The Trump administration has set a deadline of February 23 for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to bow down to the U.S. This week on Intercepted: U.S. military aircraft have landed in Colombia under the pretext of delivering humanitarian aid, as Trump vows to overthrow the government in Caracas. Venezuela scholar George Ciccariello-Maher and journalist Kim Ives discuss recent developments and examine the massive protests rocking Haiti’s U.S.-backed president. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz details the bloody and murderous career of Elliott Abrams, the man now in charge of U.S.-Venezuela operations. And journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous explains the failed revolution in Egypt and outlines U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plot to make himself president for life.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
Donald J. Trump: Thank you very much, everybody. So, I’m going to be signing a national emergency. Who knows what that means because walls don’t work? Everybody knows that. Nancy knows it. They all know it. It’s all a big lie. It’s a big con game. I didn’t need to do this. It’s wrong. It’s just a lie. It’s all a lie. And we will have a national emergency and we will then be sued and they will sue us in the ninth circuit —
[High-pitched fast-paced speech.]
DJT: Where the hell did that come from? Trump is crazy. That’s the story. Sean Hannity has been a terrific, terrific president so I liked him a lot and he likes me a lot. Enjoy your life and thank you, everybody. Thank you very much.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 83 of Intercepted.
DJT: We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open.
JS: The Trump administration, with the backing of both the Republican and Democratic political establishments, is moving forward with its campaign for regime change in Venezuela.
DJT: Or you can choose the second path: continuing to support Maduro.
DJT: If you choose this path, you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out. You will lose everything.
JS: The Trump administration has set a deadline of February 23 for Nicolás Maduro to bow down to the U.S. or face unknown consequences. We don’t know what, but the administration says that all options are on the table, a clear military threat.
The U.S. military meanwhile has been landing planes on the Colombian border with Venezuela using the cover of humanitarian aid shipments. And U.S. political leaders continue to blatantly lie about the crisis in Venezuela. They are lying about Maduro’s government blocking a bridge. That bridge has never been functional. It’s never been opened. It’s never been in use. That is just pure propaganda. In fact, my colleague, Josh Begley, did a satellite imagery analysis of that bridge on the Venezuela-Colombia border that shows that the bridge has never been used from 2014 until now. No cars. No trucks. Nothing. There is a fully functioning bridge nearby, and that one remains open. But the U.S. hasn’t even bothered to apply for permission to cross that bridge. They’re promoting the image of a bridge that has never been opened and then claiming it’s evidence that Maduro is blocking aid. No.
The issue here is that the U.S. is not actually attempting to aid the Venezuelan people. They are using their suffering as a prop in a campaign to overthrow the Maduro government. Also, the U.S.-declared value of its so-called aid: It’s not even equal to a couple of days worth of losses in oil revenue that the U.S. sanctions have caused Venezuela. This is a cynical ploy to starve and harass Venezuelans into rising up against Maduro and this offering of crumbs to Venezuela, it’s a psychological operation. It’s a political maneuver. If the U.S. really wanted to aid the Venezuelan people, they would lift the sanctions, they would coordinate with international aid agencies and the UN and the Maduro government to deliver goods. This isn’t about humanitarian aid. This is a provocation aimed at bolstering the coup government of Juan Guaidó. And Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are lying about the actual intent of this so-called aid. The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, both of them have said this isn’t actually humanitarian aid because it’s being politicized. And both have declined to participate in what amounts to a U.S. propaganda stunt. Here is Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza speaking last week at the United Nations.
Jorge Arreaza: The cost of this blockade is over $30 billion and they are sending their so-called humanitarian aid for $20 million. So, what is this? I’m choking you. I’m killing you and then I’m giving you a cookie. So, that’s a show and they have said it.
JS: Let’s step back and just look at this simple fact: OK, Donald Trump declared his fake national emergency in order to try to push through his insane wall project. At the same time, the U.S. is demanding that the president of Venezuela open his country’s border to a hostile foreign power that is actively attempting to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Trump is constantly lying about the people who come across the U.S. border and now, he’s lying about the U.S. efforts to illegally cross into Venezuela’s territory. Unlike Trump’s border wall in the U.S., he’s being supported by Democrats in trying to violate the sovereignty of Venezuela. On Monday, Trump gave a belligerent speech in Miami, filled with threats against the Maduro government.
DJT: The eyes of the entire world are upon you today, every day, and every day in the future. You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you.
JS: And by the way, let’s not forget that National Security Advisor John Bolton recently suggested that the U.S. may consider sending Maduro to the Guantanamo prison camp.
John Bolton: You know, I wish him a long quiet retirement on a pretty beach far from Venezuela. And the sooner he takes advantage of that, the sooner he’s likely to have a nice quiet retirement on a pretty beach rather than being in some other beach area like Guantanamo.
JS: Over the weekend, an extremely sweaty Senator Marco Rubio of Florida appeared on CNN from the Colombia border where the U.S. military planes have been landing. And Marco Rubio had the audacity to say that the refusal of Maduro to participate in this U.S. humanitarian aid stunt would constitute what Rubio called a “crime against humanity.”
Marco Rubio: I will say this to you, we know if there is violence next week and people are harmed here, we know who’s responsible for it and every single one of them will pay a price. They will face justice and they will spend, or they will spend the rest of their lives worried about justice catching up to them.
JS: On CNN, Rubio was also asked whether he would support U.S. military action in Venezuela.
MR: There are certain lines and Maduro knows what they are and if they are crossed, I am confident based on everything I’ve heard from this administration and everything I know about this administration that the consequences will be severe and they’ll be swift. And he’s aware of that.
JS: You see, this is a classic U.S. model that’s being applied right now to Venezuela. You interfere, destabilize, sanction, smear a country and its government. You unleash weapons of economic destruction. You deprive people of basic goods and dignity and then you overtly pretend that you had nothing to do with it. This was all the socialists who did this. You blame the government for the destruction. You demand that people rise up against their government. You demand they accept whatever puppet the U.S. wants installed or else the misery and suffering will continue.
Just listen to the analysis of one of puppet leader Juan Guaidó’s advisors in the U.S., Ricardo Hausmann. He is a Venezuelan living in the U.S. and is at the Harvard Center for International Development, the so-called Venezuela project of the Harvard Growth Lab. Hausmann has spent years attacking the initiatives of Hugo Chávez that were aimed at improving literacy and offering food subsidies and helping the poorest Venezuelans. At the same time, Hausmann has been advocating for more multinational corporations to divvy up Venezuela’s oil resources. He wants a neoliberal economic model to be reintroduced in Venezuela. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Hausmann talked about the neoliberal institutions that he and Guaidó want to bring into Venezuela after they bring Maduro down.
Tom Keene: This is critical, Ricardo Hausmann. You’re going to be on every committee to get this solved. Which global institutions come to the rescue to rebuild a totally fractured economy? IMF, World Bank, or is it the U.S. once again?
Ricardo Hausmann: We have been in touch with all of them. I have been in touch with all of them. I’ve been working for the last three years on a morning after plan for Venezuela. President Guaidó has a morning after plan for Venezuela.
Jonathan Ferro: Are you in touch with him now?
RH: We’ve talked to the IMF. We’ve talked to World Bank.
TK: Have you talked to Mr. Guaidó?
JF: How recently?
JS: For now, the Maduro government says it’s not going to bow to U.S. pressure. But the CIA, the Trump administration, powerful political figures from both parties in the United States, they’re all pushing the propaganda. They’re secretly meeting with members of Venezuela’s military, and there are allegations of weapons smuggling. It’s all so very reminiscent of the 1980s and the dirty wars in Central America.
John Dancy: The Iran-Contra scandal transfixed Washington for most of 1987 and renewed a struggle as old as the republic between the president and Congress.
JS: But actually, in the 1980s, you had Congressional opposition. You had a real fight.
Lee Hamilton: How can our system of government work if the administration is not candid in its answers to the Congress?
