Loss Evokes Memories Bitter, Sweet
World leaders on Sunday praised former President Reagan as a fervent voice against tyranny whose desire to instill democracy around the globe spurred a movement that helped to bring an end to Soviet-style communism.
But in much of the world, reaction to Reagan’s death rekindled animosities, especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where the Reagan administration intervened in civil wars that cost thousands of lives and upset the politics of Latin America for years. He was considered by some critics the latest in a series of meddling presidents, an opinion that hardened after the Iran-Contra affair in which the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran to finance rebels against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Reagan’s folksiness and straightforward demeanor -- backed by his administration’s weapons programs -- earned the respect of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the support of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Long considered Reagan’s politically conservative soul mate, Thatcher said Sunday that she would travel to the U.S. for Reagan’s funeral. She issued a stirring eulogy for the man she once called the most important in her life after her husband, Denis.
“Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty, and he did it without a shot being fired,” Thatcher said in a statement to Britain’s Press Assn. “To have achieved so much against so many odds and with such humor and humanity made Ronald Reagan a truly great American hero.”
Gorbachev said he and Reagan “were destined to meet in the most difficult years of the 20th century, when we felt on both sides that we faced the threat of nuclear war.”
“I take the death of Ronald Reagan very hard,” said Gorbachev, whose negotiations with Reagan became enduring images of the 1980s.
Much of that drama came amid squabbles between Washington and Moscow. Gorbachev recalled how his 1985 summit in Geneva with Reagan was argumentative from the start.
“After the first round of talks, I told my aides he was a true dinosaur, and Reagan told his aides I was a stubborn Bolshevik,” Gorbachev told reporters Sunday at a Moscow think tank he set up in 1992. “However, with 1 1/2 days we made progress, which allowed us to sign an important document” to accelerate negotiations on mutual cuts in nuclear weapons.
Reagan was fondly remembered in Eastern Europe. From the shadow of the Berlin Wall to the anti-communist protests clamoring through the Polish shipbuilding city of Gdansk, Reagan’s speeches two decades ago inspired millions not to abandon their fight against some totalitarian regimes. In contrast to the warmongering image Europeans have of President Bush, Reagan was seen as a well-intentioned -- if sometimes blundering -- cowboy, with an understated Hollywood charm.
“He played a role straight out of a western,” said Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the Polish Parliament. “His rejection of communism was authentic; it grew out of real values. For him it really was an ‘Evil Empire’ and he never felt the fascination with communism.”
Reagan’s defining moment for many Europeans came on June 12, 1987, when he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and challenged Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall.
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate,” Reagan said. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Reagan’s remarks crystallized the high stakes of the Cold War at a time when Gorbachev was seeking to reduce Soviet domination in the Eastern Bloc. With Pope John Paul II, Polish Solidarity Trade Union leader Lech Walesa and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Reagan became a voice for change.
Kohl, who stood by Reagan during the 1987 Berlin speech, said, “Ronald Reagan was a man who achieved great things for his country. He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially Europe.... His determined support for freedom contributed decisively to overcoming the division of Europe and of Germany. We Germans have a lot to thank Ronald Reagan for.”
Walesa, who went on to become president of Poland, said of the Reagan era: “There was such a moment in history when we thought in the same way. Our work was to overthrow this stupid murderous communist system. We all acted toward that aim, and we were able to bring it about.”
But in the Arab world, the 40th U.S. president was viewed with ambivalence -- remembered for sending Marines to Lebanon in hopes of dislodging the Palestine Liberation Organization, a mission that ended when a suicide blast at U.S. barracks in Beirut killed 241 troops, prompting U.S. withdrawal.
In Libya, strongman Moammar Kadafi said he was sorry Reagan had died before being tried for bombing Libya in 1986. Kadafi’s adopted daughter and dozens of other people were reportedly killed in the airstrikes. Libya has preserved the shattered buildings of Kadafi’s residential compound as a memorial to anti-Reagan enmity.
“I express my deep regret because Reagan died before facing justice for his ugly crime that he committed in 1986 against the Libyan children,” Kadafi said.
Reagan’s influence was also felt across Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his nation remembered the Reagan administration’s $2 billion in covert aid to Afghan fighters resisting Soviet forces, which began in 1979 and ended with Moscow’s defeat a decade later.
Reagan increased aid to Afghan fighters after he took office in 1981 but had significantly boosted the number of sophisticated weapons by 1985.
The secret program had some unintended consequences. When the Soviets withdrew, Afghanistan fractured into a civil war and was largely ignored by the U.S. The hard-line Taliban regime that seized control of the country allied itself with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.
But Karzai on Sunday credited Reagan with helping return the nation to its people.
Writing in El Pais, a Spanish newspaper, columnist Carlos Mendo said Reagan personified the American dream for better or worse: “That a man like Reagan, lacking a brilliant curriculum and with an evident lack of education only surpassed by the current president, attained the presidency, demonstrated to the average American that everything was possible in the United States. Reagan might have seemed simple, but he wasn’t simplistic.”
Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Megan Stack in Cairo, John Daniszewski in London, Chris Kraul in Mexico City, Barbara Demick in Seoul and Paul Watson in India, and special correspondents Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid, Petra Falkenberg in Berlin and Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.