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Reich's Americas Forum report and the term "hemispheric security mechanism" stir unpleasant interventionist memories in Latin America.

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Politics, news, and opinion north to south from Canada to Argentina.

Otto Reich, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Bush's Latin America Czar Rides High

by Toby Eglund

JANUARY 24, 2002. Otto Reich seems to have hit the ground running. Just hours after he was appointed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, on January 11th, while Congress was in recess, he reportedly sat at a high-level interagency meeting that discussed pumping more U.S. military aid into Colombia, and allowing it to be used against left-wing guerrillas, not just drug lords.

Blueprint for Bush policy
As the administration's "Latin America czar," the name the Colombian daily El Tiempo has acidly coined for him, the 56 year-old Cuban-American now has the power to enforce the action-oriented Latin America policies set forth in a report developed during his tenure as co-chair at the Americas Forum, a conservative network.

Released last January to coincide with the Bush inauguration, the report ("The Western Hemisphere: An American Policy Priority") read like a blueprint for the new administration's Latin America policy.

In a studiously bland language, it advised an early presidential visit to Mexico (which duly took place), and tougher approaches to Colombia ("a much firmer, more substantial political commitment") and Cuba (no more "unilateral concessions," adoption of "an action-oriented strategy to strengthen the forces of change.") It also raised an early, worrisome red flag about populist Hugo Chávez' Venezuela.

"Long regarded as a model of South American democracy and a staunch ally, the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship has entered a more troubling phase, requiring caution as well as political fortitude," it said.

The report's most significant recommendation, however, was the establishment of a "hemispheric security mechanism." The most pressing reason for this was the situation in Colombia, said William Perry, an Americas Forum member who worked at the National Security Council under former president Bush.

Both the Americas Forum report and the Reich appointment have been warily received in Latin America, where the term "hemispheric security mechanism" stirs unpleasant interventionist memories. Media reactions there to Reich's ascension have ranged from coldly skeptical (Colombia's El Tiempo) to downright hostile (Venezuela's Tal Cual, ironically, a fiery Chávez foe).

Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a Republican member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, got a first hand taste of this during recent travels in Latin America. Last week he told The Washington Post's Marcela Sánchez that he had encountered "a lot of apprehension" about Reich's appointment, not only among officials, but also among private citizens who regretted Reich's "hard-line" views and his controversial history.

Man with a Past
Critics say that Reich was involved in a slew of questionable domestic activities connected to the Iran-Contra scandal. A 1987 government investigation concluded that Reich's "Office of Public Diplomacy" had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities," like writing and submitting fake letters to the op-ed pages of U.S. newspapers as if they were from Nicaraguan contra leaders.

The Office, headed by Reich, was set up by President Reagan to sell the contras to the American public as freedom-fighters, and to counter domestic criticism of U.S. involvement in the Central American civil wars. Reich is also said to have personally harassed journalists critical of the administration's Central American policies.

Later, as ambassador to Venezuela, from 1986 to 1989, detractors say Reich tried to get a U.S. visa for convicted terrorist Orlando Bosch, a Cuban exile involved in dozens of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and abroad. Bosch allegedly masterminded the 1976 mid-flight bombing of a civilian Cuban airliner off Barbados, which resulted in the deaths of 73 men, women, and children, including Cuba's entire youth fencing team. He eventually entered the U.S. illegally in 1988 and, as he was about to be deported, Bush, the father, overrode his own Justice Department and allowed him to stay in the country; later, before leaving office, Bush granted him a presidential pardon.

In his later incarnation as a corporate Washington lobbyist and anti-Castro advocate, Reich helped draft the 1995 Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the Cuba embargo by, among other things, penalizing foreign companies with business ties to Cuba, and allowing suits against them. These provisions could benefit Bacardi and Co., Reich's main lobbying client during the last decade (it has paid his consulting company $600,000 in fees since 1996). Now based in the Bahamas, the firm, whose Cuban holdings were nationalized by Castro in 1959, has been enmeshed for years in an international lawsuit against business rival Pernod-Ricard S.A. of France and the Cuban government over the Havana Club rum trademark.

Under Helms-Burton, more than $3 million in U.S. funds have been funneled to two anti-Castro institutions closely connected to Reich: the Center for a Free Cuba, where he was a director, and the Bacardi-sponsored U.S.-Cuba Business Council, of which he was president.

