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In his waning days as the State Department's top official on Latin America, Elliott Abrams was hardly apologetic for a policywidely critized by others. The Reagan administration's legacy in Latin America is ``a vigorous, effective policy of support for democracy,'' he said at the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 12. ``In Reagan's eight years, no democratically elected government was overthrown,'' he told reporters Jan. 3 at the Heritage Foundation.

But Mr. Abrams, who became assistant secretary for inter-American affairs in 1985, has offered some criticisms. The Reagan administration made a mistake by not openly aiding the contras right from the start, in 1981, he said at the Heritage forum. Abrams elaborated in an interview with Heritage's magazine, Policy Review: ``Most Americans have the wrong idea about covert activity. They think that if we weren't ashamed of what we were doing, we'd do it publicly, when in fact our reason for secrecy is to protect third parties.... [So] when our covert aid to the contras was publicized, the effort was somewhat tainted.''

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He also said the US failed to explain adequately the goal of its policy in Nicaragua. ``We should have said it was to get rid of a communist government and to permit democratic institutions to grow in Nicaragua,'' he said. Perhaps, he added, the US should have considered invading Nicaragua.

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