In 1985, an activist for the relatives of the disappeared [persons in Guatemala], named Rosario Godoy, was abducted by the army. She was raped. Her mutilated body was found alongside that of her baby. The baby’s fingernails had been torn out. The Guatemalan army, when asked about this atrocity, said, “Oh, they died in a traffic accident.”
When [US human rights official] Elliott Abrams was asked about this accident, he affirmed also that they died in a traffic accident. This activist raped and mutilated, the baby with his fingernails pulled out, Abrams says it’s a traffic accident.
— Allan Nairn, on Democracy NOW January 30, 2019
Some say history repeats itself. Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. The January 25 appointment of convicted perjurer Elliott Abrams as the new US Special Envoy on Venezuela is evidence that history just goes on and on and on with ironic cruelty and relentless injustice. That would be especially true if you happen to have the world’s largest proven oil reserve, as Venezuela does.
The malign US interference in Venezuela goes back more than a century. For decades the idea of “Venezuelan democracy” was a US-inflected oxymoron. When Venezuela somehow elected Hugo Chávez president in 1999 – legitimately – turnout was 63%, and Chávez won 56% of the vote (both better numbers than the 2016 US presidential election). Chávez was a leader of failed coups in 1992 that tried to topple the corrupt kleptocracy of then-president Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had been elected promising to resist US meddling, only to become a corrupt tool of it (and impeached in 1993). The US responded to the democratic process in Venezuela with at least one coup attempt in 2002 and chronic economic warfare for two decades. Despite its oil, Venezuela has not prospered and remains a country of about 31 million people, one in five of whom are poor.
Venezuela is now in play once more, with no reasonably decent outcome in sight. Whichever vicious and corrupt side wins, most of the Venezuelan people are likely to lose. In a sense, it was ever thus. Presently, the US has taken sides with self-proclaimed Venezuelan interim president Juan Guaidó. On January 22, Guaidó leveraged his position as President of the Venezuelan National Assembly to make an ingenious but untested argument that the national presidency was “vacant” and he had a constitutional obligation to fill it (or something like that – try to find a coherent explanation of what actually happened). In an alternative reality, Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro was re-elected president last May and sworn in on January 10. The Venezuelan constitution is invoked on both sides, and there appears to be no institution with sufficient authority to resolve the issue. The constitutional basis of Guaidó’s position is specious on its face, since he relies on Article 233 and none of its conditions apply. Guaidó asserts that the National Assembly, controlled by the opposition party, voided the May 2018 election results and that therefore when Maduro’s term expired on January 9, the presidency became vacant. On Maduro’s side is the Constituent Assembly, a murky institution created in 2017 that runs in parallel with the National Assembly. The CIA acknowledges that the “ruling party” controls the Constituent Assembly, but states: “The US Government [like 40 other countries] does not recognize the Assembly, which has generally used its powers to rule by decree rather than to reform the constitution.”
So, of course, when Juan Guaidó used the National Assembly’s power to rule by decree, the US rushed to recognize his somewhat imaginary government without hesitation, without analysis, without restraint. Even if there is no practical way to sort out the competing constitutional legalities in an orderly, peaceful way, the US might have given the rule of law at least lip service. Instead, the US polarizes the world further, demanding that other nations help make Venezuela worse. On January 26, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the UN Security Council:
Now, it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.
Whose mayhem? Whose economic sanctions? Whose periodic coup attempts? Pompeo embraces a version of the Big Lie about Venezuela we’ve been hearing for a long, long time. The day before he spoke at the UN, Pompeo announced the appointment of Attorney Elliott Abrams, a promising sign that the Venezuelan future will be dark and bloody. In his announcement, Pompeo invoked “the Venezuelan people” at least nine times, which should be warning enough. Pompeo said, complete with the contradiction as to which people will be served:
Elliott Abrams is coming aboard to lead our efforts on Venezuela…. Elliott’s passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples makes him a perfect fit and a valuable and timely addition…. Elliott will be a true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country…. he is eager to advance President Trump’s agenda and promote the ideals and interests of the American people.
