Trump’s Contra War Redux in Latin America
In a period of déjà vu, the Donald Trump administration has embarked on a Reaganesque policy of covertly shipping arms to Venezuelan rebels, based in Colombia and Brazil.
A largely ignored story reported by the Lebanese magazine “Ash Shiraa” on November 3, 1986, soon blossomed into a major scandal involving the covert sale of US weapons to the government of Iran and the illegal supply of weapons to right-wing Nicaraguan rebels. The Lebanese magazine was the first to reveal that the Ronald Reagan administration was covertly selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of seven American hostages by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
On November 25, 1986, three weeks after the exposé by “Ash Shiraa,” US Attorney General Edwin Meese announced to a stunned nation that profits from the sale of American weapons to Iran were used to buy and ship weapons to the Contra rebels battling against the socialist government of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The covert Reagan administration operation violated at least two laws. The first was breaking a US arms embargo on Iran. The second was a violation of the 1982 congressional Boland Amendment, which prohibited US taxpayers’ funds being used to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The scandal almost resulted in Congress’s impeachment of Reagan and his vice-president, George H. W. Bush, from office.
Today, in a period of déjà vu, the Donald Trump administration has embarked on a Reaganesque policy of covertly shipping arms to Venezuelan rebels, based in Colombia and Brazil, readying for an insurrection against the government of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. At the same time, US covert operators have been caught in the act of mounting operations directed at the governments of Haiti and Nicaragua, both members of the increasingly-shrinking Latin American camp of Maduro allies.
Reprising the role of Reagan, Trump, on February 18 during a speech at Florida International University in Miami, urged Venezuelan military officers to rise up, in a coup d’état, and oust Maduro, who Trump called a “Cuban puppet.” Making Trump’s call seem like a repetition of history, the White House recently appointed Elliott Abrams as Trump’s “special envoy” for the forced transition of government in Venezuela from Maduro to Juan Guaido, a “Trump puppet.” In 1991, Abrams, after agreeing to cooperate with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, was convicted on two criminal counts of withholding information from Congress. Abrams denied being involved in the illegal solicitation of funds for the Contras. On December 24, 1992, George H. W. Bush issued presidential pardons to Abrams and five of his co-conspirators in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush had been identified as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in Walsh’s final report.
In retrospect, Abrams, along with bumbling characters like Central Intelligence Agency director William Casey, National Security Adviser Admiral John Poindexter, and Poindexter underling Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North were bound to mess things up for the criminal conspiracy. For example, Abrams solicited an illegal $10 million contribution to the Contras from the Sultan of Brunei. When North later gave Abrams the Swiss bank account number for Lake Resources, a CIA front in Geneva, he gave Abrams the wrong prefix of 368 instead of the actual number 386. Abrams then passed the account number to Brunei. In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah wired $10 million from the Citibank branch in Brunei to the wrong account at Credit Suisse in Geneva. Due to North’s and Abram’s error, a Swiss shipping magnate was suddenly $10 million wealthier. The Swiss businessman promptly re-invested the unintended financial windfall. Swiss authorities refused to identify the lucky winner of Abrams’s and North’s incompetence.
In another example of Iran-Contra déjà vu, the Attorney General who presided over the Bush pardons for the Iran-Contra Six, including Abrams, and the botched prior convictions of Poindexter and North was notorious cover-up artist William Barr, who Trump recently swore in as his Attorney General.
As Trump begins to emulate Reagan in overthrowing progressive governments in Latin America, Abrams’s buffoonery is already at play. On February 3, authorities at Arturo Michelena International Airport in Venezuela seized a Boeing 767 jet, operated by 21Air LLC, said to have been carrying arms to US-backed rebels in Venezuela. The Boeing 767 took off the same day from Miami. During the Contra War escapades of Abrams and his cronies, Florida was a nexus for CIA proprietary airlines shipping weapons to right-wing guerillas in Central and South America. These airlines, which had no congressional or law enforcement oversight, often returned to the United States from their arms cargo runs laden with drugs, mostly cocaine from Colombia.
Included in the secret cargo manifest were 9 assault weapons, including AR-15 rifles, a Micro Draco semi-automatic pistol, and a Colt 7.62 rifle with telescopic sights, in addition to 118 ammunition cartridges and military radio antennas. 21Air LLC’s chairman is Adolfo Moreno, who, according to McClatchy News, is linked to Gemini Air Cargo, an airline involved with the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program during the George W. Bush administration and identified as such in an official report of the Council of Europe. Gemini Air Cargo, before it went out of business in 2008, was based at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, just outside of Washington DC. The Boeing seized by Venezuela was busy the last few months, making runs from Miami International Airport to Valencia and Caracas, Venezuela and Bogota and Medellin, Colombia. 21Air, which is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, claimed to McClatchy that the Boeing 767 had been chartered by another firm called GPS-Air. 21Air operates a sister firm, 21Cargo, Inc. of Doral, Florida. 21Cargo was formerly called Solar Cargo C.A.
