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Elliott Abrams: A Human Rights Horror Show in Three Acts

Last Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Elliott Abrams would once again be returning to government, this time as President Donald Trump’s special envoy to help “fully restore democracy and prosperity” to Venezuela. Abrams, 71, is best known for abetting dictators and genocide in Latin America and for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Ronald Reagan administration, as well as for his ardent support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and for green-lighting a failed coup in Venezuela while serving in the George W. Bush administration. He is as reviled by countless Latin Americans as he is revered among neocons who pine for a more muscular US role in the hemisphere and beyond. What follows is an overview of the human rights horror show that has been Abrams’ government career, which now spans three presidential administrations over four decades.

Act I: Dictators, Death Squads and Drug Dealers

During the last decade of the Cold War, the Reagan administration staunchly supported right-wing military dictatorships throughout Latin America. The US was also instrumental in the creation and training of these regimes’ military officers, troops and security forces, some of whom committed assassinations, massacres and even genocidal violence with tacit, and sometimes open, American backing. The Reagan administration also covertly — and illegally — supported the brutal Contra rebels as they waged a terrorist war against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. This was the state of affairs at the State Department when Abrams was hired in 1981, first as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs and then as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

No Reagan administration official worked harder to subvert human rights in the Americas than Elliott Abrams. After the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite Salvadoran army unit created at the US Army School of the Americas, carried out a series of horrific massacres including the wholesale slaughter of more than 900 villagers at El Mozote in December 1981, Abrams praised the murderous battalion’s “professionalism” while attacking reports of casualty figures and the journalists who reported them. He also whitewashed Contra atrocities as well as those of the genocidal regime of General Efrían Ríos Montt in Guatemala, the Argentinian military junta — which wasstealing and selling the babies of its victims at the time — and other pro-US, anti-communist regimes.

Abrams was point man on Reagan’s Panama pivot, in which drug-dealing dictator General Manuel Noriega was quickly transformed from friend to foe. When asked in October 1987 if the US was trying to destabilize Noriega’s regime, Abrams replied with a straight face that “Panama should not be run by a general; it should be run by an elected civilian government.” Meanwhile, the US supported military dictatorships across the region and around the world while going out of its way — and outside the law — to destroy the elected civilian government in neighboring Nicaragua.

Late in 1986 the world learned of a secret arms-for-hostages deal between the Reagan administration and US archenemy Iran. The US also used proceeds from the arms sale to fund the Contras, who also trafficked drugs to bankroll their insurgency. Both the Iran deal and supporting the Contra terrorists were illegal. It would emerge that Abrams, who worked closely with key Iran-Contra criminal Colonel Oliver North, knew about North’s efforts to illegally assist the Contras and was “directly involved in secretly seeking third-country contributions” to the rebels. Reagan was infuriated by press snooping into this dirty Contra war. Once again, the president called on his attack dog Abrams, who launched a smear campaign against Robert Parry and Brian Barger of the Associated Press, two of the first journalists who reported on Contra drug running. The pair were even falsely accused of poisoning Oliver North’s dog to death.

Federal prosecutors prepared multiple felony counts against Abrams for his role in the scandal but he was never indicted; instead he cooperated with the government and struck a deal in which he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. Neither Abrams nor any of the five other Reagan officials who pleaded guilty in the scandal ever spent a day in prison for their crimes; President George H. W. Bush, who as Reagan’s vice president was himself deeply involved in the Iran-Contra affair, pardoned them all on Christmas Eve in 1992.

Act II: Neoconned

In 1997, prominent neoconservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a think tank dedicated to “the promotion of American global leadership.” PNAC’s roster featured many neocon hawks who would later serve in the George W. Bush administration, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Elliot Abrams, who was appointed Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations at the National Security Council in June 2001. Many of PNAC’s goals — which included regime change in Iraq — aligned perfectly with George W. Bush’s aggressive post-9/11 foreign policy and PNAC members including Abrams found their power and standing elevated as the US entered the era of never-ending war on terrorism.

But before Iraq there was the matter of a failed coup against Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela whose socialist reforms — which included nationalizing foreign commercial assets to fund programs of social uplift — infuriated Washington and Wall Street. According to the UK Observer, Abrams had advance knowledge of, and approved, the military coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours in April 2002.   The coup plotters, who backed pro-US businessman Pedro Carmona for president, reportedly visited the White House several times, with the Bush administration rushing to recognize the illegitimate Carmona regime before Chávez loyalists quickly quashed the brief revolt.

As Bush’s special Middle East adviser, Abrams was one of the key intellectual architects of the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. He had long been an enthusiastic advocate of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, co-authoring a 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton urging regime change in Baghdad. Iraq wasn’t the only Middle Eastern nation that Abrams helped destabilize. The staunch Zionist, who ran the NSC’s Israel/Palestine desk, has been accused of leading the Bush administration’s effort to subvert the 2006 Palestinian elections to block the formation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government. “It was during Abrams’ tenure in the NSC that the United States lost all credibility as an honest broker among Palestinians,” Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation in 2013.

Act III: Prelude to Regime Change?

President Trump’s hiring of Abrams has perplexed many observers, not only because the president previously rejected him for being critical of his candidacy but also because Trump has repeatedly voiced disdain for neoconservatism. The president has called the Iraq war the “worst single mistake” in US foreign policy history and time and again has roundly rejected core neoconservative ideals including nation building and the spreading of democracy. Nevertheless, Abrams is now the second prominent Bush-era neoconservative after National Security Advisor John Bolton to be hired by Trump.

This is an ominous development for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the millions of Venezuelans who still support him and the Bolivarian Revolution despite his increasingly authoritarian rule. Last September, theNew York Times reported Trump administration officials held secret talks with coup-minded Venezuelan military officers to discuss overthrowing Maduro. If Trump, who has repeatedly raised the possibility of invading Venezuela, embraces regime change in Caracas — which many believe he already has by recognizing presidential pretender Juan Guaidó — Abrams will certainly play a starring role in what is sure to be a brutally bloody affair. It will be a fitting third act in the human rights horror show that is Elliott Abrams’ appalling career.

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Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

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