CD191: The “Democracies” Of Elliott Abrams

CD191: The “Democracies” Of Elliott Abrams

Feb 23, 2019

Elliott Abrams, the new U.S. Special Envoy to Venezuela, along with witnesses from the State Department and USAID, testified to Congress about the Trump administration’s efforts to replace Venezuela’s President. In this episode, hear highlights from that hearing and gain some insight into Elliott Abrams’ past regime change efforts as a member of the Reagan administration, which will help you to understand why so many people are concerned that he was picked for the Venezuela job.

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Sound Clip Sources

Hearing: Venezuela at a Crossroads, House Committee on Foreign Relations, Committee on Foreign Affairs, February 13, 2019.


    • Elliott Abrams – U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, U.S. Department of State
    • Sandra Oudkirk – Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Energy Resources, U.S. Department of State
    • Steve Olive – Acting Assistance Administrator, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, U.A. Agency for International Development (USAID)

Sound Clips:

    • 11:42 Rep. Michael McCaul: When Nicolas Maduro was hand picked by Hugo Chavez in 2013, it was clear that he would follow in his socialist dictatorship footsteps. Since that time, Maduro’s policies, rampant corruption and violent crackdowns on peaceful political dissent have turned Venezuela into a failed state. Hyperinflation has skyrocketed. Food and medicine are scarce, and according to the United Nations, up to 3 million people have fled the country since 2014 last week, a fuel tanker and two shipping containers were placed on a bridge to block the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid as seen on the, uh, the screen. This act highlights how evil the Maduro regime really is.
    • 12:34 Michael McCaul: The current crisis highlights the horrifying impact of socialism. Those who continue to preach or shows sympathy, do not understand its history and the abject suffering it has caused.
    • 17:26 Elliot Abrams: Thank you for the opportunity to testify on our efforts to restore democracy. Protestors: Protestors yelling…
    • 24:47 Elliot Abrams: Mr. Chairman, thank you for inviting me here today and thank you for the continuing interest, uh, and support that this committee has shown bipartisan interest in supporting the struggle for freedom in Venezuela. Protestor: Five coverage in your line. Again, that bridge was closed for years where that food was supposed to come down and when you were in charge will remind all persons in the audience any manifestations of approval or disapproval of proceedings is in violation of the rules of a house and committees.
    • 29:47 Steve Olive: State supports local human rights defenders, civil society, independent media, electoral oversight, and the democratically elected national assembly. Over the past five years, we have provided close to $40 million in democratic democracy assistance to these groups, including the planned $15 million in fiscal year 2018 funding, which cleared Congress yesterday.
    • 39:04 Michael McCaul: Mr Abrams, I think we really have a historic opportunity to transform what’s been a, you know, socialist dictatorship that has been a humanitarian crisis into a democracy, um, supported by freedom and the, and the people. And at the same time, I think for the first time in decades, have an influence on Cuba in the western hemisphere.
    • 43:44 Rep. Brad Sherman: Um, we’ve got a situation where Russia expects to be repaid a Mr. Abrams. Um, what steps are we considering to, uh, support an action by the Venezuelan people to say, okay, we owe you so much minus that two, three, $10 trillion of harm you did to our country by, uh, uh, supporting this criminal Maduro. Uh, therefore you only owe us 1 trillion instead of 2 trillion. Uh, Mr Abrams are we, discussing with the Russians how we can make it plain to, the permanent future Venezuelan government that they do not have to pay Russia and that they will not suffer any demerits, uh, in, uh, in their credit rating for western agencies. So in Western banks. Elliot Abrams: We’d begun to have those discussions. Uh, primarily, of course it would be led by treasury, but, um, the interim government and the National Assembly has said that they would repay debts. Some of those debts, I think were never approved by the National Assembly. Ultimately, it is a decision that they’re going to put the most of these that they’re going to have to make. Brad Sherman: But if we put the Russians on notice that we would support and require our banks to support a decision by the Venezuelan government to offset that by trillions of dollars of claims against Russia, and that we would prohibit, we might choose to prohibit our banks from looking at any credit rating, uh, that, uh, was impaired by failure to repay Russia. Elliott Abrams: Don’t believe that exact message. Brad Sherman: I hope you will.
    • 47:23 Brad Sherman: And, uh, we also have Venezuela reportedly owe China, $20 billion. Um, I know that China’s policy toward Maduro is, is different than that of Russia, but, uh, uh, what is China doing now to help the legitimate government of Venezuela? Elliot Abrams: They aren’t doing anything to help, uh, Mr. Brad Sherman: Are they providing any additional funds to Maduro? Elliot Abrams: No. Uh, my information is that they won’t lend any more money because they’re worried about getting back what they’ve already lent. And the message that we’ve passed at him is you continue to back Maduro and the economy of Venezuela descends further. You will never get paid back.
