On June 26, the Trump administration’s so-called “Special Representative for Venezuela,” Elliott Abrams gave a five-minute update to reporters about the development of the coup attempt against the government of Nicolas Maduro, followed by a brief Q&A session. The event, held at the US State Department in Washington, was textbook Abrams: full of lies, loaded language, double standards and breathtaking hypocrisy. Below, I deconstruct each of his points by providing rebuttals, context and regional comparison.
Visit from Michelle Bachelet
The first thing that Abrams mentioned was the visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. From his remarks, one would think that the visit was entirely focused on condemning what Abrams repeatedly referred to as the Maduro “regime” – a classic of Washington’s Goebbelian dictionary used to delegitimize unfriendly governments. “We hope that her report, which is due out July 5th, will reveal the brutal truths that victims of the regime suffer every day,” he said. By using this kind of language, Abrams is sending a number of implicit messages to his audience. First is that the Maduro government is an authoritarian egregious human rights violator while so-called ‘interim president’ Juan Guaido and his hardline opposition faction are whiter than white and, indeed, the sole hope of saving the country from this tyranny. The reality, however, is that Bachelet was there to hear allegations of human rights abuses from both pro- and anti-government actors, including the numerous credible reports of opposition violence such as setting perceived government supporters on fire.
Abrams added that he hopes “that the high commissioner’s representatives, who are currently in Venezuela, who stayed there when she left, will visit the country’s most notorious prisons and visit political prisoners.” Here, he is insinuating that the Maduro government gave her the cold shoulder and was uncooperative with her investigation. But far from being a one-sided affair in which only opposition leaders were willing to meeting with her, extensive talks were held with both sides. In addition to meeting Guaido and other opposition leaders, she also met with President Maduro, members of his cabinet, the national ombudsman, the leader of the constituent assembly and the attorney-general along with a whole host of human rights advocates, trade unionists, academics, religious figures and representatives of the business community.
And far from being uncooperative, the Maduro government actually signed a number of agreements with her delegation. This includes an accord to set up an office for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which will monitor the situation on the ground and provide technical assistance. As for Abrams implication that Maduro’s government didn’t grant Bachelet access to the country’s prisons, it was widely reported days before his brief that the new OHCHR office in Venezuela will “full access to detention centres to be able to monitor conditions and speak to detainees.”
Abrams furthermore claimed that “there are over 715 political prisoners and military prisoners being held arbitrarily in Venezuela.” To be sure, one political prisoner would be one too many. But the status of these individuals is highly contested. The government disputes their status as political prisoners, but there’s more than just that to cast doubt on this claim. For one thing, many opposition figures have been involved in inciting or even themselves committing acts of violence. This includes Guaido himself who was a leader of the Guarimba protesters notorious for setting up barricades, starting fires and attacking public property. His political mentor Leopoldo Lopez is often categorized as a political prisoner. But one has to ask oneself whether he would have gotten away with what he did – incitement to a violent overthrow of the government – had he done it in, say, the United States.
Even government critics themselves disagree on the correct figure for political prisoners. But even assuming that Abrams’ own number of 715 is accurate, his outrage over the matter is highly selective when compared across the world and even just the Latin America region. Neighboring Colombia has over 5,000 political prisoners according to some estimates. Of course, we never hear about this from Washington or the corporate-owned media because Colombia is a close US ally and recipient of generous US funding.
Next up in Abrams’ brief was the now clichéd humanitarian argument. According to this narrative, US intervention is predicated on a humanitarian concern for the Venezuelan people. This has become so oft repeated in the corporate owned press that it no longer has to be spelled out; rather, all it takes is a repetition of how terrible the situation to get the message across. To say that doing so is hypocritical would be an understatement bordering on the absurd. For one thing, US policy itself has been a major exacerbating factor and even partial cause of the current humanitarian crisis. According to a recent report, the Trump administration’s economic sanctions have led to the deaths of around 40,000 people. But US culpability stretches back much further than this latest round of sanctions. US support for and even orchestration of the economic war has been a major cause in sparking the humanitarian crisis. The 2002-3 PDVSA oil lock-out, for instance, led to a massive recession and 29% drop in GDP. Since then Washington has been engaging in isolation tactics to discourage investment and shut Venezuela out of the global economy.