JS: Congress blocked Reagan from funding the Contras. That was the whole point of Iran-Contra. To circumvent Congressional Democrats actually fighting to stop the flow of U.S. support for death squads. Now, instead of asking real questions and instead of holding the White House responsible, the Democrats have largely fallen in line behind Donald Trump. Venezuela’s foreign minister said that strategy and the attempt to install Juan Guaidó as president have failed.
Jorge Arreaza: The momentum of the coup that the government of the United States was promoting is over. It didn’t happen. You have to rethink your strategy.
JS: I’ve said this numerous times, and I will say it again, there are very serious, legitimate grievances against the Maduro government in Venezuela. The U.S. interference is not the only story here and it’s not the sole reason that Venezuela is facing the incredible tumult, the incredible suffering that it is. Hugo Chávez played a role in this. Maduro continues to play a role in it. People in Venezuela should have their right to choose their leaders respected without any outside interference — for Maduro or against him. But there is, in my view, no defensible case whatsoever that can be made that the United States government or the Trump administration should be the decider for the people of Venezuela. None. The media coverage of this crisis has been absolutely abominable. It’s been one-sided. It’s been lazy. And, at times, it has supported yet another disastrous path toward overthrowing a government that poses absolutely no threat to the people of the United States whatsoever. And that is why we are focusing on this part of the story, the U.S. role. Because it’s not being told almost anywhere in the U.S. media. And as this regime change campaign continues to intensify, massive protests are continuing to rock Haiti.
[Sounds of protests in Haiti.]
JS: At the heart of those protests is the demand that the U.S.-backed president of Haiti resign. Haitians are fed up with the corruption, the austerity measures, the poverty that so many live in while the Washington-friendly elite pillage the country. The contrast between Haiti and Venezuela could not be more stark. The Haitians are protesting against a U.S. client government — a government in Port au Prince that has been blackmailed and pressured into supporting the U.S. campaign for regime change in Venezuela. We are going to dig deep into the situations in both Haiti and Venezuela.
Joining me now are two guests: Kim Ives is one of the founders of the weekly newspaper Haiti Liberté, where he is a writer and editor. That paper has offices in Port-au-Prince and in Brooklyn, New York. I’m also joined by George Ciccariello-Maher. He is currently Visiting Scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, and author of three books: “We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution,” “Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela,” and most recently, “Decolonizing Dialectics.” Kim, George, welcome to Intercepted.
George Ciccariello-Maher: Thanks for having me.
Kim Ives: Thank you.
JS: Kim, let’s begin with you. We’ve seen massive protests erupt in Haiti as the Trump administration is threatening directly Venezuela. What is happening on the ground right now in Haiti?
KI: Well, it’s an uprising similar to that 33 years ago in Haiti under the regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Newscaster: Thousands of Haitians made a pilgrimage today to Gonaïves, a city north of Port-au-Prince where three students were shot to death last November. They were remembered as martyrs at a mass celebrating the fall of Duvalier.
KI: He ended up having to be flown out of Haiti on a U.S. Air Force plane to a golden exile in France. But the rebellion continued for the next five years and resulted in the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990. So I feel we’re in a similar period. Basically, the people are fed up with this neo-Duvalierist government, which has been in power basically since 2011 thanks to Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton who facilitated the rise of Michel Martelly — who was able to capture the presidency and then plunder the Petrocaribe fund that Venezuela had provided Haiti about $4 billion worth of oil revenues thereby have his successor elected who is Jovenel Moïse, the guy currently in power. So, the people are fed up with the corruption and with the misery that they’re in. Because the money that was supposed to go for development programs that Hugo Chávez envisioned happening instead went into chalets and fast cars.
JS: Who is Moïse?
KI: He is a putative, agribusiness entrepreneur. He has a business called Agritrans, but he came into office interestingly, indicted for money laundering. Ironically, he says “I’m going to uproot corruption. I’m the guy who’s going to uproot corruption,” and yet, you can’t find a more corrupt guy. But he really gets set back on his heels back in July after the Venezuelan crude spigot was turned off. The IMF told him “Hey, man, you got to raise the prices on gas and oil and kerosene,” and they raise them like 50% on a day and the people went ballistic.
Gabriel Elizondo: In February, the International Monetary Fund agreed to give Haiti $96 million in much-needed funds. But only if the government agreed to several measures. One of which was raising the price of government-subsidized fuel. The government complied chaos ensued.
KI: So, that was really a precursor to what’s happened now.
The U.S. basically sees Haiti as a pawn in their war against Venezuela. They can’t do it through the U.N. Security Council their usual fig leaf because of the problems now with Russia and China who are going to put the kibosh on that with their veto in the Security Council. So they have to go to the junior varsity which is, of course, the OAS, the Organization of American States what Cuba rightly calls “Washington’s Ministry of Colonial Affairs.” So they’re trying to push through this Democratic charter which was passed on September 11th, 2001 which basically says if two-thirds of the 35 members of the OAS can vote together, they can intervene in another country. Right now, they have 19 votes.
Haiti voted against sanctioning Venezuela in the March 2017 OAS vote. Then there was another vote last year and they abstained. But this year on January 10th, finally the browbeating and the bullying and the bribery, maybe, came to fruition and they voted with Washington that Nicolás Maduro was illegitimate after receiving these $4 billion in Petrocaribe funds. So that was really the spark that set off the rebellion we’re seeing today. The people said come on. That’s just too much.
JS: George, I want to get your response to Donald Trump’s speech in Miami on Monday where he gave this full-frontal assault on the Maduro government and basically said Maduro’s days are numbered. Anyone in his inner circle who wants to stay alive, basically, needs to jump off that ship. George, respond to the tone and the threats made in the Trump speech in Miami.
GCM: I mean, this was really an astonishing speech. We should be clear about that. He didn’t simply threaten Venezuela, but he talked about a new day for Latin America.
DJT: Hello, Miami. I am thrilled to be back in the state I love with so many proud freedom-loving patriots. We’re here to proclaim a new day is coming in Latin America. It’s coming.
GCM: He was not even implying but explicitly stating a return to a century-old policy of non-sovereignty in Latin America as Greg Grandin has shown in recent writings. You know, a return to the explicit terms of the Monroe Doctrine in which the United States gets to dictate what happens, you know, across the hemisphere and he spoke in hemispheric terms and he spoke — of course, this was you know, sanitized as democracy, but he spoke explicitly in terms of the United States being able to dictate what happens across the hemisphere. What Trump did was explicitly to pressure not just the inner circle of Maduro but also military leaders more broadly. He sort of gave them an ultimatum. He said, you know, would you like to live out the rest of your lives comfortably with your families or do you want to go down with his sinking ship? So, it was explicitly a threat.
It’s the same increasingly desperate attempt to split the Venezuelan military. Trump and the Venezuelan opposition thought that this would happen immediately and of course, didn’t and so now, what they’re really trying to do is to turn the screws and to up the narrative and the rhetorically sort of fire toward Venezuela to make it a broad historical shift. This is explicit interventionism and its attempt to, of course, an attempt at regime change and attempt to you know, at a coup, and an attempt to use this sort of fake you know, humanitarian aid as a trojan horse to bring down a government.
JS: On the issue of that so-called humanitarian aid, over the weekend you had additional U.S. military aircraft landing in Colombia near the Venezuela border. Marco Rubio is down there running point on the propaganda for the United States.
MR: We have a choice to make. Do we want or do we not want people in Venezuela to have food and medicine? And if we do then we have to try and if in fact, a criminal regime tries to block it, then the world will see its true nature and take that into account in its next steps.
JS: At the same time, Venezuela has said that they’ve seized weapons that there was an attempt to illegally smuggle into Venezuela. And the Venezuelan government of Maduro is saying that those weapons were intended to be used for violence against the legitimate government of Venezuela. What is your response to the Trump administration and also Democrats like Nancy Pelosi who say Maduro is not allowing this desperately needed humanitarian aid into Venezuela?
GCM: The Venezuelan economy is in an incredibly difficult position owing to things ranging from government mismanagement in a certain way of the currency in particular but also to explicit sabotage, black market activity, currency speculation, U.S. intervention, and sanctions, especially beginning about a year ago under Trump. And these things have all really been clamping down on the everyday standard of living of many Venezuelans. It is not, however — you know, we’re talking, for example, we’re talking with Kim about Haiti. It is not a humanitarian crisis on the scale that many countries are facing across the globe. The economy has hit a severe downturn but aid is explicitly being used as a political weapon at this point. The Red Cross has come out and said, this is “not humanitarian aid.” The United Nations won’t touch it, of course, and the actual amount of the aid is really a pittance when it comes to the effect — the crushing effect — of these U.S. sanctions.
So, if the United States had any intentions or any pretension of wanting to help everyday Venezuelan people, the first thing, of course, to do would be to lift the sanctions, but that is not the goal. You know, normally when U.S. military aircraft fly in and land on the border, it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen and it’s pretty clear what the objectives are. But for some reason Republicans and Democrats alike for the most part, outside of a couple of these this new cohort of representatives, are fooling themselves, are deluding themselves into this narrative of democracy that’s being put forward by not only by Trump, but by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil who’s an open fascist, you know, by all these far right-wing governments across Latin America that because the OS wasn’t pliable enough for them formed something called The Lima Group, you know, explicitly, aiming at the overthrow of this Venezuelan government.
JS: Kim, you have spent decades reporting on Haiti, on revolutions, on counterrevolutions. Give an overview of how the United States has used the pretext of humanitarianism in its operations in an attempt to fulfill its agenda in Haiti.
KI: Well, probably the best example is the 2010 earthquake. They started to have trouble with René Préval. So the U.S. you know, came and they shoved a lot of things down his throat so that they could go into Haitian territorial waters whenever they wanted. They privatized all the state industries and Préval did that, but he was resentful the whole time. And so here come the Venezuelans saying “Listen, we’re going to give you capital and you can start to rebuild your country with this.” The first thing that Préval did when he came into power after his second election was signed the Petrocaribe deal with Vicente Rangel the Venezuelan vice-president. So he signs this agreement and it took them two years basically to get the oil really flowing and get the Petrocaribe fund, this capital fund. So, the U.S. now was pissed about this and here comes the earthquake and they say, “Ah, here’s a golden opportunity.” So, they basically took over Préval’s government. The Pentagon, who landed twenty thousand U.S. troops with no invitation from Haiti, no permission even from Haiti. Send in Hillary Clinton to start to stage manage everything. And then Bill Clinton’s running the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission.
ABC News: And together the Clintons played prominent roles after the earthquake as for-profit companies and aid organizations rushed in to be part of a $10 billion reconstruction program.
KI: They passed a law, state of emergency and basically took over the government and started to bring in, of course, all the usual contractors, you know, Brown and Root and —
KI: Halliburton, et cetera, et cetera, rebuilding. So, but they weren’t done yet. They needed to basically get Préval out. Now, Préval had an election coming up. There was the presidential election. So, in this election, Jude Célestin came in second in the first round and this guy Michel Martelly who was basically a neo-Duvalier much more U.S.-centric came in third. In January 2011 Hillary Clinton flies to Port-au-Prince to read Rene Préval the riot act and say “You got to take your guy out and put Michel Martelly in,” which finally as is, is want he did. In comes, Martelly and out goes Préval. So, the humanitarian aid — the whole takeover, supposedly to the benefit of the Haitians, was used essentially for economic enrichment in this political coup via an election and we see the result today. That’s what the people are rising up about.
JS: George, what do you make of the way that the Venezuelan government under Maduro has been responding to Juan Guaidó declaring himself president, the onslaught of the propaganda machine from the U.S., but also this military buildup that we’re witnessing coupled with the threats?
GCM: I think the Maduro government has had to walk a very difficult line. So, on the one hand, they don’t want to look weak. They certainly don’t want to look as if their seeding to this sort of unelected self-proclaimed interim president, but on the other hand, they don’t want to provoke. So, for example, when Maduro very justifiably ordered U.S. diplomatic officials out of the country, totally legitimate given U.S. intervention into, you know, this whole affair, Trump refused to recognize this. He said they didn’t need to leave. He’s not the president, et cetera. Maduro then very carefully ratcheted down the tension around this question because it would have been legitimate to arrest those officials, detain them, and expel them. But this was in a way, precisely what Trump wanted. Now the next provocation is what’s going to happen on the border where the U.S. in league with the Venezuelan opposition is going to attempt to force this aid across the border.
Philip Reeves: Today, at the mass protests, Guaidó announced the deadline for getting the aid into Venezuela, the 23rd of February. Maduro shows no sign of relenting.
GCM: The goal is to literally violate the sovereign territory of Venezuela. I think it’s going to be really tense what happens over the next few days and unfortunately, in the medium term what’s going to happen is that the new wave of Trump sanctions and now the even newer wave that he’s then sort of folded on top of these is really going to crush the Venezuelan economy even further. And so absent other sources of aid and support, it’s going to be very difficult for the Venezuelan government to really hold out amid this blockade. Now, we do know that some Russian and Chinese aid has arrived and it’s being distributed and we, you know, there’s no reason to doubt that that’s not far more than these sort of symbolic pittances that the U.S. is offering. But whether or not that will be enough is really going to be part of what plays out in the long term. We’ve got an oil blockade. You’ve got the actual theft of billions of dollars held in U.S. accounts that have been handed over to Guaidó. You’ve got Guaidó attempting to, you know, basically get the bank of England to hand over all of the gold that Venezuela has stored there. In other words, this mass theft of money that should be used to really ride out this, you know, this economic crisis and to put the Venezuelan economy on a more stable footing.
JS: You know, Andrew McCabe who’s on his media tour right now for his book and the big headlines that he made was talking about plans to allegedly invoke the 25th Amendment to try to have Donald Trump removed as president based on his mental health or lack thereof. But he also talks about Venezuela in his book and I just want to read, George, a quote from Andrew McCabe’s book about a 2017 Oval Office meeting. He says, “Then the president talked about Venezuela. ‘That’s the country we should be going to war with,’ he said. ‘They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.'” Is that really what you see as the U.S. agenda here, George?
GCM: They’ve been very clear about that. But I think the quote that you read is also very revealing. He says all that oil and they’re, you know, they’re right there in our backyard essentially, right? We’re talking to the Monroe Doctrine. So, this is about economics. In other words, it is about economic control. But it’s also about political control and I think we should remember that because part of what the Chavista legacy is is not the you know, the demand for national sovereignty but the construction of regional alliances. In other words, we’ve been talking about Petrocaribe but also other international regional alliances, partnerships that have provided a cushion for Latin American countries to act independently. In other words not having to appeal to the World Bank and the IMF for funding if they have a momentary glitch in their economy, being able to borrow money from Venezuela, from Argentina.
What’s happened over the past few years is that this regional alliance has been disintegrated bit by bit. You know, we’re talking about coups in Honduras, quasi-coups in Brazil and Paraguay, elections in Argentina, in Chile, in Colombia that have really helped to pull apart this regional alliance. The Lima Group is the product of this. In other words, the new right-wing in Latin America that has made it harder. And so, in the absence of the U.S.’s ability to overthrow Chávez as they failed to do in 2002, they set about, you know, working around the edges and tearing apart this regional unity. And they’ve been very successful at that which now makes Venezuela that much more susceptible to their direct pressure. And of course, the goal of that regional control is economic control, is the ability to intervene and have you know, these resources, these markets at their command.
JS: Kim, the 1980s seems to be a big reference point now. You bring in people like Elliott Abrams who was deeply involved with war crimes, massacres, covering them up, lying to Congress, Iran-Contra. John Bolton, who has spent his entire life dedicated to spreading war around the world, and then a very militaristic Secretary of State in Mike Pompeo plus the military provocation, at the same time that Trump said during his State of the Union that there’s this threat of socialism even within the borders of the United States. Set what we’re seeing right now in Central and Latin America in the broader context.