    • 1:0439* Rep. Albio Sires: Ms. Oudkirk, can you talk to me a little bit about the oil sanctions? I know that in my reports, that Juan Guaido plans to name a new board of directors for Citco the process will require the west to legally recognize the new board members. Would a new board have access to U.S banks, accounts with proceeds from Venezuela’s oil sales that have been blocked by the sanctions? Sandra Oudkirk: Thank you, Mr Congressmen. So as I noted in my remarks, the key to sanctions relief for PDVSA, um, it is the transfer of control of that company away from, uh, Maduro and his cronies and to a demo, a democratically elected representatives of the, of the Venezuelan people. It would the, with regards to Citgo, citgo operations in the United States are covered by a general license that Treasury issued on the day the sanctions were announced. So sit goes operations here in the u s um, are continuing under that, that license and that license covers them for six months from the date of announcement. The ban is on remitting, uh, payments back to, PDVSA as long as it is, uh, under, um, the illegitimate control. So if you have, Albio Sires: What would a board do, named by Guaido? What would that do? If he names a new board? Sandra Oudkirk: For Citgo? Albio Sires: Yes. Sandra Oudkirk: I will have to get back to you on the details, uh, of that. Um, I don’t have the answer for you right now. I’m sorry, Albio Sires: Mr Abrams? Elliot Abrams: Well, we don’t want any of the, uh, one of the funds to go to the, to the regime, so that would not be permitted. But, um, I think there’s a lot of lawyers in Washington who were making a lot of money trying to figure out the answer to your question. Albio Sires: My daughter’s a lawyer… My thing is if, if we are able to get this money in U.S. banks and obviously under this sanction, good dumb money be used for humanitarian purposes in Venezuela? Elliot Abrams: It can, um, all of these funds, uh, all Venezuelan government funds are in our view, a rightly available to the legitimate interim president, Mr Guaido and the National Assembly. So they can use those funds to purchase additional humanitarian assistance, right. Is a lot of procedures to go through to get them actual control of it. Uh, and they’ve made it clear that they want to be extremely careful. They’re going to be accused of, of misusing the funds. So everything’s got to be totally transparent, but in principle, yes, sure.
    • 1:24:44 Rep. David Cicilline: I want to turn to my first series of question because I am concerned by continuing comments from the Trump administration noting that the use of military force is, as the president said, an option. And so for you Mr. Abrams. My first question is we have not, of course, the congress of the United States has not declared war on Venezuela, correct? Elliot Abrams: Correct. David Cicilline: Is there an existing statutory authorization that would allow for a military intervention in Venezuela? Yes or no? Elliot Abrams: Not to my knowledge. David Cicilline: Has Venezuela attack the United States, his territories or possessions or its armed forces? Elliot Abrams: No. David Cicilline: Has the administration increased troop deployments to countries including Columbia neighboring Venezuela at any point in the last month? Elliot Abrams: Don’t believe so. David Cicilline: Are there, are there currently any plans to or discussions about moving additional combat troops to Columbia or any other country that neighbors Venezuela? Elliot Abrams: Not to my knowledge. David Cicilline: Is anyone at the White House, National Security Council, the Department of Defense or any other agency making plans for US military engagement in Venezuela? Elliot Abrams: That’s a question I can’t answer. I know of no such planning. David Cicilline: Well, consistent with the war powers act. I’ve introduced legislation that expressly prohibits the administration room taking military action in Venezuela without consulting Congress. Will you pledge that the Trump administration will not take any military action in a regarding Venezuela without consulting with Congress in accordance with the war powers act? Elliot Abrams: I don’t know that I can answer that question. Mr Cicilline. A series of presidents, you know, have taken a jaundiced view, I might say, of the war powers act. So I’m really not… David Cicilline: Well, under our constitution, as you know, only congress can declare war and we have neither declared war and are granted the administration the authority to send the armed forces into hostilities in Venezuela. In my view, it would be illegal under us law, inappropriate and reckless to attempt and military intervention. The United States must show leadership in our own hemisphere and we must continue to provide aid to suffering Venezuelans. But I want to just build on Mr Keating’s question because you said of the 51 countries in this coalition, we are the only one that has threatened the use of military force. And in response to a question from Mr Keating, you said, because we’re the only one capable of doing it, surely you’re not suggesting the other 50 countries do not have military capability to engage in a military action if they so elected do. Elliot Abrams: Well, some do and some don’t. David Cicilline: So some do. And we’re not the only ones that have that ability. Elliot Abrams: We have not threatened military action in Venezuela. We’ve said that all options are on the table. David Cicilline: My question is we’re not the only one that has that capability. So when you said that to Mr Keating that was not accurate. Elliot Abrams: We are the only one with the kind of capability obviously, David Cicilline: but others have military capability and have not made the same assertion of that being an option. Isn’t that correct? Elliot Abrams: I am actually not sure of the answer to that of whether of what other governments have said. David Cicilline: Okay. So Mr. Abrams, what is particularly concerning to me is that in light of the fact there is no legal authority to, uh, express the use of military force as an option. It’s unclear to me how the president or anyone in the administration can claim it’s an option on table because it is not. And to the extent that we are suggesting that it is, we are misleading the international community where miss me leading the people in Venezuela. So I urge you to take back the message, the administration that it is not authorized and not helpful.
