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by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
nomination by President George W. Bush of Otto Reich, a Cuban exile who played a controversial role boosting the Nicaraguan contras, to the State Department's top post for Latin America marks a major victory for hard-line anti-Castro and other right-wing forces in the new administration.
They lobbied hard for Reich's appointment as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs as payback in part for the role played by Cuban-American exiles in delivering the critical state of Florida -- and, with it, the election of Bush.
Indeed, the appointment came directly from the White House with only the most cursory input by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell had previously favored a career foreign service officer, Donna Hrinak, currently U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, according to knowledgeable sources.
Although the betting now is that Reich will be confirmed by the Senate, some key lawmakers have indicated they are prepared to fight to defeat his nomination.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Democrats' unofficial spokesman on Latin America issues since the contra war during the Ronald Reagan era, has warned that Reich's policy preferences and past performance could make it very difficult to forge a bipartisan policy toward the region.
Some business interests whose top priority over the next four years is negotiation of a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) have also expressed fears that Reich's hard-line views toward Cuba and his penchant for belligerence and pressure tactics could make him a convenient and high-profile target for forces which oppose such an accord.
who emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1960 at the age of 15, has worked most recently as a highly successful lobbyist.
In the mid-1990s, he helped draft the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the 41-year-old trade embargo against Cuba by threatening lawsuits against foreign firms which acquire an interest in expropriated property there.
One of his most prominent clients is Bacardi-Martini, which was a major beneficiary of Helms-Burton and has paid him over half a million dollars over the past several years, according to The New York Times.
Other clients include British American Tobacco (BAT) and Lockheed-Martin, which lobbied successfully last year to lift a 24-year-old U.S. ban on introducing advanced warplanes into Latin America and gain permission to sell a dozen or more top-of-the-line fighter jets to Chile.
But he is chiefly known for his controversial role in the mid-1980s as the head of the State Department's Office of Latin American Public Diplomacy, which was set up and run by the White House primarily as a mechanism for boosting the cause of the Nicaraguan contras in the United States.
The office's operations were described by the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, during the Iran-Contra scandal as "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" which included writing and disseminating columns and other material in the name of contra leaders for publication in U.S. newspapers.
A 1988 staff report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives also found "extensive involvement of intelligence community personnel" by Reich's office "to establish, maintain and manage private domestic entities engaged in fundraising, lobbying, propaganda and manipulation of the media in contravention of U.S. laws and regulations."
At one point, five intelligence experts from the Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group at Ft. Bragg, as well as veteran Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers, were working with Reich on propaganda and related activities -- all of which was banned under U.S. law.
Some of those entities played key roles in the administration's secret effort to raise private money, particularly from wealthy widows and far-right funders, for the contras at a time when all U.S. agencies were barred by law from providing any such support or funding, according to the staff report.
As the Office's director, Reich also became notorious in press circles for his angry and vehement calls to editors of media to complain vehemently about reporting which reflected negatively on the contras. At one point, he accused National Public Radio (NPR) of acting like "Radio Havana on the Potomac."
For his efforts, Reich was rewarded with a plum diplomatic post -- ambassador to Venezuela -- just as the Iran-Contra investigation was gaining momentum.
While his three-year tenure there was less controversial, media reports frequently complained of his efforts to press the government of President Jaime Lusinchi to take a more anti-Sandinista position in the Contadora peace process.
Declassified State Department cables also show an abiding interest by Reich in the release from Venezuelan prison of Cuban-American exile, Orlando Bosch, who was charged with masterminding the bombing of a Cuban airliner over Barbados which killed all 73 people aboard.
Upon his release and deportation to the United States in 1990, then-President George Bush pardoned Bosch for terrorist acts of which he was convicted in a U.S. court in the late 1960s.
Reich's advocates, led by some of the most zealous anti-Castro lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, insist that he is a seasoned diplomat who will not permit his strong anti-Communist feelings divert him from other U.S. interests in the hemisphere, particularly in expanding trade and investment and in prosecuting the drug war in Colombia and the Andean region.
They point to his service before joining the Reagan administration as director from 1976-1981 of the Washington office of the Council of the Americas, a trade group of major U.S. companies with interests in Latin America.
They also note his representation of some of the country's biggest corporations, including Lockheed, International Paper, Daimler-Chrysler, and Mobil Oil as indicative of his sensitivity to business' agenda in the region.
In addition to his ties to the hard-line Cuban exile community, Reich, who began his political life as a Democrat, also has friends among neo-conservatives who are claiming an increasing number of slots at the second and third tiers in the national security bureaucracies of the administration.
He serves on the board of directors of several organizations, such as New York-based Freedom House, which receive government funding to carry out "democracy-promotion" programs in developing countries and Eastern Europe.
Reich himself headed the Latin America division of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the first two years of the Reagan administration.
Reich also is not the only senior appointee whose ties to the contra war are controversial. Bush's pick for U.N. Ambassador, John Negroponte, served as ambassador to Honduras when the CIA helped establish contra bases there and trained special Honduran forces which became notorious for death-squad operations.
While Negroponte himself was never implicated directly in those activities, he often insisted that there was no evidence of the existence of death squads.
March 26, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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