In Part 1 of this Media Alert we described some of the horrific reality of the Reagan years for the people of Central America. The United States did not impose this vast terror out of a sadistic love of torturing people but out of a pragmatic determination to protect “good investment climates.”
It is a simple matter for readers to compare the version of events we have presented not just the terror, but the logic of the terror (see below) with media retrospectives of the Reagan presidency. How many times have we been told about Saddam Hussein’s alleged responsibility for the deliberate gassing of 5,000 civilians at Halabja? The name Halabja, like the footage of gassed bodies in dusty streets, is seared into our memories. And how many times have we been told of Ronald Reagan’s training, arming and funding of the mass murderers and torturers of hundreds of thousands of people in Central America in the 1980s?
FAIR reports that a search of major US newspapers turned up the phrase "death squad" just five times in connection with Reagan in the days following his death -- twice in commentaries and twice in letters to the editor. Remarkably, only one news article mentioned death squads as part of Reagan's legacy. The three broadcast networks, CNN and Fox made no mention of death squads at all. (Media Advisory: “Reagan: Media Myth and Reality,” June 9, 2004)
The Guardian/Observer website records 148 articles mentioning the words “Saddam and Halabja” between 1998 and the present; the words “Reagan and death squads” are mentioned in 10 articles over the same 7-year period.
Nicaragua The Threat Of A Good Example
The Sandinista revolution of 1979 overthrew Nicaragua’s brutal, US-backed Somoza dictatorship. Under Somoza, two-thirds of children under five were malnourished; less than one-fifth of under-fives and pregnant women received health care; nine out of ten rural homes had no safe drinking water. The UN estimated that over 60 per cent of the population lived in critical poverty. (Diana Melrose, 'The threat of a good example?' Oxfam, Oxford, 1985). In this society the richest 5 per cent of the population accounted for one-third of national income while the poorest half received 15 per cent.
In 1983, the World Council of Churches reported that post-revolutionary Nicaragua “for the first time offers the Nicaraguan people a modicum of justice for all rather than a society offering privilege exclusively to the wealthy... and the powerful." (Quoted, ibid)
Two years later, Oxfam reported:
“The cornerstone of the new development strategy, spelled out by the Sandinista Front some years before taking power, was to give priority to meeting the basic needs of the poor majority... In Oxfam’s experience of working in seventy-six developing countries, Nicaragua was to prove exceptional in the strength of that government commitment.” (Ibid)
This may come as news to British readers. British historian Mark Curtis examined over 500 articles on Nicaragua in the Financial Times, Times and Daily Telegraph for the years 1981-83. On the subject of the unprecedented Sandinista success in directing resources to the Nicaraguan poor, out of the 500 articles, Curtis found one (in the Times) that discussed the issue.
In 1981, in support of fierce economic sanctions, the CIA allocated $20 million to build a 500-man force to conduct political and paramilitary operations against Nicaragua. Joining with Somoza supporters, this ‘Contra’ force enjoyed almost zero support within the country. A leaked Defence Department document in July 1983 described how “support for democratic resistance [the Contras] within Nicaragua does not exist.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.160)
In 1982-84 alone, over 7,000 civilians were killed by the Contras. According to Oxfam, the "prime targets", were "individual leaders and community organisers who have worked hardest to improve the lives of the poor". (Ibid, pp.27-9)
A 1984 CIA manual designed for the Contras advised:
“It is possible to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets, such as court judges, mesta judges [justices of the peace], police and state officials, etc.”
Writer Holy Sklar comments: “A hit list that starts with court judges and ends with etcetera is a mighty broad license for murder.” (Quoted, William Blum, Rogue State, Common Courage Press, 2002, p.47)
Also in 1984, congressional intelligence committees were informed by the CIA, by present and former Contra leaders, and by other witnesses, that the Contras had “raped, tortured and killed unarmed civilians, including children” and that “groups of civilians, including women and children, were burned, dismembered, blinded and beheaded.” (New York Times, December 27, 1984)
These are the rebels Ronald Reagan described as “freedom fighters” and as “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers”. (Quoted, John Pilger, Heroes, Pan, 1989, p.505)
In January 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said:
“We support the United States’ aim to promote peaceful change, democracy and economic development,” in Central America. (Quoted, Curtis, op., cit, p.162)
In 1985, Americas Watch reported that the Contras “have attacked civilians indiscriminately; they have tortured and mutilated prisoners; they have murdered those placed hors de combat by their wounds; they have taken hostages; and they have committed outrages against personal dignity.” (Quoted, ibid, p.172)
In June 1986, the World Court rejected US claims that it was exercising “collective self-defense” in its policy towards Nicaragua and declared that the US “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the Contra forces” had acted “in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another state.” (Quoted, Holly Sklar, Washington's War On Nicaragua, Between the Lines, 1988, p.314)
Following the judgment of the World Court, the US escalated its terrorist war ordering its forces to go “after soft targets” and to avoid engaging the Nicaraguan army, according to General John Galvin, commander of US Southern Command. (Quoted, Fred Kaplan, Boston Globe, May 20, 1987) Teachers, health workers, human rights activists all were targeted for torture and death.