    • 1:41:03 Rep. Joaquin Castro: Uh, I have in the past supported sanctions against the Maduro regime because as Mr. Meeks mentioned, I do believe in many ways that Mr. Maduro Has oppressed his people. At the same time, I believe that the role of the United States is to promote democracy, freedom and human rights around the world. The role of the United States is not the hand pick. The next leader of Venezuela and 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 of Venezuela opposed to Nicolas Maduro since you were appointed special representative for Venezuela and I want to be respectful of you, but also honest and the reason that I asked that question. There’s been a McClatchy news report of such an incident. Have you, are you aware of that news report? Elliot Abrams: I saw the report, yes. Joaquin Castro: I asked 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 asked you the question, can we trust your testimony today? : 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, uh, and unequivocal no. Uh, there has been no such transfer of arms.
    • 1:41:50 Rep. Ilhan Omar: Mr. Adams in 1991 you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding your involvement in the Iran Contra affair for which you were later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. I fail to understand, uh, why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give a today to be truthful. Elliot Abrams: If I could respond to that Ilhan Omar: That wasn’t a question. I said that that was not, that was not a question that was high. I reserve the right to my time. It is not. It is not right. That was not a question. On February 8th who is not permitted to reply that that was not okay. Question. Thank you for your participation on February 8th, 1982 you testified before the Senate foreign relations committee about US policy in El Salvador. In that hearing you dismiss As communist propaganda report about the massacre of El Mazote in which more than 800 civilians including children as young as two years old, were brutally murdered by us trained troops doing that massacre. Some of those troops bragged about raping a 12 year old girl before they killed them girls before they killed them. You later said that the u s policy in El Salvador was a fabulous achievement, yes or no. Do you still think so Elliot Abrams: from the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election, To this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement, Ilhan Omar: yes or no. Do you think that massacre, was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch? Elliot Abrams: That is a ridiculous question. Yes or no? No, I will. Ilhan Omar: I will take that as a yes. Elliot Abrams: I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack which is not a question Ilhan Omar: Yes or no. Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believe they were serving us interest as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua? Elliot Abrams: I am not going to respond to that question. I’m sorry. I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply. Ilhan Omar: Whether you under your watch, a genocide will take place and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld is a fair question because the American people want to know that anytime we engage a country that we think about what our actions could be and how we believe our values are being fathered. That is my question. Will you make sure that human rights are not violated and that we uphold international and human rights? Elliot Abrams: I suppose there is a question in there and the answer is that the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country. That’s our policy. Ilhan Omar: I don’t think anybody disputes that. The question I had for you is that the interest does the interest of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide. Elliot Abrams: That is always the position of the United States. Ilhan Omar: Thank you. I yield back my time.
    • 1:42:35 Joaquin Castro: I also want to ask you, I mentioned the promotion of democracy and the fact that the Venezuelan people have to pick their own leader. What is the administration strategy for encouraging elections as soon as possible in Venezuela? Elliot Abrams: Well, that is the heart of really of administration policy. That is, uh, after the Maduro regime, a short transition to an election. And that’s the view of all of the 51 nations that are supporting Mr Guido. I completely agree with the way you started. It’s not for us to choose the next president of Venezuela. It’s for Venezuelans. We can help is a lot of other countries can help in facilitating a free election because there’s, you know, there’s a lot of experience. The National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House and equivalents in a lot of other countries are really quite good at giving assistance.
    • 1:45:40 Elliott Abrams: And once there is a, uh, freely elected government that can deal again with the World Bank and the IMF and a broad international programs of support, I think the Russian role will diminish very quickly.
