Ronald Reagan: Ríos Montt is “totally dedicated to democracy”

Photograph via Indypendent (h/t Peter Wirzbicki)

So much of the discourse around the US and genocide focuses on the sin of omission, the failure of the US to prevent or stop genocide elsewhere. Now that former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison—a fact established by a UN truth commission in 1997 but often ignored in the literature about genocide and intervention, which tends to focus on Rwanda and Bosnia—perhaps we can attend to the sin of commission. For the US support for Rios Montt was extensive. I wrote about it in the London Review of Books in 2004:

On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.


  1. BillR May 11, 2013 at 1:00 am | #

    It’s just Double Standards, I tell you. Aren’t these people better off under a merely authoritarian regime than they would be under a totalitarian one?

    • Jeremy May 13, 2013 at 2:20 am | #

      Interesting to run across this. Wasn’t familiar with the Kirkpatrick Doctrine before. But Corey’s Nietzsche/Hayek article had me glancing through my old (I was one of those types back in college) copy of The Constitution of Liberty and just recently read Hayek on the same issue:

      This is the point where traditional liberalism and the democratic movement meet. Their main concerns are nevertheless different. Liberalism (in the European nineteenth-century meaning of the word…) is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government , whether democratic or not, whereas the dogmatic democrat knows only one limit to government—current majority opinion. The difference between the two stands out most clearly if we name their opposites: for democracy it is authoritarian government; for liberalism it is totalitarianism. Neither of the two systems necessarily excludes the opposite of the other: a democracy may well wield totalitarian powers, and it is conceivable that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles.

      Always interesting to see these strands of thought as they weave through different reactionary ideologies.

      (While composing this, I happened to be listening to local folk-punk band Jake and the Infernal Machine’s “Ronald Reagan’s Dead,” which seems appropriate for the occasion.)

      • BillR May 13, 2013 at 7:43 pm | #

        Wading across such tendentious hair-splitting makes one suspect the “mobilizing passions” were a great deal more atavistic for right-wing “thinkers” such as Hayek or Kirkpatrick. The gray eminence of Nazi legal thinking was at least frank about why he would later come to regard starving Russian peasants by the million was a worthy cause:

        Alex Cockburn also wrote a fine piece on this “Nurse Diesel” of Neocon chickenhawks:

        Since the point of Kirkpatrick’s distinctions was to give intellectual buttress to crude imperial functions like cheering on Guatemalan mass murderers practicing genocide on Mayan Indians, Kristol at least reminded me of what a disgusting creature Kirkpatrick was, at least in the decades when she had measurable influence on U.S. foreign policy, in the Reagan years. As with all the Commentary crowd in the late 1970s the only intellectual challenge they ever offered was the matter of deciding whether they actually believed all the drivel they were writing. Kirkpatrick was one of the irksome, because she tricked out her absurdities with pretentious references to Hobbes and Kant, thus tipping off the rubes that here was a Great Mind at work.

        I remember her at the Republican convention in New Orleans in 1980. Conservative queen bees like Kirkpatrick and Schafly had, in their proximate physical aspect, an undercurrent of erotic violence ­- Jeane was surely a closet case — that didn’t really come through on camera. Rooted under the rostrum in the Superdome, peering up into Kirkpatrick’s flaring nostrils I could see planes of her face that were normally flattened out in the bland imagery of videotape.

        Of course she was talking about “national security” with her lips puckered into a moue of cruel delight as she foretold how Dukakis and the Democrats would leave America bound helpless beneath the Russian jackboot. The only jackboot I could keep in mind was hers: Jeane lashing savagely at the cuffed and whimpering body of effete liberalism.

  2. Administrator May 11, 2013 at 2:14 am | #

    Reblogged this on The Point Loma Democratic Club.

  3. Joe B May 11, 2013 at 3:46 am | #

    Victoria Sanford’s book, Buried Secrets, is really good on explaining what happened in Guatemala under Montt and other military leaders. There’s quite a lot of similarities with Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Many of the methods used, like breaking down ethnic Maya through physical and psychological torture, then rebuilding them as “model villagers,” are straight out of the Shock Doctrine.

  4. Glenn May 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm | #

    Elections don’t have to be messy in a democracy, with the provision that all the messy stuff is buried beforehand.

    How did that election turn out in “Bloody Kansas”, anyway?

  5. Jeff Doyler May 13, 2013 at 11:43 am | #

    On a broader note, here’s a column by the late Anthony Lewis on a Reagan flak’s comparison of him to the Great Gatsby.

  6. May 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm | #

    No time just now for reading your post or a proper reply, but thank you for jostling these embers. It’s surprising that Ríos Montt left office without some sort of iron-clad guarantee against being called to account.

  7. Joseph Palermo May 21, 2013 at 12:36 am | #

    Thanks for keeping the record straight Corey

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