Like with political prisoners, a comparison with Colombia is also apt when it comes to humanitarian crisis. For decades Colombia had the largest internal refugee population in the world (with the possible exception of Syria) as a result of the armed conflict. One of the major drivers of this displacement has been forcible removals by right-wing paramilitary organizations such as the AUC. But far from intervening in Colombia to resolve this humanitarian catastrophe, Washington provided successive administrations in Bogota with generous funding. This is in spite of the fact that at least one of these governments – that of President Alvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010) – had well-established ties to these paramilitary groups, which was exposed by the 2006 “Parapolitics” scandal in which 32 members of Colombia’s parliament including Uribe’s cousin were convicted of colluding with them.
Abrams added his own new twist to the humanitarian narrative at the brief by castigating the Maduro government for spending money on military expenditures that could have gone to helping the population. “A word on the humanitarian situation: Instead of caring for or worrying about the millions of poor, sick, or hungry citizens, the Maduro regime is spending millions of dollars on military purchases,” he said, citing in particular an “air defense contract” with Russia. Coming from a representative of a US government, this line of argument takes hypocrisy to new heights of audacity given his the US’s own record on military spending. One could just as easily ask why the US spends more than the next seven countries combined on its military when it has overseen criminally inept responses to humanitarian crises in Flint, Michigan, following the water poisoning scandal, and in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, there have been multiple humanitarian crises – for decades, if not centuries – on the US’s Indian reservations such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota, where life expectancy and social indicators would embarrass a nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Alleged Cuban intervention
Another added twist to the standard humanitarian narrative was Abrams’ claim that the “regime also continues giving foreign aid to Cuba.” Indeed, so-called “Cuban intervention” into Venezuelan affairs is another of Abrams’ and the other coup leaders’ favorite conspiracy theories. The idea is that US is perfectly justified in intervening in Venezuela affairs because the intervention has already been happened – but by Cuba. He added that the Maduro “regime” is “providing oil without payment in exchange,” unless, that is, “the payment is the repressive intelligence apparatus, manned by about 2,500 Cuban agents that Cuba maintains in Venezuela to help keep the regime in power.”
Here we have several false and misleading claims packed into just one sentence. First of all, even if Venezuela were giving foreign aid to Cuba, one can only ask why this is the business of the United States or indeed even a bad thing if it were true. The US gives foreign aid to plenty of countries, some of them with much worse human rights records than Cuba. Not least of these is Israel, which is the largest net recipient of US military aid in the post-World War II era.
But, moreover, many of these 2,500 “agents” are, in fact, doctors. And the “foreign aid” is, in fact, nothing of the kind. Venezuela and Cuba have a barter system in which Cuba exchanges medical services for oil. This is crucial for Cuba given that it has been largely isolated from the global economy via the decades long US economic blockade that has cost the island nation over $100 billion, according to some estimates.
Democracy, human rights and corruption
Inevitably, Abrams also brought up the issues of democracy, human rights and corruption. “Inside Venezuela, the Maduro regime continues to undermine democratic institutions, to carry out human rights abuses, and to engage in rampant and extremely widespread corruption,” he said about a minute into his speech. As with humanitarianism, a comparison with other countries around the world, or even just confining the analysis to the Latin America region, exposes jaw-dropping hypocrisy and double standards. Washington seems to care nothing, for instance, for democracy in Honduras, where even the pro-US Organization of American states declared the last election to be fraudulent and called for a fresh vote. Washington, however, ignored these calls and recognized the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez without question.
