On March 21, a cold, rainy day in Washington, DC, María Luisa Rosal stood under an umbrella before a small crowd outside of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, telling the story of her father’s disappearance by the Guatemalan military in 1983. When it happened, she was nine months old, and her mother was three months pregnant with her younger brother. María Luisa had been born, in Guatemala, under the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Supreme Court of Guatemala, for his role in directing the genocide of Mayan peoples in the country between 1982 and 1983. Elliott Abrams, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under the Reagan administration, “fully supported” Ríos Montt, Rosal noted in her speech. According to information obtained via FOIA request, Abrams also personally inveighed against the application by María Luisa and her mother for asylum in the United States.
In addition to serving as the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, Abrams today sits on the Committee on Conscience of the Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, whose stated mandate is “to alert the national conscience, influence policy makers, and stimulate worldwide action to confront and work to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity.” María Luisa, along with others affected by the brutal Abrams-Reagan policies in Central America in the 1980s, a rabbi, members of Jewish organizations like the anti-Israeli occupation group IfNotNow, academics, and allies were out on that dismal, rainy day to hold a press conference organized by the Call to Conscience Committee, which is demanding the Holocaust Museum drop Elliott Abrams from its Committee on Conscience (with #DropElliottAbrams as the campaign’s social media hashtag).
Prior to the press conference, Call to Conscience sent the United States Holocaust Memorial Council (USHMC) and Center for the Prevention of Genocide a letter from family members of victims both of the Nazi Holocaust and of the Guatemalan genocide and other atrocities in Central America in the 1980s. And the campaign intends to continue until Abrams is dropped from the Committee on Conscience. Abrams, an ongoing figure in U.S. foreign policy, has a staggering legacy of infamy when it comes to his policies in Latin America.
A Litany of Atrocities
Elliott Abrams started his career working for hawkish Democratic senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Moynihan. But he left the Democratic party after Jimmy Carter proved to Abrams to be an insufficient Cold Warrior for his liking in comparison with then-ascendant Ronald Reagan. After joining Reagan’s administration near its outset, he began the series of positions he’d hold at the State Department as Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Shortly after the horrifying December 11, 1981 massacre of between 800 and 1,200 civilians (including children and infants) in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador by the U.S. Army School of the Americas-created and trained Atlacatl Battalion, Abrams quickly got to work downplaying or dismissing this U.S.-abetted war crime. In a February 1982 Senate Foreign Relations Committee aid certification hearing, he described this slaughter as “an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” When, in 1993, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission issued a report detailing atrocities committed by the U.S.-backed forces during the Salvadoran civil war—including the El Mozote massacre—Abrams told the Washington Post that the administration’s record in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement.”
In 1983, in the wake of the most intense stage of the Guatemalan genocide perpetrated by Gen. Ríos Montt, the "bloodiest period in Guatemala’s history,” Abrams went on news programs to promote ending the embargo on arms sales to the Ríos Montt dictatorship. “The amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step,” he said. “We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged.” Abrams emphasized that the person making this “progress” was Ríos Montt, under whom Abrams said “policies really changed” regarding the mass slaughter of Indigenous and small farmer Guatemalans. Among a broad body of evidence, the Guatemalan Supreme Court’s genocide and crimes against humanity verdict against Ríos Montt demonstrated that the opposite was true.
A few years later, as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (1985-1989), Abrams played a central role within the Reagan administration in illegally funding the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, who committed widespread human rights atrocities and used CIA-proscribed terrorist tactics. In 1991, Abrams, though he remains seemingly unrepentant about his defense of the Contras, pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress about the scheme to illegally sell arms to Iran and divert the profits to the Contras. He was later pardoned by George H. W. Bush.
After having stated in 1986 that Panamanian military strongman, drug trafficker, and CIA asset Manuel Noriega had been “very helpful” to the U.S., Abrams helped push the 1989 invasion of Panama, saying the country "should not be run by a general.” Evidently for Abrams, genocidal General Ríos Montt being in charge in Guatemala had constituted “progress,” but in the context of Cold War détente, Noriega could not remain. And, as in many such regime change operations, civilians paid a considerable price in life and livelihood. An independent commission and other observers reported that some 3,000 or more civilians were killed during the invasion. Additionally, as historian Greg Grandin has noted, it paved the way for future U.S. regime change wars justified by its preemptive unilateralism and arguments of “democracy” and “freedom.”
Abrams also defended U.S. support for brutal regimes and would-be coup leaders in the Western Hemisphere outside these more often-cited cases. He called the highly repressive Uruguayan military junta a “friendly government,” and said that “evidence we have seen” didn’t support the well-documented historical fact that a hallmark of the dictatorship was its denial of civil and human rights. Abrams also supported former Gen. Oliver North in calling for leniency for then-exiled former Honduran Gen. José Bueso Rosa—an accomplice to U.S. support for the Contras—after the FBI infiltrated Bueso’s 1984 plot, which was to be funded by a $10 million cocaine deal, to assassinate then-President of Honduras Roberto Suazo.
