Trump's new Venezuela envoy Elliot Abrams has 'polarizing' history of supporting dictators in Latin America, experts say
Chip Somodevilla/Getty; Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo; Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
- The Trump administration last week appointed Elliot Abrams as envoy to Venezuela to spearhead its efforts against Nicolas Maduro's authoritarian government.
- Abrams has a long, controversial history as a foreign policy adviser in Washington, including being convicted over his role in the Iran-Contra affair.
- There appear to be fears among some experts that Abrams' appointment signals the White House is leaning toward intervention in Venezuela due to his record of supporting aggressive actions in Latin America.
The Trump administration last week tapped Elliot Abrams, a hawkish foreign policy veteran with a complicated history and reputation in Washington, as its envoy to Venezuela to deal with the escalating crisis there.
Abrams will be the administration's point man in its efforts to oust Venezuela's authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro, and will be working closely with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in that capacity.
In appointing Abrams, some in the foreign policy community seem to fear that the White House could be stumbling toward intervention in Venezuela, which is an unsettling prospect to many given the US government's long, calamitous history of sticking its nose in Latin America's business.
Abrams was a key player in the US' disastrous Latin American interventionism in the Reagan era
Abrams, who has recently been working as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as a top foreign policy adviser in the administrations of both former President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush.
He was instrumental in pushing the US to prioritize thwarting Marxism in Latin America for a significant portion of the Cold War. During that era, both before and during the height of Abrams' influence, the US orchestrated coups against democratically elected leaders, propped up dictators, and directly aided and trained death squads in the region. The consequences of the US government's activities in Latin America, especially Central America, are still being felt to this day.
In the early 1990s, Abrams was convicted of misleading Congress in the Iran-Contra affair, but was ultimately pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Abrams had been a staunch advocate of arming the rebel Contras in Nicaragua. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about covert efforts to assist the rebels.
Terry Ashe/Getty Images
Terry Ashe/Getty Images
Critics say Abrams has downplayed human rights abuses committed by dictators the US aligned with under Reagan
He's also been accused of working to cover up human rights abuses and atrocities in Latin America linked to his time with the Reagan administration, and was one of the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, Abrams in testimony to the Senate "artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts" of the infamous December 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 people in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote. The mass killing was committed by forces trained and equipped by the US.
Human Rights Watch was unavailable to comment on Abrams' appointment as envoy to Venezuela.
While serving as assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Reagan administration, Abrams fervently supported arming Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt.
As the Guatemalan dictator carried out a bloody campaign against indigenous Mayans in the 1980s, Abrams claimed Montt "brought considerable progress" on human rights issues and was reducing the number of civilian deaths "step by step." Montt in 2013 was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Abrams has also faced allegations of supporting an attempted military coup in Venezuela in 2002. The failed coup helped solidify the power of Hugo Chavez - Maduro's predecessor and the father of the socialist revolution in Venezuela - and bolstered his image as an anti-imperialist hero among Venezuelans.
Abrams was pardoned over his role in the infamous Iran-Contra affair, but many haven't forgotten
Given Abrams' convoluted, controversial background in Latin America and world affairs more generally, some experts question why the Trump administration didn't look to someone else to spearhead its efforts against Maduro.
"I was surprised," said Brown University Professor Ross Cheit, a political science scholar who's led projects on the Iran-Contra affair. "I'd certainly heard reports that he had been nixed for top positions at the State Department, and I would certainly say his Iran-Contra days are infamous."
Abrams, Cheit said, was involved in soliciting private donations for the Contras from foreign governments who were encouraged to "voluntarily give money" to the cause. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cheit said, asked Abrams if he was soliciting money from other people, a notion he denied, saying the White House was not encouraging people to do that.
"They were blatant lies. He had solicited foreign governments. He knew there was money in Swiss bank accounts, and he lied to Congress," Cheit told INSIDER. "He was convicted of two felonies, and I know he was pardoned, but he certainly lied to Congress."
Cheit pointed out that Abrams' appointment as US envoy to Venezuela coincidentally occurred days after Roger Stone was indicted for lying to Congress.
