The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities was a talk given by Professor John J Mearsheimer at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London on 21 January 2019. Find out more at http://bit.ly/2Dv5nlZ
It is widely believed in the West that the United States should spread liberal democracy across the world, foster an open international economy, and build institutions. This policy of remaking the world in America’s image is supposed to protect human rights, promote peace, and make the world safe for democracy. But this is not what has happened. Instead, the United States has ended up as a highly militarized state fighting wars that undermine peace, harm human rights, and threaten liberal values at home. Mearsheimer tells us why this has happened.
John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and then served five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980. He spent the 1979-1980 academic year as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs from 1980 to 1982. During the 1998-1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Professor Mearsheimer has written extensively about security issues and international politics more generally. He has published six books: Conventional Deterrence (1983), which won the Edgar S. Furniss, Jr., Book Award; Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988); The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001, 2014), which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize and has been translated into eight different languages; The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Stephen M. Walt, 2007), which made the New York Times best seller list and has been translated into twenty-two different languages; Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (2011), which has been translated into ten different languages; and The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018).
He has also written many articles that have appeared in academic journals like International Security, and popular magazines like Foreign Affairs and the London Review of Books. Furthermore, he has written a number of op-ed pieces for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times dealing with topics like Bosnia, nuclear proliferation, American policy towards India, the failure of Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the folly of invading Iraq, and the causes of the Ukrainian crisis.
Finally, Professor Mearsheimer has won a number of teaching awards. He received the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching when he was a graduate student at Cornell in 1977, and he won the Quantrell Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of Chicago in 1985. In addition, he was selected as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar for the 1993-1994 academic year. In that capacity, he gave a series of talks at eight colleges and universities. In 2003, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
This event will be chaired by Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS University of London and Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge.
Madeleine Albright’s comments we are the
indispensable nation we have a right we
have the responsibility and now we have
the military power since we’re Godzilla
to turn the world into a different place
to remake it in America’s image think
about the concept of American
exceptionalism no American politician
can you know move one micrometer away
from American exceptionalism right you
know that Barack Obama who got
criticized on this issue was forced to
say that America is the indispensable
nation he used those words
it’s American exceptionalism we’re
different we’re better but that
nationalism juiced the liberalism the
nationalism coupled with the liberalism
coupled with the fact that we were so
powerful coupled with the fact that we
had this template in their head about
how we were going to make the world a
much better place and we were off to the
races what’s the track record let’s talk
about the Bush Doctrine and the greater
Middle East the Ukraine crisis and
us-russia relations I’ve talked a bit
about that and then the failure of
engagement with China these are the
three most glaring examples of failure
the bush doctor the Bush Doctrine was
designed to turn the Middle East into a
sea of democracies in keeping with
liberal hegemony it’s very important to
understand that the war in Iraq 2003 was
not going to be in the minds of the
liberal hegemonist the last war in the
Middle East it was the first stop on the
the second stop on the train line if you
want to include Afghanistan we didn’t go
much further in terms of invading other
countries because Iraq turned into a
fiasco but the idea was that we could
use military force or the threat of
military force the threat of military
force to overthrow governments in the
region and install liberal democracies
in their place and therefore produce
peace in the Middle East that solved the
proliferation and terrorism problems I
know this sounds crazy now but this is
the way we were thinking you remember
Afghanistan is finally under American
control by December 2001 and then in
early 2002 the Americans are talking
about maybe invading Iraq the Israelis
catch wind of the fact that we’re going
to do Iraq and the Israelis send a
high-level delegation to Washington to
say why are you doing Iraq you should be
doing Iran it’s the greater threat the
Americans say don’t worry Iraq is the
low-hanging fruit we’re gonna go in and
do a rack and then when we’re done with
Iraq will either do Syria or Iran next
but we won’t have to do one or two more
of these military invasions before
everybody in the region understands how
powerful we are and throws up their hand
and jumps on the american bandwagon the
israelis foolishly believe the americans
thinking that we have found the magic
formula for winning wars and they then
begin to champion an invasion of iraq
right what’s the result total disaster
it’s truly amazing the amount of murder
and mayhem that the united states is
responsible for in the Middle East truly
virtually no successes and nothing but
failures and failures were huge numbers
of people died countries are physically
Afghanistan now the longest war in
American history I know not a single
national security analyst who thinks
there’s any possibility we can win that
war and all we’re doing is checking
can down the road now so that Obama
doesn’t get blamed for losing
Afghanistan and now Trump doesn’t get
blamed for losing Afghanistan to Iraq we
wrecked that country Syria where the
United States displayed of a very
important role in trying to topple Assad
that’s hardly ever repeat reported in
the media that’s a total disaster the
amount of murder and mayhem we’ve
created in Syria no Libya we did a great
job there right with the help of the
Europeans my god right the Bush Doctrine
in the greater Middle East an abject
failure then there’s the Ukraine crisis
and us-russia relations I’ve talked a
little bit about this you know in the
West here in Europe and certainly in the
United States we blame the Russians for
the crisis well I don’t buy this
argument for one second from the time we
started talking about NATO expansion the
Russians made it very clear that it was
unacceptable to them they were too weak
to stop it in 1999 that’s when the first
tranche took place they were to stop too
weak to stop in 2004 which is when the
second tranche of expansion took place
but after 2008 when we were talking
about doing Georgia and talking about
doing Ukraine they said this is not
it was April 2008 at the bucura summit
the bucura Sneyd au summit April 2008
where when the meeting was over with the
declaration was issued by NATO that said
Georgia and Ukraine would become part of
NATO the Russians went ballistic it’s no
accident ladies and gentlemen that a
couple of months later in August 2008
you had a war over Georgia Georgia
Russia war August 2008 Bucharest summit
April 2008 and then on February 22nd
2014 you had a major crisis break out
over Ukraine the Russians had no
intention of letting either Georgia or
Ukraine become a Western bulwark on
their doorstep and the end result is
that neither one of those countries has
come Western bulwark and the Russians
are going to great lengths to wreck
those countries and the Russians are now
going to great lengths to split NATO
apart and split the EU apart so that
they can expand further eastward and
further where we have terrible relations
analysis was based on the idea that
there is a genuine effort in u.s.
