The Right Man For Latam?

No one, it seems, is neutral on the subject of Otto Reich. To his partisans in the Republican Party and the Cuban-American exile community, the recently installed U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs brings a wealth of experience to his new job. Raised in a lower-middle-income Havana household, educated at Georgetown University, Reich is comfortable in both the English-speaking and Hispanic cultures. He spent a total of six years living in Panama and Venezuela and has been engaged directly with Latin America in either the public or the private sectors since 1976. "He knows the hemisphere very well, and he's the perfect person [for] Latin America," says Cuban-American Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Reich's critics view him rather differently--as an unreconstructed cold warrior who will foster friction in the region. "Otto Reich is not qualified for the post," U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal last fall. "Mr. Reich lacks good management skills, sound judgment, appropriate sensitivity to potential conflicts of interest, the confidence of other governments in the region and the ability to bridge partisan divisions in Congress."

For better or worse, the 56-year-old Reich has been designated the U.S. government's point man on Latin America--and he's got a tough job on his hands. Under President George W. Bush, the region was going to become a top priority in the new administration's foreign policy. It hasn't worked out that way. In the aftermath of September 11, Latin America flickers only sporadically on White House radar screens. As a result, Reich has not had the high profile in Bush's Washington that his critics feared.

But that doesn't mean that Reich, a staunch conservative, doesn't have an aggressive agenda. In fact, he's a big supporter of Colombia's law-and-order president-elect, Alvaro Uribe Velez, and aims to help redirect American aid to that country's fight against leftist rebels. Reich is virulently opposed to Fidel Castro, and no fan of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another lefty whose professed commitment to democracy is questioned by Reich. More generally, Reich blames corruption and political populism--not the vagaries of the market--for the economic problems that have crippled Argentina and held back the region's development. "Most of these problems are not recent in their making," Reich told in an interview last month (box). "It is primarily a matter of neglect by governments in the region of problems that have been festering for decades."

The son of a Cuban woman and a Viennese Jew who fled Nazi-controlled Austria in the summer of 1938, Reich still casts international relations as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. The fight against despots and terrorists--from Adolf Hitler to Fidel Castro and, more recently, Osama bin Laden--has been a constant theme in his life. In remarks delivered at his swearing-in ceremony at the State Department last March, Reich praised the United States as "a just country" whose "struggle against tyranny is not finished." Some veteran analysts of the region noted Reich's failure to mention a landmark event in Latin American history that also took place on that same date nearly 30 years ago and spawned its own brand of tyranny: the bloody military coup against Chile's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, which allegedly went forward with the Nixon administration's tacit approval.

Arguably the most momentous development in the hemisphere during Reich's first six months in the job also concerned a coup, albeit one that failed. Forty-eight hours after a cabal of Venezuelan officers removed Chavez last April, he returned triumphantly to power--and questions quickly arose over whether the Bush administration, Reich in particular, may have played a role in the affair. A cavalcade of anti-Chavez politicians, businessmen and trade unionists had trooped through the assistant secretary of State's office in the weeks leading up to the takeover. But Reich insists the United States had nothing to do with the coup and claims he gave every one of his visitors the same message: the United States does not support coups. Period.

No one will ever accuse Reich of being an economic-policy wonk, and of late he has been devoting more of his time to the rot in Colombia. Under the Clinton administration, the war-ravaged South American country became the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East. But the $1.3 billion assistance package was entirely concentrated on anti-drug operations and support programs. The hawkish Bush White House wants an OK from the U.S. Congress to reassign large sums of that aid to the counterinsurgency efforts of the Colombian security forces. The long-running conflict pitting successive governments in Bogota against a Marxist guerrilla movement makes the issue a natural fit for the assistant secretary. Uribe, the Colombian president-elect, is a right-wing hard-liner who's already met twice with Reich since winning a landslide victory in late May. "We are in total agreement that we have to eliminate terrorism and other dangers like drug trafficking that both countries face," said Reich at the conclusion of Uribe's visit to the White House last month. "We're going to help Colombia in everything that may be necessary to win this war."

