Last week’s completely appropriate and mild questioning of President Trump’s Venezuela envoy Elliot Abrams seems to have struck a chord for both critics of US Latin American policy over the years and for the foreign policy establishment. The latter has recoiled in horror that one of their own has actually been publicly taken to task, in a congressional setting by a sitting Congresswoman (Omar Ilhan (D)-Minnesota), and the former has rejoiced that, at least, the crimes of US Latin American policy in the 80’s have been recognized. So, what exactly are the crimes of Elliot Abrams?
Elliot Abrams is a cipher for US imperialism in Latin America and the world.
From the inception of the United States US business interests and political leaders have coveted the natural resources, strategic position, markets and labor of Latin America. Thomas Jefferson was horrified by the first full blown republic in the hemisphere (Haiti) and imposed an embargo. Founder and President James Monroe was so grandiose in his view of the future imperial republic that his Doctrine basically proclaimed back yard status for the entire hemisphere in 1823. By the 1840’s there was little talk of neighbors and fellow republicans and overt racist discussion of the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. This led to, as well as the destruction of most of the First Nation’s population and sovereignty, the theft of the northern half of Mexico. By 1898 the US set its sights on the remains of the Spanish Empire and successfully occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, where they remain today.
Naked aggression did not abate with the new century, it accelerated. With its maturing industrial economy, the US built the “Great White Fleet,” toured the world as a warning to all that there was a new Sheriff in town, and in response to the “Venezuela Crisis” the “great” progressive hero Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the right of the US to intervene (The Roosevelt Corollary, 1904), at any time, for any purpose in the affairs of Latin America. Soon there after TR sent the US Navy to Columbia to lop off its northern province to create a canal.
Numerous occupations and invasions of Cuba, Nicaragua, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Haiti and others ensued in the teens and the 20’s earning the US the name Yankee Imperialist.
With the Cold War, amazingly, US policy became even more viscous as popular struggles across the continent, inspired by anti-colonial movements across the globe, fought not only for national, but also economic independence. The movements in Guatemala and Argentina galvanized a generation of nationalists to try and emulate the liberal policies of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But a not so funny thing happened on the way to liberal reform-the United States embraced outright fascism.
After successful democratic elections brought Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz to power in Guatemala in the 40’s and 50’s the US, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a coup to replace democracy with a dictatorship run by a Eurocentric group of military leaders. The crime of the democrats in power? They wanted some unused land to be farmed by the Maya majority population who had lived in abject poverty and subjugation since the arrival of the Spanish. For this the United Fruit Company, whose board members and legal representatives just happened to be the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles (you can’t make this stuff up) called on their friends in the US government to overthrow Arbenz.
Coincidentally, a young Argentinian doctor was living in Guatemala at the time, his name was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. He subsequently escaped to Mexico City where he immediately fell in with a group of radicals, one named Fidel Castro. Che’s lesson from his experience in Guatemala was, that if the people were not armed and trained to resist Yankee imperialism, the US would dominate them forever. Fidel Castro agreed with this assessment and carried it to power in Havana in 1959.
With the Cuban Revolution the US initiated the Alliance for Progress, a more nuanced approach to the “Gunboat Diplomacy” of the past. But with the Cold War, the US felt that they were in a death struggle with international communism, so even if the issues were local, like in Guatemala, the US “internationalized” all politics-blaming communists from Moscow for all attempts at reform, democracy, national independence or socialism. John F Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress thus became an effort to end all “insurgents” through military means and economic reforms.
In Central America this meant allowing certain products preferential treatment in US markets for products like coffee, beef, cotton, sugar and bananas. It also meant economic aid. This created a boom for these industries and put thousands and thousands of more hectares of land under cultivation, roads built, forests cut down and peasants displaced. The overwhelming majority of Central Americans at this time lived in the countryside and with the expansion of large corporate interests and smaller indigenous companies alike, increased the population who could no longer live off the land. Many of them became rural workers. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, this process led to a radicalization of rural workers and indigenous organizations. Unions emerged and with them the heavy hand of the military to eliminate them, massively aided by the United States.
Enter Elliot Abrams.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, some in the foreign policy establishment believed that the Nixon and Carter administrations had been too cozy with the communists in China and the Soviet Union, as if killing 3 million people in Vietnam and Laos and allying with the Shah of Iran was humanitarian do gooderism. Elliot Abrams was in this camp.
For Reagan and Abrams Central America was ground zero for the New Cold War. In 1979, under Jimmy Carter’s watch, a popular revolution had occurred in Nicaragua, a country that had been ruled by the Somoza family who’s military force, organized, financed and trained by the US, for kicks liked to throw peasants and trade unionists into volcanoes from helicopters. After seizing power the leaders of the revolution, the FSLN, held elections-they won clear majorities. Besides establishing democracy the FSLN, initiated a literacy program, implemented universal healthcare with help from Cuba and began a land reform program.
At the same time in neighboring EL Salvador a similar revolutionary movement, the FMLN, was vying for state power. By the late 70’s the Salvadoran military was about to fall but was given a lifeline by the Carter administration. By the early 80’s the FMLN was planning a “final offensive.” In the name of fighting communists the US helped train death squads that not only murdered peasants, trade unionists, socialists, democrats and teachers by the thousands but also nuns and a conservative arch-bishop that could no longer keep silent about the holocaust that was occurring in his country.
In Guatemala, the fight for democracy and civil rights for the Maya majority had raged since the 1950’s but with the victory of the Nicaraguan revolution the revolutionary forces had united and began a renewed effort to defeat the dictatorship and their US backers.
The Reagan administrations strategy was quite simple in, all three countries-they would try to defeat all three revolutionary movements by force. Death squads were used in El Salvador. In Guatemala, a “strategic hamlet” project was established, based on the Phoenix Program in Vietnam in the 60’s; it basically cordoned off villages so that complete surveillance could take place over entire communities. Or they razed entire villages and murdered all of its inhabitants. In Nicaragua, a counter-revolutionary army was raised out of the remnants of the Somaza National Guard. They were funded by the US and terrorized and murdered anyone that would ally with the revolution. This included the destruction of hospitals, water treatment programs and the assassination of teachers, health workers and US citizens.
Elliot Abrams was the point man for US policy in Central America at this time. There was no murder too heinous, or atrocity too large that he would not rationalize in the name of anti-communism. His illegal activity and lying to congress eventually led to a felony conviction, and subsequent pardon by George H W Bush.
What this week’s testimony was about was not just the vileness of Elliot Abrams and his individual crimes but the impunity by which Abrams and his ilk have operated over hundreds of years in Latin America and the world.
His response was telling.
He would not even answer the questions because he and his henchmen want this history to be erased.