foreign policy to export democracy and
some would say that you know this was
more like a Trojan horse to expand US
dominance or hegemony or however you
want to call it and that example such as
Pinochet in Latin
America or the Shah in Iran or or you
know us alliances with with autocracies
all over the world do not really
unprovided of evidence for a real
genuine effort to spread democracy in
the way it was done in in Europe with a
Marshall Plan that was really a genuine
effort to democratize absolutely agree
with you the European continent but with
the Iraq invasion in particular there
was no Marshall Plan there was no really
systemic structure competent effort to
create a democracy the only
administrator that was guarded after the
invasion was the oil ministry and none
of the others so this is just a point
for my for my own understanding about
the trajectory of of you know what
happened to to the liberal United States
and we used to no good
these are two great issues and let me do
my best to answer them I take them in
reverse order first of all with regard
to what happened with the Shah would
happen with Pinochet Guatemala in 1954
and your comments on the Marshall Plan
remember my argument is that liberal
agenda only takes effect with the end of
the Cold War really about 1990 so I
would argue that the this is just
dovetails with what you said the United
States has a rich history of
overthrowing democratically elected
leaders right and furthermore preventing
the emergence of Democrats in other
cases and furthermore aligning itself
with murderous thugs and dictators and
my argument would be then in a world of
realpolitik where security competition
is it play you’re going to see a lot of
that kind of behavior so I’m not
challenging that part of the story in
any way what I’m saying is that after
but so recently up until Trump the
United States I believe was genuinely
committed to spreading democracy around
the world now a number of people
including some of my really good friends
make the argument that you make which is
dead even after 1990 this is a Trojan
horse their argument is John this is you
know the atavistic realist United States
taking advantage of the unipolar moment
to dominate the globe and then
disguising its aggressive behavior with
liberal rhetoric okay now uh I think
that’s wrong okay and I think whether
you’re you and my friends are right or
I’m right is largely an empirical
question it may be the case in thirty
years when they open the public records
there is an abundance of evidence that
supports your perspective which is that
we behaved in a very realist
we tried to become a global hegemon and
we successfully covered it up and we
bamboozled people like John okay that
that may happen I cannot deny that okay
but my argument to you and to my friends
is that I believe that’s wrong and I
believe that the people who are who have
been conducting American foreign policy
are not that clever they’re fools
they’re fools and they are remarkably
idealistic and I think there is an
abundance of evidence to support my
position right I can’t adduce it all
here or we can’t have a big debate about
it but I do think that’s true and the
reason I go to the case of NATO and I
say that NATO was not about containment
cuz I’m anticipating your question
necessarily from you maybe from somebody
in the audience
right and I’m trying to show you that
NATO expansion was not realpolitik at
it was liberal hegemony but again I
think I’m right in the terms of the
story that I’m telling you
but again this is an empirical question
and as you well know we want to be
humble in this business because we’re
sometimes proved wrong your question
about nationalism and liberalism I’m
gonna make two responses to that first
of all I do think one can make an
argument that liberal democracy is in
trouble in the United States with Donald
Trump as the president I think most
people believe that there is some chance
some reasonable chance he will get
reelected I think eight years with him
could do a great deal of damage to
liberal democracy but I would take it a
step further and say that Trump is a
manifestation of you know underlying
forces that are at play here that don’t
bode well for liberal democracy so I’m
not at all making light of what a
dangerous situation were in and of
course not only applies to the United
States as I told you folks in my talk if
you go look at Freedom House’s data
since 2006 the number of liberal
democracies in the world has been going
down now another fascinating issue you
raise is the whole question of the sort
of omnipresent state in the United
States right that doesn’t look like a
liberal state it looks like it’s
interfering in the management of almost
everyone’s daily life I don’t want to go
into this in any great detail but
basically when I talked about rights I
was talking about negative rights I was
talking about freedoms and the problem
is that in the modern world this is all
to be a good thing we’re not just
interested in negative rights were
interested in positive rights and the
best example of that is just think about
this the right to an equal opportunity
it’s not just the right to life liberty
and the pursuit of happiness we you’re
talking about freedoms those were
we’re talking about rights like the
right to health care the right to equal
opportunity those are called positive
rights and they’re very important in
every society today including the United
States and the point is once you start
talking about positive rights as well as
negative rights the state begins to get
involved in a really serious way and you
remember folks when I told you about the
three solutions that liberals have to
dealing with potential for violence
I said inalienable rights tolerance and
the state and remember that I said that
it’s very important to have a limited
state and the point that you’re making
is that we’re moving away from that
limited state and I think in modern
societies it’s very hard not to do that
I’m agreeing with you because of the end
is because of the emphasis on positive
rights and then when you start thinking
about things like artificial
intelligence the national security state
the ability of the state to intervene in
our daily lives you see that liberal
democracy is a fragile device that
really has to be protected so I’m
agreeing with you in very important ways
in terms of ever saying that was
essentially the point that we are all in
the same boat in many ways trying to
struggle to keep the rights alive when
trying to struggle to keep a democracy
alive here but questions from from the
audience and if I may I take two at a
time John is that okay it’s perfectly
fine I should have said at the beginning
by the way switch off your mobile phones
I mean Jeff reminded myself with a so –
two questions the lady with the colored
jumper yes I forgot to bring over a big
piece of paper
hello thank you very much for your talk
in your talk you mentioned international
institutions particularly the WTO and
the IMF as kind of instruments of
liberal hegemony I’m wondering what do
you see the future of those
international institutions now that
there’s a failure of in of liberal
hegemony thank you okay one more
question the gentleman in the back just
right at the back yes with the highest
hand ah yes that’s what the blue blue
sweatshirt hi thanks you said that
obviously liberal Germany is faltering
is it any more or less faltering than
autocracies such as China Russia Thank
You Jon first question had to do with
the future of international institutions
I believe that in a highly
interdependent world and we live in a
highly interdependent world a globalized
world a hyper globalized world cult
whatever you want international
institutions are absolutely essential
and that doesn’t mean that certain
international institutions won’t die but
if they do they’ll be replaced by new
international institutions there’s just
no way you can do business without
international institutions international
institutions is I learned a long time
ago when I wrote an article on this
subject are basically rules and you need
rules for all sorts of reasons when
you’re doing business and that business
can be economic it can be military I
mean if you have military alliance NATO
as an institution the Warsaw Pact as an
institution if you’re gonna fight the
Cold War all over again you’re going to
do it with a mill
Alliance which is an institution you
need the WTO although I think you need a
different variant of it you need the IMF
the World Bank the Chinese have created
the aii big institutions are here to
Donald Trump can get rid of NAFTA but he
in effect just produced another
institution that looks like NAFTA so
institutions aren’t going away no
question in my mind on that the
gentleman up here asked me about whether
you know the Chinese political system
and the Russian political system were
also failing and maybe failing more so