A decade after his pardon by the elder President Bush, George W. Bush appointed Abrams as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council, where he had advance knowledge of, and "gave a nod to the attempted Venezuelan coup” against President Hugo Chávez in 2002.
There’s something of an establishment bipartisan consensus that looks favorably on Abrams’ career, but many lawmakers—even some conservatives—were furious when the Trump administration floated the idea of nominating Abrams as Assistant Secretary of State. The administration also faced pushback for its appointment of Abrams to lead Venezuela policy for Trump. Abrams and his history of supporting injustices in Latin America were thrust back into the spotlight in February when Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN), questioning Abrams in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that went viral, interrogated his capacity to not abet war crimes in Venezuela, given his track record regarding Central America. The congressperson referenced the El Mozote Massacre in particular, bringing back into the public consciousness an atrocity that left twice as many victims as the infamous My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.
Rep. Omar’s pointed line of questioning for Elliott Abrams hadn’t occurred in such an official forum for quite some time. But throughout the decades since his misdeeds in Central America, Abrams has been admonished and condemned from a number of angles. In 1997, the DC Court of Appeals Bar publicly sanctioned Abrams over his false testimony regarding the Iran-Contra affair, stopping just short of disbarring him, which several of the court’s judges recommended, due to questions about his presidential pardon. Faith-based groups, including prominent Catholic publications, decried Abrams’ appointments by the younger President Bush. Grassroots antiwar group CODEPINK, which was conspicuous in the footage—including its disruption—of Abrams’ February appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been railing against Abrams for many years, calling for him to be tried in the International Criminal Court. And apart from his dogged pursuit by CODEPINK and others since the early 2000s, there have been one-off protests against Abrams’ presence at various conferences and other events.
However, up to the point of the Call to Conscience Committee’s formation, it seems there hasn’t been a concerted campaign to lay bare Elliott Abrams’ bloody and criminal record by appealing to one of his affiliated entities—which include the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Georgetown University—elite institutions that have abetted in the whitewashing of his image.
In the case of Abrams’ irreconcilable seat on the Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Conscience, the museum is a U.S. government entity with a specific mandate of confronting and preventing genocide, reverberating far beyond any one educational institution or think tank. As a campaign with broader implications—albeit focused on accountability in one specific, yet egregiously contradictory affiliation—organizations and companies including CREDO Mobile, Presente.org, and the Center for International Policy’s Win Without War network have joined and promoted the #DropElliottAbrams campaign, mobilizing grassroots support for Call to Conscience’s letter to the museum. And over 100 academics from around the world, including Noam Chomsky and Greg Grandin, have sent a letter to the USHMC, supporting Call to Conscience’s exhortation for Abrams’ removal.
Building a Movement
There’s a great deal of potential for campaigns like Call to Conscience’s to build on the successes of other grassroots efforts to drop support for political leaders with harmful legacies. For example, in 2010 and 2011, Georgetown students (including myself), alongside other activists, successfully pressured Georgetown’s administration to end the visiting professorship of former Colombian president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, whose single-minded military pursuit of leftist guerrillas as president resulted in massive human rights atrocities and strengthening of paramilitary armies. Georgetown also quietly ended the contract of right-wing former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had been key to bringing Uribe to GU. And afterward, Uribe was unable to even start as visiting professor at the National School of Engineering in Metz, France, because of a campaign against him that included European members of Parliament and consulted with and drew directly on Georgetown’s ¡Adios, Uribe! campaign. However, the scope of these successes have been somewhat limited to individual protests against specific figures. Indeed, Georgetown subsequently brought on Abrams to its faculty, as well as other questionable figures.
But efforts like that of the Call to Conscience will benefit from internationalism and tireless truth-telling about Elliott Abrams’ well-established record—which he couldn’t refute before the Foreign Affairs Committee, instead angrily displaying ends-justify-the-means Cold War defensiveness, putting on display a broader indictment of institutional U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.
With avenues like the International Criminal Court being antagonized by fellow neoconservative John Bolton within the Trump administration, holding criminals like Abrams accountable may necessarily come through shining a light on the non-governmental institutions that are sanitizing their ignominious records. Key to this is remaining grounded in the human toll of his policies that stands in sharp contrast to the titles and prestige that have continued to whitewash figures like Abrams.
Abrams’ vast misdeeds, especially during the Reagan administration, may seem like “old news” to some. But especially with the renewed attention that came with Rep. Omar boldly confronting him in Congress, this is a moment to be seized, to undo the poisonous and bafflingly backward mythology of Elliott Abrams as a defender of “democracy” and “human rights.” If we’re serious about preventing potential future atrocities, we’ll step up, starting with the Holocaust Museum.
Walker Grooms is an activist and worker living in Washington, DC, currently with mission-driven communications firm Movement Media. He’s the former DC Program Manager at Witness for Peace, and a founding member of and advisor to the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective. As a graduate student at Georgetown, he was part of the ¡Adios, Uribe! Coalition.