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Roberto Lovato: Elliott Abrams Is Bringing Violence of 1980s U.S. Latin America Policy to Venezuela

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President Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque at the White House Wednesday to discuss ongoing efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, the same day that U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams faced questioning from Congress about his role in atrocities carried out in Latin America in the 1980s. This includes defending Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt’s campaign of mass murder and torture of indigenous people. We speak with Roberto Lovato, independent journalist working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, about the violent history of Elliott Abrams and the U.S.-backed opposition in Venezuela.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: During Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Venezuela, the new U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, faced intense questioning from Democratic New York Congressmember Adriano Espaillat.

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Allies have expressed concern of your appointment to deal with this problem. Some have characterized it as being perhaps like appointing Exxon to lead a discussion on the Green New Deal, or maybe even appointing MBS to lead a discussion on fairness in journalism and accessibility to journalists. Do you feel that your past actions in Iran-Contra have permanently impaired your ability to fairly and transparently deal in the region, since we all know the outcome of what happened then? Do you feel that that’s a major problem, baggage that you bring to the table?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I don’t. And I’ve—now, I’ve been doing this job for two whole weeks. And I can tell you that members of Congress have raised it; no Latin American of any nationality with whom I have dealt has raised it. And we’ve had lots and lots of discussions about how we’re going to promote democracy in Venezuela. I guess I should say, since I’ve been attacked now three times, in my own defense, if you look at the Reagan record, of eight years, when we came in, there were military dictatorships—

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Mr. Abrams, that’s not an attack.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: —all over Latin America.

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: That’s a fact of history.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: And when we left, in country after country after country, there had been transitions that we supported—Chile is a very good example. So I think it’s actually a record of promoting democracy. And I think a lot of Latins know that.

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Well, respectfully, I differ with you. I think it’s a fact of history. We should not dig our heads in the sand and make-believe that this never happened, because it did. And you were at the helm of that. And you—

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I was at the helm of promoting democracy in Latin America. I do that—

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: Well, you may want to characterize it that way, but I don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic New York Congressmember Adriano Espaillat questioning Elliott Abrams, the new U.S. special envoy to Venezuela.

We’re joined now by the journalist Roberto Lovato, who has been closely following the situation in Venezuela. In 2015, he profiled the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López in Foreign Policy magazine. From El Salvador, he certainly knows what took place in the 1980s in U.S. policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Roberto Lovato, overall, your response to what took place yesterday? Elliott Abrams on the hot seat, he was protested by CodePink and others in the hearing room, and then questioned by, among others, Ilhan Omar and, as we just heard, Espaillat.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Hi, Amy. Hi, Nermeen. Thank you for having me.

When I see Elliott Abrams on, in front of Congress, it stirs my subconscious, and I think it stirs the subconscious of the entire country, that wants to forget, but won’t and shouldn’t forget, what happened in Central America in the 1980s. So, many of the actors, many of the tactics and strategies, many of the political alliances we’re seeing around Venezuela have already—you know, that’s why you bring in Elliott Abrams, a cold warrior, a dirty warrior.

So, my reaction is, I start remembering my most recent visit to the forensics labs in El Salvador, where I saw the skulls, that they’re still processing, of little children killed in El Mozote. As we speak right now, in El Mozote today, they’re starting another round of exhumations and digging, after 30 years, of El Mozote, where nearly almost a thousand people were killed, including many—mostly women, children and elderly people. And I would just correct some of the congressmembers to say that—

AMY GOODMAN: The El Mozote massacre of December 1981.

ROBERTO LOVATO: —it wasn’t just El Mozote massacre. You have the entire landscape of El Salvador massacre, was, you know, dotted with mass graves, because of mass graves of entire towns. And then you have Guatemala—right?—where towns, Mayan towns mostly, were entirely wiped out, just like in El Mozote. And you have the Contra war in Nicaragua.

So, when I see Elliott Abrams, I have a very visceral reaction, and I have to kind of breathe in. And really I just can’t—if I wasn’t this old, I would be in—I would sigh in disbelief. But it just confirms that the United States is in decline. He’s clearly a sign of U.S. degeneracy. And his appointment shows that the Trump administration is willing to re-unleash the darkest forces in U.S. modern history for war, destabilization and death squads. So, that’s my reaction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you say specifically, Roberto, what was Elliott Abrams’ role and knowledge of these massacres that you’ve pointed to in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, I would point people to look at his titles that he gets. Like his title—his first title under the Reagan administration was assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs. So, there’s a lot of “human” in Elliott Abrams’ titles. But in terms of the policies, he was primarily focused on the inhuman, right? The mass graves, the supporting governments and militaries like that of Efraín Ríos Montt, who the United Nations and the Guatemalan Supreme Court, more recently, declared responsible for—and the Guatemalan government—responsible for genocide.

So, Elliott Abrams—even after it was clear acts were perpetrated—defended, helped get funding for, went before Congress and to the American people to say, “Hey, you know, this is our guy.” And the guy that Ronald Reagan called—said had gotten a, quote, “bum rap” because of criticisms on his human rights record for killing thousands of Mayans.