than liberal democracy I don’t know what
the answer is to that at this point in
time I think that both the Chinese and
the Russians are doing reasonably well
at this point in time what the long-term
future of those political systems is
it’s hard to say so I’m just not too
sure I think in in both the Chinese in
the Russian case a lot depends on the
economy and I think a lot depends on how
much progress they make on the economic
front over the future but I think at
this point in time to some extent
everybody’s in trouble okay two more
the lady in the back all the way
my question is about based on the
relationship between China and United
States do you think we are entering oh
we are already living you know in new
Cold War era and secondly do you think
that sports country US and China will
end up in Susa dated Trump’s will end up
way so City Detra okay second question
yes the gentleman right here would you
wait for the microphone it’s right that
it’s in the front yeah thank you
it’s okay sorry to make you run hi John
thank you for your talk much of the US
political discourse lately around Trump
seems to be focused apart from the
collusion with Russia seems to be on the
lack of coherence of foreign policy and
I think looking at some of trumps
rhetoric in recent years it seems to
align a lot with the core tenets of your
book tragedy of great power politics and
in particular we see Trump adopting an
offensive realist position towards China
we see him somewhat buck-passing Syria
to Russia and we see a kind of offshore
balancing with regards to NATO in Europe
so my question is to what extent do you
think that Trump is a meerschaum
so to speak truth
okay John okay I’ll take the first
question on China and the United States
and the young woman in the back asked me
if I thought there was a new Cold War in
store between those two countries I
think the answer is yes my basic view of
international politics is that the great
powers in an ideal world want to
dominate their region of the world and
they want to do like the United States
did in the Western Hemisphere they want
to be the only great power and they
don’t want any other distant great
powers coming into their backyard and if
you look at China today China’s growing
economically and militarily and I think
that the Chinese are very interested as
they should be in dominating Asia and
that means not only being the most
powerful country in the region but also
making sure the Americans are pushed out
the Americans well the Chinese talk
constantly these days about the century
of national humiliation which ran from
the late 1840s until the late 1940s the
Chinese were weak over that hundred year
period and they were exploited by the
Japanese the Americans and the European
great powers they have never forgotten
and their goal is to make sure they are
really powerful in the future if you
were to go up to a Jap to a Chinese
policymaker or remember the Chinese
foreign policy League and say to that
person you have two choices you can be
twenty times more powerful than Japan or
Japan can be 20 more times powerful than
you do you think it makes any difference
they would laugh in your face they would
tell you we know what happened the last
time Japan was 20
more times powerful than us we intend to
be 20 times more powerful than Japan in
the future and then when you ask the
Chinese behind closed doors what they
think about the Americans running ships
and aircraft up their coast and having
ground forces off their coasts and
places like Korea and Japan they will
tell you in no uncertain terms if they
get powerful enough they will try to
push us out beyond us meaning the
Americans beyond the first island chain
and then beyond the second island chain
and if you look at how they think about
the waters around them they’ve made it
very clear that they think the South
China Sea belongs to them and we’ve made
it clear to them we don’t agree with
that they’ve made it clear they think
the East China Sea belongs to them and
there’s a real possibility they’ll get
into a fight with the Japanese over
those small islands in the East China
then there’s Taiwan which is a potential
flashpoint of great significance China
is not a status quo power so the Chinese
as they get more and more powerful are
going to try and become more and more
influential in East Asia and they’re
going to try and push the Americans out
and you know what the Americans are
going to do the Americans are going to
pivot to Asia and they’re going to try
and contain the Chinese and they’re
going to push back so I would argue that
there is likely to be trouble ahead and
put it in your terms you are likely to
get a new Cold War in Asia second
question had to do with Trump and he
accused me of being in bed with Donald
Trump intellectually this is a
yes right that’s right then we know
there is no connection look to be
serious I think that I think that Donald
Trump has no coherent foreign policy I
think he flies by the seat of his pants
and he has certain intuitions and I do
think apropos your question that some of
those intuitions are consistent with a
realist perspective in other words when
Trump says that he is not interested in
using military force to spread democracy
around the planet that’s an argument
that resonates with realists there’s
just no question about it now another
example that you used was containment of
China right that of course resonates
with realist logic but also you want to
remember that the person who articulated
the pivot to Asia was Hillary Clinton
and the Obama administration the Clinton
administration was also interested in
the pivot to Asia so this is not
something new to trump but it gets
consistent both with the Democrats and
with Trump with basic realist logic my
problem with Trump is that he’s done a
half-baked job of pivoting and dealing
with our Asian allies Trump’s big
problem and this is where you know he
parts for realism his realist believed
that alliances matter allies matter and
if you’re gonna deal with an adversary
like China right you need help from
countries in East Asia and you don’t
want to be slapping him around which is
what he does I also think the TPP the
trans-pacific partnership which was an
economic institution that was designed
to contain China right it was designed
for economic purposes but also for
security purposes he vetoed that or he
killed that when he came
to office that was a big mistake so I
think a lot of what he has done is
inconsistent with a realist approach but
there is no question that he does have
realist tendencies although again it’s
not part of any sort of grand theory of
how the world works okay last round of
the gentleman white sweatshirt thank you
so much for your talk it’s very
enlightening I just have a question with
regards to the Iraq invasion
so you said and I quote there are
virtually no successes in Iraq and I
personally think that there were some
successes for the United States let’s
put aside all of the inexplicable damage
that has been wrought on to the Iraqi
population I think that there were
benefits for it for its economic
interests in the long term we can see
today that although what was done in
Iraq was a failure in many ways many oil
contracts if not all were given to
American country companies like
ExxonMobil war was created which
increases the demand for for weapons
which in turn can increase manufacturing
and selling of weapons by American
companies although all these contributes
to the economic superiority of the
United States and its prominent
companies so we need a question I will
come to the question because we’re
running out of time all right I
apologize for that so we can’t imagine
the United States today without its
superior economy right so I ask can the
Iraqi invasion be seen as a commercial
success for the United States
thank you very much the second question
hi thank you very much for your talk
my question is regarding the European
Union as America focuses on itself more
and liberalism takes a backseat do you
think there is a future for the European
Union and what do you think the future
holds for Western Europe thank you I
should go okay thank you
with regard to your question about Iraq
I thought you were gonna argue that it
had some benefits for Iraq but obviously
you’re arguing that it had benefits to
the United States economic benefits for
the United States I don’t believe that
I think it’s estimated that the two wars
won in Afghanistan and two in Iraq and
the Iraqi war is the more expensive the
two of the two is gonna cost us
somewhere between four to six trillion
dollars over time again when you think
of all that money and and and and the
consequences for the Iraqi people it’s
just stunning right but for the six
trillion dollars I don’t think the oil
companies ended up making much of profit
as a result of the invasion and I think
in terms of arms sales yes we sold some
more arms but not enough to really