Doral is noteworthy as the place of residence for several Venezuelan oligarchs who, after Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, moved to Florida, taking their money with them, secure from the tax authorities in Caracas.
Gemini Cargo Logistics Inc., which was affiliated with Gemini Air Cargo, used a Miami address shared with firms linked to 21Air. That address is now used by the Colombian national air carrier, Avianca. Colombian right-wing president Ivan Duque, along with Brazilian far-right neo-Nazi president Jair Bolsonaro, are providing bases and other logistical support for Venezuelan right-wing rebel groups.
The nature of CIA proprietaries is that they use a complex network of fronts and “folding tent” temporary addresses to mask their covert activities. During the Iran-Contra escapades of the CIA, non-descript companies flew unmarked aircraft from small airports in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona in support of Contra arms supply operations. Trump has apparently restored these operations in support of right-wing dissidents in Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
The debacle with the CIA being caught red-handed at Valencia airport was soon followed by another in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Haiti, which has been an ally of Maduro and a recipient of $2 billion in aid from the Venezuelan PetroCaribe Fund, has been under intense pressure from the Trump administration to sever its tied with Maduro’s government. The US responded to Haitian non-committal on recognizing the puppet Guaido government by stepping up “regime change” operations against President Jovenel Moise and Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant. On February 7, violent protests began in on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Cap Haïtien, Jeremie, Gonaïves, and Jacmel. More suspiciously, the US State Department ordered all non-essential personnel out of the country following the outbreak of the anti-government demonstrations.
On February 17, Haitian police arrested a group of eight heavily-armed men traveling in two cars in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Among the group were five Americans and a Russian (later identified as a Serbian national); a Serbian with at least one Croatian visa stamp in his passport; and a Haitian. The Haitian may be a foreign national employee of the US embassy in Port-au-Prince. The Russian and Serbian may hold permanent residency status in the United States. The Haitian newspaper “Le Nouvelliste” reported that police discovered in the foreigners’ cars automatic rifles, 45-caliber and Glock pistols, a large amount of ammunition, drones, and satellite phones. Also found in the vehicles were a telescope, backpacks, bullet-proof vests, and various documents, including a list of names of Haitian citizens. The vehicles bore no license plates and the suspects’ passports had no Haitian visa entry stamps. The passports did show extensive travel to other countries prior to being in Haiti. Five Haitian license plates were found in the vehicles.
When arrested by police, the eight men refused to provide identification, insisting that they were on some sort of “government mission.” They did not identify the “government” for whom they were working but insisted that they did not have to talk to the police. One of the arresting police officers said one of those arrested told him, “Our boss would call your boss.” The Americans arrested all have prior US military service. Apparently, some sort of phone call was made because on February 20, the five Americans were flown from Haiti to Miami, where they were seen being handcuffed by law enforcement agents. The Haitian nation was not among those sent back to the US
Although some of the initial revelations about the Iran-Contra scandal came from the Lebanese magazine, the Nicaraguan Contra aspect of the criminal conspiracy was exposed when a CIA contractor aircraft was shot down over Nicaragua during an air drop mission in support of the rebels. On October 5, 1986, after Abrams’s solicitation of $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei but before the “Ash Shiraa” revelations, a C-123 operated by Corporate Air Services, a subsidiary of Southern Air Transport, was shot down by a Nicaraguan soldier using a Strela-2 shoulder-launched missile.
Corporate Air Services and Southern Air Transport, the latter based in Miami, were both CIA proprietaries. They and other front airlines operated throughout Florida and the southeastern United States. Although the C-123’s pilot and co-pilot, both Cuban-Americans, as well as the Contra radio operator, were killed, there was one survivor. The cargo bay “box kicker,” Eugene Hasenfus, was, like the leader of the American team arrested in Haiti, a former Marine. Two of those arrested in Haiti were former US Navy SEAL officers. Prime Minister Céant called the group “mercenaries.”
Hasenfus, survived due to his wearing a parachute. He was quickly put on trial by Nicaragua and sentenced to 30 years in prison on terrorism and other charges. In December 1986, Hasenfus was pardoned by President Ortega and he returned to the United States. However, the revelation that he was flying covert missions for the CIA out of an air base in El Salvador helped unravel the criminal conspiracy being committed by Abrams, North, Poindexter, Casey, and all their associated cronies.
The seizure of the Boeing 767 and its weapons cargo in Venezuela and the arrest of the well-armed Americans and their colleagues in Haiti may be the initial events, like the revelations of 1986, in exposing another incompetent CIA venture directed by a corrupt White House, one that involves, ironically, the bungling Elliott Abrams, who also failed miserably at overthrowing President Chavez in 2002 while working within the George W. Bush National Security Council.