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NERMEEN SHAIKH: The new U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday on U.S. efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Abrams spoke three weeks after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s new president. Since then, the U.S. has placed sweeping sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company and rejected calls for an international dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Elliott Abrams is a right-wing hawk who was convicted in 1991 for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, but he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Abrams defended Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt as he oversaw a campaign of mass murder and torture of indigenous people in Guatemala in the 1980s. Ríos Montt was later convicted of genocide. Abrams was also linked to the 2002 coup in Venezuela that attempted to topple Hugo Chávez.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams was interrupted by protesters soon after he began addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Thank you for the opportunity to testify on our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.
PROTESTER 1: Don’t listen to this war criminal!
PROTESTER 2: Don’t listen to war criminals!
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Hold on.
PROTESTER 1: Venezuela needs negotiations!
PROTESTER 2: Elliott Abrams supported genocide in—in Iraq.
PROTESTER 1: Not a coup or military intervention!
PROTESTER 2: Elliott Abrams is going to send Venezuelan right-wing factions to cause a genocide, as he did in Guatemala and El Salvador!
PROTESTER 1: Don’t let Abrams take us down a path to war! Sanctions are hurting [inaudible]—
PROTESTER 2: Join CodePink and ANSWER Coalition!
PROTESTER 1: —people of Venezuela! No sanctions!
PROTESTER 2: No coup in Venezuela!
PROTESTER 1: No coup! No war!
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: OK, the chair—the chair will—the chair will remind all persons in the audience that any manifestation of approval or disapproval of proceedings is in violation of the rules of the House and its committees. Mr. Abrams—
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Thank you.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: —I apologize. Please continue.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Venezuela is at a crossroads. Over the past month, we have witnessed a massive outpouring of hope and courage and tenacity by the Venezuelan people as they have taken to the streets to protest a regime that has brought them nothing but poverty and misery and repression. They have placed their hopes in a young, dynamic and legitimate leader, Juan Guaidó, to lead them through a transition to democracy. And we join the Venezuelan people in this effort.
AMY GOODMAN: Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by New York Democrat Eliot Engel. Abrams was later questioned by Democratic Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Mr. Adams [sic], 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 why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: If I can respond to that—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: It wasn’t a question.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I was attacked.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: On February—that was not—
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: It was an attack. And I would—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: That was not a question. That was—I—
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Chairman—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: I reserve the right to my time.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I’m sorry, it is not—it is not right—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: That was not a question.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: —members of this committee can attack a witness—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: On February 8th—
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: —who is not permitted to reply.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: That—that was not a question. Thank you for your participation. On February 8th, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador. In that hearing, you dismissed as communist propaganda a report about the massacre of El Mozote in which more than 800 civilians, including children as young as 2 years old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops. During 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?
ELLIOTT 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.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes or no, do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: That is a ridiculous question, and I will not—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yes or no?
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: —respond to it. No. I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman, I—
REP. ILHAN OMAR: I will take that as a yes.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I’m not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.
REP. 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 U.S. interest, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?
ELLIOTT 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.
REP. 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 any time we engage a country, that we think about what our actions could be and how we believe our values are being furthered. That is my question. Will you make sure that human rights are not violated and that we uphold international and human rights?
ELLIOTT 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.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: I don’t think anybody disputes that. The question I had for you is that the interests—does the interests of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?
ELLIOTT ABRAMS: That is always the position of the United States.
REP. ILHAN OMAR: Thank you. I yield back my time.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota questioning Elliott Abrams, the new U.S. special envoy to Venezuela. When we come back, we’ll hear more excerpts from Wednesday’s hearing and speak to journalist Roberto Lovato. Stay with us.