matter not enough to really affect the
economy so I don’t think I don’t think
that you’re right that the the United
States benefited economically from this
war but again even if it did it wouldn’t
justify you know what happened in Iraq
and by the way remember that one of the
principal consequences of the invasion
of Iraq was the creation of Isis just
don’t want to lose sight of that
second question a very interesting
question on the EU and the future of the
European Union and you prefaced it by
saying America’s losing interest in
Europe to some extent and as American
interest in Europe wanes what does that
mean for the EU I make two points first
of all I believe that one of the reasons
probably the main reason that European
integration has been so successful and
there has been peace in Europe is
because of the presence of the American
military in Europe its NATO it’s the
American pacifier as I often say to
audiences you know I’ve spent a lot of
time going around Europe since 1990 when
the Cold War ended I have never met a
single policymaker a single pundit a
single academic a single representative
of the foreign policy establishment in
any country in Europe who wants to see
the Americans leave Europe this is quite
remarkable and now I was recently
Romania as recently in Denmark the
Romanians and the den Danes do not want
us to leave Europe and it’s because they
understand that this I’m throw but the
American military presence that NATO
underpins the EU and peace and security
in Europe okay that’s my view so in
terms of the future of the EU what
really matters in terms of the United
States is that we stay in NATO keep NATO
intact and keep American forces here the
second point I would make to you the
problems in the EU today despite all
Donald Trump’s rhetoric have nothing to
do with the United States they’re mainly
Eurocentric problems problems associated
with the euro problems associated with
brexit if you look at what’s going on in
Italy and a lot of these problems by the
way have to do
with nationalism right I’m not going to
get into that in any detail here but
there are real problems in the EU today
but those problems are not the result of
the United States right so the Europeans
have to figure out how to fix those
problems but more importantly for the
Europeans they got to keep the Americans
here in my opinion I think the America
the European elites understand correctly
that an American military presence is a
pacifying factor here in Europe the main
pacifying factor thank you very much
John unfortunately we have to leave it
at that there will be a drinks reception
outside in the foyer but join me once
again to in thanking professor much I’m
Elliott Abrams was once an innocent child. And then he decided to spend the rest of his life covering up brutal atrocities and defending right-wing dictatorships.
Elliott Abrams once said the animating force behind his and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was that the world is “an exceedingly dangerous place.” And this is true, largely because men like Elliott Abrams exist in it.Last month, Abrams was tapped by Trump to serve as his special envoy to Venezuela, to essentially help steer the Trump administration’s slow-burn effort to topple that country’s government — or as Mike Pompeo put it, “restore democracy” in the country.
It should go without saying that the idea the Trump administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela for the sake of democracy and human rights is as laughable as calling Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a surprise party gone wrong. But in case you need to explain this to politically confused friends and relatives, here are eight good reasons why the appointment of Abrams, in particular, makes a mockery of any such high-minded rhetoric.
1. He was knee-deep in human rights atrocities
Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.
To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing. “The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.
This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.
2. He covered up brutal acts of terror
Key to Abrams’ role under Reagan was playing down and denying the copious human rights abuses being committed by the forces and governments he and the administration supported.
As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar pointed out in her grilling of Abrams earlier this week, part of the Reagan administration’s “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador was the horrific El Mozote massacre, which took place shortly before Abrams took up his post. In his attempt to convince the Senate to certify that El Salvador’s government was improving its human rights record — a precondition for receiving US aid — Abrams testified that the massacre had been “publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” and was “being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” He claimed he had sent military officers to investigate the reports, and that the massacre couldn’t be confirmed.
Another incident was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the orders of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the administration’s partners in the country. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” said Abrams. In fact, two such cables existed. Abrams would later insist that any criticism of the Reagan administration’s activities in El Salvador were simply “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”
Meanwhile, as Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt embarked on a campaign of genocide in the country, Abrams said he had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. He defended Reagan’s lifting of a military aid embargo on Montt’s government, claiming the slaughter of civilians was “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged.”
3. He’s an unrepentant liar
Abrams told Omar that it is “always the position of the United States” to protect human rights, including in Venezuela, and he stressed the US didn’t want to arm anti-Maduro forces. Besides his well-documented record of doing exactly the opposite, Abrams’ words are even less relevant when you consider his history of outright lying.
We’ve already seen how Abrams regularly lied to cover up or play down abuses by the right-wing forces he supported. This practice would ultimately land him in trouble when he misled Congress about the Iran-Contra affair with statements that ranged from outright lies (“we’re not in the fund-raising business”), to lawyerly parsing of the truth (“I said no foreign government was helping the contras, because we had not yet received a dime from Brunei,” he would write later).
Abrams would forever maintain he did nothing wrong, later writing a sanctimonious book that painted himself as the victim of an unjust, vindictive system that had criminalized “political differences.” “This kind of prosecution is something new in America, and it is wrong,” he wrote, before bleating about the “bloodsuckers” and “filthy bastards” who wanted to do him in.
Abrams rained ire upon Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal: “You, Walsh, eighty years old, and nothing else to do but stay in this job till the grim reaper gets you. Is this your idea of America?” Abrams insisted the independent counsel law under which Walsh (along with Watergate prosecutor Archibold Cox) served was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld it 7-1, with even the conservative chief justice Rehnquist affirming (Scalia dissented). It didn’t matter anyway, because the late George H. W. Bush pardoned him.
Abrams managed the trifecta of showing contempt for the truth, the constitution’s separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances, all in one fell swoop. There’s no reason to believe any of his assurances now.
4. He hates democracy
Abrams has also shown a lifelong contempt for the very thing he’s now meant to be advancing: democracy.
When the Uruguayan military government imprisoned Wilson Ferreira, the country’s most popular politician and a fierce liberal opponent of its rule, Abrams defended the Reagan administration’s meek response, which the New York Times had called “stunning.” Abrams explained that “the transition [to elected government] itself is more important than the immediate situation of any individual politician.” Abrams had earlier insisted there was no evidence the Uruguyan military was stifling political freedom, even as it
- closed newspapers,
- arrested its opposition, and
- continued to ban political leaders, among other things.
Around this same time, Abrams was one of a number of Reagan officials who supported Oliver North’s call to pardon Honduran general Jose Bueso Rosa, despite his having received a relatively lenient sentence. Rosa had been convicted after being caught in Florida plotting to overthrow the Honduran government.