KI: Well, I think it’s interesting. Haiti has always had this sort of vanguard role in history. At the peak of the colonial prosperity and period in the late 18th century, the Haitian revolution burst forth in 1791. They basically said the watchwords of the French Revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” are not being applied here in France in the Caribbean and started a thirteen-year revolution which ended up making the first independent nation of Latin America, the first black republic. And was the touchstone for all the revolutions across the continent. It was the Haitians who gave Bolivar his guns, his ships, his printing presses, his soldiers to fight the battles on the continent and free it. Fast forward to the 1980s, the period when the Soviet Union has finally been brought to its knees by the Reagan administration and Bush and the Sandinistas have been beaten in a sort of electoral coup in 1990 and the Haitians say “Damn it all. We’re going to elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” this anti-imperialist, liberation theologian.
Then starts really a wave, the pink tide we could say, because Chavez saw this in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador. And they said, “Damn we can do the same thing.” So, they borrowed the Haitian playbook and set off the pink tide. Now that has been fought back. The U.S. has now captured one-by-one Argentina, Chile, Brazil now. We end up with a situation where the Haitians are now standing up once again and saying, “Damn we’re going to fight back against this.” So I think yes, we see this sort of polarization with these ultra-militarist, ultra-reactionary people coming to power in the U.S.
JS: George, I’ve talked about this on previous episodes, but I want to remind people of something that we’re seeing unfold in real time and that is this continued reference by U.S. political figures including Nancy Pelosi and Trump and constantly on particularly, on television news media that Maduro is blocking a bridge between Colombia and Venezuela. I had a colleague of mine who specializes in satellite imagery go through all of the images from this particular bridge and people will remember this image because it was shown all over the world of these trucks and shipping containers blocking what appears to be a modern, high, super bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela and you have never seen a car cross that bridge, according to these satellite images. We’ve gone through all of the images for years and years and years. That bridge which we were told last week by the deputy foreign minister Carlos Ron had never been in use and hasn’t yet been inaugurated. But now, we’ve been looking at these historical satellite images from this specific site, and we never once saw a car crossing that bridge. It seems pretty clear that this is an intentional effort to propagandize and make people believe that Maduro is blocking aid from coming across that bridge when the reality is the bridge has never been used before. It seems like it’s meant to be an inciting image that would be used to justify continued U.S. hostility and aggression.
GCM: Absolutely. This is, it’s pure Hollywood, right? Like it’s literally a put-on that is being used to justify this war. The bridge was never opened and I’m glad you all have gone back through, you know, the satellite footage to prove something that people have been saying. Because it’s repeated, it becomes sort of like just a narrative that is repeated throughout the media that this bridge is being blocked when it literally was never used, right? It was not a bridge that we used but that was used for commercial traffic. It was not a bridge that was used to cross any kind of aid and so it hasn’t been blocked. It hasn’t been obstructed. But this also is used to distract from the fact that and to almost fall into that narrative that the aid is somehow legitimate or the so-called aid. It’s not aid. You know, you had Trump on TV yesterday celebrating Óscar Pérez who if people recall was a self-proclaimed Venezuelan rebel leader who then commandeered a helicopter and lobbed grenades at the Supreme Court.
DJT: Oscar gave his life for the freedom of his people. We all have hope today because of great, great people and patriots like Oscar. Please —
GCM: It feels like you know, we’re back under Reagan. You know, we’re back in the period in which the Contras were Freedom Fighters, right, while they were just decapitating and raping and pillaging across Nicaragua. These people don’t care about aid. They don’t care about the Venezuelan people. They don’t care about democracy. This is absolutely clear. And so we’re left in this situation where we’re still fighting through these bizarre media narratives that are all used to justify something that we all know is also not true and the Democrats for the most part, 99 percent are falling right into this script and into this narrative.
JS: I want to also ask for your response to the latest rounds of sanctions from the Trump administration targeting specific individuals in the Maduro government and whether you accept the premise of any of the U.S. allegations against specific individuals within Maduro’s government and Maduro himself on the issue of corruption or plundering state resources or mis-managing funds for the country. Is there no legitimacy whatsoever to the allegations being made by Guaidó or the U.S. Treasury Department?
GCM: I mean, is there corruption in Venezuela? Absolutely, there always has been and it’s rife in oil economies and it was rife before Chávez and it continued and there were struggles against it that probably didn’t go as far as they should have. But this all takes place in the context of a government trying to maintain a tense balance of power, trying to you know, clean up the government as much as possible while the economy is then later being wrecked in a way that incentivizes corruption. For example, today the deciders in Venezuela as a result of this U.S. pressure are generals. And this is not a good situation for a country to be in because generals, you know, are then able to make demands of the government for their own personal enrichment. And this is not, you know, this isn’t something that we should want. But there are two questions, I think, that there are outstanding. One is does the United States have absolutely any moral authority to talk about what’s going on in the Venezuelan government? And I think the answer is a resounding no.
But the second point is that there’s also been this bizarre — and it really is bizarre — press narrative that says that the original Trump sanctions were targeted. The sanctions that have been in place for more than a year now have been absolutely debilitating. They have not been targeted at individuals either despite people repeating this over and over and over again. They made it almost impossible for Venezuela to acquire financing to help the oil industry continue to function. I just want to push back against this narrative that the sanctions that exist have been targeting individuals because they’ve actually really help to destroy the quality, you know, of life of many Venezuelans. You can see this in the level of oil production which declined precipitously over the last year and the effect is in the streets. There is corruption. There’s always been corruption. It is the social movements on the grassroots level that have wanted to fight that corruption, that have sought to provide oversight against that corruption, but they are precisely the ones who are being hammered today by those very same sanctions.
JS: Alright, we’ve got to leave it there. George, thank you very much for joining us.
GCM: Thanks for having me.
JS: Kim Ives, thank you as well.
KI: Thanks, Jeremy.
JS: Kim Ives is a longtime journalist focused on Haiti. He’s the founder of the weekly publication Haiti Liberté. And George Ciccariello-Maher is the author of “We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.”
JS: The newly elected Democratic Congresswoman from Minneapolis, Ilhan Omar, is facing an onslaught of attacks from Donald Trump and Mike Pence. They’re demanding that she resign. But she also has had the full weight of the Democratic Party leadership crash down upon her with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer leading the charge and publicly denouncing her.
Newscaster: From Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader Steny Hoyer and many others now, they say that they condemn what she has said. Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel supporters is deeply offensive.
JS: They’re smearing her as an anti-semite because she dared to criticize the Israeli lobby AIPAC. Both Trump and Pence have suggested that, at a minimum, Nancy Pelosi should strip Ilhan Omar of her committee assignments.
DJT: And I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
JS: Now, of course, Ilhan Omar was pressured into issuing an apology, but she forged ahead unbowed. In fact, during a foreign relations committee hearing on Venezuela, Representative Omar broke with the fake decorum of Washington and she actually questioned the murderous record of the Trump administration’s point man on Venezuela. I’m talking about Elliott Abrams. He, of course, is an unrepentant war criminal. He lied to cover up Iran-Contra. He was a key player in massacres and widespread killing in Central America and the effort to cover those up. And Ilhan Omar asked him about all of this as he sat right there before Congress.
Ilhan Omar: I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.
Elliott Abrams: If I can respond to that —
IO: It wasn’t a question.
IO: That was not, that was not a question. I reserve the right to my time.
EA: It is not right.
IO: That was not a question.
IO: On February 8th —
EA: — Who is not permitted to reply.
IO: That was not a question. Thank you for your participation.
JS: After Ilhan Omar questioned Abrams, a gaggle of bipartisan foreign policy elites scrambled one over the other to defend Elliott Abrams. Max Boot — the vile neoconservative who currently masquerades as a changed man and has never met a war he didn’t love other people to fight — he wrote an entire Washington Post column attacking Ilhan Omar and lying about how Abrams and saying he is this magical warrior for human rights and democracy. Max Boot called Omar’s questions a “botched interrogation” and a “disgraceful” attack on Elliot Abrams. But it wasn’t just Max Boot. Several Democratic, or let’s say more liberal foreign policy elites, rushed to defend Abrams. A senior official at the Center for American Progress Kelly Magsamen, she was on Barack Obama and George W. Bush’s national security councils, this is what she tweeted — and then later deleted this tweet — she said, “I worked for Elliott Abrams as a civil servant. He is a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy. Yes, he made some serious professional mistakes and was held accountable. I’m a liberal but I’m also fair. We have a lot of work to do together in Venezuela. We share goals.”
