Former President Lauded in Europe; Reaction Mixed in Latin America
By Glenn Frankel and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page A34
LONDON, June 6 -- As word of his death spread late Saturday night, people all over the world mourned Ronald Reagan, a president who was much criticized internationally during his eight years in office but increasingly honored in retrospect as an American visionary.
One of the first statements came from his closest international ally and political soul mate, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who expressed pride in their partnership and sadness over his death.
"President Reagan was one of my closest political and dearest personal friends," her statement read. "He will be missed not only by those who knew him and not only by the nation he served so proudly and loved so deeply, but also by millions of men and women who live in freedom today because of the policies he pursued. Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War politically, and he did it without a shot being fired."
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has forged an equally close relationship with President Bush over their troubled partnership on Iraq, offered sympathy and condolences to Bush and to Nancy Reagan. In a statement, Blair's Downing Street office said Reagan would be remembered "as a good friend of Britain. At home his vision and leadership restored national self-confidence and brought significant changes to U.S. policies, while abroad the negotiation of arms control agreements in his second term and his statesmanlike pursuit of more stable relations with the Soviet Union helped bring about the end of the Cold War."
But in Latin America, views of Reagan's legacy were more mixed. Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castañeda, whose father served as foreign minister from 1979 to 1982, said Reagan was extremely unpopular in Mexico when he was president because of his policies in Central America and what was viewed here as a "Mexico-bashing campaign" over drug trafficking. But he said Mexicans also remember Reagan fondly for backing a massive financial bailout of Mexico in 1982, and for pressing immigration legislation in 1986 that granted amnesty in the United States to 3 million Mexican immigrants.
Reagan's involvement in civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador was viewed in Mexico as unwarranted meddling that was "interventionist, rooted in Cold War rivalries and disrespectful of international law," Castañeda said. "Not only were his policies viewed negatively, but he pressured Mexico enormously to change its foreign policies."
But when Mexico suffered a financial crisis in 1982, Castañeda said, Reagan became personally involved in the bailout. "Despite differences on foreign policy, when problems came up in the bilateral area, Mexico could count on him and did count on him," Castañeda said.
Mexican President Vicente Fox sent a letter to Bush on Saturday evening that read, in part, "President Reagan, in his long and fruitful life, was witness to and protagonist of his times. He led first the state of California and then his country, facing important challenges, including the end of the Cold War. He visited our country on various occasions in diverse capacities and always demonstrated a great interest in Mexico and in relations between our nations."
In Nicaragua, Reagan's financial and military support for anti-government rebels "caused a lot of damage in our country, a lot of suffering, a lot of death and destruction," said Carlos Chamorro, a journalist and political analyst, whose mother, Violeta Chamorro, became president in elections in 1990 that ended the rule of the Marxist-led Sandinistas.
"There might be a group that was supported by Reagan that may have a different memory of him. But I have the impression that a majority of the people will associate him with the war and with the destruction," Chamorro said. The U.S.-backed war killed at least 20,000 people.
Reagan's legacy was more admired in Eastern Europe, where many expressed gratitude for his help in ending the Cold War and hastening the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.
Former Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban told the Associated Press that Reagan was instrumental in ending Soviet repression and bringing democracy to the countries hidden for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain. "Hungary and Europe do not forget Ronald Reagan's help and his support for the former Communist countries," Orban said.
Reagan gave a series of eloquent speeches denouncing communism and demanding freedom for Eastern Europe. He also budgeted millions of dollars for the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to encourage pro-democracy movements such as Solidarity in Poland.
"During his administration, U.S. citizens at all levels and of all walks of life -- politicians, senators, journalists, academics -- systematically and repeatedly were visiting Czechoslovakia and other Communist countries, meeting the dissidents and the opposition," former Czech dissident Jiri Dienstbier told AP.
"Their open support was very important for our safety and for our position in society," he said.
Sullivan reported from Mexico City.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company