The Trump administration set a 23 February deadline for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to bow to US demands and cede power to self-appointed “president” Juan Guaidó. Sanctions imposed by former US president Barack Obama have been extended and deepened, costing Venezuela US$38 billion over the last three years, according to Venezuela’s vice president of planning, Ricardo Menendez.
US president Donald Trump has become increasingly bellicose in his threats against Maduro’s government, refusing to rule out a ground invasion if Maduro’s own generals fail to depose him. Trump has assembled a coterie of Cold Warriors pushing for military intervention, including vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and the recently appointed special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams.
“Elliott will be a true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country”, Pompeo told reporters following Abrams’ appointment on 25 January. Abrams is a man with “passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples”, asserted Pompeo. However, Abrams has a sordid history of fomenting murder and mayhem in aid of US foreign policy in Latin America.
A graduate of Harvard law school, Abrams began his public service career in 1981, soon after Republican president Ronald Reagan assumed office. In December 1981, after Reagan’s top pick for the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs was exposed as a racist, Abrams was elevated to the job.
That year the Reagan administration dramatically increased military aid to El Salvador’s ruling junta. By 1982, US military advisers had been assigned to each of the six Salvadoran brigades, as well as 10 smaller units. During the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, El Salvador’s dictatorship was lavished with US$6 billion in economic and military aid. 75,000 Salvadorians lost their lives in a one-sided civil war in which the ruling military junta carried out 95 percent of the atrocities, according to a subsequent truth commission.
Washington’s dirty war in Central America
El Salvador was one of a series of feared “dominoes” in Central America threatened by “communism”, a tag frequently attached to any government or guerrilla movement that failed to do Washington’s bidding. In El Salvador that movement was the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Now the governing party of El Salvador (shorn of its former leftist ideology), the FMLN then led a popular guerrilla insurgency against El Salvador’s ruling landlords and generals.
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)had taken power in 1979 after toppling the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. The FSLN’s efforts to build a popular democracy and combat poverty in Nicaragua were soon thwarted by a reactionary mercenary movement, known as the “contras”, aided and abetted by Washington. Lauded as “freedom fighters” by Reagan, contras carried out attacks on schools, clinics and even childcare centres established by Sandinista mass organisations. Like the efforts of their paramilitary counterparts in other Central American countries, the contras’ campaign of terror involved torture, rape and murder, resulting in the deaths of 10,000 Nicaraguans.
In Guatemala, where a US-backed coup d'état had deposed reformist president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, a series of authoritarian rulers used fraudulent elections and military coups to hold power. One of those was General Ríos Montt, who was subsequently found responsible for the killing and disappearance of more than 1,700 indigenous Maya during his 1982-83 rule. Like José Napoleon Duarte, who had become head of El Salvador’s military junta in 1980, Montt was the recipient of large-scale US economic and military aid.
Covering up massacres in El Salvador and Guatemala
On 10 December 1981, two days prior to Abram’s taking office as assistant secretary of state, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of El Mazote, in El Salvador’s mountainous north-east. The following morning, the entire village population – 733 men, women and children – were herded into the town square and accused of being FMLN insurgents. Men and women were separated, and children were forced into a small building next to the village church, known as the convent. The following day, men were blindfolded, tortured and killed by decapitation or shooting. Women and girls were marched into the forest, before being raped and murdered. Finally, the “Angels of Hell”, as they were known, fired a barrage of bullets into the convent and set it aflame.
A decade later an exhumation found 143 bodies in that building; their average age was just 6 years. Nearly a thousand Salvadorans are believed to have perished in this massacre and others that followed in neighbouring villages.
On 27 January 1982, reports of the Mazote massacre appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times. The next day, the State Department filed a report certifying that the Salvadoran regime was making “a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights” and working “to bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens”. On 8 February, Abrams told a Senate committee that the “incident is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas”. The reports, he claimed, were “nothing but communist propaganda”.