So today, on this show, we want to paint a very clear picture of who Elliott Abrams really is. And we want to make sure that everyone who is backing the Trump administration’s drive to overthrow the Venezuelan government understands what exactly happens when Elliott Abrams is unleashed on a country. We asked my Intercept colleague Jon Schwarz to walk us through the bloody and murderous career of the man now in charge of U.S. Venezuela operations.
Jon Schwarz: Elliott Abrams comes from the top tier of American society, you know, he went to Harvard as an undergraduate. Then he went to Harvard Law School and he went to work for various senators, actually, Democratic senators, during the 1970s. He had become dissatisfied by the wimpy foreign policy of the Democratic Party and decided that the Reagan administration was going to be doing the kinds of things that he supported.
Ronald Reagan: But in spite of or maybe because of a flurry of stories about places like Nicaragua and El Salvador — and yes, some concerted propaganda — many of us find it hard to believe we have a stake in problems involving those countries. Too many have thought of Central America is just that place way down below Mexico that can’t possibly constitute a threat to our well-being. Central America’s problems do directly affect the security and the well-being of our own people. And Central America is much closer to the United States than many of the world trouble spots that concern us. So we worked to restore —
Jon S: Elliott Abrams joined the Reagan Administration 1981 and he was named Assistant Secretary of State for human rights and humanitarian affairs one day after the El Mozote a massacre in El Salvador. What was done in El Mozote is like, people don’t really have the vocabulary to communicate this kind of evil.
Raymond Bonner: In front of one hovel laya blue knit infant’s bonnet near a plastic baby bottle. Inside, among the ruins, skeletons of two bodies were discernible along with the jumble of bones from an undetermined number of others possibly members of the same family or maybe just friends. Inside, five skulls were strewn among the smash tiles. At the edge of a cornfield, under the green leaves of the banana trees was a pile of 14 bodies, infants and men and women in their teens and early twenties.
Horrified disbelief was reflected in their wide eyes and gaping mouths. In the heap was a child, perhaps five years old. There was a months-old infant wrap securely around the buttocks in a clean cotton bath towel as if he or she were being carried perhaps by the face down woman in plastic sandals. The Earth was littered with spent M16 automatic rifle cartridges. The victims were members of an evangelical group and had gathered in a house for protection. The house was shambles.
Jon S: So Raymond Bonner and also a reporter from The Washington Post got into El Mozote which is in you know, like a mountain — It’s in a mountainous region near the border with Honduras within a couple of weeks of the massacre occurring and it was reported in the New York Times by the end of January. It’s about six weeks after it happened. And the Reagan administration was very angry about this. One of the things that Elliott Abrams helped with was trying to discredit the reporters and claimed that this was, you know, 1981 fake news. They went to the editors of the New York Times and complained about him: You know, he’s sympathetic to the Salvadoran guerrillas; maybe he’s actually on their side; possibly, he’s a communist. And they did that very successfully and pretty much destroyed Raymond Bonner’s career for a period of time. And of course, in retrospect, everything Bonner reported was accurate and everything that the Reagan administration said was a lie.
PBS & Societe Radio Canada: Up in the mountains at El Mozote, archaeologists are digging up the bones of 1,000 peasants massacred by the armed forces. This massacre happened 12 years ago at the start of the civil war between the army and FMLN guerillas.
Although there is now peace in El Salvador. The authors of this war crime have never been brought to trial. Rufina was the sole survivor.
Rufina [translated from Spanish]: To exterminate everything, to kill everybody. An operation to demolish everything in the light, to raise the land flat.
PBS & Societe Radio Canada: The testimony reported by the world’s media was scorned by the governments of both El Salvador and the United States. With the bones dug up, the
United Nations Truth Commission now hopes to bring justice in El Mozote and other war crimes threatening over 10 years of military impunity and power.
Jon S: Since the Spanish colonized Central America, so that’s Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, they had set up a social system that was very close to slavery if not slavery for real. And it developed a culture of like tremendous cruelty over hundreds of years. And if the people who are working the plantations like stuck their heads up, there were all kinds of like hideous massacres throughout Central American history. But what happened in 1979, is that the Somoza dictatorship which the U.S. had supported in Nicaragua was overthrown and lots of other people all over Central America took notice and were like, “Hey, you know, it would be nice. If you know, we were not being continually massacred by dictators ourselves.” And of course, conservatives in Central America, conservatives in the United States, the incoming Reagan administration saw this and were like, “Yeah, these people suddenly have hope for their lives. We can’t have that. We must stamp it out.” To them, every single thing is communism. An eight-hour workday is communism. A minimum wage is communism. Children not working and dying in mines is communism. So to them, yes, they were scared of communism and that’s what they were scared of, you know, like a minimal just decent life for regular people.
Newscaster: Administration officials angrily rejected a congressional report charging that U.S. involvement in El Salvador is quietly escalating much as it did in Vietnam. The State Department said the limit of 55 military advisers has not been violated and denied that American troops have been getting into combat saying the policy against it is strictly enforced. Officials also rejected charges that Congress was misled about aid to El Salvador and that money earmarked for economic assistance to the people has been used to help the military.
Bernard Kalb: It is unfair and inaccurate to charge that our strategy in El Salvador is overwhelmingly military. We categorically reject the assertion that Congress has been deceived by the administration.
Jon S: In the early 80s, the same period of time when Abrams was helping cover up what the Salvadoran military was doing with our assistance and training. Efraín Ríos Montt was the strongman dictator of Guatemala and he was later found guilty by a Guatemalan court of committing genocide. At the time, Elliott Abrams was going on the news and he was saying “Oh, Ríos Montt has brought considerable progress.”
EA: If we take the attitude that don’t come to us until you’re perfect, we’re going to walk away from this problem until Guatemala has a perfect human rights record. Then we’re going to be leaving in lurch people there who are trying to make progress and are succeeding.
Jim Lehrer: Do you firmly believe that the key person who’s trying to make progress is President Ríos Montt?
EA: Yes, because the government policies really changed after he came in in March of last year. And he is, I think it’s fair now to say, practicing what he preaches. There has been a tremendous change, especially in the attitude of the government towards the Indian population, which used to be seen as an enemy and is now seen as —
JS: Toward the Indian population meaning the people who he was attempting to exterminate. As with El Salvador, with Guatemala, like, he was also the point man to tell the lies that needed to be told.
EA: The fact that conditions there are terrible which we all know doesn’t qualify you for asylum or the whole world would be coming in.
Alicia Bowman: I think that we don’t qualify for asylum only because the repression and the massacres that are being [carried out] in El Salvador are supported by the U.S. government.
EA: We don’t support repression. We don’t support massacres —
AB: If the state department or the immigration services of the United States would provide asylum for the refugees, they would be contradicting themselves because that would mean that they don’t have to send arms so that they could —
EA: We provide asylum to people from dozens and dozens —
Jon S: So Abrams is maybe best known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair. After the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza had been overthrown, the United States organized and funded the Contras. And so this was a guerrilla army whose goal was to overthrow the new socialist Nicaraguan government.
EA: Fundamentally what’s going on is that there is an effort by the Soviet Union and Cuba to establish another communist country in the Western Hemisphere. There’s one, Cuba. There was briefly another one in Grenada until we solved that problem. And now the problem is, what about Nicaragua? What is going to happen with Nicaragua?
Jon S: Abrams was like hip-deep in all of this and the problem from the perspective of the Reagan administration was that the Contras were like, number one, they were drug smugglers. Number two, they were largely actual terrorists like the kind of attacks that they conducted on Nicaraguans were extremely gruesome also, just attacking civilians. And so Congress, you know, eventually said no, we’re not going to spend any more money on the Contras. And so the Reagan administration was left with this problem. Well, obviously we can’t stop attacking the Nicaraguan government. So, we’ve got to come up with some money some other way and one of the ways they decided that they would come up with money was just like going around to friendly right-wing governments around the world and being like “Hey, can you help out and chip in?”
