Let’s talk about Elliott Abrams, shall we? After President Trump’s envoy to Venezuela had a testy, if inane, confrontation with Rep. Ilhan Omar while testifying in Congress, twenty-something journalists seems to have suddenly decided they are experts enough on 1980s Cold War politics in Central America to pick up Omar’s ludicrous line of questioning and run with it. Or at least they are as much of experts as necessary to detract attention from people wondering why Omar isn’t being asked why she’s supporting dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Regardless, let’s look at the rap on Abrams’ time as a cold warrior. Omar (D-anti-Semite) has accused the Jewish Abrams of supporting “Guatamalan genocide.” She also brought up congressional testimony he gave 37 years ago, where he dismissed the El Mazote Massacre, in which 800 or so civilians were killed as part of a long-running conflict in El Salvador between government forces and Marxist guerrillas.
There are some awkward facts for Abrams: when he was President Reagan’s assistant secretary of state he told Congress the massacre “appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” The Reagan administration was further involved in a bit of a PR campaign for the various governments and forces they were supporting on the grounds that they were at least more humanitarian than their Marxist enemies were. The slaughter of 800 civilians by forces that had probably received at least some training from the School of the Americas (an infamous left-wing bogeyman) hurt that narrative. Forensic analysis years later confirmed that the massacre did happen.
The question is what responsibility Abrams and the rest of his Reaganite ilk bear for this massacre. The answer is very little. Most of these conflicts pre-existed heavy American intervention in Central America in the ’80s. El Salvador had been fighting Marxists since the early ’70s, and in other Central American countries the conflicts dated back to the ’60s and beyond. The United States had to make some hard choices about what horses to back when communist insurgency was showing up on Mexico’s doorstep at the height of the Cold War. Not fighting it really wasn’t an option, and I say this as someone who doesn’t exactly want to be defending many of Abrams’ more interventionist foreign policy ideas.
There’s a good chance these massacres would have been happening with or without U.S. help as the conflicts intensified. Further, the idea that these same Marxist guerrillas weren’t running around engaged in killings and even massacres is nonsense, and they would have likely engaged in a lot more had they not run against U.S.-backed opposition.
Does anyone seriously want to defend the human rights records of Marxist revolutionaries? Indeed, the Marxist guerrillas who were on the other side of the conflict that produced the El Mazote massacre were found guilty of war crimes by a UN investigation that noted they too killed plenty of civilians. Elsewhere in Central America, Sandinistas may have killed upwards of tens of thousands of Miskito Indians. This persecution was documented at the time by one of the same reporters who broke the El Mazote massacre. The left-wing government Sandinista government, still in power in Nicaragua, is persecuting the Indians to this day.
The last piece of the puzzle is the media. In retrospect, the contemporaneous reporting on the El Mazote massacre seems good. However, there was a lot of propaganda romanticizing the Marxist insurgents at the time, and yes, a lot of it came from mainstream reporters. If Abrams was wrong to dismiss the reports on the massacre specifically, he wasn’t wrong to be wary of politicized reports undermining U.S. foreign policy. (See this scathing letter to the editor in the NYT about the paper dismissing the brutal persecution of the Miskito.)
More specifically, Omar accused Abrams of “supporting genocide” in Gutemala, and if left-wing Americans know anything about the Guatemalan conflict in the ’80s it’s the result of the memoir “I, Rigoberta Menchu” that has been widely assigned in colleges for decades and does not make America look good. The problem is that the book is a bunch of propagandistic fabulism. Still, it won a Nobel prize and is still widely read.
The Nobel committee didn’t rescind the prize because it “was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography,” and academics still defend it. “Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care,” Wellesley Spanish professor Marjorie Agosin told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.”
But if you do actually care about the truth, there’s a very strong case to be made that in the long-term, Central America, for all its problems, is a lot safer and more stable because of U.S. foreign policy in the ’80s, even if in retrospect it appears the United States could have done more to rein in the misconduct of our allies. But hindsight is 20/20, and while there may be a lot of things you could put the screws to Abrams on, trying to do so on “Guatemalan genocide” and the El Mazote massacre is wrong and unhelpful. And dredging this now up only detracts from understanding what he might do as America’s envoy to a Venezuela on the brink.