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Going back to the future with Reich appointment

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune:

The search for a nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs evidently took the Bush administration to right field - way to the right. Otto J. Reich, Bush's reported pick, is a former American ambassador to Venezuela, State Department official and lobbyist. Reich also is a name associated with policies inimical to American interests in Latin America and, in fact, to the administration's own stated goals for the region.

One of many controversial items in Reich's resume was his running of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean during the 1980s. It was a propaganda and disinformation shop whose goal, according to a memo, was "to concentrate gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats" on the Contras.

In his anti-communist zeal, the Cuban-born Reich didn't know when or where to quit. He submitted op-eds to U.S. newspapers supposedly written by Nicaraguan citizens and opposition figures, but in fact prepared by his office. In 1985 he made scurrilous suggestions that American reporters were having relations with male and female prostitutes provided by the Sandinistas in exchange for favorable coverage. With so many legitimate potshots to be taken at the Sandinistas, it's hard to imagine why Reich resorted to such tactics.

Indeed, a 1988 Washington Post article concluded that "the campaign came to resemble the sort of covert political operation the CIA runs against hostile forces overseas but is outlawed from conducting at home."

What should be even more worrisome to the Bush administration - which has made free trade the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Latin America - and to Midwestern farm and business interests lobbying to open up trade with Cuba, is Reich's involvement in the drafting of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. This has to be one of the most ill-conceived, anti-trade pieces of legislation to emerge from Congress in recent memory.

Particularly objectionable is Title 3, which allows American citizens to sue foreign firms who "traffic in expropriated property" in Cuba. A former owner of a piece of beachfront property in Cuba, for instance, could sue a Spanish firm that built a hotel on that parcel. Implementation of Title 3 would lead to nothing but litigation and confrontations between the United States and its closest trading partners in Europe and Latin America.

President Clinton wisely waived enforcement of Title 3 every year. The last waiver expires this summer. If confirmed, would Reich recommend that Bush once again waive Title 3?

A continuation of the pointless trade war against Cuba - an obsession with Reich and segments of the Cuban-American community - runs counter to Bush's free-trade opening to Latin America and to Midwestern commercial interests eager to trade. Bush is no fan of Fidel Castro, but this appointment may be an unwelcome signal of a particularly hard line on Cuba.

President Bush is right to try new policies and ideas with regard to the Western hemisphere. As a torch-bearer for old and failed policies, though, Otto Reich is the wrong person to lead that effort.



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