The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the neocons captured Donald Trump

The return of Elliott Abrams puts the movement back in the White House

President Trump’s foreign policy has largely been defined by its inconsistency. Venezuela, however, has been an exception. Since the campaign, Trump has maintained that “all options are on the table” for ensuring the removal of the government of Nicolás Maduro. Trump has even openly mused to reporters and foreign leaders about launching military action against the South American country.

In recent weeks, the White House has ratcheted up the pressure and sanctions against Maduro’s regime and backed Juan Guaidó as the legitimate head of Venezuela. But perhaps nothing better exemplifies the administration’s commitment to regime change in Venezuela than the return of Elliott Abrams.

While nowhere near as well known today as some such neoconservative allies as Richard B. Cheney, Abrams has been a staple in Republican administrations, serving under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Now, Trump has appointed him to serve as the administration’s special envoy for Venezuela. According to reports, Abrams’s mission is to assist Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in making the case for Guaidó to the international community.

Given his history, Abrams’s appointment sends a strong, unmistakable message to Venezuela. But it should also send shudders down the spines of all Americans, both North and South. Abrams has ruthlessly pursued his agenda, letting no obstacle, including legality or congressional oversight, obstruct his goals in Latin America and the Middle East. Even worse: The policies Abrams has pursued have proved nothing short of disasters. That should raise serious questions about his — and Trump’s — plans for Venezuela.

Abrams has portrayed himself as a defender and promoter of human rights and democracy. But he advocates a rather narrow conception of the terms. He is more concerned with individual or political rights, primarily holding elections, than a broad embrace of social justice or championing human dignity.

Indeed, as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, Abrams covered up and disputed allegations of human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war. The administration downplayed the murders of activists and innocent civilians and attributed them to either the revolutionaries or “unknown” assailants. In reality, the United Nations Truth Report on El Salvador revealed that at least 85 percent of all investigated murders were committed by Salvadoran security forces.

Most egregiously, Abrams whitewashed a massacre at the village of El Mozote, in which the most elite Salvadoran military unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, murdered almost 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children. Abrams denied this massacre in congressional testimony just as the allegations surfaced. He lied to secure continued funding for the Salvadoran government and to prevent the Salvadoran revolutionaries, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), from overthrowing the government and establishing a supposed communist regime in Central America. Abrams and the White House viewed an FMLN government as a national security threat to the United States.

Abrams’s lies precipitated a deepening U.S. commitment to the Salvadoran government that continued until a 1989 massacre of Jesuit priests by the Atlacatl Battalion led Congress to question the nation’s support for such a brutal regime.

Abrams also downplayed the rampant human rights abuses in neighboring Guatemala. While attempting to convince Congress to lift a ban on supplying the Guatemalan military with lethal weaponry, Abrams argued that the country, under Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, had made “considerable progress” in improving its human rights record. These brazen falsehoods occurred as Montt conducted a genocide against the Ixil, a Mayan community, for which he was tried and convicted multiple times.

Abrams’s record of perfidy and deception on behalf of questionable causes extended to the most significant scandal of the Reagan administration: the effort to supply paramilitary allies in Nicaragua, the contras. When Congress forbade the administration from using government funds to support the contras, known for their human rights violations, White House staffers devised a new plan, which involved funneling the proceeds of clandestine weapons sales to Iran to the contras. Such practices also violated Reagan’s pledge not to “negotiate with terrorists.” While it’s unclear whether Abrams knew about the scheme as it unfolded, he pleaded guilty to "two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about secret efforts to aid the guerrillas” and was disbarred from practicing law in the nation’s capital.

Instead of the incident ending his career, however, Abrams received a pardon from George H.W. Bush. Bush then gave him a new government perch, which enabled Abrams to use money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private nonprofit created under the Reagan administration to promote democracy. Abrams supported measures to scuttle the Latin American peace process launched by the Costa Rican president, Óscar Arias, and used the agency’s money to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s 1990 general elections. Holding elections accomplished what almost a decade of economic warfare and sabotage had not. This action reinforced Abrams’s narrow vision of democracy. So long as there were elections, it didn’t matter whether they were fair or free of foreign interference.

During the administration of George W. Bush, Abrams redirected his focus to the Middle East, championing regime change in Iraq in advance of the disastrous U.S. invasion and the broader neoconservative agenda of democratization in the region. After his tenure in the Bush administration, he decamped to the Council on Foreign Relations, remaining a member of the foreign policy elite despite a career marked by poor judgment.

Abrams originally opposed Trump as a presidential candidate, penning an essay titled “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate” that compared Trump’s candidacy to George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 run. This criticism allegedly kept Abrams out of the State Department. But Abrams soon changed his tune as Trump adopted one of his favored hard-line ideas: an uncompromising policy toward Iran.

When it comes to Venezuela, Trump has embraced efforts long championed by Abrams. As in Nicaragua, the NED funneled millions of dollars to the Venezuelan opposition in unsuccessful attempts to unseat Maduro over the course of several elections. Abrams also supported a failed coup against Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2002, though he has since denied it.

Today, it may be tempting to view Maduro’s potential ouster positively; after all, he has mishandled Venezuela’s economy and, according to reports, rigged the last election. Even the popular sectors that have traditionally supported Maduro are tired of constant shortages, economic deprivations and hardship.

But when looking in the proper historical context, we must be wary of what is driving Abrams and his allies, and we must be concerned that they may blunder into another foreign policy disaster that could prove calamitous for Venezuelans. Removing Maduro is part of a broader pattern of trying to reverse the “pink tide” of reformist and socialist leaders elected in Latin America since 9/11. These governments refused to participate in the various illegal and nefarious activities perpetrated by the Bush administration, including rendition, waterboarding, enhanced interrogation and other forms of torture perpetrated at black sites. This earned the ire of neoconservatives such as Abrams.

Neoconservatives are seeking to staunch Chinese economic penetration of Latin America. But they also want to return to the halcyon days of the Cold War, when Washington could count on the region’s leaders to reflexively support its agenda, no matter how brutal their regimes or how dire the conditions they spawned.

In Venezuela, this push has the potential to spiral dangerously out of control. Discontent will not necessarily translate into either support for the opposition or regime change. Venezuela’s opposition has not articulated a clear agenda or even a coherent message other than Maduro’s removal. Furthermore, the country’s primary backers, Russia and China, have voiced their support for Maduro. That means that supporting a coup — or even worse, engineering one — could unleash a bitter civil war.

Abrams’s appointment is an ominous sign that the administration is headed down this path. Given the chaos Abrams and his allies have created in the past, this should alarm us. They should not have the opportunity to wreak havoc on another country.

This piece has been updated