Reich has not yet been confirmed in his post by the U.S. Senate, chiefly because of his turbulent past. He ran afoul of liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill in the 1980s when he headed a State Department agency specially created to promote the Reagan administration's support for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. During his three-year tenure as chief of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), the agency churned out opinion pieces and sent them on to the editors of national newspapers without disclosing where the articles had been produced. His work at OPD haunted Reich long after he left in 1986 to become ambassador to Venezuela. A 1987 bipartisan congressional probe of the Iran-contra affair condemned the OPD's operations as "a new, non-traditional activity" for the U.S. government that allegedly involved the illegal use of taxpayers' money for an unauthorized public-relations exercise. In a separate investigation, the U.S. comptroller-general concluded that the Reich-led agency had engaged in "prohibited covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public." Reich denied any wrongdoing that same year and described the OPD as "one of the most open operations" at the State Department. He drew notice once again in Beltway circles in the 1990s when he became a high-rent lobbyist for clients like British American Tobacco, Lockheed Martin (representing it in marketing F-16s to Chile) and Bacardi, the giant rum distillery that is locked in a trademark dispute with the Castro regime over rights to the Havana Club label.

In person, the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Reich bears scant resemblance to an attack-dog ideologue. He's got two daughters (from a previous marriage), and while reluctant to describe himself as a "workaholic," he's usually at his desk by 7:30 a.m. and often stays until 9:30 at night. With 35 countries to keep track of, the onetime member of the University of North Carolina wrestling team says he finds little spare time for exercise or any other form of recreation. He did manage to carve out space in his hectic schedule last month to get married for the second time.

In other respects, however, Reich seems determined to preserve his pugnacious reputation. His relations with what he calls the "so-called prestige press" have been testy. The lifelong anti-communist once ridiculed the government-funded National Public Radio network as the "National People's Radio," and he accuses the mainstream news media of being prejudiced against his community. "One group said I couldn't possibly handle our relations with this hemisphere because I don't have the right temperament by virtue of my ethnic background," said an indignant Reich after taking the oath of office earlier this year. "It is time that Cuban-Americans cease to be the one ethnic group which the media still finds acceptable to denigrate."

The issue dearest to Reich's heart is his native Cuba. His support for the U.S. trade embargo against Castro is unwavering and uncompromising, despite the fact that it's widely perceived throughout Latin America as a failed policy. In Reich's view, maintaining the economic sanctions sends a clear signal to Havana that totalitarian rule will never be countenanced. "We are a democratic hemisphere with one exception, and that is Cuba," Reich told NEWSWEEK. "Every other country in this hemisphere has held free elections for over 20 years, so why should Cuba be an exception to this?" Not even cultural or recreational contacts with Cuba are permissible in his judgment. At one point, he denounced the scheduling of two exhibition games between the Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban all-star team. In Reich's view, the series "trivializes the situation" in Cuba, and he likened the games to "playing soccer in Auschwitz."

Critics of Reich say his appointment as the State Department's top Latin American policymaker has more to do with domestic politics than foreign affairs. The president's kid brother, Jeb, is up for re-election as Florida governor this fall, and Washington insiders say that the Sunshine State's two Cuban-American congressmen insisted on the Reich nomination in exchange for guaranteeing that their constituents would turn out in massive numbers at the polls on Jeb's behalf in November. Nonsense, says one of those legislators. "Jeb does very well in the Cuban-American community on his own," says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami. "No one is going to say, 'Oh, well, I'll vote for Jeb because Otto is in the administration.' Jeb just doesn't need anyone's coattails."

Reich's biggest challenge may be holding on to his job. Dodd and a number of other senior U.S. senators loudly opposed his nomination, and asked the White House last summer to select someone else. When Bush administration officials balked, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee then refused to grant Reich a confirmation hearing. The Bushies responded by putting Reich in as a "recess appointment." The somewhat unusual step was taken after Congress adjourned prior to the holidays in December, and it reflected a recognition that the controversial Reich stood little chance of being approved by a Democratically controlled Senate. His tenure as a recess appointee expires with the end of the current session of Congress in January and can be extended only if he gets the formal imprimatur of the upper house. That could happen if Republicans recapture the Senate in mid-term elections next November. If not, say key congressional staffers, Reich could be packing his bags this winter. "It's unfortunate that some people in the Senate have held up his confirmation," says Ros-Lehtinen, who is one of Reich's biggest boosters. Whether or not he ever does get confirmed, Reich will continue to work on a jumbled canvas that requires all the attention Washington can spare.