President Trump was talking about invading Venezuela in 2017, but was dissuaded by Rex Tillerson, then Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster. The idea is still not off the table, as National Security Advisor John Bolton recently confirmed (along with flashing his notepad with “5,000 troops to Colombia,” unexplained). Bolton is apparently one of the architects of the current coup effort in Venezuela, along with Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence. Pence was on the phone assuring US support for Guaidó before he named himself president (on behalf of the Venezuelan people who were not involved).
Adding Elliott Abrams to this team does little to provide hope for the Venezuelan people. Contrary to Pompeo’s assertion, Abrams has never demonstrated “passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples,” least of all Palestinians. But Abrams’s demonstrated capacity for supporting subversion, torture, and mass killing does indeed make him “a perfect fit and a valuable and timely addition.” After all, Abrams represents the continuity of 40 years of genocidal US global policies. And he participated in many of them, as reported with devastating detail on Democracy NOW as well as the terror timeline in The Intercept, but not so much in mainstream media.
In 1981, at the age of 33, Abrams was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Reagan’s first choice, Ernest Lefever, had been rejected in part for his view that the US should support vicious regimes if they were our allies.
Abrams managed to carry out that policy very well, starting in El Salvador in the early 1980s, when our Salvadoran government ally could carry out human rights violations and mass killings almost without reproach. The government killed nearly 75,000 people. No atrocity was worthy of Abrams’s condemnation. He had no sympathy for those seeking asylum from US-sponsored violence, telling Congress:
Some groups argue that illegal aliens who are sent back to El Salvador meet persecution and often death. Obviously, we do not believe these claims or we would not deport these people.
Overseeing US involvement in Guatemala, Abrams claimed to be equally oblivious to the human rights depredations of the government of Gen. Ríos Montt, a born-again evangelical Christian. He was a hero to the Reagan administration as his death squads helped kill some 200,000 Guatemalans. Ríos Montt was eventually convicted in a Guatemalan court of waging genocide against his own people. If there’s any evidence Abrams regrets his support for crimes against humanity, that evidence is well hidden. In 2017, his status as an unindicted war criminal was enough to keep Trump from naming him Secretary of State.
In 1983, Abrams supported the US invasion of Grenada. He also pushed for a full-scale invasion of Nicaragua, where he was already involved in the support of the terrorist Contras against the Sandinista government. When Congress cut off support to the Contras, Abrams was involved in the criminal activities of the so-called Iran-Contra operation that included selling drugs to support the Contras and shipping arms to Iran to support the Contras. Abrams escaped serious consequences for his crimes, pleading guilty in 1991 to two counts of lying to Congress. Without remorse, Abrams wrote what he thought of his prosecutors: “You miserable filthy bastards, you bloodsuckers.” The first President Bush pardoned him and five other Iran-Contra criminals on Christmas Eve 1992. (These pardons were supported by current attorney-general nominee William Barr.)
In 1985, the Reagan administration was aware that Panamanian president Manuel Noriega was a heavy drug dealer. When a former Panama health official was about to release what he said was proof of Noriega’s cocaine smuggling, Noriega’s agents seized and tortured the man, sawing off his head while he was still alive. When the news became public and caused a stir in the US, Abrams went out of his way to block Congressional hearings, claiming that Noriega was “being really helpful to us” with Nicaragua and that he was “really not that big a problem.”
Abrams was reportedly involved in the US-supported coup attempts against Chavez in Venezuela in 2002. In 2003, Abrams played a mysterious role in squelching a peace proposal from Iran that might have ended the US war against Iraq.
In 2006, Abrams was instrumental in suppressing the results of a legitimate democratic election. In support of the corrupt Palestinian Authority, the Bush administration pushed for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. To their surprise, Hamas won. In response, Abrams and others tried to organize a coup. Hamas effected a counter-coup, the Bush administration refused to recognize the election winners, and that US-enforced injustice is at the heart of suffering in Gaza now.
Everywhere Elliott Abrams goes, innocent people are left bleeding or dead. Objections among the predominant political and pundit classes are hard to find. The conventional wisdom, especially among Democrats, is to support the US coup attempt but object to any military intervention, as if that satisfied any standard of national sovereignty. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard seems to be alone in saying that the US “needs to stay out of Venezuela.” But now Elliott Abrams is our man for Venezuela. And that suggests that tens of thousands of Venezuelans will soon be having serious “traffic accidents.”