EA: Basically the next president confronts a choice between permitting a new Cuba to develop or acting forcefully to prevent it. The purpose of President Reagan’s policy of supporting the Freedom Fighters is to make sure that we don’t have to confront that choice. We can protect our national security and keep the Soviets from getting a new colony consolidated in Central America just by helping those Nicaraguans who want to fight for their own country. And if we abandon them, then it’s very clear that there’s only one other force that stands between the Soviets and taking that colony, and that’s us.
Jon S: So, one of the ways we tried to get the money was the Iran part where we were going to sell arms to Iran and take the proceeds from the sales and give it to the Contras. But another plan was to go to people like the Sultan of Brunei, one of the richest human beings on Earth. And Abrams acting under the codename “Kenilworth” went to London and set up a deal with the Sultan of Brunei where he would give the United States ten million dollars that we would pass along to the Contras. So, they have this super-secret special plan. Everything is ready to go. Elliott Abrams says, “Here’s the Swiss bank account number that you should wire this money to,” and the number that he gave the Sultan of Brunei was off by one digit. So, the ten million dollars went accidentally to one random lucky recipient.
Mark Belnick: And, the ambassador cabled back, and that is Exhibit 20, stating that he had met with an official from the government of Brunei, conveys that message and had found the official visibly shaken when he was told that the money still had not been received. Correct?
MB: And as you understand from subsequent events that have transpired only within the last several weeks the money subsequently has been located having been deposited into the wrong account in Switzerland.
EA: Well now, that’s right. It was, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Although as I looked back at past testimony, an error in the number was obviously a logical possibility and I guess that’s what, in fact, happened.
MB: All right, sir. Now —
Jon S: Elliott Abrams was deeply involved in everything involving the Iran-Contra story. But where he got into true legal trouble is that he testified in front of Congress and a nice way of putting it, the charge that he eventually pleaded guilty to was withholding information from Congress. He pleaded guilty to two counts. He got a hundred hours of community service, which he saw as perhaps the greatest injustice in mankind’s history. And then he was pardoned by President Bush, number one, as that Bush was going out the door.
EA: I think it is shameful for the United States to be going around rattling a tin cup. I think it is shameful. I did it because the Contras were, as far as I knew, starving.
Jon S: At this point, to everyone in Washington he was seen as damaged goods. And there was a belief well, you know, he’s never going to return to any presidential administration. But this truly underestimated him. William Crowe, who’d been chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he saw how resilient Abrams was and said at the time about Abrams, “This snake’s hard to kill.” And he was right because Bill Clinton came into office for eight years, but then the Republicans were back with George W. Bush and to the surprise of all naive Washingtonians, Abrams was back too.
Jon S: Bush hired him not for assistant Secretary of State position where he would need Congressional approval. But rather on the National Security Council where the president can just appoint them. This is true of John Bolton too, who have trouble getting Congressional approval for any position that required it. Again in positions where his title said that he was going to be promoting democracy and human rights.
Jon S: So, what did Elliott Abrams do during the Bush administration? One of the things he did was getting involved with Venezuela 16 years ago, actually 17 years ago at this point. Hugo Chávez was president of Venezuela in 2002. This infuriated the U.S. right-wing and there was a coup that was successful for only a couple of days because Chávez had so much support in the Venezuelan population and he was able to finagle his way back into power.
Pablo Navarrete: But word got out that the media had tricked people and Chavez supporters poured onto the streets demanding that their president be returned.
Jon S: So who was behind the coup? The reporting at the time said that the crucial figure around the coup was Abrams, was Elliott Abrams and that he gave a nod to the plotters to go ahead. You know, it’s going to take decades until we know the full story, but it should not be a surprise to anyone if the United States was behind it and Elliott Abrams specifically.
Jon S: Where does Abrams show up next? He made national news because of Representative Ilhan Omar last week where he came to testify in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee. She’s on the committee. She began with an accurate and important observation. The kind of thing that you would hope any member of Congress would say. She said, you know —
IO: I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.
Jon S: And the funny thing is that a normal person might hear that and be like, “Oh, I better be pretty careful not to lie to Congress again.” Elliott Abrams was lying to her within 90 seconds.
IO: You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a fabulous achievement. Yes, or no, do you still think so?
EA: From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.
Jon S: Now, every single word of that is false. He’s talking about a Salvadoran politician named José Napoleón Duarte. He was elected president. I guess there should be air quotes around that — “elected president of El Salvador” in 1984. This was not a free election. Like almost all the politicians who are prominent in El Salvador, Duarte had spent time on the CIA’s payroll. Duarte had been the head of a Junta. He was the head of the Junta during the El Mozote massacre, like during a period of time when tens of thousands of regular Salvadorans were being massacred. And the only competition for Duarte and El Salvador 1984 was Roberto D’Aubuisson. D’Aubuisson personally was involved in ordering the assassination of Óscar Romero. He was the Archbishop of San Salvador. He was later sainted. So in other words, Duarte’s competition was a guy who had literally murdered a saint.
D’Aubuisson was going to be a PR disaster and so they decided Duarte has to win. And he did indeed win. So, the idea that this was a free election in any way is preposterous and it just goes to show that I don’t know maybe with Elliott Abrams, it’s kind of muscle memory. Like you put him in front of Congress and he just starts lying.
Jon S: As long as Elliott Abrams is alive, he will clearly continue doing horrible things and lying to Congress. It’s important to look back and realize like, well, why is it possible for him to resurface again in his 70s for like this genocide comeback tour? Well, you know, the reason is that he is being protected by even more powerful people. You know, he was protected in the George H.W. Bush administration.
They could not leave office without giving him a get-out-of-jail-free card, even though his punishment, like he actually wasn’t in jail, but just the idea that someone like them might suffer consequences was unconscionable. So, they made sure that he did not suffer consequences. That, in turn, means that he’s able to come back in the present and do what he’s doing now.
JS: That was my Intercept colleague Jon Schwarz. He spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro. Make sure to check out Jon’s piece at TheIntercept.com. It’s called “Elliott Abrams, Trump’s pick to bring back ‘Democracy’ to Venezuela, has spent his life crushing democracy.”
JS: One of the most enduring and consistent aspects of U.S. foreign policy is, of course, hypocrisy. That’s certainly true when it comes to labeling certain leaders dictators and others freedom fighters or true democrats. The U.S. doesn’t actually want democracy unless it’s a particular kind of democracy that ultimately serves Washington’s interests. And the U.S. is perfectly fine with no democracy, as long as the undemocratic forces do the bidding of the U.S. That is certainly the case right now in Egypt.
On February 14th, Egypt’s puppet parliament took steps to allow General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to hold office beyond the expected end of his presidential term in 2022. In the eight years since the Egyptian revolution that ousted the nearly 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, the country has slid back under authoritarian rule.
Following protests against the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, Sisi led a military coup to oust the Muslim Brotherhood leader in 2013. Since coming to power, Sisi has presided over an unprecedented crackdown against well, any hint of criticism and dissent. Egypt has imprisoned more than 60,000 political activists, according to Human Rights Watch. On a “60 Minutes” interview here in the United States — that, by the way, the Egyptian government fought to try to stop from being broadcast after it was recorded — General Sisi shamelessly denied that his regime imprisons people based on their politics.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi [translated to English]: We don’t have political prisoners nor prisoners of opinion. We are trying to stand against extremists who impose their ideology on the people. Now they are subject to a fair trial. And it may take years, but we have to follow the law.
JS: Despite growing human rights concerns about General Sisi, the country’s relationship to Washington remains stronger than ever. Egypt is, as it has long been, the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid. And Donald Trump, he loves Sisi. He calls him a “fantastic guy.” He met him in 2016. And then he met again with Sisi this past September and Trump had nothing but praise for the Egyptian strongman.
DJT: It’s a great honor to be with President el-Sisi, a friend, a great friend, of Egypt. And we have very special things happening. Our relationship has never been stronger.