    • 1:47:00 Rep. Sandra Oudkirk: So one of the reasons why we licensed the continued involvement of US companies in upstream oil production in Venezuela was because the oil and gas sector is the key pillar of the Venezuelan economy and it will be going forward and keeping us the U s corporate presence there, um, with their best practices, with their adherence to all the sorts of practices that we expect here in the United States is we believe one of the best ways to ensure that in the future, Venezuela is able to return to prosperity and sort of an economy that functions normally.
    • 1:47:59 Sandra Oudkirk: But we do believe that western involvement in the upstream oil sector, we will leave us positioned to, to have both the US private sector and the u s government assist with eventual economic recovery. And, and we are a counterweight to the Russian and the Chinese investment, which is otherwise very prevalent in that industry.
    • 1:53:03 Greg Pence: Over 40 countries have now recognized Juan Guido as the interim president of Venezuela.
    • 1:56:22 Steve Olive: What administrator Green and I were there in July. It was clear that there were saying, and we, and we saw it firsthand, that 90% of the Venezuelans that were coming into Colombia to get support, we’re going back in to Venezuela. So they were just coming in to be able to get the vaccines or healthcare or food or, or generate some income to be able to go back into the country. And we expect that to continue until when we were allowed to bring in our humanitarian assistance into the country in a safe and efficient manner, in a manner that we can monitor where it goes, and that it makes sure that it gets to the people who are in need of it most.
    • 1:57:24 Rep. Adriano Espaillat: Well, Mr Abrams, uh, many of our allies have expressed concern of your appointment, uh, to deal with this problem. Some carob 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. Uh, do you feel that your past actions in Iran contract permanently impair your ability to fairly and transparently a 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? I don’t and I’ve now I’ve been doing this job for two whole weeks. Um, and I can tell you that, uh, 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. Elliot Abrams: I guess I should say, since I’ve been attacked now three times in my own defense, if you look at the written record of eight years when we came in, there were military dictatorships,and when we left in country after country after country, there had been transitions that we support it Chili’s a very good example. So I think it’s actually a record of promoting democracy. I think a lot of Adriano Espaillat: Respectfully, I differ with you, I think is a fact of history. We should not dig our heads in the sand and make believe that this never happened because he did. And you were at the helm of that Elliot Abrams: I was at the helm of promoting democracy in Latin America. Adriano Espaillat: You may want to characterize it that way, but I don’t, I think you were involved in the Iran-Contra deal, and I think that permanently damage you to be a fair and impartial arbitrar in a conflict is leading to, to, to a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented levels in Venezuela.
    • 2:18:26 Rep. Steve Chabot: Um, what’s the state of press freedoms in Venezuela and how are we a countering the regime’s propaganda and ensuring that Venezuelans are aware of the support that the u s uh, and the international community or providing? Elliot Abrams: Thank you, congressman for your question. We are providing support for independent media. Uh, we are now up to, with the approval of your current, the congressional notification notification that has now expired and we can now use our 2018 funding. We have approximately of spent about approximately $40 million or available for one of the areas is independent media. The groups that we are working with, Freedom House, uh, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, NDI and others are working to preserve an independent media within the country.
    • 2:27:30 Rep. Tom Malinowski: Would you then agree as a general matter, and I know I’m sensitive to the fact that you’re here representing the administration’s Venezuela policies you can’t necessarily speak for, for everything else, but as a general matter, would you agree that if we are going to be condemning a president who is trying to attain absolute power for life contrary to constitutions and the democratic process in Venezuela, that we should do so in other countries such as Egypt when that similar situations arise as a general matter? Sure. Elliot Abrams: I really should not respond, um, beyond the question of Ben as well. It’s really not my remit at the department and not while I’m up here. Uh, you and I go back a ways and you know, that, uh, my view is generally that the United States should be supporting the expansion of democracy, um, all over the world.
Video: Bolton promises to confront Latin America’s ‘Troika of Tyranny’, The Washington Post, November 1, 2018.
Video: Empire Files: Abby Martin Meets the Venezuelan Opposition, YouTube, July 30, 2017.
Video: Empire Files: Abby Martin in Venezuela – Supermarkets to Black Markets, YouTube, July 11, 2017.
Video: Pauly D & Vinny: The Ultimate Guidos’ Official Throwback Clip, Jersey Shore, MTV (YouTube), June 1, 2017.
State of the Union Address: George W. Bush – Uranium from Africa Statement, YouTube, January 28, 2003.
Presidential Address: President Reagan’s Address to the Nation on the Iran-Contra Controversy, YouTube, November 13, 1986.