Vocal Opponents
Although largely invisible to most Americans who do not follow south of the border policy, the battle over Reich's nomination, leading to his surreptitious appointment while Congress was in recess, was perhaps the most savage so far of the second Bush administration.

On the Hill, a chorus of critics maintained that Reich was an anti-Communist ideologue unsuited for a job that required bipartisan finesse. They also questioned his ethics as a lobbyist for corporations with stakes in shaping U.S. Latin American policy.

Senate Democrats, with the tacit approval or, at least, benign neglect of most high-ranking Republicans in the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, blocked the appointment for ten months by refusing to hold confirmation hearings.

Connecticut's Democratic Senator Christopher J. Dodd, who had called the Reich nomination "divisive," and feared it would hurt bipartisan support for U.S. policy, particularly regarding Colombia, reacted to his appointment by saying that it was "unfortunate that U.S. foreign policy in this area of the world is being sacrificed for the sake of a narrow domestic political agenda." He was alluding to the widespread view that Reich's appointment was a thank you bouquet from Bush to Florida's Cuban-Americans for helping elect him and, hopefully, helping reelect his younger brother, Jeb Bush, Governor in November.

Outside Congress, Reich's critics included liberal outfits like the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and at least one "moderate" Cuban-American group, the Cuban Committee for Democracy.

They waged an intense campaign to derail the nomination, complete with a StopOttoReich website. In their view, what was at stake was the Bush administration's as yet unformed Latin America policy, at a critical moment when financial or civil upheavals threatened a number of countries, particularly Argentina, Colombia and oil-rich Venezuela.

Refighting the Cold War
Conservative supporters, like the National Review's Jay Nordlinger, argued that the anti-Reich campaign was less about the future than about the past, a refighting of the Cold War in Central America by ideological sore losers, a battle about who proved right — Reagan or the "left." They dismissed concerns that Reich would view Latin America through an obsessively narrow anti-Castro lens. "Reich is far from the right-wing caricature his enemies paint," wrote J. Michael Waller in The Washington Times, quoting unnamed supporters of the nominee.

Furthermore, Waller added: "Reich's intended post probably will be more sensitive than at any time since the Cold War when the Soviet Union was arming Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. Conservatives worry that a left-wing insurgence is taking shape in the region." To deal with this, Bush has appointed a bevvy of conservatives, all "Reaganites," all "cut from the same cloth," as Nordlinger puts it.

"It does not end with [U.S. representative at United Nations, John] Negroponte and Reich," he says. "Elliott Abrams, a Reagan assistant secretary of state for Latin America ... is joining the National Security Council staff. Roger Noriega, Jesse Helms's chief aide on Latin America, is set to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. Daniel Fisk, who was Noriega's predecessor as Helms's Latin America aide, is expected to serve in the Defense or State Department. And then there is a man whose name is ripe for lowest mischief: Adolfo Franco. He is a Cuban-American who is to have Otto Reich's job of 20 years ago, Latin America director for AID [Agency for International Development]."

Although Reich only can serve one year before his nomination goes back to the Senate, the political momentum may now be on his side. On Monday January 14th, as he and others were emerging from a week-end marathon of high-level meetings about Colombia, The Washington Post editorially endorsed a shift in U.S. military aid to that country. "The administration ... should abandon its attempts to distinguish counternarcotics from counterinsurgency aid to Colombia," it bluntly said.

On January 15th, unnamed sources in the Bush administration confirmed that a shift in military aid to Colombia was being considered at a high level. The acknowledgement was widely reported that day in the U.S. and abroad, particularly in Latin America.

This week, Colombia's President, Andrés Pastrana, called on the United States to "widen its involvement in Colombia's war to assure a continued flow of oil" from that country. Pastrana's proposal was immediately applauded by a vice president for Occidental Petroleum, the largest U.S. oil company in Colombia.

Related links:

For the report, The Western Hemisphere: An American Policy Priority. (PDF only)

For the pro-Reich Wall Street Journal's editorial "Divisive Dodd" and Senator Dodd's irate, anti-Reich response.

For the critical and The Otto Reich Files at the National Security Archives.

For "U.S. Eyes Shift in Colombia Policy," by The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung.

For "Colombia's most powerful rebels," a BBC News profile of the FARC.

For the American Prospect's The Coca-Cola Killings. Is Plan Colombia funding a bloodbath of union activists?

For Complete Coverage of U.S. politics

For Complete Coverage Americas

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