Salvador and Guatemala now, but you can do something about those who are still alive. For example, I mentioned Coca-Cola and Guatemala: dozens of union organizers there were gunned down by death squads. Almost the exact same things has happened in recent years at the Coca-Cola franchise in Colombia. One union leader pops up and he’s gunned down. This practice is continuing and it has to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us.