"People are giving some attention to what we should think about people who lie to Congress," he said. "Some people have never taken that crime very seriously."
Abrams, Cheit said, embodies a certain American arrogance and inclination to get involved in other countries' conflicts. The man, Cheit said, has "a willingness" to conduct "adventurous" interventions in Latin America - and a deep disregard for Congress.
"It's alarming to have someone who was involved in that get an important role in the current government," he said.
Abrams' appointment seems to signal America's willingness to do whatever it takes to bring Maduro down
Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, told INSIDER that there "were several other outstanding possibilities that would not have been as polarizing as Elliot Abrams, who ... for people who remember his role in Central America, is likely to raise some eyebrows on the Democratic side of the aisle."
"That said, I'm not sure how many members of the House or the Senate were around in the bad old days of the Central America wars," she added.
Arnson said there were other "credible" people who could've filled the role, but added that Abrams' appointment is "consistent with other foreign policy appointments that Trump has made."
"What so many people question are [Abrams'] human rights and democracy credentials on an issue like El Salvador where he was part of a Reagan administration effort to deny abuses," Arnson added. "It is certainly a very problematic record."
While some might feel Abrams' appointment is a sign the Trump administration favors a military intervention in Venezuela, Arnson seems to feel that's a premature assessment. "I don't see the naming of Abrams as providing any indication whatsoever that military options are moving further along, I think that's a false connection to make," she said.
The White House has said that all options are on the table in Venezuela, including the use of military force.
Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
Meanwhile, Latin America historian Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, said a Venezuelan opposition movement that is seeking to promote human rights, democracy, and self-determination should not desire to align itself with Abrams.
"When one thinks about Elliott Abrams, you don't associate any of those things with him," he told INSIDER. America's selection of Abrams, Velasco added, signals its willingness to do "whatever it takes to make sure that the Maduro government falls."
"They're not playing around, they're not diddle-dawdling," he said. "This is a signal that's being sent not just to Venezuela and the Maduro government, but it's also being sent to people like Putin in Russia, to the Chinese, to Turkey, that the strategy here is regime change in as quick a time frame as possible."
Last week, the US threw its support behind Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who the Venezuelan National assembly named as the country's interim president. Other South American countries, including Brazil and Colombia, also recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader, angering Maduro. But Velasco raised the concern that the opposition's reputation - internationally and domestically - might be compromised by an allegiance with Abrams.
"It takes so much of their credibility on the promotion of democracy, human rights, and self-determination to align so closely with somebody like Abrams and somebody like John Bolton," he said.
The White House is standing by Abrams despite criticism of his record
Experts seem to be in agreement that much of Abrams record is deeply troubling and has unsettling implications for Trump's policy in Venezuela and Latin America more broadly.
With that said, Arnson also emphasized that Abrams played a key role in decrying Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet's human rights abuses in the 1980s, highlighting the mixed nature of his history and influence in Washington.
"Abrams," she said, "was very active in efforts to bring about a return to democracy in Chile at a time when General Pinochet was in power."
Kathryn Sikkink, a Harvard professor and human rights policy expert, said that the best one could hope for right now is that Abrams' policy in Venezuela aligns more with his work in Chile than his work in Central America.
"What we hope now is something along the lines of when the US government realized that they should be with civil society in Chile and they should support the plebiscite vote," she said. That vote, she said, stopped "Pinochet from his attempt to endure himself in power."
"That turned out to be very successful," she said. "So there is a model of the US government taking the side on behalf of democracy against an authoritarian leader, one that it had cozied up to previously, and it was a very successful outcome."
It is because of Abrams' key role in the successful take-down of Pinochet that the Trump administration, perhaps, does not appear to agree with the notion Abrams is a "polarizing" figure, despite his past.
National Security Adviser John Bolton vehemently rejected the notion Abrams is not the right man for the job.
"Elliott is exactly the type of tough-minded foreign policy veteran necessary to overcome the oppression and destabilizing corruption that is facing Venezuela," Bolton told INSIDER. "I have personally known him for years, and he is more than qualified to approach the fundamental human rights challenges in the region."
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.