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Foreign policy hawk: who is Elliott Abrams the US special envoy for Venezuela?

Abrams is a skilled diplomat with a controversial history in Latin America, including the Iran-Contra affair and a questionable human rights record.
13 Feb 2019 – 07:55 AM EST
Elliott Abrams talk to the press at the State Department Jan 25, 2019 after he was named special envoy to Venezuela. Crédito: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

A few days after Juan Guaido declared himself Venezuela’s interim president last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Elliott Abrams, a veteran Republican foreign policy hawk, to handle US policy with the nascent government.

Abrams is regarded by Trump supporters as a perfect fit for the administration’s aggressive, high stakes policy to end the Maduro regime, though his history of undercover operations could risk alienating the broad coalition of Latin American and European countries backing Guaido.

On Wednesday, at 11am he is due to make his first appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives to answer questions about the US strategy in Venezuela.

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 have a different view Abrams, 71, who has played an often-controversial role in U.S. policy stretching back four decades.

Abrams is a veteran of the Ronald Reagan administration and his controversial policy in Central America in the 1980s. He was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal and pleaded guilty in 1991 to two crimes of withholding information from Congress about the secret efforts to help the Nicaraguan rebels, known as 'The Contras'. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush the following year.

El Mozote

Human rights groups accuse him of trying to discredit witness accounts of a massacre in 1981 of 1,000 unarmed men, women and children in El Mozote by Salvadoran troops who had received U.S. training.

Abrams also defended Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, for his role in a scorched earth campaign in which thousands of people, mainly from the country's indigenous Mayan communities, were either massacred or disappeared.

"I don't think it's an issue," Abrams told reporters, referring to the old scandals. "We are not focused on the events of the 1980s. We are focused on the events of 2019," he added.

Abrams resurrected his government career under George W Bush, first as a Middle East expert on the National Security Council and later as a global democracy strategy adviser.

"Kick-ass back-channel operator"

“He has well developed interagency skills; the dude is good at this. He is a kick-ass back-channel operator with diplomatic experience in Latin America," said former U.S. ambassador John Feeley, who is a Univision foreign policy analyst. “For a convicted felon, who was subsequently pardoned, Abrams is held in high esteem by many foreign affairs professionals simply because he is good at what he does," he added.

A neoconservative, Abrams has long advocated a US foreign policy of active engagement in the world and was critical of Trump’s isolationist platform during his election campaign. That got him excluded at first from consideration for a post in the Trump administration, until last year when one of his hawkish former colleagues, National Security Advisor John Bolton, was brought on board.

“It’s a new team at the White House that’s known for being more aggressive on the foreign policy side,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior advisor on Latin America to the National Security Council. “They are more than conservative, they are neo-cons. They are the types that like to swing the baseball bat around a bit and see how things shape up,” he added.

Former ambassador to Venezuela, Otto Reich, worked with Abrams and Bolton in the Reagan era. “I entered the Reagan administration in 1981 with them.

"Elliott is a very intelligent person, very measured, he does not raise his voice, but he knows very well the psychology of dictators," he said in an interview on the Jaime Bayly TV show.

Good rapport

Abrams has quickly established a good rapport with Guaido’s team in Washington, according to a Venezuelan familiar with the talks. “In meetings he has shown a broad understanding of the drama we Venezuelans have been living," he said.

But some analysts worry that his appointment gives ideological ammunition to Maduro, and other U.S. critics in the region to talk about shady coup plotters in Washington and Miami.

“Abrams is very smart. He does, however, carry baggage that dates to the 1980s and makes some Latin Americans a bit wary about his current role on Venezuela,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a non-partisan group in Washington that seeks to guide policy on Latin America. “If the administration was looking to calm any concerns about a possible military option in Venezuela, Abrams may not have been the best choice for the job,” he added.

On the other hand, that may be intentional. “I think the Trump administration wants to create the impression that it is willing to be both tough and a little reckless when it comes to Venezuela, so the Abrams appointment contributes to both of those impressions,” said one former State Department official who requested anonymity.

Since recognizing Guaido as interim president, the Trump administration's strategy appears bent on persuading the Venezuelan military to turn against Maduro, as the fastest way to end the crisis. It hit Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PDVSA, with sanctions to starve Maduro of cash. It also hopes that an international effort to get humanitarian aid into the country, which Maduro has rejected, will also put pressure on the military to side with Guaido.

Humanitarian aid blocked

But Abrams has recognized that might be easier said than done after Venezuela’s military last week blocked a road bridge on the border with Colombia.

“We will be moving aid to the border of Venezuela in the hope that … we will be able to get it in. I don’t think that we or the Colombians or the Brazilians or anyone else is planning to try to force it in, Abrams told reporters last week at a State Department briefing.

“There are dire needs, and I think many people … in the Venezuelan army feel those needs for themselves and their families. So, we’re hopeful that that at least initial decision on the part of Maduro can be turned around, if he sees a real demand on the part of the people of Venezuela. Let it in. That’s all we’re asking,” he added.

Maduro should retire to a “nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela”, U.S. officials have suggested.

“His own situation is only going to decline the longer he clings to power and the more misery there is in Venezuela,” said Abrams, adding that “there are a number of countries that I think would be willing to accept him.”