In its January 5 Sunday opinion page, the Washington Post published a piece by Elliott Abrams slandering left-leaning Central American leaders, Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected President of Honduras who was ousted by a military coup in 2009, and El Salvador's current Vice-President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who is ahead in the polls leading into the February 2 presidential elections as candidate for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party.
Though the Post simply credits Abrams as "a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the Reagan administration," he was a key Reagan-era official in the Iran-Contra Scandal. He faced multiple felony counts for his role in lying to Congress to cover up the illegal funding of the Contras, but escaped justice by pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding material information from Congress.
Abrams' source for his claim against Zelaya is an AP wire reporting that Enrique Ortez, the foreign minister of the coup government that forced Zelaya into exile at gunpoint, accused the deposed President of allowing cocaine shipments to transit through Honduras. However, in the same AP report, even Roberto Micheletti, the president of the coup regime, didn't back this accusation. Ortez was removed from office shortly afterwards for referring to President Obama as a "a little black man who knows nothing about nothing."
Abrams' case against Sánchez-Cerén is even flimsier. Abrams relies on discredited files allegedly found by the Colombian military on a laptop in a Colombian guerrilla camp in 2008 after a CIA-supported assassination of guerrilla leader Raul Reyes in Ecuador. Abrams' purported "evidence" is that the name of a senior official from Sánchez-Cerén's political party appears in the documents. These same laptop files were similarly used by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in politically motivated attacks against respected Colombian human rights activists who denounced his regime's atrocities because their names also appeared in the documents. However, as Latin American experts Greg Grandin and Miguel Tinker-Salas explained in a 2011 article about the files:
what Interpol actually said, in its 2008 report on the documents, was that the Colombian military's treatment of the files "did not conform to internationally recognised [sic] principles for the ordinary handling of electronic evidence by law enforcement." Interpol noted that there was a "one-week period between the computer documents' capture by Colombia, and when they were handed over to Interpol, during which time the Colombian authorities actually modified 9,440 files, and deleted 2,905, according to Interpol's detailed forensic report."
Abrams piece also includes startling examples of historical revisionism concerning democracy and human rights in Central America. Today, because of the National Security Archives' declassified documents collection, we know that the Reagan Administration supported, covertly and overtly, a Salvadoran regime that used death squads to massacre thousands of civilian activists and their families. Additionally, the Reagan administration created, trained, and funded—in large part through illegal methods—the Contra forces, which engaged in an intense violent paramilitary campaign against Nicaragua's Sandinista government, even after it won free and fair elections in 1984. Abrams played a central role in these tragic events. As Mark Danner reported in his 1993 investigation of the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador, Abrams publicly dismissed reports of mass killings of villagers by the Salvadoran military as communist propaganda to ensure that military aid to the country would continue unabated.
So Abrams' op-ed could easily be dismissed as the ideological bluster of a neo-con with a morally-sullied reputation. But there are dangers in doing so.
First, Abrams' op-ed—its content, its timing, and its placement—needs to be understood as part of an international electoral strategy to help El Salvador's right-wing ARENA party, and the financial elite it represents, get back into office. In the two months leading up to the February 2 presidential elections in El Salvador, the majority of recent polls have given the FMLN a healthy and increasing lead in the polls. ARENA is also besieged by a major embezzlement scandal involving former President Francisco Flores, who just recently stepped down as ARENA's campaign manager. On January 8, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador confirmed that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is investigating Flores for a money laundering scheme involving $10 million in foreign aid from the Taiwanese government that was circulated through U.S. banks and pocketed by Flores' private foundation.
In a last-ditch effort to divert attention from the ARENA party's corrupt history and the real possibility that at least one of its most prominent leaders will be indicted for money laundering a month before the Presidential elections, they turned to an old friend who had helped them cover up past crimes.
Second, by allowing Abrams to present his unsubstantiated allegations about the Salvadoran FMLN, the Colombian guerrillas, and the Venezuelan government, the Post's editorial board is perpetuating a false and dangerous narrative. This narrative, disseminated by right-wing think tanks and parroted by right-wing pundits, seeks to justify aggression against countries in Latin America that elect left-leaning leaders.
But perhaps more concerning is that by serving as an echo-chamber for ideologues like Abrams, rather than doing rigorous investigative reporting on Latin America, outlets like the Post deflect attention from real threats posed to the population by the protection given to drug cartels by greedy, profit-crazed right-wing governments, many of whom have themselves enjoyed the support and protection of high-ranking U.S. officials like Abrams dating back to the Iran Contra Scandal.
Héctor Silva, journalist and current research fellow at American University, recently presented a scathing rebuttal to Abrams in an editorial for El Faro. He identifies the U.S. government's illegal support for drug traffickers as part of the Iran-Contra Scandal-era illicit fundraising as one of the roots of El Salvador's current challenges. Specifically, he notes that they helped Salvadoran drug traffickers, with ties to the Texis Cartel, and Chapo Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa cartel, to get their start.
Silva specifically raises questions about Abrams' own involvement in supporting drug traffickers, much as David Corn did in his 2001 article for The Nation:
When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
It is incredible, but it appears that no one at the Post uncovered these facts or fact-checked Abrams claims. Alternatively, if the article was fact-checked then it raises suspicion about the Post’s complicity in this internationally-coordinated attempt to influence El Salvador’s democratic process.
Héctor Perla, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Latin American & Latina/o Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.