US President Trump's foreign policy has largely been defined by its inconsistency. Venezuela, however, has been an exception. Since the campaign, Trump has maintained that "all options are on the table" for ensuring the removal of the Government of Nicolas Maduro. Trump has even openly mused to reporters and foreign leaders about launching military action against the South American country.
The White House has ratcheted up the pressure and sanctions against Maduro's regime and backed Juan Guaido as the legitimate head of Venezuela. But perhaps nothing better exemplifies the Administration's commitment to regime change in Venezuela than the return of Elliott Abrams.
While nowhere near as well-known today as some of his neoconservative allies such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney, Abrams has been a staple in Republican administrations, serving under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In late January, he was named as the Trump Administration's special envoy for Venezuela. According to reports, Abrams's mission is to assist Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in making the case for Guaido to the international community.
Given his history, Abrams' involvement should send shudders down the spines of all Americans, both North and South. For Abrams has ruthlessly pursued his agenda, letting no obstacle, including legality or congressional oversight, obstruct his goals in Latin America and the Middle East. Even worse: The policies Abrams has pursued have proved nothing short of disasters. That should raise serious questions about his — and Trump's — plans for Venezuela.
Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar took Abrams to task during a House foreign affairs committee hearing last month.
Omar, who made history in January when she became the first Somali American and one of the first Muslim women sworn into the US Congress, addressing Abrams, said: "Mr Abrams, in 1991 you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair, for which you were later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful."
When Abrams attempted to respond, Omar shot back: "It wasn't a question."
Abrams has portrayed himself as a defender and promoter of human rights and democracy. But he advocates a rather narrow conception of the terms. He is more concerned with individual or political rights, primarily holding elections, than a broad embrace of social justice or championing human dignity.
Indeed, as Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Abrams covered up and disputed allegations of human rights abuses during El Salvador's civil war. The Administration downplayed the murders of activists and innocent civilians and attributed them to either the revolutionaries or "unknown" assailants. In reality, the United Nations Truth Report on El Salvador revealed that at least 85 per cent of all investigated murders were committed by Salvadoran security forces.
Most egregiously, Abrams whitewashed a massacre at the village of El Mozote, in which the most elite Salvadoran military unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, murdered almost 1000 civilians, mostly women and children. Abrams denied this massacre in congressional testimony just as the allegations surfaced. He lied to secure continued funding for the Salvadoran Government and to prevent the Salvadoran revolutionaries, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), from overthrowing the Government and establishing a supposed communist regime in Central America. He and the White House viewed an FMLN government as a national security threat to the United States.
Abrams' lies precipitated a deepening US commitment to the Salvadoran Government that continued until a 1989 massacre of Jesuit priests by the Atlacatl Battalion led Congress to question the nation's support for such a brutal regime.
Abrams also downplayed the rampant human rights abuses in neighbouring Guatemala. While attempting to convince Congress to lift a ban on supplying the Guatemalan military with lethal weaponry, Abrams argued that the country, under General Rios Montt, had made "considerable progress" in improving its human rights record. These brazen falsehoods occurred as Montt conducted a genocide against the Ixil, a Mayan indigenous community, for which he was tried and convicted multiple times.
Abrams' record of perfidy and deception on behalf of questionable causes extended to the most significant scandal of the Reagan Administration: The effort to supply paramilitary allies in Nicaragua, the Contras. When Congress forbade the Administration from using government funds to support the Contras, known for their human rights violations, White House staffers devised a new plan, which involved funnelling the proceeds of clandestine weapons sales to Iran to the Contras. Such practices also violated Reagan's pledge not to "negotiate with terrorists". Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress and was disbarred from practising law in the nation's capital.
Instead of the incident ending his career, however, Abrams received a pardon from George H.W. Bush. Bush then gave him a new government perch, which enabled Abrams to use money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private nonprofit created under the Reagan Administration to promote democracy. Abrams supported measures to scuttle the Latin American peace process launched by the Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias, and used the agency's money to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua's 1990 general elections. Holding elections accomplished what almost a decade of economic warfare and sabotage had not. This action reinforced Abrams' narrow vision of democracy. So long as there were elections, it didn't matter whether they were fair or free of foreign interference.
During the Administration of George W. Bush, Abrams redirected his focus to the Middle East, championing regime change in Iraq in advance of the disastrous US invasion and the broader neoconservative agenda of democratisation in the region. After his tenure in the Bush Administration, he decamped to the Council on Foreign Relations, remaining a member of the foreign policy elite despite a career marked by poor judgment.
Abrams originally opposed Trump as a presidential candidate, penning an essay titled When You Can't Stand Your Candidate that compared Trump's candidacy to George McGovern's disastrous 1972 run. This criticism allegedly kept Abrams out of the State Department. But Abrams soon changed his tune as Trump adopted one of his favoured hardline ideas: An uncompromising policy toward Iran.
When it comes to Venezuela, Trump has embraced efforts long championed by Abrams. As in Nicaragua, the NED funnelled millions of dollars to the Venezuelan opposition in unsuccessful attempts to unseat Maduro over the course of several elections. Abrams also supported a failed coup against Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2002. He has since denied he did.
Today, it may be tempting to view Maduro's potential ouster positively; after all, he has mishandled Venezuela's economy and, according to reports, rigged the last election. Even the popular sectors that have traditionally supported Maduro are tired of constant shortages, economic deprivations and hardship.
But when looking in the proper historical context, we must be wary of what is driving Abrams and his allies, and we must be concerned that they may blunder into another foreign policy disaster that could prove calamitous for Venezuelans. Removing Maduro is part of a broader pattern of trying to reverse the "pink tide" of reformist and socialist leaders elected in Latin America since 9/11. These governments refused to participate in the various illegal and nefarious activities perpetrated by the Bush Administration, including rendition, waterboarding, enhanced interrogation and other forms of torture perpetrated at black sites. This earned the ire of neoconservatives such as Abrams.
Neoconservatives are seeking to staunch Chinese economic penetration of Latin America. But they also want to return to the halcyon days of the Cold War, when Washington could count on the region's leaders to reflexively support its agenda, no matter how brutal their regimes or how dire the conditions they spawned.
In Venezuela, this push has the potential to spiral dangerously out of control. Discontent will not necessarily translate into either support for the opposition or regime change. Venezuela's opposition has not articulated a clear agenda or even a coherent message other than Maduro's removal. Furthermore, the country's primary backers, Russia and China, have also voiced their support for Maduro. That means that supporting a coup — or even worse, engineering one — could unleash a bitter civil war.
Abrams' involvement is an ominous sign that the Administration is headed down this path. Given the chaos Abrams and his allies have created in the past, this should alarm us. They should not have the opportunity to wreak havoc on another country.