George W. Bush has appointed 56 year old Otto Reich, a Cuban born right-wing Republican, to direct Inter American affairs at the State Department. For Washington insiders this illustrates two axioms of current political behavior.
1) No large sum of money contributed to Republican or Democratic — coffers goes un-rewarded.
2) Lying and duplicity in high office serve as the twin roads to promotion.
I once debated Otto Reich on a Colorado TV station and afterwards our differences became downright sour, so I can testify to the fact that he was and is a confrontational intransigent, a man who worked hand in glove with fanatics like retired Gen. John Singlaub and Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Indeed, Reich and North both played games with Congress in their attempts to wage surreptitious and illegal war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s and gave US support to death squads in El Salvador, under Ronald Reagan and George Bush I.
Reich, in his key role at the Office of Public Diplomacy, routinely lied to the public about US involvement in writing assassination manuals, mining Nicaraguan harbors and ultimately about what became the facts of the Iran-Contra scandal. But, true to the formula for success in Washington, he got promoted for his astute dissembling and became US ambassador to Venezuela.
While serving in that post he helped President Bush I circumvent immigration laws and reject advise from the FBI in the successful attempt to get a notorious terrorist named Orlando Bosch special immigration status so he could return to the United States where, naturally, he continued his terrorist plotting against Cuba.
Reich subsequently served the public interest by lobbying for the tobacco industry, selling arms to third world countries and serving the cause of the Bacardi (rum) family as a kind of personal emissary for the booze giants.
Last summer, President Bush announced that he would appoint Reich to the lead Latin America post at State, but Reich had accumulated such an impressive record of misdeeds that even Republican Members of the Senate became aroused and together with the Democratic majority on the Foreign Relations Committee successfully stalled his nomination.
I breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. During the Congressional break, George W. Bush made a â€œrecess appointment.â€ That means he circumvented the need for Senate approval. So, welcome Otto Reich as Assistant Secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs. From Hudsonâ€™s Bay to Patagonia, I can hear the sound of one hand clapping. Why, you might ask, do Latin American heads of state not leap with joy over this appointment?
Go back to the 1980s when US diplomacy in Central America meant supporting assassins in El Salvador and calling them democrats, when the United States supported a dirty and covert meaning illegal but not so secret — war against Nicaragua.
The â€œgood guysâ€ on US payroll acted like wise guys and knocked off priests and nuns and even an archbishop — in their zeal for democracy of course.
To counter some of the adverse publicity gained by such deeds, President Reagan named Otto Reich to head something that was invented for him: the State Departmentâ€™s Office of Public Diplomacy. Reichâ€™s job was to play with words, to turn gangsters and priest killers, drug dealers and thieves into Freedom Fighters.
This way the US public would â€œunderstandâ€ why Reagan was using their taxes to pay these people who on the surface looked like truly loathsome characters. Or become so confused that they would stop thinking about the assassinations, the harbor mining and other terrorist acts.
After 1985, when Congress declared that the United States should not spend money on the covert war against Nicaragua, Reich and his ultra right wing buddies coordinated a propaganda and fund raising campaign and put together a series of shady deals to re-supply the contras with weapons.
The Iran-Contra scandals arose from trying to conceal this operation and, when the hearings and trials took place from 1987 on, Reichâ€™s name became ubiquitous with dirty dealing and lying.
Even the General Accounting Office declared that Reichâ€™s Office of Public Diplomacy had â€œengaged in prohibited covert propaganda activities.â€ So polluted had this State Department operation become under Reich, that the Administration had to shut it down.
Courts later determined that Ollie North, Eliot Abrams, John Poindexter and other high officials had lied to Congress or committed other felonious infractions, but Reich miraculously escaped the criminal taint, and, Reagan the lion hearted rewarded Otto for his role in eroding the law and the Constitution. He named Otto Reich ambassador to Venezuela.
While in Caracas, Reich, according to declassified documents, devoted some of his ambassadorial energy to manipulating the Venezuelan government to release Orlando Bosch, a Cuban-born pediatrician whose obsession for assassinating Fidel Castro overshadowed any interest he might have had in treating sick children.
Venezuelan authorities had arrested Dr. Orlando Bosch after a terrorist bomb exploded on board a Cuban commercial airliner as it took off from Barbados. All 73 passengers and crew died. Although Venezuela arrested Bosch and held him for ten years, they never actually tried him for the crime because of US pressure not to do so. But so zealous was Bosch in Castro hatred that he practically admitted the airline terrorism to interviewing journalists on several occasions.
When Otto Reich and his extreme right wing anti-Castro contributors to the Bush I campaign pressured the White House, the President dismissed objections from US law enforcement agencies and in 1991 re-admitted the terrorist into the United States.
Bosch returned to South Florida and resumed his terrorist plotting. In December,. 2001, The Miami New Times reported that Bosch had admitted to recently smuggling explosives into Cuba.
With getting a terrorist re-admitted to the United States as his crowning achievement in diplomatic service, Reich returned to the private sector, but with the same public conscience that he had displayed during the Iran-Contra scandal years.
He began lobbying for tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers who wanted to sell their wares to Latin America. But he stood out as a kind of family retainer for Bacardi who had engaged in a trademark war with Cuba over Havana Club rum.
When the White House demanded that the Senate give Reich a fair hearing, several Republicans told Bush to let go, that Reich was bad news. The media reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell had reiterated Bushâ€™s demand for a fair hearing, but a State Department source told me off the record that Powell had to appear obedient publicly, but that he really opposed the Reich appointment.
I talked with other Washington insiders, all of whom shared their extreme doubts about Reichâ€™s ability to accomplish anything more than exacerbating already existing Latin American grievances and creating some new ones and, of course, lobbying for his old boss, Bacardi. All agree that Reichâ€™s appointment means a straight payoff to the right wing Castro-haters who threw millions into brother Jebâ€™s gubernatorial coffers and millions more into Wâ€™s presidential campaign.
Florida, as we saw in the 2000 election, means life or death for Republicans. And the extreme anti-Castro Cuban-exiles see Otto Reich as their supreme insider representative in the interminable war with Cuba. Bush has shown them that money put into his and his brotherâ€™s campaigns brings high level rewards. Remember, Jeb will face Janet Reno in the upcoming Florida governor race.
The fact that Reich will damage US-Latin American relations seems unimportant for the White House. Forget when Bush talked about wanting to unify people, when he called for consensus, when he promised he could work with his opponents.
Reich stands out as the embodiment of blatant, sword heavy imperialism that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Central Americans in the 1980s, an imperialism that maintains an irrational embargo and travel ban on Cuba and, most dramatically, places narrow domestic interests over the larger international good.
Reich stands for Bacardi, weapons and tobacco sales; for freeing those terrorists who hate Castro and for dissembling in public office.
Reich has no support from Latin American governments or major parties, none from our closest European allies and not even from the most prudent members of the Republican Party. Is this what Bush means when he calls for hemispheric harmony?
Reich will serve almost a year before the Senate must confirm his appointment. He can do a lot of damage in that time period. Remember his name and how the word â€œthirdâ€ comes to mind.
Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences California State Polytechnic University, Pomona