The world’s leaders have been effusive in their praise for Ronald Reagan, the former US president who died on Saturday. ‘He will be great missed by many friends and admirers on this side of the Atlantic,’ said Tony Blair.
France’s Jacques Chirac said he was ‘sadly moved’ by Reagan’s death. The German president, Johannes Rau, called him a ‘faithful friend and ally of Germany’. And George W Bush spoke of ‘a world he helped to save’. But Reagan will be remembered in a very different way by hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
He was a killer who was prepared to commit any crime in the interests of increasing the power which the rich of the world-and of the US in particular-exercised over the world’s poor.
He became president in January 1981, when US imperialism was on the defensive. This was just six years after the US defeat in Vietnam and two years after the revolutionary overthrow of two of its client dictatorships, of the Shah in Iran and of Somoza in Nicaragua.
Reagan’s central aim was to restore US power, regardless of the cost in terms of human life. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Iran, late in 1980. Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to provide support for Iraq even after it had used poison gas against Kurdish rebels.
In a further attempt to strengthen the US’s position in the Middle East, he backed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That cost tens of thousands of lives and culminated in the slaughter of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. The next year US warships provided cover for the Israeli withdrawal from Beirut by bombarding the city.
Reagan turned Central America into a killing field. The CIA created a terrorist army, the Contras, to fight against the revolutionary government in Nicaragua. Tens of thousands suffered as it set out to murder government supporters and to destroy the economy-and was helped by US agents planting bombs in the country’s harbours.
In the neighbouring states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras the US financed death squads. These killed 40,000 people in El Salvador in just one year. Reagan’s man in Honduras in these years was John Negroponte-who takes over as US overlord in Iraq at the end of this month.
In southern Africa, Reagan backed the apartheid regime in South Africa as it wreaked havoc in the border states of Mozambique and Angola. Under Reagan US troops invaded the small Caribbean state of Grenada and US jets bombed the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
A central part of restoring US dominance for Reagan was breaking the influence of the rival superpower, the USSR. He pushed through massive increases in US arms expenditure and deployed a new generation of weapons of mass destruction-cruise missiles with nuclear warheads-in Europe.
His generals spoke of preparedness for a limited nuclear ‘theatre’ war. The aim was to cause a massively expensive arms race which would virtually bankrupt the USSR. Reagan’s supporters claim he ‘liberated’ the people of the former Eastern Bloc in this way. In fact, they were already liberating themselves without any help from the US long before Reagan came on the scene, with the popular insurgency in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980. Reagan’s approach ensured their countries went into desperate economic crises, from which tens of millions of people still suffer 20 years later.
Nowhere was the horror of the US form of ‘liberation’ more clearly shown than in Afghanistan. There a popular rebellion was slowly wearing down a Russian occupation when Reagan took office. His government set out to take over this rebellion so as to make sure it served US interests.
It poured in supplies of cash and modern weaponry to its friends for them to use against their rivals as well as against the Russians. One of those friends, Hekmatyar, used these weapons to wreak havoc on the capital, Kabul, long after the Russians had left. Another was a certain Osama Bin Laden.
George W Bush says Reagan ‘restored’ the American ‘nation’. But only a small minority of the American people gained any benefit from Reagan’s policies. Early in his presidency he broke a strike of the air traffic controllers’ union Patco, sacked all its members and dealt a devastating blow to the trade union movement.
He began massive redistribution of wealth from of working people to the rich which continues to this day. As a result the average worker in the US has lower real wages than 25 years ago and works 160 hours a year (a whole month) longer than when Reagan came to office.
It is for all this that Blair, Bush, Chirac and the others are praising Reagan. However, the only regret for hundreds of millions of people across the world is that he did not die two decades earlier.