So, in El Salvador, similarly, after—for example, after the wars ended, and you have the United Nations Truth Commission report in 1993, you know, finds that the government that Ronald Reagan and Elliott Abrams backed unconditionally throughout the early '80s, that perpetrated massacres and wiping out entire towns, had perpetrated 85 percent of the killings of civilians during the war. So, Elliott Abrams, after that report came out, that quote that Ilhan Omar made—mentioned about the “fabulous achievement,” here is his response to the United Nations Truth Commission report, was to say that the United States' accomplishments in El Salvador were, quote, “a fabulous accomplishment.”

So, we’re dealing with severely dark forces. And we’re dealing with a situation where not just dark forces out of the United States, but dark forces in Latin America, that are linked to extreme violence, are now having suits and ties put on them, and put out as leaders of this new Venezuela that they want.

AMY GOODMAN: And we want to talk about Venezuela—

ROBERTO LOVATO: Because the people—

AMY GOODMAN: —Roberto, but I want to go back to 1995. This was, what, something like four years after Elliott Abrams was—pled guilty to lying to Congress. 1995, when investigative journalist Allan Nairn and Elliott Abrams appeared on the Charlie Rose show on PBS. The clip begins with Allan Nairn.

ALLAN NAIRN: Let’s look at reality here. In reality, we’re not talking about two murders, one colonel. We’re talking about more than 100,000 murders, an entire army, many of its top officers employees of the U.S. government. We’re talking about crimes, and we’re also talking about criminals, not just people like the Guatemalan colonels, but also the U.S. agents who have been working with them and the higher-level U.S. officials.

I mean, I think you have to be—you have to apply uniform standards. President Bush once talked about putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity, Nuremberg-style tribunal. I think that’s a good idea. But if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed. If we look at a case like this, I think we have to talk—start talking about putting Guatemalan and U.S. officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit—a subject for such a Nuremberg-style inquiry. But I agree with Mr. Abrams that Democrats would have to be in the dock with him. The Congress has been in on this. The Congress approved the sale of 16,000 M-16s to Guatemala. In ’87 and ’88—

CHARLIE ROSE: All right, but hold on one second. I just—before—because the—

ALLAN NAIRN: They voted more military aid than the Republicans asked for.

CHARLIE ROSE: Again, I invite you and Elliott Abrams back to discuss what he did. But right now, you—

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: No, thanks, Charlie, but I won’t accept—

CHARLIE ROSE: Hold on one second. Go ahead. You want to repeat the question, of you want to be in the dock?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: It is ludicrous. It is ludicrous to respond to that kind of stupidity. This guy thinks we were on the wrong side in the Cold War. Maybe he personally was on the wrong side. I am one of the many millions of Americans who thinks we were happy to win.

CHARLIE ROSE: All right, I don’t—

ALLAN NAIRN: Mr. Abrams, you were on the wrong side in supporting the massacre of peasants and organizers, anyone who dared to speak, absolutely.

CHARLIE ROSE: What I want to do is I want to ask the following question.

ALLAN NAIRN: And that’s a crime. That’s a crime, Mr. Abrams, for which people should be tried.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Elliott Abrams being challenged by journalist Allan Nairn on the Charlie Rose show some—well, more than 20 years ago. And now he is the new point person on Venezuela. Roberto Lovato, you have closely tracked the Venezuelan opposition, and we want to go to that right now. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “This afternoon, I spoke with Ambassador @CarlosVecchio of Venezuela, discussing the relationship between our two countries & reiterating America’s support for the people of Venezuela as they seek a brighter, freer future for their nation.” Can you talk about Carlos Vecchio and the others in the opposition, of course, Juan Guaidó, who is the head of the National Assembly, declaring himself president, and then immediately the United States recognizing his presidency over the democratically elected leader, President Maduro?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, I think the first thing, when you’re talking about the Venezuelan opposition, you have understand that it’s a broad spectrum, that represents socialists and leftists who are critical of Maduro, to people that are in the middle, to the extreme right and to the extreme right that’s violent.

The part that the United States—and you can see pictures of Elliott Abrams meeting with some of the people, like Antonio Ledezma or David Smolansky, who I tried to interview, but he avoided me—and I’ll talk about that—and others, including Mr. Vecchio. You’re talking about the extreme right, and so extreme, in fact, that the right wing—some of the right wing in Venezuela is really mad at, at Guaidó and the people around the Voluntad Popular party, the Popular Will party, who have basically had tight relations with the extreme right here in the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that you’re going to get somebody as dark and nefarious as Elliott Abrams meeting with the extreme and violent right. They were in the streets. They’re part of a generation that some call los cachorros de la reacción, “the cubs of reaction,” “the reactionary cubs.” These are people that, with U.S. funding, through USAID and other programs, got training in mobilization for protests. And what used to be—according to one of my sources in the intelligence community, what used to be covert operations have now gone overt, through the State Department and State Department programs.