Thomas Carothers, a former Reagan State Department official, observes that the death toll in Nicaragua “in per capita terms was significantly higher than the number of US persons killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the twentieth century combined.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, London, p.98)
Carothers adds that the US sought to maintain “the basic order of... quite undemocratic societies” and to avoid “populist-based change” that might upset “established economic and political orders” and open “a leftist direction.” (Carothers, In The Name Of Democracy, California, 1991)
Profits over people, in other words. The real problem was that the Sandinistas were working to lift the yoke of crushing poverty from the poor in one tiny Central American country. Their success threatened to unleash a wave of hope of change among poor people across the region at potentially huge cost to Western corporations profiting from despair. This was the reality of Nicaragua’s “threat of a good example.” Mark Curtis explains:
“Rather than the fantasy of preventing the creation of a ‘Soviet bridgehead’ on the Central American mainland or preventing the USSR from dominating the world... the principal US goal in the war against Nicaragua was clearly the destruction of this threat of a good example; the war was, therefore, a continuation of traditional US foreign policy priorities.” (Curtis, op., cit, p.165)
This is the full horror of Reagan’s policy in Central America it involved terrorizing impoverished people into accepting a status quo that condemned them to lives of profitable despair.
A crucial component of this terror is simple media silence journalists do not torture and kill, but the torture and killing could not occur without their complicity. It is why high-profile journalists are paid such large sums. Even journalistic souls don’t come cheap, and there is much at stake.
The killing silence takes many forms. Thus, as noted, David Aaronovitch describes the assault on Nicaragua as part of “the proxy war fought between the two superpowers for power and influence.” (see Part 1 of this alert)
The BBC notes that Reagan was, “Banned by Congress from supporting anti-Communist fighters in Nicaragua,” (‘Critics question Reagan legacy,’ June 9, 2004)
Anything can be said as long as it leads the public far from the ferocious truth.
The consequences of Reagan’s annihilation of the Sandinistas were catastrophic for Nicaragua - a 35% increase in child deaths from malnutrition, mass starvation on the Atlantic coast, and UN warnings that the next generation would be "smaller, weaker, and less intelligent" as a result.
Reagan’s Legacy In Central America
In Guatemala some 200,000 people were killed in a “government program of political murder” over 36 years from 1954 onwards, according to Amnesty International. The government in question was installed, armed and trained by the United States. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported that the percentage of the Guatemalan population living in extreme poverty increased rapidly from 45% in 1985 to 76% in 1988.
Other studies estimated that 20,000 Guatemalans were dying of hunger every year at that time, that more than 1,000 children died of measles alone in the first four months of 1990, and that "the majority of Guatemala's four million children receive no protection at all, not even for the most elemental rights." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘The Victors’, Z Magazine, November 1990; January, 1991; and April, 1991)
In 1990, the Inter-American Development Bank reported that per capita income had fallen to the level of 1971 in Guatemala, 1961 in El Salvador, and 1960 in Nicaragua. (Cesar Chelala, ‘Central America's Health Plight,’ Christian Science Monitor, March 2 and March 22, 1990)
The Pan American Health Organization estimated that of 850,000 children born every year in Central America, 100,000 would die before the age of five and two-thirds of those who survived would suffer from malnutrition, with attendant physical or mental development problems.
All of this happened on the doorstep of the wealthiest, most powerful nation in history the nation willing, we are told, to spend billions of dollars and hundreds of lives installing ‘democracy’ half a world away in Iraq.
