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‘Did Reagan Finance Genocide in Guatemala?’

The headline is as tendentious as it was predictable. The surprise is that it should appear on a mainstream site like that of ABC News and not some fringe outlet of the fevered left. Indeed, the headline is the holy grail for those legions of activists who have been egging on the recent conviction of ...

ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

The headline is as tendentious as it was predictable. The surprise is that it should appear on a mainstream site like that of ABC News and not some fringe outlet of the fevered left. Indeed, the headline is the holy grail for those legions of activists who have been egging on the recent conviction of former Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide stemming from the country's bloody civil war in the 1980s.

The activists claim that what they have wanted all along is justice for civilians who died in that terrible conflict, but it is clear their ulterior motive has been seeking an indictment of U.S. policy in Central America to resist Soviet- and Cuban-sponsored subversion. Now, in their minds, they have it. Guilty as charged: The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, aided and abetted "genocide."

The charge is without merit. Here's the real story: Ríos Montt came to power in March 1982 after leading a coup against another general, Fernando Lucas García, whose scorched-earth policies against the guerrillas had so alienated Washington that military assistance was cut off in 1979. However, in overthrowing Lucas García, Ríos Montt acknowledged the military's excesses were damaging the counterinsurgency effort.

The headline is as tendentious as it was predictable. The surprise is that it should appear on a mainstream site like that of ABC News and not some fringe outlet of the fevered left. Indeed, the headline is the holy grail for those legions of activists who have been egging on the recent conviction of former Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide stemming from the country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s.

The activists claim that what they have wanted all along is justice for civilians who died in that terrible conflict, but it is clear their ulterior motive has been seeking an indictment of U.S. policy in Central America to resist Soviet- and Cuban-sponsored subversion. Now, in their minds, they have it. Guilty as charged: The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, aided and abetted "genocide."

The charge is without merit. Here’s the real story: Ríos Montt came to power in March 1982 after leading a coup against another general, Fernando Lucas García, whose scorched-earth policies against the guerrillas had so alienated Washington that military assistance was cut off in 1979. However, in overthrowing Lucas García, Ríos Montt acknowledged the military’s excesses were damaging the counterinsurgency effort.

It was in that context that the Reagan administration reconsidered military assistance to Guatemala, calculating that it would give the administration influence to hold Ríos Montt to his pledges to mitigate the violence. Aid was then restored in January 1983. While it turned out that Ríos Montt was either unwilling or incapable of reining in the military, the point became moot in August 1983, when Ríos Montt himself was overthrown in a coup after only 17 months in power — and seven months after the Reagan administration began sending aid.

Now, if someone wants to argue that the Reagan administration’s policy gamble on Ríos Montt to quell the violence did not pan out, then that’s one thing (history books are full of such examples). But to equate it with aiding and abetting "genocide" is beyond the pale. In fact, it is more evidence of an ideological agenda than any noble search for accountability. Worse, it is politicizing crimes against humanity that cheapens the meaning of the term and makes it that much more difficult to prevent and  to hold real perpetrators accountable.

On a broader plane, it bears noting that those who have cheered on the prosecution of General Ríos Montt have never mounted any similar movement to hold, for example, Fidel Castro to account for his role in supplying training and weapons to guerrillas who committed their share of atrocities throughout Central America. Why is it only right-wing dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Ríos Montt who are hounded to their dying days and whose years in power were a mere fraction of Castro’s 50-year dictatorship? It seems that those who are determined to achieve justice for victims of dictatorships in the Americas would enhance their credibility immensely if they were to apply a single standard to all perpetrators of crimes against their peoples, regardless of their ideology.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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