Elliott Abrams, a former high level State Department official during the 1980s, testified last week that the Reagan administration knew that Argentina’s military junta was systematically stealing babies from murdered and jailed democracy activists and giving them to right-wing families friendly to the regime.
In a meeting with the Junta’s ambassador in Washington on December 3, 1982, Abrams suggested that the dictatorship could “improve its image” by creating a process with the Catholic Church of returning the children, some of whom were born in secret torture chambers, to their legitimate families. The contents of this meeting were recorded in a memo Abrams wrote, which was declassified by the State Department in 2002 and is now a key piece of evidence against former junta officials in this high profile trial.
“While the disappeared were dead, these children were alive and this was in a sense the gravest humanitarian problem,” Abrams read from his cable via videoconference testimony to a federal court in Buenos Aires. But this didn’t deter the State Department at the time from granting Argentina certification indicating that the country’s human rights record was improving.
Alan Iud, a lawyer representing The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who claim that as many as 500 children were stolen, said that Abrams’ testimony “exceeded our expectations.” However, Abrams’ and the Reagan Administration’s relationship with the military junta was not adversarial, something that has been lost in the story, if not the trial. In fact, in 1978, even before being elected president, Ronald Reagan wrote a column in The Miami News attacking President Jimmy Carter’s criticisms of Argentina’s record of human rights abuses. Reagan countered that the military junta “set out to restore order” and that too much was being made over the jailing of “a few innocents.” However, human rights organizations estimate that tens of thousands of people were tortured, killed and disappeared during Argentina’s “dirty war.” One of Reagan’s first acts as president was to overturn military aid restrictions put in place by Carter as a result of the regime’s horrendous human rights record. The administration even hosted Argentine generals “at an elegant state dinner.” Furthermore, Reagan paid members of Argentina’s notorious death squads to travel to Honduras to train the Contras, as well as Honduran paramilitaries, such as the infamous death squad Battalion 3-16, as the Baltimore Sun revealed in a 1995 exposé.
Meanwhile, Argentina isn’t the only Latin American country facing its bloody past—and Abrams played a role in these state atrocities as well.
In Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt is standing trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Rios Montt, an evangelical general who ruled Guatemala in 1982-83 after seizing power through a military coup, was a close ally of Washington who received training at the infamous “School of the Americas”. He is accused of being responsible for “1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.”
Reagan, with Abrams’ assistance, not only covered up, but aided and abetted war crimes and genocide in Guatemala. For example, President Reagan traveled to Guatemala in December 1982 to declare that Rios Montt was getting a “bum rap”, while praising the dictator’s “progressive efforts” and dedication to democracy and social justice. Just a few days after Reagan’s presidential visit the Guatemalan military massacred 251 men, women and children in Las Dos Erres.
In another recent instance, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes apologized and asked for forgiveness for the 1981 El Mozote massacre where the Atlacatl battalion, a notorious US-trained death squad, killed as many as 1,000 people. Like in Guatemala and Argentina, Reagan with Abrams’ help simultaneously armed and covered-up the human rights abuses in El Salvador. The country endured a 12-year civil war which left some 70,000 people dead, with the Reagan-backed government and paramilitaries believed to be responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths. In 1993 when Congress planned to investigate the Reagan administration’s role in human rights abuses in El Salvador an indignant Abrams’ called it “a reprehensible McCarthyite charge,” while also saying that, “The Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”
Unfortunately, as Latin America seeks to reconcile with its unsavory past in order to forge a more just and humane future, the United States blindly barrels on—never looking back. The US media is missing an excellent opportunity to use Abrams’ career as a vehicle to examine and reflect on the United States’ bloody and barbaric history in the hemisphere. One could even argue that there should be a Truth Commission in the United States. Yet it is because of this willful ignorance and institutionalized impunity that diplomats such as Abrams, who the Philadelphia Inquirer in a rare moment of editorial clarity in 2001 described as a “deceitful, scheming coddler of Latin American tyrants” and “uncontrite peddler of lies,” can continue to resurface in Washington as a national security council member to President George W. Bush and as an informal adviser to president Barack Obama.
Back in 2009, President Obama said in response to a question about whether he would apologize for the CIA’s role in Chile’s 1973 coup, “I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward. I think that the United States has been an enormous force for good in the world.”
If history isn’t going to repeat itself the president and U.S. citizens need to think again, and start looking back to history so justice can move forward.
Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, where this article first appeared.