Almost immediately after Venezuelan Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s interim president on January 23, the United States led a chorus of other countries in recognising the opposition leader as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.
President Nicolas Maduro, who enjoys the support of the highest ranks of the military, as well as China, Turkey and Russia, quickly hit back, assuring his supporters that he was the country’s legitimate president, and accusing Guaido and the US of staging a coup.
Days later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Elliott Abrams, a hawkish former Republican diplomat, to handle US policy towards the South American country.
Since then the US has sent aid that Maduro rejected to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, hit Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, with sanctions and is reportedly in communication with members of Venezuela’s military in an attempt to persuade them to support Guaido.
In announcing Abrams’s post, Pompeo said that the former diplomat would be a “true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country”. But many outside Trump’s circle see Abrams as a controversial figure.
Abrams is a former US diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state during the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. A neoconservative, Abrams has long advocated an activist US role in the world. He also served in the government of George W Bush, first as a Middle East expert on the National Security Council and later as a global democracy strategy adviser.
In his previous government roles, Abrams was known as a hawk on Latin America, with his critics pointing to his involvement in controversial US decisions in Central America, as well as his reported links to the 2002 failed coup attempt against the late Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez.
In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two counts of misleading Congress about the Reagan administration’s efforts to help the Nicaraguan guerrillas (known as the Contras) during a period when Congress had banned such aid. He was later pardoned by George HW Bush.
A decade earlier, he sought to discredit witness accounts of a massacre in the indigenous El Salvador community of El Mozote and surrounding villages, in which Salvadoran troops rounded up men, women and children, gunned them down and set their homes on fire. Some 1,000 people were killed by soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion, who had recently been trained by the US. During the country’s 12-year civil war, the US also sent billions of dollars to the Salvadoran government.
According to Human Rights Watch, Abrams “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre” during a Senate hearing on the massacre.
The rights organisation said this included his insistence that the casualty figures couldn’t have been as high because only 300 people were living in El Mozote at the time. His comments came despite witness accounts that said about 500 people were living in El Mozote and reports that the massacre occurred in the community and surrounding villages.
Abrams also defended Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who oversaw a campaign in which thousands of people, mainly from the country’s indigenous communities, were either massacred or disappeared. He at one time suggested that Rios Montt “brought considerable progress” for human rights in the country.
“We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged,” Abrams told US public television in 1983 as he defended the sale of millions of dollars in technology and helicopter and aeroplane parts to the Guatemalan government.
Rios Montt was later convicted of genocide. That conviction was overturned, but the former dictator died before a partial retrial concluded when a Guatemalan tribunal for a second time determined the state had committed genocide under Rios Montt’s rule.
During his time in the George W Bush White House, Abrams also reportedly played a role in the 2002 failed coup attempt against Chavez in Venezuela.
Fast forward more than a decade, and Abrams’s influence is back in the White House.
Abrams recently brushed aside past convictions and criticisms, saying that he doesn’t believe the Iran-Contra scandal will be an issue in his current post.
“We are not focused on the events of the 1980s,” he recently told reporters. “We are focused on the events of 2019.”
But to critics, his appointment only serves to further the US’s history of intervention, particularly in Latin America.
Abrams “was always very passionate and committed,” investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who covered Central America extensively during the 1980s, told Democracy Now.
“Committed to what?” Nairn said. “Committed to mass killing in the service of what could be defined as US interests or even US whim, because, in fact, although it was being portrayed by Abrams and others at the time as a battle to prevent El Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua from becoming wings of the Soviet Union, anyone familiar with the facts on the ground knew that that was ridiculous. That was not at all what was at stake.”