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Reagan: A contradiction to American Indians

President Ronald Reagan rides his horse at his 688-acre Rancho del Cielo, "Ranch in the Sky," located 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Ca., in April 1985 photo. Pete Souza / AP file
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Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, stands today a man mythologized for telling "the simple truth" yet he was actually quite a complex and contradictory personality, his presidency being noticeably marked by acute peaks and lows.

An incredibly affable and friendly man, fiercely loyal to friends and deeply rooted in quintessential American values, Reagan promulgated policies that freed millions from Soviet domination while allowing and encouraging the most brutal of scoundrel generals to repress their own peoples, in many cases involving massacres of whole Native communities.

Paradoxical president
For American Indians, Reagan, who died June 5 at 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, was the paradoxical president, who said America had "humored" Indians by allowing their cultures to survive on reservations, as well as the president who signed into law the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), in 1988 - the piece of legislation that ushered in the most massive movement of tribal economic growth in history.

More than any other policy in the previous 200 years, IGRA has served to strengthen the inherent powers of American Indian governments to determine and build their own economic futures. At the same time, major cutbacks in funding for Indian country social services occurred during Reagan’s watch.

Reagan was called "The Great Communicator," yet once committed the supreme faux pas of jokingly announcing that "bombing [of the Soviet Union] begins in five minutes."

The off the cuff remark heard around the world had the potential of initiating a major international incident and threw not a few officials into a panic.

There are many such incidents in which Reagan displayed a careless, almost boyish approach to hugely delicate and complex matters.

What cannot be denied is that he presided over the final moments of the Cold War rivalry of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

His steadfast anti-communist position, known as the Reagan Doctrine, which funded and trained anti-liberation movements and military ventures throughout the world, coupled to a large increase in military spending, likely accelerated the fall of the Soviet system, dragged down as it was by its own over-centralized economic controls.

In the context of his own worldview, Reagan determined that the acceleration of the fall of the Soviet system was his primary agenda.

Reagan offered during his 1980 campaign that it "would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup" because the Soviets were too weak economically to compete in an expanded arms race and would come to the bargaining table instead (The Washington Post, June 18, 1980).

Reagan stuck to that agenda during his eight years in office and certainly symbolized the decisive win for America on that 70-years long struggle. His often brusque decisiveness jostled the already unstable Soviet leadership so that Mikhail Gorbachev ceded to his call to "tear down this wall," (Berlin, 1988).

This Reagan quote, also heard around the world, symbolized the trumpet that caused the collapse of the Wall of Jericho. The ascendancy of the mythology of Reagan the dragon slayer was set to bloom.

Support of military dictatorships
Yet, in his intense anti-communism, Reagan was as excessive as he was successful. His policies of support for military dictatorships, for example, in Guatemala (to mention one), contributed to the massacres of tens of thousands of Maya Indians and many other civilians in the population.

The hell hole Central American wars of the 1980s were severely accelerated by the Reagan Doctrine. Elimination campaigns against so-called communists doomed large numbers of primary teachers, union organizers, nurses and nuns, priests, Maya traditional healers and spiritual practitioners (who must travel to minister their adherents).

All these sectors and others were targeted for assassination and elimination en masse during the Reagan-supported contra war years in the region.

Reagan’s administration unleashed extremely militant elements of the Central American right wing, working through national military officers of various ranks, under coordinated, severely repressive wartime measures for nearly a decade of extreme brutality.

Guatemala is an unforgivable case in point. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina and Peru are other places in the Southern Hemisphere where the Reagan Doctrine, we believe, exacerbated repression at the expense of way too many completely innocent and non-violent community leaders.

Reagan was highly popular, but not so much as Bill Clinton. During his second term, Reagan suffered particularly from the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the growing information base in North America about the repressive and violent warfare being carried out in the name of the United States, with American weapons and American officer-training programs.

A huge amount of documented torture, assassination and massacre comes out of those years. To his credit, President Bush the senior after 1988 demanded early in his term that the Guatemalan military refrain from such tactics and human rights violations.

Later, President Bill Clinton appropriately apologized to the people of Guatemala for any U.S. involvement in the terror of their civil war and the way Indian communities were targeted.

Reagan raised taxes
Famous for his tax cuts. Reagan actually raised taxes. As Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times (June 8), "[Reagan] followed his huge 1981 tax cut with two large tax increases. In fact, no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people ... The first Reagan tax increase came in 1982.

By then it was clear that the budget projections used to justify the 1981 tax cut were wildly optimistic. In response, Mr. Reagan agreed to a sharp rollback of corporate tax cuts, and a smaller rollback of individual income tax cuts.

Over all, the 1982 tax increase undid about a third of the 1981 cut; as a share of G.D.P., the increase was substantially larger than Mr. Clinton’s 1993 tax increase."

Known and well loved for his obvious sincerity, Reagan was a consummate actor, one who studiously groomed himself for the historical role he would assume.

By capturing the American cowboy image, the rough and tough outdoorsman, this man with the common touch for the people actually ushered in a serious blow to the American working class.

An image of being for the people and a common touch prevails about Reagan but politically he was closely aligned with America’s upper crust - the top 5 percent, a sector that had a serious and very well thought out agenda even then.

Budgetary policies, Stars Wars defense shields and many other Reagan programs fell (or should fall) by the wayside of history, but the image of Reagan as icon of freedom now sustains and is dominant in the recent mainstream media farewells.

The contradictions of Reagan the man and Reagan the president abound. Yet American Indians prone to conservative Republican thought can indeed find in Reagan one example of how an iconic Republican elder weighed in on the right of tribes to a vigorous economic agenda, protected to a degree from impositions by the states, under clear and legally upheld and inherent jurisdictional rights.

Which is to say, there is a tradition on the right too of principled support for American Indian government and economic re-empowerment.