Sound Clips:

    • President Ronald Reagan: In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of our arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages… But why you might ask, is any relationship with Iran important to the United States? Iran encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world. It allows between the Soviet Union and access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Geography explains why the Soviet Union has sent an army into Afghanistan to dominate that country, and if they could, Iran and Pakistan, Iran’s geography gives it a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab states that border the Persian Gulf, apart from geography, Iran’s oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world economy.
Discussion: Elliott Abrams discusses Guatemala with Jim Lehrer, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, YouTube, November 30, 1983.

Sound Clip:

    • 4:11 Jim Lehrer: On the killings, in 1981 as I’m sure you’re aware of, the State Department said there was between 250 to 300 political killings a month in Guatemala. Can you give me any idea as to what that figure is now? Elliott Abrams: our latest figures are down to about 40 or 50 a month, which is a considerable reduction. We’re not suggesting that situation of 40 or 50 a month is good, but it’s a lot better and we think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged. Jim Lehrer: And you think this sale will in fact encourage more, not less? I mean more progress, not less progress? Elliott Abrams: Yes, absolutely. Because… Jim Lehrer: Now why? Elliott Abrams: Because it shows the government that we mean it when we say that we are behind these kinds of moves and that if you make these kinds of moves were willing to support you. If we take the attitude that don’t come to us until you’re perfect, we’re going to walk away from this problem until Guatemala has a perfect human rights record. Then we’re going to be leaving in the lurch. People there who are trying to make progress and are succeeding. Jim Lehrer: Are you, do you firmly believe that the, that the key person who is trying to make progress is President Rios Montt? Elliott Abrams: Yes. Because the government, uh, policies really changed after he came in and, uh, March of last year. Uh, and he is, I think it’s fair now to say practicing what he preaches. There has been a tremendous change, especially in the attitude of the government towards the Indian population, which used to be seen as an enemy and is now seen as a citizen population, as an ally in the struggle for a future of Guatemala.

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