And so, one of those programs, for example, is the funding of youth programs, which started like with a group called Otpor! in Serbia, who the U.S. has used as a trainer for youth groups in destabilization programs. And so, there’s groups like one in my article called JAVU, that was in the streets during the 2014 violence, which both sides kill people, but you only heard, you know, the government killing. The youth groups were staging violent actions in the streets called guarimbas. And then the guarimbas resulted in black people being burned to death—being burned, being lit on fire. It resulted in bombings. There were assassinations of Chavistas. There was a man that I interviewed whose son, Elvis Duran, was beheaded by barbed wire set by this peaceful opposition that you’re seeing on your screen. So, Vecchio and others in the Voluntad Popular party are linked to these extremely violent protests. And you can even see on YouTube and Max Blumenthal at MintPress put out a video of Juan Guaidó in a guarimba where he’s dressed up like all the other violent youth.

So, again, you have Elliott Abrams, somebody who’s a certifiable criminal against humanity, meeting with formerly visibly violent youth, who are now suited and tied, and meeting with Nancy Pelosi, meeting with Trump administration officials, meeting with presidents of Colombia, meeting in Europe, getting human rights prizes. I mean, this is—I teach at UCLA. I teach a class in media. And I’m just getting a cornucopia of manufactured consent, because I can’t think of a clear example, when you have Elliott Abrams talking about democracy with—in terms of youth that is known to be linked to extreme and even terrorist elements, if you’re talking about somebody like a young man named Lorent Saleh—S-A-L-E-H. You can see him on YouTube. Lorent Saleh is out there meeting with presidents, with—he just met with Álvaro Uribe, a man who’s—we don’t need to tell you, Amy—you know, 10,000 people were killed, according to a report, by Álvaro Uribe’s government in Colombia, but there was no invasion. So, Saleh is out there meeting. But if you look on YouTube, you can find videos where he was caught plotting assassination attempts, plotting bombings, plotting all manner of what we, in this context, would call a terrorist—terrorist actions. So, this is the kind of manufactured consent we have going on right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Wednesday’s House hearing on Venezuela came less than a week after McClatchy reported that Venezuelan authorities uncovered 19 assault weapons, 118 ammunition cartridges and 90 military-grade radio antennas on board a U.S.-owned plane that had flown from Miami into Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. The Boeing 767 is owned by a company called 21 Air, which is owned by a man who once ran companies tied to the CIA’s rendition program. The plane has made nearly 40 round-trip flights between Miami and spots in Venezuela and Colombia since January 11th, the day after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in to a second term. Congressman Joaquin Castro questioned Elliott Abrams Wednesday about the report.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO: Mr. Abrams, I have a question for you. My question is whether you’re aware of any transfers of weapons or defense equipment by the United States government to groups in Venezuela opposed to Nicolás Maduro since you were appointed special representative for Venezuela?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: No.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO: And I want to be respectful of you, but also honest. The reason that I ask that question, there’s been a McClatchy news report of such an incident. Have you—are you aware of that news report?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Saw the report, yes.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO: I ask this question because you have a record of such actions. In Nicaragua, you were involved in the effort to covertly provide lethal aid to the Contras against the will of Congress. You ultimately pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in regard to your testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal. So I ask you the question: Can we trust your testimony today?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, you can make that decision for yourself, Mr. Castro. I can tell you that the answer to your question is no. It’s a simple and unequivocal no. There has been no such transfer of arms.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro questioning Elliott Abrams on Wednesday. Roberto, can you respond to that, the report, the McClatchy report on these weapons found—allegedly found on U.S. planes headed from Miami to Valencia in Venezuela?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, you had like 19 semiautomatic weapons, some radios and other equipment, that we don’t have the full, yet, chart of what was on that plane. But the Venezuelan government has put out, you know, weapons and things that they say were found, by a company called 21 Air, that has links to another company called Gemini, which, oddly enough, take us back to 1986, when the CIA was caught—and Abrams, were caught transferring arms to the Nicaraguan Contras to perpetrate crimes against humanity against thousands of Nicaraguan civilians.

So, again, you have the political unconscious of the United States being stirred. And I’m hoping that my peers in the media will start doing like that McClatchy reporter, who I think, you know, is doing his job as an investigative journalist in digging deep to find out who are these people behind our policies, but also who are these people in Venezuela that we’re funding, that—everybody says, “Hey, I’ve never heard of Juan Guaidó.” Well, you can look on YouTube, and you can see that he was involved in violent guarimbas. Why aren’t you reporting these things? That’s my challenge to my peers in the press, you know, and to use their investigative budgets to go and find out, like we used to do, who’s who in this thing, instead of propping up the talking points, pushing the talking points of the Trump administration. I mean, and sadly, even the—

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto, we have 20 seconds.

ROBERTO LOVATO: —the sector of the progressive community is—instead of mounting a powerful anti-intervention movement against people like Elliott Abrams, they’re actually joining Trump in this adventure. And it’s curious, to say the least.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Roberto Lovato, we want to thank you for being with us. We will, of course, continue to cover the developments in Venezuela. Roberto Lovato is an independent journalist working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. He has reported from Latin America, is from there. In 2015, he wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine on the Venezuelan opposition headlined “The Making of Leopoldo López.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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