JS: Well, to discuss how politics have taken shape since the 2011 revolution in Egypt and how journalists and activists continue to risk their lives to keep the spirit of that revolution alive, I’m joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s a member of the media collective Mosireen, which created a publicly accessible database of hundreds of hours of footage from the Egyptian revolution. It’s called 858 Archive.
An independent journalist, who reports for Democracy Now! and al Jazeera, Sharif is based in Cairo. He’s reported from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Gaza, Algeria, and elsewhere. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, welcome to Intercepted.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous: Thank you for having me.
JS: So, on February 5th, the Egyptian opposition or what’s being called the opposition movement launched a challenge to constitutional amendments that could allow president President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to remain as president until 2034. First, explain what is happening legislatively there to try to amend the Constitution, who’s behind it and what it would essentially result in.
SAK: Sure, this has been a long-brewing project that many people have been talking about in the prostate media, kind of floating balloons about talking about the need to keep Sisi in power to complete all his projects to protect against Islamist getting in power. So Mada Masr, Egypt’s really only independent media outlet, reported that there [have] been meetings held on a nearly daily basis at the General Intelligence Services, Mukhabarat, between intelligence officials, the president’s office and headed by Sisi’s son to put this project into place.
JS: Mubarak’s sons weren’t available?
SAK: No, they’re actually seen as a threat by this regime but the Support Egypt Coalition, which is a pro-state coalition in Parliament submitted these amendments. The main thrust of these amendments is to extend — so, right now, there [are] two four-year presidential terms and that’s the maximum. These would extend the terms to six years but allow Sisi to run for them after his current term is up. So, he was supposed to be out in 2022. This would keep them until 2034. And he was first elected in 2014. So, he’d be in power for 20 years. It also shores up presidential powers gives him more authority over the judiciary and it also gives the military for the first time a constitutionally defined role to “protect the Constitution and democracy.” It’s unclear what that actually means.
You know, this is something which could be a catalyst for opposition in Egypt. Politics has basically been completely decimated any and all voices of opposition and dissent are often jailed or intimidated, many have been forced into exile. But already we’ve seen a coalition of some parliamentarians coming together to oppose this. We’ve seen 11 opposition parties come together. Earlier in January when this talk was really kind of increasing, a thousand public figures and journalists and writers signed the petition against this. Although I imagine that any people organizing or advocating for no votes would face repercussions including prison.
JS: Describe what this government in Egypt has done with people who were leaders of the uprising against Mubarak and people who have led protests against anti-democratic moves by the Sisi government.
SAK: I mean whenever I talk about Egypt, there’s always — I use the word unprecedented now many times — but there’s an unprecedented crackdown against kind of any voices of opposition and even against people who don’t say anything. We saw the crackdown initially come down and the hardest against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists supporters, but that has extended far beyond that. All the icons of the revolution, people like Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Maher and all these people have been jailed received years-long sentences. But it’s extended to artists, to writers, to satirists, to the LGBT community. People who even haven’t spoken out in years, get what we call, the dawn visitors. They come to your house very late at night, take you — usually, don’t know where. Their family [doesn’t] know their whereabouts for a few days, sometimes weeks. Then you end up being thrust in the case usually with these catchall charges of joining an outlawed group, which basically means the Brotherhood usually very far, people who have no connection to the Brotherhood whatsoever and usually publishing false news is part of the charges.
Many people are held in what’s called remand detention, which is pre-trial detention. Under the Egyptian penal code, you’re allowed to be held for two years without being convicted of a crime. Although they’ve kept people longer than that in remand detention. Most notably, Shawkan who is a photojournalist arrested during the Rabaa massacre in August of 2013. He’s been held for five years in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to five years. So time already served and yet he still in prison because prosecutors used some archaic law saying that he owed and everyone — there [are] hundreds of people in this case — that they owed money for the damage caused during the Rabaa dispersal.
Dayana Karim: Shawkan was arrested along with two other non-Egyptian journalists who were later released while he was taking pictures during the post-coup unrest in Egypt’s Rabaa Square in 2013. He was among hundreds of people detained when Egyptian security forces were ordered by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the president to end the six weeks sit-in. Almost 1,000 people died in the violence that followed.
SAK: It’s hard to describe what it’s like. Every few days something happens. Just in the past few days, a journalist returning from Tunisia — he was there continuing his journalism studies — was arrested at the airport. We still don’t know where he is.
This is a man who spent already a year and a half in prison, went on hunger strike and finally got out a couple of years ago, and now he’s been arrested again. A bunch of people who belonging to the Karama Party, a Nasserist party, held on the 25th of January an event to commemorate the revolution. A number of them have been arrested —
JS: More than 50 people, yeah?
SAK: Yeah —
JS: I mean the New York Times said that it was 54 people accused, plotting uprisings on the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.
SAK: Yeah, I mean this kind of happens in this drumbeat way, you know and Sisi’s constantly being lauded as a secular alternative to what the Muslim Brotherhood was and we’ve seen an unprecedented crackdown against Christians. We’ve seen an unprecedented crackdown against the gay community. Every day, there’s something like this. There’s a rights lawyer Mohamed Ramadan in Alexandria who in solidarity with protesters in France, posted a photo of himself wearing a yellow vest in solidarity with the Yellow Vest Movement in France. He’s been arrested. It’s hard to resist because we celebrate now when someone gets out of prison for being behind bars unjustly. That’s a reason to be happy.
JS: There’s also, and I’ve heard you talk about this before, but there’s also another way of severely restricting the freedom of people even if they technically are not in prison, where they have to go and report to police precincts. Explain that dimension of this. Even if a dissident or someone is allowed out, technically out of prison, they’re not really free. Explain what happens there.
SAK: Right, so people often get convicted to a couple of years in prison, but then they have an equivalent sentence — probation. What that involves is, it’s up to the head of the police station where your residency is —
JS: Just your local like neighborhood police?
SAK: Right and he has, the head of that station has the authority to either make you come in a couple times a week to sign in or what we’ve been seeing recently — and this happened with Ahmed Maher, who’s the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. He completed three years in prison and had three years probation. He is forced to go every single day to the police station at sunset and he spends a night and is only allowed out at sunrise. So, he has another three years of this. This is imprisonment. This is detention, and probably one of the most famous and revolutionary figures, Alaa Abd El Fattah, is finally completing his five years in prison. We failed to get him out before the five years. He’s supposed to be out in March. He has five years of probation. So, can you imagine that he would have to spend every night for five years in a police station? And this is something that’s not even talked about that much. It doesn’t happen to everyone that they have to spend the night every day, but certainly, people are made to go sign in very often and they can make you spend the night whenever.
JS: Last month was the anniversary of the January uprising against Hosni Mubarak that kicked off in 2011. Mohamed Morsi was elected president. It felt like it lasted just some minutes and then he was locked up. He still remains in in prison, in all likelihood will die in prison. How did this happen, Sharif? I mean, I realize I’ve asked you a massive question but like the entire world was captivated watching the events unfolding in Egypt. You had this longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and it seemed as though Egyptians had brought down that regime, that elections were held where someone who was not Mubarak or one of his henchmen won. What happened?
SAK: January 25th, 2011 something happened in Egypt which reverberated around the world and I think had an effect across the globe and for people across the globe. For me personally, it was a transformative moment when order is swept away and you’re able to imagine building a new one, a new kind of world. There is an incredible level of community and solidarity and nobility in what was happening. And that feeling hasn’t gone away, I think for many people. They still remember it and that’s why they don’t regret the revolution despite the severe repercussions we’ve had since then. Morsi was elected. The Muslim Brotherhood had a very powerful political machine. They’ve been contesting elections since the early 80s and they won fair and square.
Ayman Mohyeldin: The Supreme Presidential Elections Commission just announced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Dr. Mohamed Morsi will become the next president of Egypt. He has outnumbered his rival candidate, Dr. Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister, and that’s why people here behind me are celebrating.