Barely hinting at any of this, Britain’s “leading liberal newspaper,” the Guardian, tells us that Reagan “is chiefly remembered now for... his tax cutting economic policies, his role in bringing about the end of the cold war and his ability to make America feel so good about itself after the turmoil of Vietnam, civil rights and Watergate.” (Leader, 'A rose-tinted president', The Guardian, 7 June, 2004)
“Reagan’s interference in Central America was shameful,” the Independent editors note, without mentioning numbers killed - the slaughter being simply “the low-point” of Reagan’s presidency; one that “summed up” the “deficiencies” of his foreign policy. (Leader, ‘Ronald Reagan's achievements should not blind us to the failings of his presidency,’ The Independent, June 7, 2004)
Rupert Cornwell, the Independent’s Washington editor, conceded “harsh complaints, and grievous mistakes” over US foreign policy in the region. “But somehow they are beside the point” because “Mr Reagan is best judged by two different measures.” One measure “is the difference between the America he inherited in January 1981 and the America he bequeathed to George Bush senior eight years later.” The second measure “is the change he wrought to US politics, the US economy and to the world”. (Cornwell, ‘A president whose optimism earned him a place in history’, The Independent, June 7, 2004)
Perhaps these “different measures” might appear “beside the point” to survivors of Reagan’s atrocities in the region.
The Observer’s Paul Harris, notes perkily that Reagan was able to “skip through the scandals” of his presidency. (Paul Harris, ‘How the Gipper Stole into American Hearts’, The Observer, June 6, 2004)
In a long obituary, the Financial Times notes cryptically that Reagan was “not averse to displaying American muscle”. The FT’s Jurek Martin notes that “Central America remained a thorn in the president's flesh”. (Jurek Martin, ‘The star-spangled president’, Financial Times, June 7, 2004)
Year after year, decade after decade, the money pours into journalists’ bank balances -- and the cacophony of words pours out, explaining nothing, revealing nothing, hiding everything.
The June 7 Snowmail news digest from Jon Snow of Channel 4 News observed:
“Ronnie Reagan lies in state. Particular pangs for me I must admit, having been ITN's Washington correspondent in the creamier moments of Ronnie’s reign. The great eulogies seem to evade the moments of madness.”
We wrote to Snow the same day:
Yes, and beyond ‘the moments of madness’, the eulogies also seem to evade the years of searing, barely believable torture and mass murder in places like Nicaragua, East Timor, and El Salvador. We'll be watching at 7:00, but we won't hold our breath...
DE and DC”
Snow replied instantly:
“you cynics! If you'd been around at the time you'd have seen me exposing his outrages in central america..you may think i'm a sell ouyt [sic] these days but i can assure u, I have been there..” (Email to Media Lens, June 7)
“Thanks, Jon. We don't think you're a sell-out. But we'd be more reassured if you'd mentioned your future planned, rather than remembered past, exposures of his outrages.
DE and DC”
After seeing Channel 4’s shameful hagiography of Reagan by Jonathan Rugman, we wrote again:
That's about as bad as it gets! We wonder if Rugman has ever asked himself why the pervasive culture of lying over the Iran-Contra affair is worthy of mention while the mass slaughter of innocents it made possible is not. Imagine reviewing the life of some official enemy of the West responsible for mass murder and emphasising: 'He was found to have been involved in deception.' It's remarkable. Actually it's a lethal form of propaganda.
DE and DC”
Snow replied: “people are not as ignorant as you make them out to be..dont underestimate the viewer!”
Cryptic, meaningless responses, cringe-making hagiography, cartoon versions of politics and history - all is unreality, confusion and absurdity.
But, then, how could the massive terrorism of the nation leading the “war on terror” be exposed by a media that bases its entire coverage of current events on the notion that the United States is opposed to terror?
Epilogue Reflection On Suffering
An ancient tale tells of four mendicants who had chosen to abandon wealth, possessions and ambition in hope of benefiting the world. We are told that their teacher asked his assistant how they had been spending their time. The first had been giving teachings to hundreds of people. ‘Wonderful!’ replied the teacher. The second had been diligently constructing holy images and writing holy books. ‘Wonderful!’ The third had devoted his time solely to meditation. ‘Wonderful!’ And what of the fourth? the teacher asked. He had been reflecting on the suffering of the world. The assistant explained:
“Having covered his head, he does nothing but weep.”
The teacher removed his hat, folded his hands in prayer at his heart, and, weeping profusely, said in wonder, “He has truly been practicing the path! There are many things I could say about the virtues of such practice, but if I were to express them now, he would not be pleased.”
This is no mere sentimental tale it is intended to make a very clear-headed point. Ultimately, as we have seen above, much of the suffering in our world is rooted in delusions and cruelty born of selfish greed. The opponent force of selfish greed is concern for others. Solutions will be found to the extent that we as individuals, and as a society, wake up to the scale of the tragedy we are inflicting on others and respond out of compassion for that suffering.
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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