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Diplomats, Officials Remember Reagan As Man Who Helped End Soviet Empire
Michael Coleman

The formal tributes are finished and President Ronald Reagan now rests in a California cemetery, but Washington’s diplomatic community continued to discuss the 40th American president’s legacy nearly a month after his death.

Ambassadors and other embassy officials representing countries around the world remembered Reagan as a leader of firm resolve with a steadfast commitment to defeating communism.

“We will never forget the statesmanship of Ronald Reagan and his efforts to bring the Soviet Empire to an end,” said Lithuanian Ambassador Vygaudas Usackas in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. “He helped open great opportunities for freedom and independence in Lithuania.”

In 1989—shortly after Reagan left the White House—most Soviet troops were withdrawn from Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia. Lithuania voted for its independence in 1990. Usackas said that Reagan, in words and deeds, helped Lithuania position itself for a transfer from communism to democracy.

The late president also embraced Lithuanian Americans, including Valdas Adamkus, who served as a top Environmental Protection Agency official in the Reagan administration.

Not surprisingly, a spokesman for the Embassy of Afghanistan also expressed fond feelings for the Republican president’s efforts to defeat communism.

Reagan’s support for mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. The demoralizing military defeat contributed to the communist superpower’s own collapse.

After initially providing little financial aid to the Afghan resistance, Reagan later supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and boosted U.S. support for the nation from $35 million in 1982 to $600 million in 1987.

“He’s remembered for his strong support of the Afghan resistance and fighting Soviets in Afghanistan,” said Ashraf Haidari, spokesman for the Afghan Embassy. “Of course, it was in the interest of U.S. security, but he basically helped Afghans liberate themselves. Now we continue our relationship with the United States based on the interest of fighting international terrorism.”

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, in an address to Congress on June 15, described Reagan as “our great fellow freedom fighter.”

Officials at the Russian Embassy declined to comment on Reagan’s legacy, instead pointing to remarks made in a radio address by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who engaged in intensive negotiations with Reagan to reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals at the height of the Cold War.

“I deem Ronald Reagan a great president, with whom the Soviet leadership was able to launch a very difficult but important dialogue,” Gorbachev said. “Reagan was a statesman who, despite all disagreements that existed between our countries at the time, displayed foresight and determination to meet our proposals halfway and change our relations for the better.”

During his first term, Reagan increased military spending dramatically, escalating a U.S.-Soviet arms race that resulted in huge U.S. budget deficits and ultimately helped to fuel the Soviet empire’s demise.

The “Reagan Doctrine” was used to characterize the Reagan administration’s policy of supporting anti-communist insurgents around the globe. In his 1985 State of the Union address, the Republican president asked Congress and the American people to stand up to the Soviet Union, which he had previously dubbed the “Evil Empire.”

“We must stand by all our democratic allies,” Reagan said in the speech. “And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

The Reagan administration focused much of its energy on supporting proxy armies to diminish Soviet influence. In Nicaragua, for example, the United States sponsored the Contra movement in an effort to force the leftist Sandinista government from power.

Officials with the Nicaraguan Embassy could not be reached for comment, but it is clear that the opinions of Reagan there—and in other Central American countries—are not uniformly rosy. Some critics believe Reagan’s policies were radical and resulted in widespread, unnecessary bloodshed.

In an interview with Reuters News service a few days after Reagan’s death, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president who led Nicaragua during the war against the Contra rebels, said: “We don’t celebrate any death, but we must be honest. We will not start saying now that President Reagan respected international law, that he treated Nicaragua well. We’re not going to lie.”

Miguel D’Escoto, the former Sandinista foreign minister, told Reuters: “There is not the least doubt that President Reagan did Nicaragua much harm, caused many deaths.”

However, many current leaders in Central America argue that Reagan’s zealous pursuit of the eradication of communism paved the way for democracy.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos told Reuters that Reagan was “a great defender of Nicaragua’s return to democracy, and all Nicaraguans who believe in democracy recognize that legacy.”

At the Embassy of Poland, officials remembered a forceful leader who backed Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union movement. The democratic movement was forced underground after Poland declared martial law to squelch it shortly after Reagan was elected into office.

Reagan became a staunch advocate of Solidarity and imposed sanctions on Poland. In addition to his support of Solidarity, Reagan is remembered fondly by many in Poland because of his unrelenting resistance to the spread of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

“His presidency had an enormous impact in the world we used to live in,” said Artur Michalski, first secretary of the Polish Embassy. “Poles simply liked him very much. He was a symbol of moral clarity from the United States. He will remain in our national memory as a very important American president who helped Poland a lot.”

Michael Coleman is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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