The Reich Stuff

Veteran of the Iran/Contra scandal, apologist for terrorists, Cuba basher, bullying Latin America envoy for President Bush, and lobbyist for the alcohol, tobacco and armaments industries -- Otto Juan Reich has done it all, both inside and outside of government. This week, Reich announced that next month he will be leaving his post as the White House special envoy to the Americas and joining Team Bush’s reelection campaign. While it’s too soon to know how Karl Rove and company will use him, keep your eye on Florida where Reich has longtime connections to the right-wing Cuban exile community.

In late 2001, unable to get his nominee past the Senate, President Bush handed Reich, a native of Cuba and an alumnus of the Iran/Contra scandal, a recess appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. Reich’s term expired in December 2002; a month later, Bush found another spot for him on his Latin American team. Now, Bush figures Reich will be more useful in getting him re-elected.

Reich, along with Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte, was one of a trio of Iran/Contra alumni to re-emerge in the Bush Administration as Latin America policy operatives, something reporter Bart Jones pointed out in a January 2003 piece in the National Catholic Reporter. (In his new book “The Politics of Truth,” former Ambassador Joseph Wilson claims that Abrams, who still works with the administration, may have helped reveal to columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA covert operative. Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been nominated to become the first ambassador to Iraq after the June 30 so-called handover. He is expected to be confirmed by the Senate without being held accountable for his mishandling of human rights violations while working in Honduras during the 1980s.)

“There isn’t a single democratic leader in Latin America that doesn’t reject and deplore the role that our government played in Central America during the 1980s,” Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, told Jones in 2003. “To choose men like Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich is an insult.” Larry Birns of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs called the trio the “least talented Latin America team either in Republican or Democratic administrations that I have witnessed in monitoring this scene for 35 years.”

Hemispheric Bully

In his recent incarnation, Reich seamlessly continued his career as an anti-democratic bullying bureaucrat. Questions about his participation in the April 2002 aborted coup in Venezuela remain a he-said, she-said matter: A recent report in Sojourners magazine, citing The Guardian newspaper, said that Abrams “gave the go-ahead to the coup leaders,” and Reich, who was a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, “met numerous times with [businessman Pedro] Carmona, the head of the short-lived junta.”

During the recent presidential campaign in El Salvador where Antonio Saca of the conservative ARENA Party, and Schafik Handal, of the party of the former rebels, the FMLN, faced off against each other, Reich told Salvadoran reporters, “We are concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory would have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations that the United States has with El Salvador.” An Action Alert issued by the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico says, “Reich went on to say that the United States could not have the ‘same confidence in an El Salvador led by a person who is an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.’”

Still unclear is what role Reich had in the recent forced removal of Haiti’s president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and other efforts to interfere in the electoral process in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

This much is clear: Reich has made a career of harassing and threatening the hemisphere’s countries. During a visit to Barbados shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Reich didn’t disguise his displeasure with the decision of Caricom – the Caribbean Community -- not to support the war. “It is not the kind of support that we expect from friends,” Reich said on Chat Room, the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation’s TV program. “We listen very carefully to what our friends say and we’re very disappointed by some of the statements. We’re not violating international law, neither is Great Britain or any of the other countries and I would urge Caricom to study very carefully not only what it says, but the consequences of what it says.”

Using the not-so-veiled threat of limiting trade to the U.S. from Caribbean countries that didn’t support the war on Iraq, Reich said, “What do I tell a member of Congress if I go asking for increased access for Caribbean products, for example, and he says, ‘Well, they didn’t support us in our time of need’?”

Reich has been a hyperbolic critic of both Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. “He simply memorizes the names of those he considers to be communist, which means if you are for the normalization of relations with Cuba, you’re a communist,” Larry Birns told Bart Jones. “Reich is looking for villains. He’s looking for some commies.” When he announced his resignation this week, he told reporters he was sorry he couldn’t do more to bring down the Castro regime. Then he added this caveat: “A dictatorship still doesn't exist in Venezuela, but one has to be very careful.''

Iran/Contra Scandalista

From 1981 to 1983, Reich served in the Reagan administration as assistant administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID) and then became the first director of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, where he served until 1986. It was at the OPD where Reich left his mark.

At the OPD, Reich “manufactured op-eds that were passed off to the U.S. media under the name of Nicaraguan rebel leaders as he berated editors and journalists he deemed too soft on the Sandinistas or too tough on the Reagan administration,” wrote Alec Dubro of Foreign Policy in Focus.

A National Security Archive report titled, “Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich,” documented Reich’s questionable activities. A Comptroller General of the U.S. found Reich engaging in “prohibited, covert propaganda activities” and going “beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.”

An October 30, 1987 letter and report by the General Accounting Office found that Reich’s office “generally did not follow federal regulations governing contractual procedures.” A month later, the Congressional Iran/Contra committees’ report found that “[i]n fact, ‘public diplomacy’ turned out to mean public relations-lobbying, all at taxpayers’ expense.”

And a September 1988 House Foreign Affairs Committee staff report on Reich’s office concluded that “senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an obscure bureau in the Department of State…. Through irregular sole-source, no-bid contracts, [OPD] established and maintained a private network of individuals and organizations whose activities were coordinated with, and sometimes directed by, Col. Oliver North as well as officials of the NSC and S/LPD.

In May 2002, in what can only be characterized as an Orwellian move, Reich was named to the Board of Visitors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). The WHISC's charter “requires a Board of Visitors to monitor the school, to ensure that the curriculum emphasize ‘human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society,” according to CounterPunch. While he was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, “Reich used his office to help Orlando Bosch, a known terrorist, get into the U.S.,” says CounterPunch. “Bosch was convicted of firing a bazooka at a freighter in Miami, and accused of bombing a Cuban jet, killing 73 people.”

In between government stints, Reich lobbied on behalf of the alcohol (Bacardi), tobacco (British American Tobacco) and armaments industries (Lockheed Martin).

And all along, Reich has been the darling of Florida’s right-wing Cuban exile community. According to Dubro, Reich, a strong supporter of the embargo on Cuba, “remained in the propaganda business… broadcast[ing] the exile line, denouncing baseball exchanges and the return of Elian Gonzalez and trade delegations to Havana.”

In 2003, the Cuban American National Foundation heartily approved of Reich’s special envoy appointment: "Ambassador Reich brings exceptional vision and commitment to this position. His record of accomplishment and success bodes well for the advancement of our national interests in this hemisphere," said CANF Chairman Jorge Mas Santos.

This Cuban community connection may help explain Reich’s latest stint with the Bush campaign. Right now, Reich’s role in the campaign is unclear. But that seems to be just the way he likes things.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.

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