Human rights in Honduras don’t seem to be of concern to Washington either. Since a US-supported coup in 2009 that toppled the government of the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya, the country has degenerated into a human rights nightmare in which state security forces routinely commit human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and torture with near complete impunity. But you won’t hear anything about that from Washington, because all post-coup governments have been staunch US allies, dutifully following orders including keeping open the US ‘Soto Cano’ Air Base. They have been rewarded for this obedience with generous funding from Washington – some of which is spent on its security forces, thereby making the US complicit with the very types of human rights violations it accuses Venezuela of.
In terms of corruption, there is no better comparison in the region than that of Honduras’ northern neighbor, Mexico, during the presidencies of Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon and Enrique Peña Nieto. According to a December 2018 report by the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Mexico is “the most corrupt country in both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the G-20.” Much of the country’s corruption stems from the drug war, which has led to widespread collusion with the drug cartels by various sections of the police, the military and even elected officials. According to investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez, the cartel’s state capture goes all the way to the top, including the presidency itself. In spite of this, Washington has been providing successive Mexican administrations with generous funding through the Merida Initiative. Ostensibly to combat drug trafficking, the funds nonetheless go to a highly corrupt state security force apparatus that has been implicated in extensive human rights violations and collusion with narco-trafficking organizations.
The National Assembly
Abrams then turned to a common talking point amongst Venezuela coup plotters that “the last remaining democratic institution in Venezuela is the National Assembly.” This claim is a humdinger on several levels. First of all, US recognition of the 2015 National Assembly election is indicative of Washington’s brazenly partisan stance toward the opposition. Practically every election victory of the governing Chavistas was automatically rejected and put down to fraud by the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. But the opposition has one major landslide victory and suddenly accusations that “Venezuela’s electoral system is rigged” are forgotten – conveniently enough, just in this one instance.
But there is something even more hypocritical about Abrams’ heralding of the National Assembly and the constitutional order generally. Because the hardline opposition that Guaido represents has not been generally supportive of the current Venezuelan constitution or the institutions that it created. His faction boycotted the election to the constituent assembly that drafted this constitution in 1999 and have hardly been enthusiastic about it since. During the last coup attempt in 2002, the first thing that then-‘interim president’ Pedro Carmona did was to declare the constitution null and void and disband the National Assembly and Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TNJ). Needless to say, Guaido and his mentor Leopoldo Lopez and the heirs to this wing of the Venezuelan opposition.
Abrams also made the claim that “the regime is methodically working to destroy Venezuela’s democratically elected parliament.” This is also highly misleading. The National Assembly did have its authority suspended, but not by the government. It was the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), the highest body in Venezuela’s judicial branch, that did so – and for good reason. In the aftermath of the 2015 National Assembly election, four candidates from the Amazonas state had their election victories disputed by the National Electoral Council (CNE) due to allegations of vote buying. Of course, the natural assumption of Washington was that this was because the CNE is brazenly biased toward the governing Chavistas. But this cannot be the case since, while two of them were opposition candidates, one was an independent and the other was actually a Chavista. The opposition refused to cooperate with CNE’s review procedure for their candidates and, as a result, was rightly held in contempt by the TNJ in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. Maduro’s subsequent decision to convene a Constituent Assembly was also perfectly legal under Venezuelan constitutional law. But all of this is conveniently brushed under the carpet by Washington and its minions in the corporate-owned in order to pass it all off as a “power grab.”
Next Abrams said: “The notion that Maduro might remain president to preside over free elections and a transition to democracy is laughable. These attacks on the only remaining democratic institution in Venezuela are yet another proof that the Maduro regime cannot be trusted to organize free and fair elections.” Here we have another misrepresentation of how the Venezuelan Constitution and electoral system works. It is not the government that conducts or presides over elections, it is the CNE. Of course, the standard Washington/corporate-owned press line is that the CNE is not neutral since it has been “packed with Maduro loyalists.” But this is obviously false since the opposition itself uses the CNE to preside over its own primary contests.