SAK: Morsi was in power for exactly a year. During that time the Muslim Brotherhood acted in majoritarian ways. They used very divisive sectarian language to further their political goals. They encouraged violence against protesters by the police against them. They denied accusations of torture by police on protesters against them. So their values did not match at all what I would say were the revolution’s values. You know, this is a hierarchical, patriarchical, secretive organization and those are completely antithetical to the values of the revolution and somehow similar to the military, in many ways.
Protests began against them. Morsi issued what became a fateful constitutional declaration which gave him essentially powers above the judiciary and that he couldn’t be challenged. This sparked kind of a wave of protests against him.
It brought together different groups which had conflicting ideologies and grievances. So you had revolutionaries and so-called liberal parties against them and labor unions and trade syndicates. But you also had the police and the army and the old political and economic elite against him. And the military and police very successfully rode this wave of protests back into power and we saw a very frightening, I would almost call it, a fascistic moment where there was this hyper nationalism, this chauvinism that overtook the country which was extremely frightening to see. For Americans, I think you can think about post-9/11 and what that atmosphere was like. This was that on steroids and it led to one of the biggest state-led massacres globally, the Rabaa massacre in August 14th, 2013.
Bernard Smith: More than a thousand people were likely killed on August 14, 2013, that’s according to Human Rights Watch.
[Ambient sounds of gunfire.]
BS: No one from the Egyptian Security Forces has ever been charged with any offenses relating to the Rabaa Massacre.
SAK: I was there that day. As a reporter in the Middle East, I’ve seen many dead bodies over the last few years covering conflict in Gaza and Syria and Libya and Yemen. I can easily say that was the bloodiest day that I’ve ever witnessed.
JS: The Egyptian Army, it owns a lot of property in Egypt and it owns a lot of the land where natural resources are. I mean the military is, in many ways, exists on its own regardless of who is in power, right? I mean the military has this entrenched power where they own land. They control access in and out of the country, movement within the country. I mean, it’s not like the U.S. military with bases.
JS: Just explain for people how the Egyptian military functions because it’s not just about a force to protect the homeland. It’s also its own corporation.
SAK: I mean ever since 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy and the British in Egypt — what’s called the ’52 Revolution — the military has been the backbone of autocracy in Egypt.
Newscaster: From Cairo come these first authentic pictures of the bloodless coup by which the army took over control of Egypt. It was the end of the King’s attempt to maintain power. Troops in the street were the first indication of the change to most people until with a broadcasting station seized it was announced that General Nugee, the commander-in-chief whom Farouk refused as war minister had taken control.
SAK: They’re now what you can call a state within the state. Although they’re more and more becoming the state itself. They have their own economy. They have businesses and factories that sell everything from fertilizer to baby formula. They’re the biggest owner of land in Egypt. They run these massive conglomerates and enterprises which are untaxed and unaudited and have a labor force of conscripts that work for them. They’re so entrenched into the state itself. Former army generals often will be governors of different provinces. You’ll find them being the head of some, you know, the Suez Canal Authority. I don’t know that there’s another country which has that much infiltration of the military in all aspects of government. They’re completely entrenched into every aspect of the Egyptian state.
JS: Of course, the biggest recipient of U.S. support in the Middle East is Israel, but Egypt is in second place almost always. Let’s back up many, many decades. What was the original intent of the U.S. pouring so much military aid into Egypt?
SAK: Well, this came out of the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel that was brokered by President Carter.
Jimmy Carter: During the past 30 years, Israel and Egypt have waged war but for the past 16 months, these same two great nations have waged peace.
SAK: I mean Egypt now accounts for a quarter of all U.S. military funding in the world and has continued that funding throughout. We’ve seen that funding in recent years, become increasingly conditioned. A law was passed in 2012 where the state department now has to certify that Egypt or any countries moving towards human rights and rule of law and sort of these things. And if you read actually the state department’s own reports, they say that Egypt practices arbitrary detention, arbitrary killings, torture and yet, time and again, we see the Secretary of State issue what’s called a national security waiver to override those concerns and continue the funding.
Michele Kelemen: It was all smiles and handshakes at the state department as Secretary Mike Pompeo greeted his Egyptian counterpart. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came out later telling reporters that cooperation between the two countries is great and welcoming the administration’s decision to release military aid that had been held up over human rights concerns.
SAK: So, Egypt for many years, many decades, was the main ally, the main U.S. ally after Israel in the region. Its importance has waned, I would say, in the past eight years. You really see the rise of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as more powerful and Egypt losing significance. People say that might affect its funding because it’s not as important anymore in that sense.
JS: Is there any credible or strong enough opposition that could in your view mount any kind of a challenge to Sisi remaining as head of state? I mean, given the fact that tens of thousands of people who have been locked up — including many of the most articulate, brave fighters from the original Revolution — I mean, is there any chance of bringing Sisi down or confronting him either at the ballot box or in mass protest again?
SAK: Well, I think we have to consider the ballot box, it’s not, it’s not a fair system.
JS: Right, there is no real.
SAK: I mean Sisi was re-elected last year after either jailing, intimidating, or forcing any candidates from running. The only person who did run against him was, you know, one of the main people calling for his re-election, was his opponent.
JS: Wait, wait, wait, what?
SAK: So no one, after they forced everyone out, they needed someone otherwise, it would just be a referendum. So, the guy who’s the head of this other, this party — I mean, if you looked at his Facebook page, it had a big banner of Sisi saying, you know, calling for his re-election and he became somehow the last minute candidate to run against him.
JS: Sounds legit.
SAK: Yeah, so I think, yeah the ballot box is not viable. In terms of contentious politics and protest, I would sadly say that anytime soon, no. There has been such a fierce crackdown and repression on people. Many people have been forced into exile, many are in prison. You risk so much if you try anything right now and you know, these things come in waves and unfortunately, we’re seeing a wave of anti-revolutionary fervor not just in Egypt and the Middle East but across the world. There seems to be after post-Cold War and post-2008 financial crisis, the world is reorganizing in different ways. And right now there is this right-wing wave it seems and in Egypt right now, I don’t see any. I’m always hopeful for the future, but I don’t know that there could be any change soon.
JS: Despite the fact that journalists have been regularly targeted, imprisoned, forced into exile, there remains in Egypt a small but dedicated group of independent journalists who are committed to continuing to report on this repression, but also to ensuring that the videotaped history of the revolution and the aftermath remains alive and accessible for people around the world. So talk about that effort to preserve that history and also to continue reporting on these issues despite all of the risks.
SAK: I was part of a media collective called Mosireen during the Revolution that did a lot of documentation of protest and dissent and interviewing, getting testimony from people who were arrested and so forth. After 2013,2014, basically had to give up our space because the danger was very high but there was terabytes of footage that we felt didn’t belong to us, but should be part of collective memory that is very systematically trying to be erased by the regime.
You can check it out right now. It’s called 858.ma. It’s online. It’s got, when we put it up, 858 hours of footage that is indexed and time-stamped and you can see by location different kinds of protests everything from labor strikes to protest against the police and so forth.
SAK: If you think of your own memory as your private literature, this was a public library for people to be able to access and to remember. It is very difficult time now because there was a Draconian media law that was passed in September where we have now a supreme media regulatory counsel that oversees all media, but it’s overseeing websites as well and it’s an unprecedented crackdown on press freedom. Egypt’s the third worst jailer of journalists in the world just behind Turkey and China. And there’s also a new way, instead of just censorship and control of the media — of the TVs and newspapers — the Mukhabarat, the General Intelligence Services, are acquiring direct control of newspapers and TV outlets through a private equity fund called Eagle Capital. And so they’re buying up and getting direct ownership of these outlets. There really is no space whatsoever for any kind of dissent whatsoever.
JS: Well Sharif, thank you so much for all the work that you’ve done in many countries. But in this case particularly in Egypt, thanks for being with us.
SAK: Thanks for having me.
JS: Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. In 2012, Sharif was awarded the fourth annual Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media. And that was for his coverage of the Egyptian revolution. You can find him on Twitter @sharifkouddous. And to check out hundreds of hours of footage captured in Egypt around the revolution visit 858.ma.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, you can log onto TheIntercept.com/join. You can find us on Twitter. Our handle is @intercepted. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We are distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.