In 2002, Abrams reportedly “gave a nod” to the military coup that attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to remove the democratically elected Hugo Chavez from power. The Observer, which broke the story, called Abrams “the crucial figure around the coup.” Abrams has had his eye on toppling Venezuela’s government for some time.
When Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abrams, then the point man for George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, helped implement a scheme to nullify the results by fomenting a Palestinian civil war which, they hoped, would remove Hamas from power. When the plan backfired, with Hamas emerging victorious and in full control of Gaza, Abrams accused Hamas of staging a “coup.”
5. His only political principle was anticommunism
Abrams’ disregard for democracy is part and parcel of his general philosophy, which views left-wing governments uniformly as threats to be stamped out.
Abrams, who once told a reporter that he’s “been a counterrevolutionary for a long time,” cut his teeth opposing student protesters at Harvard in the 1960s. He believes the idea that human rights extend past the political and into the economic realm to be “nonsense” and “old Soviet bromides.” As such, he viewed defeating the Soviet Union as the greatest US priority, telling one interviewer that “the greatest threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”
In 1984, Abrams quite candidly explained to Policy Review that his human rights policy was one of double standards: fierce opposition to communist rights abusers, and coddling of oppressors friendly to the US.
“Liberalization for purposes of letting out steam always involves line drawing,” he said. “How much steam should you let out? At what point do you risk anarchy and destabilizing the regime?” He went on to explain that “the line drawn varies from country to country,” and that “even a highly imperfect regime may well give a much better prospect of democratization than would the Communist regime that might follow.”
In other words, no matter how brutal or outright fascist a government, it was by default preferable to a communist one, a philosophy he applied in obvious ways to his work in the Americas. It was also evident in his treatment of Cuba, whose prisons he denounced in 1984 as “barbaric” and whose leader, Fidel Castro, he labeled “oppressive” and accused of “betrayal.” He attacked human rights groups, politicians, reporters, and church groups who praised Cuba as “apologists” who “will never take off their rose-colored glasses” and had spent “years defending tyrants” and “years obfuscating the truth.”
At literally the same time he was doing this, Abrams publicly defended Turkey, a key regional ally, from criticism of its human rights record. Abrams praised Turkey, which had recently been pilloried in an Amnesty International report for widespread torture of its people, for “extraordinary progress,” charging that “some who criticize Turkey’s human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else,” but “simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the Western alliance.” He dismissed Amnesty’s claims as “false history,” criticized human rights groups for “an appalling shallowness of analysis” that ignored social, political, and historical context, and charged that the Turkish people “resent the activists’ shrill and uninformed criticisms of their country.”
As Abrams had earlier said, “the line drawn varies from country to country.” If you played nice with the Reagan administration, your human rights record was tempered by nuance and context, and it was getting better anyway. And if you didn’t, you were beyond redemption.
6. He dislikes journalists and accountability
Abrams no doubt sympathized with Turkey’s rulers because he himself had first-hand experience dealing with pesky journalists and human rights groups.
He said critics of Reagan’s support of the contras would have “blood on their hands,” and accused human rights groups of having communist sympathies. He hopped aboard the Reagan administration’s McCarthyite attempt to shame congressional critics into giving him a blank check in Latin America, claiming that there was an “elaborate and skillful” campaign by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to “manipulate Congress and the press.” When the GAO released a report alleging contra corruption that was inconvenient for the administration’s attempts to secure aid, Abrams dismissed it as a “smear campaign” cooked up by Democrats.
While Abrams didn’t have a police state at his disposal, that didn’t prevent him from lobbing heavy-handed broadsides against reporters he didn’t like. He refused to be questioned by or debate certain journalists he perceived as critical. Most infamously, from 1986 to 1987, Abrams accused left-wing Colombian journalist Patricia Lara of being a “Cuban agent” and “an active liaison” between Colombian terrorist organization M-19 and “the Cuban secret police.” In October 1986, Lara was stopped by New York immigration officials and imprisoned, before being sent back home, without explanation.
Abrams claimed to have “concrete evidence” that Lara was “heavily engaged” with M-19, but when challenged to reveal evidence, claimed it was based on “intelligence information” that he couldn’t reveal. The Colombian Defense Ministry, then battling M-19, categorically denied they had any such information, and assigned her a bodyguard because Abrams’ accusation had put her in danger. The country’s foreign minister said “we don’t know where the US government obtained” such information.
Abrams also granted a “meritorious honor” award on the Office of Public Diplomacy, a government body responsible for waging an illegal domestic propaganda campaign, in which Iran-Contra architect Oliver North was closely involved, that disseminated Abrams’ preferred narrative about the region. Abrams praised it for “setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy” and countering the “formidable and well established Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan propaganda apparatus.”
7. He’s a fan of regime change
Like any neoconservative worth his salt, Abrams has an abiding faith in the US government’s ability to simply remove world leaders it dislikes at will. (He’s also continued the neocon tradition of never personally fighting in any war, avoiding Vietnam thanks to a hurt back that happened to clear up once the war was over.)
When Abrams wanted to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan wrote, he threatened sanctions, then actually imposed sanctions, then established a Panamanian government-in-exile on a US military base. Abrams finally called outright for the US military to topple Noriega, in an op-ed titled “Noriega Respects Power. Use It,” which is what George H. W. Bush ultimately did. It was a chilling preview of where US policy on Venezuela may now be heading if Maduro stays in power.
Reflecting on the mistakes of Reagan’s Latin American policy in 1989, Abrams’ regret was that it hadn’t been more forceful. “You can make a very good argument that after the successful rescue mission in Grenada the president should simply have said, ‘Look, we have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever we needed to do to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion,” he said.
In 2007, Abrams blessed Bush’s plan to launch a covert operation to destabilize Iran’s government. Two years later, he mused about what should happen if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. “Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act.” But this wouldn’t involve regime change or the killing of civilians, he stressed; just a strike on nuclear facilities. Iran, Abrams warned, was one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.
In 2013, Abrams told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the US had to get militarily involved in Syria. Why? Because “a display of American lack of will power in Syria will persuade many Iranian officials that while we may say ‘all options are on the table,’ in reality they are not — so Iran can proceed happily and safely toward a nuclear weapon.” Two years later, he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that Netanyahu had two options: either strike Iran right then, or wait two years and see if an administration willing to take a tougher line, or sanction an Israeli strike, would be elected. Abrams, it seems, got his wish.