But there is a deeper layer of hypocrisy and irony to what Abrams is implying. Does anyone seriously think that elections presided over by the US or a US-backed political faction in Latin America are going to be clean? Abrams is a spokesperson for a country that has meddled in far more foreign elections than any other since the Second World War. In the post-war era, the US has interfered in over 80 elections in 47 different countries, including several in Latin America. This figure, by the way, does not include the many other cases of US intervention such as invasion or orchestrating coup d’états such as those in Chile and Guatemala. So, the reality is the opposite of what Abrams claims: it is the very idea that Abrams and his proxies in the Venezuelan opposition – who have willingly sided a foreign state with this history of intervention and inference – represent the best guarantors of a fair election that is truly laughable.
Guaido the savior
Abrams then spoke glowingly about Guaido, almost to the point of presenting him as some kind of messianic figure. He said: “Interim President Juan Guaido continues to travel throughout the country distributing humanitarian assistance, organizing health clinics, and spreading an important message: that he seeks a peaceful, democratic transition.”
In terms of humanitarian assistance, Abrams is referring exclusively to US-delivered humanitarian assistance, which has been deemed to be politicized even by the United Nations and mainstream humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross – both of whom refused to participate in Washington’s delivery of this aid. The Red Cross even condemned “people not affiliated” with the organization for using its emblems. The politicization of Washington’s “aid” is nothing new, especially for Elliott Abrams. He orchestrated the shipment of arms to the right-wing Contra terrorists in Nicaragua under the guise of “humanitarian aid” during the 1980s.
The idea that Guaido “seeks a peaceful, democratic transition” is equally laughable. Not only has he sided with the most reactionary US administrations in recent memory, but one that openly talks of the possibility of direct military intervention to topple the government. As previously mentioned, Guaido’s far-right faction of the Venezuelan opposition has itself been involved in violence. And ironically, a frequent target of this violence has been government-founded health clinics due to their association with the Chavistas’ partnership with Cuba. So much for Guaido being at the forefront of “organizing health clinics,” as Abrams claims.
Abrams next said: “Maduro’s security forces oppress Venezuelans who demand a better future and they censor communications involving Guaido.” This is in spite of the fact that Guaido had been able to move around the country unhindered even though he is leading a violent coup with the support of a country with a record of violent intervention and electoral interference all over the region and wider world. Would someone doing something similar in the United States be allowed to do so? Surely not, given that treason is a capital crime under US federal law.
The question and answer session, which followed Abrams’ speech, was also illustrative, but more for the questions that Abrams’ predictable responses. A BBC reporter, for example, pointed out that the Trump administration’s plan was a “very sophisticated coup plot” that nonetheless “didn’t end up ousting Maduro,” and subsequently asked: “Do you think that it is over or do you see it lying low for a while?” Abrams offered a desperate answer about how Maduro had canceled this year’s celebration of the Battle of Carabobo, purportedly because of a lack of loyalty in the military. This is, of course, ridiculous since the coup’s failure stems in large part from the overwhelmingly majority of the military refusing to defect to Guaido’s side.
Toward the end, another question from BBC seemed to ruffle Abrams’ feathers. Referring to a Washington Post article published days earlier that quoted anonymous Trump administration officials, the reporter asked: “Has the President lost interest in this?” After Abrams made a desperate attempt to play down the significance of the story, the reporter asked for a follow up, which the moderator granted. He asked: “the effort to grow the campaign and the allies that side with you seems to have stalled from where we’re sitting on this side. Is there any kind of consideration to try to change your strategy, maybe include the – Maduro in some kind of unity government, any kind of strategy to make this work?” Abrams again made a pitiful attempt of an answer, saying that the 54 countries – which, keep in mind, is a minority of the world’s nations – will increase going forward.
The significance of these kinds of question from mainstream outlets is revealing. Clearly, there is a growing sense that the coup attempt has failed. It’s time that both the Trump administration and the Guaido faction within Venezuela come to terms with this reality. They must not only cease their destabilization campaign and go the negotiating table, but also seriously downgrade what they are asking for. Having caused such damage and involved the US in their coup attempt, they have essentially committed treason. Rather than asking for Maduro to step down, a more reasonable request would be for amnesty from prosecution for having launched this disgraceful and bumbling attempt to seize power in the first place.