Elliott Abrams, President Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, first became well known in 1982 after he was named assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Reagan administration.
Abrams served as a junior point man for the Reagan administration’s wars in Central America. He was an aggressive, articulate defender of pro-U.S. forces that committed human rights atrocities. He was a fierce critic of those who reported accurately on their war crimes.
With Abrams set to testify on Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his early days as a U.S. policymaker can serve as a guide to what we can expect from the Trump administration’s policy of “regime change” in Venezuela.
In an exchange that made national news at a House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, Rep. Ilhan Omar confronted Abrams about his conviction for lying to Congress and false statements he made about the infamous El Mozote massacre.
But the exchange only hinted at the scope of Abrams’ mendacious style. While in the Reagan administration, Abrams wove such particular lies into a tapestry of propaganda that prefigured Trumpism in its contempt for facts, gaslighting of critics, evasion of evidence, and tolerance of brutality.
When Abrams began his career in the U.S. national security policymaking community in the early 1980s, Central America was convulsed by popular rebellions. Dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala had suppressed and exploited the poor majority for decades. By the late 1970s, these feudalistic governments, led by military officers and landholding elites, faced their most serious challenge ever.
In El Salvador, a once-conservative cleric Archbishop Oscar Romero gave voice to a popular rebellion that enjoyed support from the public and some factions in the military.
In Guatemala, the repression that began with the CIA coup in 1954 was driving most opponents of the government to sympathize with or join a growing guerilla movement in the countryside.
President Reagan, dedicated to “turning the tide” against communism worldwide, viewed anyone who did not pledge fealty to U.S. policy as a “communist,” “terrorist,” or “communist dupe.” As such, these forces were targets of violent suppression.
In El Salvador, the Reagan administration backed an ultra-right faction of the military led by intelligence officer Roberto d’Aubuisson who was trained at the CIA-run International Police Academy in Washington. D’Aubuisson masterminded the assassination of Monsignor Romero in March 1980 and commanded the death squads that liquidated civilians in favor of peaceful change.
In Guatemala, the ultra-right celebrated Reagan’s elections and stepped up its campaign of kidnapping opponents in the capital and massacring peasants in the countryside.
In the State Department’s annual country reports on human rights for which he was responsible, Abrams justified this bloody policy with creative cunning.
“The allocation of responsibility for specific crimes done by certain rightist elements or by the members of the security forces associated with them has been difficult,” the 1983 human rights report on El Salvador asserted.
This was a euphemistic allusion to a string of high-profile assassinations, including the murder of Monsignor Romero.
“Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” Abrams said at the time.
In fact, there were at least two State Department cables from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador which stated exactly that. One was sent to Washington in November 1980, a second in December 1981. The gunman worked as a bodyguard for d’Aubuisson.
(Years later, when d’Aubuisson’s role could no longer be denied, Abrams would demand the gunman’s extradition to the United States.)
Abrams’ willingness to impugn critics as “fools” for citing evidence to which he himself had access epitomized his brazen style.
“Extremists of the right and left are guilty of politically motivated civilian deaths as are some members of the Armed Forces,” the 1983 State Department report on El Salvador stated.
This glib formulation suggested both that there was some parity in political violence committed by the left and right and that the armed forces were not part of the right.
The statement was pernicious nonsense. In 1993, the UN Truth Commission found that 85 percent of the deaths of civilian non-combatants were attributable to government forces. Only 5 percent could be attributed to the left.
In other words, the security forces armed and trained by the United States were 17 times more likely to be responsible for political murders than the anti-U.S. forces. Only in one case in ten was there any doubt who was responsible.
Abrams whitewashed this reality with the hoariest of Washington clichés: “extremists of the right and left.”
‘Horrible Realities’ as Progress
In February 1984, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Frederic Chapin sent a confidential cable to Washington reporting on what he called “the horrible human rights realities” in the country. Two recent kidnappings in broad daylight showed the “security forces will strike whenever there is a target of importance.”
Abrams found a silver lining in the carnage. The State Department’s 1983 report on Guatemala declared, “Serious human rights problems continued… but there were improvements in some important areas.”
Abrams then signed off on a secret report to Congress citing the alleged improvement of human rights as justification for a resumption in U.S. security assistance to the Guatemalan government.
The government, Abrams claimed, “has taken a number of positive steps to restore a constitutional, electoral process and to address the practice of extra-legal detentions.”
In fact, a 1986 State Department study of Guatemala’s disappeared found “the practice of kidnappings became institutionalized…. [M]ost of the disappeared have in fact been kidnapped by the security forces…. To our knowledge, no member of the military, policy, security forces, or paramilitary groups has ever been prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for participation in politically-related abductions.”
The study stated that “under the last three military governments the rate of reported kidnappings has increased [emphasis added], according to our statistics.”
In 1984, when Abrams made U.S. policy on the claim that the government was taking “positive steps” resulting in “important areas [of improvement],” more than three people were kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Guatemala every single day.
This is the man whom Trump apostate Max Boot has described as “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.”
What It Means
Abrams told Rep. Omar that U.S. policy in El Salvador was an “outstanding achievement” because it resulted in free elections. What he didn’t say was that the reign of terror in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s generated a stream of refugees to the United States that has never ceased.
Thanks in no small part to Reagan’s policy, El Salvador and Guatemala are now essentially failed states, examples of “sh*t hole” countries whose agonies or unfulfilled aspirations for democracy hold no interest for the president or his policymaking team. Elliott Abrams has moved on to save others.
This is the record to keep in mind as Abrams testifies about the “democratic transition” in Venezuela. If Venezuela’s future is anything like the “democratic transition” in Central America, the process will be enabled by lies and soaked in blood.