8. He’s beloved by the Right
In case anyone still believes the fiction that “anti-Trump” conservatives actually oppose Trump, Abrams is a living reminder that there’s no daylight between Trump and the establishment Right that pretends to dislike him.
Abrams was once an “anti-Trump” Republican who signed a letter opposing his candidacy in 2016. He tutored Paul Ryan in foreign policy when he was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and served on Marco Rubio’s so-called National Security Advisory Council in 2016. It’s no surprise the Florida senator, long viewed as an establishment-friendly, “sensible” conservative alternative to Trump, is now all but directing Trump’s Latin American policy, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Abrams.
Abrams has now served in every Republican administration since he first entered government bar one. In between, he’s worked at the Heritage Foundation (whose head of Latin American policy just called him “a patriot and dedicated voice for repressed communities”), helped found “anti-Trump” Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, was a fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US government’s arm for foreign political meddling.
Meanwhile, just look at who came to Abrams’ defense after his grilling by Rep. Omar. The National Review — which not long ago put out a much-celebrated “Against Trump” issue whose purpose, according to its editor, was to say, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is” — just published an editorial calling Abrams “one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country,” and “a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
A former Bush administration official and current Harvard professor defended Abrams as “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” The newly rebranded neocon Max Boot, who very publicly proclaims he’s seen the error of his ways and broken with the ugliness he now sees in the GOP, deemed him “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Right; the Center for American Progress’ vice president of National Security and International Policy called him “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who simply “made serious professional mistakes.”
That someone like Abrams, who’s now leading Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, is warmly embraced by the coterie of establishment and “never-Trump” conservatives should tell you everything you need to know about these groups.
In a tense exchange at a hearing on Wednesday, one of the newest members of Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar, confronted Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in foreign policy scandals decades ago, including the Iran-contra affair and the United States’ support of brutal leaders abroad.
Mr. Abrams, who served in top State Department positions under President Ronald Reagan and has remained part of the Washington foreign policy establishment, was appointed last month to be the Trump administration’s envoy to Venezuela, where a dispute is raging over control of the nation’s presidency. Last month, the United States weighed in, recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as part of a campaign by the Trump administration to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
What happened at Wednesday’s hearing?
Mr. Abrams was one of three people asked to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing on Venezuela, an area of the world he knows well. Under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was an assistant secretary of state who fiercely advocated interventionism, including the covert arming of Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s, a scandal that became known as the Iran-contra affair.
In the hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, confronted Mr. Abrams over his role in that scandal and his support for brutal Central American governments. In one tense exchange, Ms. Omar recalled testimony from Mr. Abrams about a massacre in which units of El Salvador’s military, trained and equipped by the United States, killed nearly 1,000 civilians in 1981 in the village of El Mozote.In 1982, Mr. Abrams dismissed news reports about the massacre as not credible and as leftist propaganda, and he later described the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement.”
“Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Ms. Omar asked him at Wednesday’s hearing.
“That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Mr. Abrams said. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
What is the Iran-contra affair?
The Iran-contra affair was a political scandal that dogged the second half of the Reagan presidency.It centered on two controversial, and linked, actions undertaken by his administration. One was the sale of weapons to Iran, despite an embargo, purportedly to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The second was the use of proceeds from those weapon sales to support the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua in their fight against the leftist Sandinista government.When first revealed publicly by a Lebanese magazine in 1986, the weapons sales were criticized for violating both the embargo and the United States’ refusal to negotiate with terrorists. The use of money from the sales to support the rebels in Nicaragua was also controversial because it violated a congressional ban restricting military aid to the group.
Reagan emerged largely unscathed by the scandal, leaving office with the highest approval rating of any president in decades. But more than a dozen others were charged with criminal offenses, primarily for withholding information from Congress. They included some who remain active in American politics to this day, such as Oliver L. North, now the president of the National Rifle Association, and Mr. Abrams.
While serving in the State Department under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was a fierce advocate of arming the rebels and, in 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about those secret efforts. He was pardoned the next year by President George Bush.
What were Ms. Omar’s criticisms?
Ms. Omar devoted most of her time during the hearing to detailing Mr. Abrams’s role in events abroad during the Reagan administration, often cutting off his responses by telling him she had not asked a question.
She did, however, ask one question: whether Mr. Abrams would “support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?”
The United States’ involvement in Guatemala is not as well known as the Iran-contra affair, but the country was crucial to the Reagan administration’s strategy in Central America, with Washington often looking the other way when presented with evidence of atrocities. In 1982, the Reagan administration started to cultivate Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power that year in Guatemala, as an ally in the region in its fight against the Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.
Reagan praised General Ríos Montt even though American officials privately knew the Guatemalan military had killed its own people. The general was convicted of genocide in 2013.
El Salvador officially apologized for the El Mozote massacre in 2011.
What has Mr. Abrams been doing since the Reagan years?
Despite his role in the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Abrams has remained active in politics.
In the 1990s, he led a think tank dedicated to applying Judeo-Christian values to public policy. He later joined the administration of President George W. Bush as an adviser on Middle East affairs.
In 2017, President Trump blocked Mr. Abrams from serving as a deputy to Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state. But last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to appoint Mr. Abrams as a special envoy to lead the department’s efforts on Venezuela.
In a Democratic debate last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that to deal with the migration crisis at the U.S. southern border, “we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country where they don’t know the language?’ ”
It’s a sad day when a septuagenarian U.S. senator can’t grasp the reason for Central American poverty.
The migrants were born in countries that lack rule of law, respect for private property, and economic freedom. The nations of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—instead have pursued Sanders-style social justice as a path to prosperity. It’s hardly a surprise their citizens enjoy neither.
Environmental mobs close down mining projects and chase away investors. Activists block roads to shake down the government; they invade farms and steal electricity with impunity. Well aware that upward economic mobility is nearly impossible, Central Americans vote with their feet.
The prospects for change aren’t promising. Ideas matter, and for generations the global left—mostly from Europe and the U.S.—has treated the region as its sandbox, where it goes to play with policies that don’t sell at home. Central America is macerated in the collectivist bunk of this elite, who promise utopia and deliver special-interest mercantilism and corrupt statism.
This is one reason Guatemalans were freaked out Friday when their Prensa Libre newspaper reported that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would lead a congressional delegation to Guatemala City this week “to meet with civil society, businessmen and other sectors.” Her office declined to comment for security reasons. But if she is going, it is worth asking why she would visit in the week before the Aug. 11 presidential runoff election.
The election is an important milestone in Guatemalan politics, and the deciding factor may be urban turnout. Despite a solid lead in a recent poll, center-right Vamos Party candidate Alejandro Giammattei isn’t a shoo-in. If voters in the big cities stay home, social democrat Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope Party could prevail.
