In a cartoonish reprise of circa 1950s McCarthyite questioning, Michigan Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D) smirkingly asked U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams if he’d support “genocide” there as he ostensibly did in Central America in the 1980s as a Reagan Administration State Department official.
Omar also asked if Abrams thought a 1980s massacre in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” which were his words describing that country’s overall shift to democracy during that decade.
Many Omar supporters have joined in denouncing Abrams as an accomplice to “death squads and genocidal massacres” in Central America during the 1980s. These critics seem oddly uninterested in challenging the Venezuelan socialist dictatorship that is literally strangling a once prospering and free nation.
Omar was only a child in the 1980s. But many who are older and should remember those perilous last years of the Cold War, in which Central America was the main theater, are echoing her defamatory canards.
There were similarly clueless voices at the time who opposed U.S. policy and preferred solidarity with Nicaragua’s Marxist dictatorship and El Salvador’s Marxist insurgency, backed by Soviet Bloc aid. Among them were officials and agencies of America’s then premier Mainline Protestant denominations under the aegis of Liberation Theology.
Having abandoned traditional missions evangelism, these church groups saw in Marxist revolution and dictatorship an ostensibly Christ-like deliverance of the poor from political and economic injustice. Once prestigious Mainline Protestantism, having invested its already dwindling moral capital in the Cold War’s thankfully losing side, arguably never politically recovered.
But this history must not be forgotten, especially as the latest slander of Abrams portrays America on the wrong side in the Cold War. The Reagan Administration inherited grave threats in Central America, which was polarized between military regimes and Soviet-backed Marxist revolutionaries. U.S. policy was to create space for democracy, not back right-wing death squads, per left-wing folklore then and now.
The Sandinistas had shot their way to power in Nicaragua and replaced a corrupt and repressive rightist authoritarian with a new Marxist regime armed with totalitarian ambitions modeled on Castro’s Cuba. A reformist military coup in El Salvador sought to transition to democracy, ultimately resulting in free elections, in which voters overwhelmingly defied threats from Marxist guerrillas.
Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte defeated a rightist candidate linked to death squads, and Duarte, backed by the U.S., became the public face for democracy in El Salvador. Preferring dictatorship, Marxist guerrillas continued their war. Rightist elements in the military also undermined Duarte and committed atrocities. But the leftist narrative, perpetuated even now, conflated El Salvador’s nascent democracy with all death squads and military misdeeds while ignoring the guerrillas’ violence and Soviet-style politics.
Duarte contracted terminal cancer and got medical attention at Walter Reed U.S. Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., touchingly visited by an admiring and grateful President Reagan. Surviving to finish his term, Duarte ceded the presidency to a democratically elected successor. As the Soviet Union collapsed, El Salvador’s Marxist guerrillas ended their long war.
El Salvador has remained a democracy since President Duarte, which Elliott hailed as a “fabulous achievement,” as he should. But Congresswoman Omar ignored that victory for humanity by dishonestly applying his words to a 1980s military massacre of civilians. Abrams merits credit for El Salvador’s remarkable democratic survival and as a decades-long advocate for U.S. promotion of democracy and human rights.
Democracy on the Rise
As to how Central America fared during the 1980s and Abrams’ years as an official overseeing U.S. policy there, human rights rankings by Freedom House are instructive. El Salvador’s ranking on political freedom rose from 5 to 3, with 1 the highest score. Honduras rose from 7 to 2. Guatemala rose from 6 to 3. Nicaragua, finally freed from the Sandinistas, rose from 6 to 3. Cuba, the model for the Sandinistas and Salvadoran guerrillas, dropped from 6 to 7, the lowest possible ranking.
This democratic trend was true throughout Latin America in the 1980s and early 1990s as dictatorships surrendered to free elections. Freedom House noted:
Conditions in the Americas were strongly influenced by the Cold War. Marxist insurgencies, often employing kidnappings, assassinations, and terrorism, had emerged in a number of countries; military governments responded with extreme brutality, including the use of paramilitary death squads. The authorities rarely distinguished between Marxist guerrillas and leaders of the social democratic opposition, targeting both for arrest, torture, and murder.
By the end of the 1980s, the situation had dramatically reversed. Freely elected civilian governments had replaced military rule throughout South America, and progress towards democratic rule had been registered in Central America. Latin America joined the formerly Communist countries of Central Europe as the most notable success stories of the wave of democratic gains that came with the end of the Cold War. Throughout South and Central America, competitive elections became almost universally accepted, the only significant holdouts being Cuba, still under unreformed Communist rule, and Haiti, where chaos and upheaval generally prevailed.
Ambivalence Versus Achievement
Peaceful democratic transitions in Latin America and elsewhere around the world, which fantastically included communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, were a fabulous achievement, in which the U.S. played a providential role. Freedom House assessed that politically free nations increased by over 50% from 1980 to the mid-1990s.
Those post-Cold War years of confidence in and gratitude for the global advance of democracy and human rights have receded. Today’s authoritarians around the world are increasingly assertive.
Congresswoman Omar seems at best unclear where she stands in the choice between democracy and authoritarianism. Her mockery of Elliott Abrams, a human rights advocate since before her birth, reflects a wider ambivalence about cherished liberties and the policies required for their advance.
Hopefully, Omar’s defamation of Abrams will renew interest in the Cold War’s ultimately happy conclusion, enabled through vigilance by policymakers like Abrams, whose experience advancing democracy is now again needed.