Bush's Latin America Nominations Reopen Wounds
Published on Wednesday, August 1, 2001 in the New York Times
Bush's Latin America Nominations Reopen Wounds
by Christopher Marquis
WASHINGTON — At a recent party held by the Costa Rican ambassador, a group of Reagan administration veterans chuckled over the fierce opposition their names have stirred since President Bush selected them for senior positions responsible for Latin America and human rights.

The officials, who worked together in the State Department during the bitter policy fights over Central America in the 1980's, included Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary; Otto J. Reich, the former director of the office of public diplomacy; and Roger Noriega, who was an aide in the Latin affairs bureau.

During the Reagan era the three men were among a handful who personified the fight on the homefront, when Republicans accused Democrats of being soft on Communism and some lawmakers chastised the White House for backing murderous regimes.

Another colleague, who was not present that day but who worked with them in the Reagan administration is John D. Negroponte, the former ambassador to Honduras. He has been named by Mr. Bush as ambassador to the United Nations.

"We were sort of laughing about the fact that the other side is still fighting the old battles," one participant recalled. "Somebody said, `It's like Custer going back to Little Bighorn.' "

While they may have been amused, Mr. Bush's decision to hire several former Reagan era officials has inflamed critics of their actions during one of the most divisive periods of American policy toward Central America. The return of these men, they say, threatens to spawn a new partisanship and to generate a potentially distracting debate for a region saddled with more pressing concerns where the wounds of civil war remain raw.

Senate Democrats have said they plan to scrutinize the nominees, and in some cases to delay or even block their confirmations. But as one Republican who is close to the nominating process said, "The Bush people are picking these full-octane people to do Latin America, and they're not intimidated by the fact there is going to be a fracas."

Alongside the confirmation battles, the nominations have revived old questions over American policy from a time when as many as 140,000 people died as tiny nations like Nicaragua and El Salvador were swept up in the cold war.

Did the Reagan administration's support of the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras, and its backing of the military-dominated Salvadoran government against Marxist insurgents rescue the region from Soviet- Cuban aggression? Or did its proxy wars plunge the area into carnage that might have been avoided?

"The Central America conflict was so intense, so bitter, so ideologically polarized at the time, the only thing comparable was Vietnam," said William M. LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University who is critical of the Reagan policy. "Those battles tend to linger."

Some political analysts warn that the tensions may erode an approach to the region based on support for free trade and the collective defense of democracy that has had the backing of both Republicans and Democrats. Familiar battle lines between left and right could be redrawn over policy toward Cuba, or the war against leftist guerrillas simmering in Colombia, they say.

George R. Vickers, the director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal research organization, said the president's selections undercut his calls for partnership with nations in the region. Many former leftist guerrillas have joined the ranks of government.

"What's the message that's being sent to Latin America?" he asked. "All these guys were the face of the unilateral American policy."

The debates may be about policy, but they are also deeply personal.

In Congress, top Democratic and Republican staff members who handle Latin America refuse to speak to one another. A Reagan White House official complained that a liberal Congressional aide "stared daggers" at him in a local restaurant. The careers of would-be ambassadors from both parties have been crushed by senators who abhorred their views on Central America.

Veterans of the period recall critics who questioned their patriotism, honesty or intelligence as if the encounters took place last week.

"I feel so strongly on this to this day," said Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who was Mr. Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations and was a champion of his Central American policy. "I can feel my blood pressure rising as I talk to you."

On the other side, Robert E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador who became an ardent critic of the Reagan policy, angrily described watching Mr. Abrams testify before lawmakers about the illegal effort to resupply the contras. "I watched in disbelief as Abrams told lie after lie to members of Congress," Mr. White said. He voiced indignation at President Bush's appointment of Mr. Abrams to the National Security Council post responsible for promoting democracy and human rights.

"I just find it passing strange that perjury or lying to Congress can become a qualification for public office," Mr. White said.

A White House spokesman said Mr. Abrams would not discuss Central America and was already focused on his new job. The other nominees, who unlike Mr. Abrams are subject to Senate confirmation, cited protocol in declining to comment.

Of the group, Mr. Abrams, who was a forceful architect of the Central America policy and an early advocate of American invasions of Nicaragua and Panama, is the best- known of the returning officials.

In 1991 he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of misleading Congress about the Iran-contra affair, a secret effort to finance and arm the contras in defiance of Congressional restrictions. He was pardoned by the first President Bush in 1992.

Since then Mr. Abrams has served in research institutes focusing on issues of ethnic conflict and religious freedom. In recent years he has quietly forged ties to liberal groups that once opposed him and was instrumental in pressing the Clinton administration to distance itself from human rights abuses in Peru.

One of the president's other appointees not only supported the contras, but was one of them: Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, who is about to take over as deputy assistant secretary of defense for inter-American affairs, worked decades ago with the contra political leadership in Washington, associates said.

A third, Mr. Reich, who was named to become the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was also tinged by the Iran-contra affair. In 1987 the comptroller general concluded that Mr. Reich's Office of Public Diplomacy had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities" to muster domestic support for the contras.

Since that time, Mr. Reich has run a consulting firm, representing the interests of Bacardi, the rum producer, and Lockheed-Martin, among others. But he now faces the sharpest challenge of all the Reagan era nominees.

Two influential Senate Democrats, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts, have criticized his nomination, and a coalition of at least four liberal research and human rights groups is digging intensively into his record in an effort to derail any confirmation.

"Otto is the low-hanging fruit," said William Goodfellow, the director of the Center for International Policy, a liberal research group leading the opposition.

Some of his critics say Mr. Reich, a Cuban exile and avid critic of President Fidel Castro, should not be entrusted with control of policy toward Cuba.

Mr. Reich's supporters have set up a countercampaign. They recently flooded Congress with copies of a letter that brushed aside the propaganda charge and said that Mr. Reich's tenure "marked a unique time when the State Department succeeded in informing the American public about an important foreign policy issue."

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are also holding up the nomination of Mr. Negroponte, the man known as the consummate fixer who was nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations, as they probe whether he minimized rights abuses by the military in Honduras when he served as ambassador there.

[Even as those challenges have mounted, the nomination of Mr. Noriega, the former aide in the Latin affairs bureau, to be ambassador to the Organization of American States coasted through the Foreign Relations Committee on July 27 and awaits action by the full Senate. The quick action may have been in deference to his position as a senior staff member on the committee.]

As the Central America fight grinds on, Robert A. Pastor, a political scientist at Emory University, tried to cast it in a positive light. A few years ago Mr. Pastor watched his nomination to become ambassador to Panama thwarted by Senator Jesse Helms, who still resented Mr. Pastor's role in drafting the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970's.

"In one sense it's encouraging," Mr. Pastor said, "because America is a place that forgets its history very easily."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company