Ms. Torres was first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom (2008-12) but divorced him in 2011 in an attempt to circumvent a constitutional prohibition on consecutively following a spouse into the executive office. The high court didn’t buy it, but she did make an unsuccessful run in 2015.
Ms. Torres is a left-wing populist. Her party, which is known as UNE, dominates rural and small-town Guatemala. Pocketbook issues are a priority in these parts and machine politics are the name of the game. By promising things like child and elder subsidies and tin roofs, UNE maintains a solid base.
Mr. Giammattei is by no means the first choice of Guatemalan conservatives. That designation goes to Zury Ríos, daughter of the late Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who held the presidency for less than 17 months after a 1982 coup. Ms. Ríos is a popular politician and made her own run for the presidency in 2015. This time around, the constitutional court blocked her candidacy because of her father’s role as a military dictator.
Yet Mr. Giammattei ran the prison system and pledges a tough-on-crime agenda. He says he will bring investment to the country. With UNE controlling Congress and much of the judicial branch, voters may prefer an executive check on social-democrat power.
Both candidates oppose the immigration-cooperation framework agreement that President Jimmy Morales signed with President Trump in July. The accord is short on detail, but as protocols are added, the expectation is that it will oblige Salvadorans and Hondurans who try to move north to the U.S. to apply for asylum in Guatemala. Speculation was running wild last week that Mrs. Pelosi’s visit was partly aimed at derailing the agreement for domestic American political reasons.
Both candidates promise to fight corruption, but voter apathy implies a high degree of public skepticism. The United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—a k a CICIG—was supposed to bring about the rule of law. But somewhere along the way the left realized it could use CICIG, accountable to no one, to grab power without the fuss of elections. A judicial reign of terror, designed to silence opposition, ended only in January, when President Morales kicked CICIG out of the country.
The media ran news stories for nearly a decade that read like CICIG press releases. But in March the Guatemalan attorney general petitioned the court to arrest CICIG’s closet Guatemalan collaborator, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, on corruption charges. As the country’s top prosecutor, she ought to have protected civil liberties. Instead she permitted the commission’s abuses while it refused calls to investigate her. Guatemalans are still trying to recover confidence in their justice system.
Ms. Aldana, who had presidential aspirations, says she is being politically persecuted. But she has fled the country rather than face trial. If voters are uninspired by their political class, and afraid of help from Democrats, who could blame them?
Looking for help on immigration, the Trump administration is silent in the face of Guatemala’s effort to seal its dirty war archive.
With the quiet acquiescence of the Trump administration, the Guatemalan government is threatening to bar access to a collection of national archives that have been at the core of various attempts to prosecute Guatemalan politicians and officers responsible for some of Latin America’s most heinous atrocities.
The move to suppress the archives is part of a larger campaign by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who faces allegations of receiving illicit campaign funds, to undercut the rule of law through the purge of judges, police officials, and archivists who have been at the forefront of Guatemala’s effort to investigate corruption, narcotrafficking, and war crimes, according to foreign diplomats and independent experts.
But senior U.S. officials in Washington and Guatemala City have rebuffed appeals from working-level staffers and foreign diplomats to publicly challenge Guatemala’s action. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is seeking Guatemala’s help in stemming the flow of asylum-seekers and refugees into the United States, has remained largely silent over these developments.
One U.S. official said that America’s reluctance to confront Guatemala is part of a crude unwritten bargain between Morales’s government and the Trump administration: “They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else,” the official said.
The “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts,” said Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive and an expert on the Guatemalan archives. “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.”
In the latest sign of U.S. reluctance to challenge Guatemala on human rights, Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, blocked the release of a public statement in early June that would have urged Guatemala to back down on its effort to restrict access to the archives.
“These archives are an essential source of information to clarify and understand critical historical truths from Guatemala’s history,” reads the statement obtained by Foreign Policy, which was suppressed in June. “Access to the archives by historians, victims of abuse recorded in these archives and their families, the public, and the international community, has furthered Guatemala’s progress towards accountability, justice, truth and reconciliation.”
Foreign Policy sought a response from the Trump administration last Wednesday. The State Department did not respond until nearly an hour and half after this article was published Tuesday.
“The United States strongly supports continued public access to the Historical Archive of the National Police,” according to a statement from a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs. The Tuesday statement included the two sentence cited by Foreign Policy in the suppressed statement.
The initial decision to block the statement—which had been approved by the State Department press office, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and several other key bureaus—came as the United States was engaged in sensitive negotiations on a so-called safe third country agreement, which would commit Guatemala to process political asylum claims from foreigners, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras, who cross its border in transit to the United States. “My understanding is Kim Breier killed this because she didn’t want to do anything that would piss off the Guatemalans,” said one congressional aide.
During the past two decades, the United States has invested in efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala,
- funding a United Nations commission that investigates corruption and illicit activities by armed groups,
- strengthening the judiciary, and
- training and equipping police units with expertise in counternarcotics and corruption.
- The United States has spent millions of dollars over the years to preserve the police archives, including through the provision of document scanners and the funding of a digitized archive maintained by scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.
Guatemala’s bloody 36-year-long civil war resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 people, mostly at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces. A 1996 U.N.-brokered peace agreement paved the way for the return of exiled rebels, established a new national police force, and pried open the door to the prospect of public reckoning for crimes committed during the war. The Guatemalan military and police resisted, denying that they had preserved detailed records of their activities during the conflict. But in 2005, more than 80 million documents and records, dating from 1882 to 1997, were discovered in seven rat-infested rooms at an unused hospital building in Guatemala City owned by Guatemala’s now-defunct National Police.
Since then, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive has helped convict more than 30 military officers, soldiers and paramilitaries, including a former presidential chief of staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala’s late dictator, Gen. Rios Montt—who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide for overseeing mass atrocities in the early 1980s — though his conviction was later overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court.
The archive has proved a valuable resource for U.S. law enforcement. The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used the archive to identify Guatemalan rights abusers living in the United States.
But the management of the archives has long infuriated some of those in Guatemala’s most powerful business and security sectors, who believed that it has been used as a tool of the left to gain revenge against their former enemies. They have cited the role of the archive’s former director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, a former guerrilla leader who has recruited staff from the country’s left wing to run the archives. In August 2018, the U.N. Development Program, which has helped administer the archive program since 2008, abruptly dismissed Meoño Brenner. He has since fled the country, following death threats.
The move to restrict archive access is only one element of a wider effort to defang justice institutions in Guatemala. In September, a landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—whose corruption investigations landed a Guatemalan president and vice president in jail will shutter its office.
The demise of the commission, which had also exposed alleged illegal campaign contributions in Morales’s 2015 presidential campaign, came after a two-year-long effort by the president and his allies, including sympathetic Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials in Washington, to undermine it. Pro-military lawmakers in the Guatemalan Congress, meanwhile, have been pressing to pass an amnesty law that would result in the release of dozens of military officers and death squad leaders from jail. That effort has been stalled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The effort to suppress the archives is being spearheaded by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, a popular figure in Washington, who has represented Guatemala in the safe third country negotiations.
In a May 27 press conference, Degenhart announced that his office and Guatemala’s National Civil Police would seek greater control of the archive. He also threatened to limit access to the archives by foreign institutions, an apparent reference to the University of Texas at Austin, which has assembled a massive digitized version of a large portion of the police archive. “You can’t allow foreign institutions to have the complete archives,” Degenhart told reporters.
In response, the U.N. and other foreign envoys invited the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, to join ambassadors from several other countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, on a visit to the archive to voice opposition to granting police greater control over the archives. Arreaga declined. The spokesperson from the State Department Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs declined to comment on whether Arreaga declined the invitation.
In Washington, State Department officials sought support within the administration for a public statement that would place the United States squarely on the side of those seeking to preserve broad public access to the archives.
“The message [Guatemalan authorities] are getting is we don’t care what you do as long as you do everything in your power to prevent” foreigners from reaching the U.S. border, said Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who was born in Guatemala. If that requires “supporting a corrupt government, that is what [the Trump administration] is going to do.”
Public messaging and statements from U.S. envoys and the State Department can have an outsized political impact in Central America, former diplomats say. “It’s astonishing how important the U.S. voice is in terms of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society … in this region,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “There are clearly things that governments would do, actions it would take, but for the U.S. watching and speaking out,” she said.
The lack of response, according to diplomats, emboldened Guatemala to ratchet up its campaign against the archives.
In early July, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports informed the U.N. Development Program, which administers the archive budget on behalf of foreign donors, that it would take over full management of the archives, raising questions about its financial viability. The U.N., which pays staff salaries, was forced to lay off the archives researchers and archivists.
On July 10, Guatemala fired its chief national archivist, Anna Carla Ericastilla, on the grounds that she provided access to foreign institutions, including the University of Texas, and improperly raised funds from donors to pay salaries to archivists.
Degenhart, meanwhile, has overseen a massive purge of Guatemala’s reformed police force after being named interior minister in January 2018. The following month, he fired the director of the National Civil Police, Nery Ramos, along with three other top cops. All told, Degenhart fired some 25 ranking officers and more than 100 agents, including 20 of the 45 police agents assigned to work with the U.N. anti-corruption office.
Guatemalans “have observed a systematic process of dismantling the National Civil Police, ordered by the interior minister himself, who seems determined to destroy 20 years of progress,” according to an August 2018 study by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations Specializing in Security, or FOSS.
The fate of the archive has become inextricably linked to the White House immigration policy.
The threat to curtail access to the archives came on the same day that Degenhart had signed an agreement with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, for the deployment of 89 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees through the country. It also coincided with the Trump administration’s negotiation of a safe third party agreement with Degenhart.
Trump in March ordered all U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to be cut until they drastically reduced the number of migrants traveling north through Mexico to attempt to enter the United States. Critics, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said the move would only exacerbate the migration crisis, as U.S. assistance helped address root causes of instability that caused people to flee north.
In June, the State Department announced it would release $432 million of the $615 million in aid to Central America, but it warned that new funding would not be released until the Northern Triangle governments took more steps to address migration.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it had reached agreement on the safe third country pact, which would commit Guatemala to processing political asylum claims from migrants who cross its border in transit to the United States. The U.S. has yet to publish a copy of the pact, leading to speculation about what the deal actually entails.
Still, the move has raised concern about the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already asserted that such an agreement would require approval by the Guatemalan Congress. Democratic lawmakers and other activists have criticized the move and vowed to fight it in courts. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is “cruel and immoral. It is also illegal.”
“Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires,” Engel said in a statement released on July 26, after the Trump administration and Guatemalan government signed the agreement.
A stark choice for some Guatemalans: watch crops wither, and maybe die with them, or migrate.
NENTÓN, Guatemala — To understand why President Trump’s new sanctions and other flailing to end Central American immigration aren’t working, step into the dark, melancholy hovel of Ana Jorge Jorge.
She lives in Guatemala’s western highlands in the hillside village of Canquintic, near the town of Nentón, and she’s a widow because of the American dream.
Her husband, Mateo Gómez Tadeo, borrowed thousands of dollars and migrated north to the United States several years ago after his crops here failed. He found work in Alabama cutting flowers but then caught an infection and died, leaving hungry children back home and a huge debt hanging over the family.Two of their sons, aged 7 and 14, soon died as well, apparently of malnutrition-related illnesses. Jorge Jorge pulled another son, Juan, out of school in the second grade so that he could work in the fields and help pay off the debt. If it isn’t paid, lenders will seize the family land.
“We all suffer now,” Jorge Jorge told me grimly. “I have to struggle daily.”
If any family understands the risks of traveling to the United States, it’s this one. Yet Juan, now 11, is talking about trying to make his own way north. And Jorge Jorge, while terrified at the prospect of losing him, approves.
“I say, ‘Go,’” she said bleakly. “‘There’s nothing here, so go.’”
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a reporting trip, and we’ve come to Guatemala to report on migration. My student winner, Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University, and I have heard from innumerable Guatemalans that the most fundamental driver of emigration is desperation — and, to an extent that most Americans don’t appreciate, this desperation often reflects drought and severe weather linked to climate change.
“Food doesn’t grow here anymore,” Jorge Jorge said. “That’s why I would send my son north.”
There are other factors as well, and the despair also reflects a marginalization of Mayan communities that goes back hundreds of years, presided over in the capital by an incompetent kleptocracy. But climate change is aggravating the desperation.
“The weather has changed, clearly,” said Flori Micaela Jorge Santizo, a 19-year-old woman whose husband has abandoned the fields to find work in Mexico. She noted that drought and unprecedented winds have destroyed successive corn crops, leaving the family destitute, adding, “And because I had no money, my children died.”
A third son, now 14, will be the next to try his luck. Remaining as crops fail and children suffer is not an option.
“There’s no rain, and no way to grow crops,” Mateo Mateo said. “One can’t live here.”