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Ilhan Omar and Elliott Abrams, Venezuela envoy, clash over U.S. meddling in Latin America

Washington — U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, grilled the State Department's special representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, over his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair and other controversial foreign policy decisions during the Cold War. 

In a contentious exchange during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the socio-political crisis in Venezuela, Abrams faced pointed questions and scathing criticism from Omar, an outspoken critic of the Trump's administration's hawkish stance against President Nicolás Maduro's government

"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 told Abrams after outlining the two misdemeanor counts he plead guilty to in 1991 for withholding information from Congress.   

Abrams quickly interjected, labeling Omar's assertions an "attack."

Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attends a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled "Venezuela at a Crossroads," on Wed., Feb. 13, 2019. AP

As assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration, Abrams was involved in a secret arms deal in which the U.S. sought to trade missiles and other weapons to Iran and use the funds to support right-wing paramilitaries known as the "contras," who were seeking to topple a leftist government in Nicaragua. In a 1991 plea agreement with an independent commission tasked with probing the scandal — which became known as the Iran-Contra affair — Abrams admitted to lying to members of Congress about the clandestine deal. In 1992, he and other Reagan administration officials embroiled in the scandal were pardoned by former President George H. W. Bush.

Omar also pressed Abrams about his role in shaping an interventionist American foreign policy in other Latin American countries during his first stints at the State Department. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported various violent coups in Latin America, including some against democratically-elected governments. 

The freshman Democrat asked Abrams about a remark he made in 1993, when he called the Reagan administration's record in El Salvador a "fabulous achievement." Between 1979 and 1992, the U.S. backed a right-wing military government in El Salvador during a civil war against leftist guerrillas that resulted in the deaths of more than 75,000 people, according to the Center for Justice and Accountability, an international human rights group. 

Omar specifically cited the massacre of hundreds of civilians by the American-trained El Salvadoran army at the El Mazote village in 1981. 

"Yes or no, do you think that massacre was a 'fabulous achievement' that happened under our watch," she asked. 

"That is a ridiculous question," Abrams responded, again accusing Omar of crafting a "personal attack." 

Omar continued her questioning, asking Abrams if he would be in favor of the U.S. supporting armed groups in Venezuela that participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if he believed it would serve America's interests. Abrams refused to answer the specific question, saying it was not a "real" question. 

"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 because the American people want to know that anytime we engage in a country that we think about what our actions could be and how we believe our values are being furthered," Omar said.   

Along with recognizing the main opposition leader in Venezuela as the country's interim president and issuing sweeping sanctions against the largest state-owned oil company, the Trump administration has pledged more than $20 million in humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people.   

But Maduro and other leftist leaders in the region, including in Bolivia and Cuba, have accused the American government of trying to stage a coup in Venezuela. Standing alongside diplomats from Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran, Venezuela's foreign minister Jorge Arreaza told CBS News' Pamela Falk Thursday that Maduro's government has formed a coalition to oppose interference in his country's affairs.

After again downplaying her question, Abrams said "the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people's effort to restore democracy to their country."

In her final question, Omar asked Abrams whether American foreign policy prioritized upholding human rights and protecting people against genocide. 

"That is always the position of the United States," he replied. 

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