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Ilhan Omar, Elliott Abrams testimony on Venezuela, Central America

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In a contentious exchange before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar confronted Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, over his role in US policy toward Central America in the 1980s — a period marked by brutal actions by US-backed forces in the region.

Omar began her remarks by mentioning Abrams’ 1991 guilty plea to charges of withholding information from Congress over his role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration used the the proceeds of illegal arms sales to Iran to fund the right-wing Contras of Nicaragua in their campaign against the country’s socialist government.

Read more: Trump’s man to handle Venezuela crisis was convicted in Iran-Contra affair and fought to cover-up worst massacre in recent Latin American history

“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,” Omar said. Abrams was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, who was Reagan’s vice president.

Then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams being sworn in at Iran-Contra hearings.
Terry Ashe/Getty Images

Abrams began to reply and said Omar’s statement “wasn’t a question,” but he was quickly cut off. The two sparred before Omar moved to Abrams’ Senate testimony a few months after the December 1981 massacre in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote.

A Human Rights Watch report said that Abrams in his testimony “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts” of the infamous massacre to downplay the Reagan administration’s role. The forces responsible for the 1981 mass killing were trained and armed by the US.

“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 two years old, were brutally murdered by US-trained troops,” Omar said on Wednesday. “During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping a 12-year-old girl[s] before they killed them. You later said that the US policy in El Salvador was fabulous achievement. Yes or no, do you still think so?”

Read more: John Bolton says Venezuela’s Maduro could end up in a ‘beach area like Guantánamo’

Abrams replied that from the early 1984 election of Jose Duarte as president to now, El Salvador “has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.”

Omar asked him specifically about El Mozote and whether it was a “fabulous achievement,” prompting Abrams to call it a “ridiculous question” before throwing his hands up and saying “no.”

Abrams then turned to the chairman of the committee, saying he would not respond “to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”

Argentine forensic anthropologist Claudia Bernard brushes dirt from human remains, in El Mozote, El Salvador, October 23, 1992.
(AP Photo/Michael Stravato)

Omar then asked Abrams if he would support “an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?”

“I am not going to respond to that question, I’m sorry,” Abrams said. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions, and so I will not reply.”

Read more: Meet Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela who’s challenging Nicolas Maduro for power

“Whether 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,” Omar said. “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.”

“Will you make sure that human rights are not violated and that we uphold international and human rights?”

“I suppose there is a question in there,” Abrams responded, adding that the “entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country.”

Omar followed-up, asking specifically if the interest of the US included protecting human rights and protecting people from genocide.

“That is always the position of the United States,” Abrams said.

The testy exchange occurred amid a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Trump administration’s approach to the situation in Venezuela.

Abrams’ role in the Iran-Contra affair and George H.W. Bush’s controversial decision to pardon him and others has long made him a divisive figure in Washington.

He was a foreign-policy adviser during a period when the US government was criticized for undermining democratic governments and abetting human-rights abuses as part of a policy of anti-communism.

Read more: Bolton’s not-so-subtle note about sending 5,000 US troops to Colombia may have just been a bluff to spook Venezuela’s embattled Maduro

After he was tapped to be Trump’s Venezuela envoy, some foreign policy experts have expressed concern the White House was moving toward intervention against Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian government.

Abrams has been accused of supporting an attempted military coup in Venezuela in 2002 while serving as an adviser to former President George W. Bush.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to soldiers at a military exercise in Maracaibo, February 6, 2019.
Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Omar, a freshman congresswoman and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is among those dismayed by Abrams’ appointment. She also criticized President Donald Trump’s recent sanctions aimed at hurting Maduro.

Over the past week, Omar made headlines over tweets about the nature of US support for Israel and a pro-Israel lobbying organization — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). She was widely accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, and ultimately apologized for her tweets.

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