Abrams was also quizzed about the March 1980 assassination of popular Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on orders from Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, then operating a paramilitary death squad in collaboration with US intelligence. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto D’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool”, asserted Abrams. The State Department was in possession of not one, but two, embassy cables detailing D’Aubuisson’s role in organising the killing.
Abrams similarly brushed off reports of massacres in Guatemala. In 1985, Guatemalan human rights activist Maria Rosario Godoy was abducted, tortured, raped and murdered, together with her 21-year-old brother and her 2-year-old son. The toddler was not spared: his fingernails were ripped off before he was killed. Abrams insisted that the Guatemalan regime’s official story – that the three died in an auto accident – should be believed.
In 1983, Abrams defended Reagan’s lifting of an embargo on military aid to Montt’s government, claiming that human rights abuses were “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged”. A UN commission later found that the Guatemalan state was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations that took place during the nation’s civil war.
Aiding the contras in Nicaragua
Abrams, along with National Security Council member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, was a central figure in a covert and illegal operation funding the CIA-organised contras. The operation was launched in 1985 after Congress enacted legislation barring US military aid for the Nicaraguan mercenaries.
In 1986, North, Abrams and CIA Central America chief Alan Fiers smuggled military aid to the contras under the guise of “humanitarian aid”. Abrams also flew to London (using the alias of “Mr Kenilworth”) to solicit a US$10 million donation from the sultan of Brunei. At the same time, Abrams testified before Congress that the Reagan administration had no links whatsoever to supposedly private financing of contras. Abrams denied any knowledge that North had directed illegal arms sales to Iran and diverted the proceeds to the contras.
Determined to resist any restraint from Congress on implementing Washington’s dirty war in Latin America, Abrams railed against US legislators, describing them as “pious clowns” and “abysmally stupid”. To Abrams, the price of savagery and brutality inflicted by the contras was worth it. In 1989 he told Policy Review that “the contras were an enormous success”.
In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to Congress under oath in relation to the Iran-contra conspiracy in a deal to avoid a felony prosecution and potential jail time. Yet Abrams’ time in the dog house was brief. The following year, president Bush senior pardoned him.
Plotting regime change from Baghdad to Caracas
In 2002, president Bush junior appointed Abrams to the National Security Council. Alongside several Reagan era officials associated with the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC), Abrams called for regime change in Iraq. In a paper drafted for the PNAC, Abrams declared that Washington “should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that did not explicitly uphold US policy in the region”.
In 1989, before his fall from grace, Abrams executed a well-planned strategy to oust former US ally and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Abrams first threatened sanctions, then gained Congressional support for imposing sanctions, then established a Panamanian government in exile on a US military base. Finally, in a New York Times opinion piece published in October 1989, Abrams called openly for the US military to topple Noriega. Two months later, Bush heeded his advice. Democracy was “restored” at a cost of 3,000 Panamanian lives.
Today, we are seeing the same strategy being played out in Venezuela.
On 21 February, the US State Department announced that Abrams will lead a US government delegation transporting “humanitarian supplies” from Florida to Colombia in military aircraft. Both the UN and the Red Cross have slammed the move as a political manoeuvre. The “aid” shipment follows a benefit concert organised by British billionaire Richard Branson at the Colombia-Venezuela border, with a guest appearance by Guaidó, all staged for the benefit of US and European TV networks.
Pence is also on his way to Bogotá “to voice the United States’ unwavering support for interim President Juan Guaidó and highlight the Venezuelan people’s fight for democracy over dictatorship”, according to a White House media statement.
We have seen all this before. As with Reagan’s dirty war in Central America, and Bush’s war on Iraq, Trump, Pence, Bolton and Abrams’ sabre rattling is aimed at shoring up US geopolitical influence and access to oil. We must stop them in their tracks with a powerful anti-war movement that defends the right of Venezuelans – not the US – to decide who governs them.
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