OTTO J. REICH got a surprise when he returned from Brazil last month: He was
no longer assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. The Bush administration
moved him to a smaller office because his recess appointment expired when the
congressional session ended. But the administration is not signaling its intention
to seek Senate approval of his permanent appointment. That's good news for anyone
who wants the United States to embark on policies toward Latin American that are
devoid of the archaic, reflexive anticommunism of the 1980s.
Reich was shaped by his experiences in the Reagan administration and in Cuba
as a boy when Fidel Castro's revolution forced his family into exile. He maintains
the hard-line anti-Castroism favored by the Cuban expatriate community in Miami,
but elsewhere in the United States many farmers want to sell their products to
Cuba, and tourists want to visit the island. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana,
who will become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee next month, opposes
Reich's appointment on the grounds that he lacks the range of experience required
for the job. This should be the final blow to his chances.
The need for fresh thinking on Latin American policy is evident in Venezuela,
where protesters from the more affluent segments of society are attempting to
unseat President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez is no democrat, but unlike his friend Castro, he has not created a dictatorship
in Venezuela. Reich has frequently criticized him, and when some inept plotters
tried to overthrow Chavez in April, the United States - with Reich at the State
Department - did not initially denounce the attempt.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, last week called for new elections
even though Chavez is scheduled to stay in office until 2006 and the Venezuelan
Constitution specifies that a binding referendum of no confidence cannot be held
The United States, which imports much of its oil from Venezuela, has an interest
in what happens there. But it should not be offering Venezuelans advice that goes
against their Constitution. Fleischer wisely changed his mind this week and suggested
that a referendum would suffice. Over the long term, adherence to democratic procedures
is the best guarantee of peaceful change and political stability in Latin America.
Chavez's presidency and the recent victory of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in
the Brazilian presidential election suggests that much of Latin America is turning
away from free market economics to a more populist model. This is understandable
given the deep class divisions and inequities throughout the region. President
Bush should take this opportunity to appoint an assistant secretary who will understand
the changes in the region and will try to shape them to benefit the great majority
of the people.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company