Published on Tuesday, April 10, 2001 in the Miami Herald
New President, Old Thinking
Latin America Should Worry
by Bernardo Ruiz
The Bush administration is adopting a hard-line approach, not just toward China, but toward Latin America as well. The president's nomination of Otto J. Reich as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere signals a return to a reckless Reagan-era foreign policy.
During the Reagan administration, the Cuba-born Reich was head of the Office of Public Diplomacy, which aimed to create public support in the United States for the Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista rebels, also known as the contras. A U.S. government investigation concluded that Reich's office engaged in ``prohibited acts of domestic propaganda,'' according to The New York Times. As part of that propaganda effort, Reich's office wrote op-ed newspaper commentaries but passed them off as coming from contra leaders.
According to In These Times magazine, based in Chicago, Reich's office ``drew up an action plan to ensure congressional passage of aid to the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters. Overall theme: The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters are fighters for freedom in the American tradition; FSL (Sandinistas) are evil. Audiences: U.S. Congress, U.S. media, interest groups.''
Although a State Department official, Reich worked for the National Security Council, where Oliver North ran the covert anti-Sandinista program. The operation sold weapons to Iran and funneled profits back to the U.S.-supported contras. But Reich left the public diplomacy office in 1986, before the Iran-contra affair erupted. He became ambassador to Venezuela, where he remained until 1989.
More recently, Reich has run RMA International, a lobbying and consulting firm. One major client, Bacardi-Martini, has paid him more than $600,000, according to public records.
Reich helped shape the Helms-Burton Act, which stiffened the Cuban embargo by penalizing third parties trading with the island. The act contains provisions that allow suits against some foreign companies, including Bacardi's competitors that do business in Cuba.
Bush has announced intentions to nominate another former member of the Reagan administration, John Negroponte, as ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte, who was U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, is also known for his zealous role against leftist movements in Latin America. He ignored human-rights abuses committed by the U.S.-trained Honduran military, according to In These Times.
But Negroponte's past did not hinder his nomination to the United Nations, and Reich's nomination may not get the scrutiny it deserves.
Following the recent presidential election, Bush promised to bring bipartisan consensus into his administration. Instead, the Bush team quietly is building the most conservative administration in modern times. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld maintains an intransigent stance toward Russia and China. Reich and Negroponte offer the same stance toward Latin America.
For Latin Americans, this outlook is ominous. During the 1980s it cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Today, we cannot afford a similar cost.
Bernardo Ruiz is a free-lance writer and documentary producer in New York City.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald