Council on Hemispheric Affairs
• A master at deconstructing U.S.-Latin American relations
• Greed, chicanery and raw ideology add up to the vulgarization of hemispheric issues.
• Reich’s secret formula: promote skewed pseudo-democracy by utilizing thuggish tactics
• He accuses his leftist adversaries, like Aristide, of lying; but no one in public life has so persistently manipulated the truth than Otto Reich.
Having just resigned on June 16th from his position as a controversial White House adviser on Latin American issues, Otto Reich’s highly visible career has spanned three decades during which he has held a series of senior public positions. During this period he has worked as a highly paid lobbyist for a number of corporations and controversy has never been far from his door. During this entire period, the profoundly extremist Cuban-American exile has been the proponent of an abrasive U.S. foreign policy aimed at the heart of Latin American dignity, targeting any of its leaders who did not share his Zoroastrian world view of absolute darkness versus absolute light. Until his resignation took effect in late June, Reich was an indefatigable warrior against whatever he decided was a leftwing cause. During his years of ostensible public service to the U.S., he routinely violated domestic laws by working behind the scenes to overthrow the radical but democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In El Salvador, he was an assiduous apologist for the death squads, at a total cost of 85,000 lives (mostly innocent civilians that included Catholic Priests), and condoned brutal human rights violations by the Contras, a U.S.-created force for which he later to broke the law to support. In so doing, Reich made the choice to protect drug traffickers to service the higher goal of putatively fighting communism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Reich never met a liberal who he did not view a covert operator for Moscow, or an extreme rightwing cause that was not shrouded in rectitude. As head of the notorious Office of Public Diplomacy during the Iran-Contra era of the mid-1980s, Reich’s skullduggery was so infamous that he was repeatedly reprimanded by federal authorities for violating proper financial procedures.
The War of the Titans: Reich vs. Castro
Reich is primarily known for being an unflagging champion of an anti-Castro obsession that has done great damage to Washington’s Latin American relations by focusing them almost entirely on the U.S.-Cuba conflict. Reich viewed Chile as good because it obediently fell in line with U.S. interests, while Haiti and Venezuela were bad because they did not. Promoted as a leader of the extreme rightwing segment of the Cuban-American leadership due to his rabid hatred of Fidel Castro, he relentlessly stalked the Cuban communist leader as being the apotheosis of diabolism in our time. If someone failed to share his perception, he would be in great risk of being instantly denominated as being a communist.
Ironically, Castro was essential to Reich’s own fame and fortune because without him, Reich’s talents would have likely landed him little better than the job of an apparatchik, which was the fate of Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who, many would contend, was the one Bush official less intellectually prepared than Reich.
Reich’s moments in the spotlight came about due to his prominent role in both the Iran-Contra Affair and in his later capacity as a big-time player in the attempted April 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Reich built a murky relationship with predatory big business interests including Bacardi Rum and Lockheed-Martin, and an array of questionable private Cuban-American militant groups, as both a private lobbyist in the 1990s and later as a candidate to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in President George W. Bush’s State Department. These bitterly controversial actions persuaded Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to block Reich’s confirmation to that diplomatic post in January of 2002, prompting President Bush to exercise his right of executive privilege by appointing Reich on an interim basis for a one-year period, thus skirting the need for Senate approval.
Henchman in the Anti-Castro Effort, Pork Meister Supreme in Diverting Taxpayer Funds for His Ideological Causes
Ever since fleeing Cuba with his family at the age of fourteen, Reich has passionately sought the demise of Castro and his regime. Reich’s personal crusade inevitably led him to a broad range of affiliations with radical right-wing Cuban-American exile groups that he was always ready to finance with U.S. taxpayer funds. He has served as a trustee for the Center for a Free Cuba and worked for the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a nonprofit organization that, to a large extent, is financed by the ultra-rightwing owners of the Bacardi Company, which is at least as focused on undermining the Castro regime as it is on producing rum. Cuban-American leadership in Miami and members of the U.S.’ rightist pantheon have helped make Reich perhaps the most visible contemporary radical right figure available to champion the extremist wing of the passionate anti-Castro movement.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s egregious lack of feel for Latin American issues has led to a willingness to defer to non-mainstream and ill-prepared hyper-ideologues like Reich and Roger Noriega, who succeeded the former as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Under the aegis of these two prominent Cuban bashers, U.S.-Latin American relations have arguably hit their lowest level in years, with Washington losing much of its leverage over the outcome of regional issues in which its commanding economic and trade clout presumably should have brought success. This coupled with the non-stop political intrusions coming from Governor Jeb Bush of Florida (himself with absolutely solid extremist credentials), acting on behalf of the older generation of the leadership of the Miami-Cuban exile community, has led the handling of U.S.-Latin American policy into total disarray.
Reich’s role as head of the Latin American section of USAID in the early ‘80s, and then as the director of the Office of Public Diplomacy during the Reagan presidency, was based on his ability to ingratiate himself with powerful political figures whom he could count on to advance his own personal welfare, including then Vice President and former CIA director George H.W. Bush. Reich’s relationship with the Bush family was undoubtedly facilitated by his connection with Miami’s influential rightwing nexus, including the late Jorge Mas Canosa and his ultra-right Cuban-American National Foundation. Reich’s indisputable zeal in the anti-Castro mission made him part of the team that helped deliver some of the all-important Cuban-American vote to the Reagan-Bush ticket in the crucial state of Florida, and later to George W. Bush in his extremely controversial 2000 presidential election victory.
Architecting the Anti-Castro Struggle
Such activities placed Reich at the center of a Miami-linked cadre of anti-Cuban-American militants who uniquely perceive Washington’s Latin American policy as a method to pursue their narrow agenda. As a private lobbyist for the venomously anti-Castro Barcardi family in 1995-96, Reich’s company provided free legal service to Senator Helms in the drafting of the near-universally condemned Helms-Burton Act. Under that measure’s Title III (routinely suspended by the Bush and Clinton Administrations) and Title IV, U.S. authorities may penalize any foreign company or individual engaged in commerce involving previously confiscated and once American-owned Cuban property. This measure brought about a dangerous confrontation between the U.S. and the EU and was only resolved by the Clinton administration and current Bush administrations’ repeated non-enforcement of the law’s main provisions.
As Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2002-2003), Reich continued to press the administration to reinforce existing sanctions against Cuba, frequently resorting to blatantly counterfeit charges as he did in a speech given in 2002 at Heritage Foundation, a Washington conservative sanctuary. In that address, he stated that “Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. We believe that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort” and also that “Cuba has engaged in a deliberate effort to confuse, distract and divert U. S. intelligence from its vital counter-terrorism mission by dangling false leads.” When pressed for evidence, neither Reich nor any of his colleagues came forth with any proof beyond his and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, John Bolton’s hoax that Havana was exporting bio-terrorism.
The administration’s uninterrupted drive to create a contrived situation in order to pump up sanctions against Havana, prompted Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to remark to the Los Angeles Times: “I believe many American farmers and businessmen are aware that U.S. economic warfare against Cuba harms broader U.S. interests, while at the same time injuring the people, but not the government, of Cuba.” The new anti-Castro measures being implemented by the Bush administration at the urging of Reich, Noriega and their immediate coterie include a controversial proposal on May 6 to attempt provocative, and perhaps illegal, flights through Cuban airspace by the American military with specialized equipment meant to prevent Cuba’s jamming of U.S. funded, anti-Castro propagandistic broadcasts of TV Martí.
Although many consider the tactics of Reich and his fellow exile demagogues as largely ineffective, they still greatly damage general U.S. foreign policy objectives, Powell, who appears to have abdicated all responsibility for U.S. policy towards Cuba, or for that matter, the rest of Latin America, has become merely one more choirboy in the administration’s anti-Cuba rant. That said, Reich has shown that he was willing to promote nearly every affliction on the Cuban people, be it hunger through embargoes, violence through Cuban domestic terrorist Orlando Bosch, or destruction through an anti-Castro uprising, if such steps promised to weaken the Castro regime. Ignoring all existing peaceful precedents for handling allegedly unregenerate or totalitarian states by engaging them through commerce and aid, Reich offered only sinister and coercive tactics to force Cuba to embrace his version of democracy. In the spring of 2002, after a failed confirmation, President Bush appointed Reich as special envoy to the White House. In this position, Reich displayed his bitter hard-line rhetoric in response to a reporter’s inquiry about how the United States would promote freedom in Cuba: “One way we can help […] is not throwing a lifeline to a failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime. We’re not going to do it. We are not going to help Fidel Castro stay in power by opening up our markets to Cuba.” Libya and China, it seems, are another matter.
Working in the Satanic Mills
When not officially involved in the public spotlight plying his ideological trade, Reich founded RMA International, a lobbyist firm, in 1996. This event did not, however, signify any major change in lifestyle. Since 1996, Reich’s clients have included the Cuban-American owned Bacardi Corporation, from which he has reportedly received $600,000 in compensation. Upon his later failed nomination as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Reich failed mention his employment as a paid lobbyist for the Helms-Burton Act (pushed through the legislature in the mid 1990s) in a required financial disclosure report. Not until it was revealed in other federal reports filed with the Department of Justice concerning the Helms-Burton campaign (which handsomely paid Reich for his efforts to pass the anti-Havana legislation), did Reich lightly excuse the omission of this information as simply a “clerical oversight.” Lockheed-Martin, British American Tobacco and Mobil Oil were also on Reich’s list of big business clients. “Although Reich is no longer employed by Bacardi, you do not have to be a cynic to see a dangerous conflict of interest,” wrote the Guardian’s Duncan Campbell.
While working for Bacardi, Reich facilitated the inclusion of Section 211, denying trademark protection to Cuba in the1998 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. This measure, coupled with the drafting and passing of the Helms-Burton Act, the process in which Reich played an integral role (including arranging the loan of Bacardi lawyers to help draft the measure’s most controversial provisions for now retired Senator Helms), ended up dangerously straining trade relations with the European Union, which filed a complaint against the U.S. at the World Trade Organization. While Reich and the big business groups that served as his clients may have realized handsome profits thanks to his career-long commitment to seeking out clients who applaud his raw ideology and abusive campaigns against the region’s assortment of lefties, many U.S. businesses and agricultural groups, as well as Americans in other commercial and public sector pursuits, have certainly not. One glaring example of Reich’s grossly negative impact on U.S. business interests was when Cuba, in retaliation to Section 211, vowed to produce AIDS pharmaceuticals despite existing U.S. patents, inevitably sparking a trade war that will do more harm than good to U.S. commercial interests.
Reich’s seeming inability to easily distinguish between the boundaries of public and private funds and his repeated indifference to ethical standards was again exhibited upon his return to government in 2001. In response to questions regarding possible conflicts of interest between his private lobbying and his State Department nomination, he submitted a report to the Senate that stated he would surrender control of his private lobby, RMA International, but would continue to receive commissions from RMA clients. Only after a reporter questioned the integrity of such a proposal did Reich concede that these lucrative payoffs could pose an ethical dilemma. His financial statement was later revised and resubmitted without the provision for his continue compensation from the private sector.
Although not allowed to directly receive funds from his former clients, Reich has shamelessly used his position to promote their interests. There was the attempted anti-Chávez coup in Venezuela in April, 2001, in which Reich played a key role in meeting with the conspirators and in arranging for them to receive U.S. tax. Coincidentally, the coup, if successful, would certainly have been in the best interests of Mobil Oil, a former Reich client. Subsequently, by lobbying hard for Lockheed-Martin, which had been given permission by the Pentagon to sell F-16 fighter jets with advanced missile systems to Chile’s historically brutal military, Reich helped to lift the two-decade-old congressional ban on the sale of advanced weaponry in Latin America, thus risking the inception of a destructive Chilean-led arms race with Argentina and Peru.
In 2000, Reich became Vice-Chairman of WRAP, an apparel industry lobby that was seen by its foes as an avenue through which domestic clothing importers could avoid scrutiny of their non-union production. Critics claim, that WRAP facilitated continued maintenance of sweatshops throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world.
Master of Deception: OPD (1983-86)
As the head of the ill-reputed U.S. Office of Public Diplomacy, Reich orchestrated the “White Propaganda” campaign of running unacknowledged op-ed editorials in newspapers across the nation. IN an iniciative illegally coordinated with the CIA, these articles were designed to manipulate and intimidate unwitting major American media outlets to favor the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Such efforts were intended to generate a public following in the U.S. and abroad for Washington’s support of a Sandinista overthrow and to suppress widely circulating reports at the time of atrocities being committed by the U.S.-backed Contras against Nicaraguan civilians. While bearing the names of some well-known academic and public figures, the bogus op-eds and other material were authored in Reich’s office by professional speech writers. In 1987, the Comptroller-General of the U.S., a Republican appointee, formally found that Reich had acted illegally: ‘We conclude that the [OPD’s] activities involving the preparation and dissemination of certain types of information violated restriction on the use of appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.’
Ambassador to Venezuela (1987-89)
Reich’s most ethically questionable behavior during his ambassadorship to Venezuela was his controversial role in the release and ultimate arrangement for asylum of accused Cuban-American terrorist Orlando Bosch. Although Bosch had smuggled a bomb onboard a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all 73 onboard, his subsequent conviction on overwhelming evidence in a Venezuelan court was shockingly overturned on appeal. After fleeing Venezuela, Reich helped him to procure refugee status inside the U.S., despite a State Department intelligence report implicating Bosch in approximately thirty acts of international violence and sabotage. While Reich always takes a strong stand against terrorism, he directly advanced the interests of the most prolific terrorist figure to emerge in the U.S.-Latin American environment in recent decades, Bosch.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2002-June 14, 2004)
In January 2002, Reich was elevated by President Bush in a recess appointment to be the State Department’s chief Latin Americanist. After Senator Dodd froze Reich’s appointment this action was taken to stave off potentially embarrassing questions concerning his earlier career in public service that were sure to be aired. His confirmation also seemed highly unlikely after several key Republican Senators, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar (R-IN), announced they could not support his appointment due to his fatefully flawed professional history. Once in office, Reich was soon tasked to orchestrate a massive international media defamation campaign against Chávez that has continued until this day.
Choosing One’s Enemies
Along with Reich’s unbridled aversion to Chávez, due in part to the Venezuelan leader’s close relationship with Fidel Castro, he has shown a disturbing readiness to manipulate Venezuela’s domestic political scene that is reminiscent of similar actions he has taken in many other Latin American nations. The English-speaking Caribbean countries, and almost all of the other Latin American nations that he visited while serving Powell and then the White House, became, during his short tenure, the venue for vituperative and minatory statements about political candidates that he might oppose in upcoming elections. Faced with the prospect of a possible presidential election victory in El Salvador by the leftist FMLN, Reich had no problem with erroneously linking the party to the Spanish separatist terrorist group ETA. He stated, “We (the U.S. government) could not have the same confidence in an El Salvador led by a person [Schafik Handal] who is obviously an admirer of Fidel Castro and of (Venezuelan president) Hugo Chávez.” What he did not bother to tell his audience was that he fabricated the link between the ETA and Cuba when, in fact, the then-Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez asked Castro, as an accommodation to Spain, to grant several ETA militants asylum in Cuba.
Reich’s connection to the U.S. intelligence agencies and reputation asone of the Bush administration’s master conspirators and disinformation specialists leads many to suspect that he played an important role in Jean Bertrand Aristide’s fall from favor in the international media, and in fostering international support for the Haitian rebels. Throughout the closing days of the embattled Aristide administration’s stay in office, Secretary of State Colin Powell ostensibly attempted to avoid the Haitian President’s overthrow, while Reich made some off-the-record comments to the media alluding that a violent coup against Aristide’s government was certainly a viable option. The OAS and a congressional sub-committee are currently preparing investigations into the true circumstances of Aristide’s loss of power.
In order to superimpose his political will, Reich has often simply resorted to bully tactics and outright extortionist threats against those he feels are most vulnerable. To a distressing extent, Reich expresses the exact authoritarian profile that he routinely ascribes to Castro. Could it be that Reich would be a perfect Castro if given the chance? When the United States invaded Iraq, Reich was clearly displeased with the Caribbean-based organization Caricom’s decision not to support the controversial war. Over Barbados TV he said, “It is not the kind of support that we expect from friends…. 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.” “What do I tell a member of Congress,” he hypothetically questions, “if I go asking for increased access for Caribbean products, for example, and he says, ‘Well, they did not support us in our time of need’?”
As a career propagandist and huckster-ideologue, Otto Reich built his professional persona on his provision of public misinformation and his capacity for extremist politics that have done incalculable damaged the maintenance of a balanced and responsible U.S. Latin American policy. Almost single-handedly, he has bent and distorted U.S.-Latin American relations, and in the past several decades has contributed to a level of odium that cannot easily be recalled in the bilateral relationship between the two continents. His legacy hardly deserves that word, filled as it has been with vulgar rhetoric, meretricious analysis, Rasputin-like conspiracies and inability to distinguish responsible behavior from that of a low quality goon. He, together with his fellow alumnus from former Senator Helms’ foundry for debased regional policy-making, the State Department’s Roger Noriega and Dan Fisk, have gone a long way to polluting U.S. hemispheric ties so much that it will likely take a generation to undo the damage. We certainly have not heard the last from him, because ó giving the Devil his due ó he has displayed a cruel genius for making big money out of craven deeds and then reappearing to get another crack at ultra-extremist public policymaking. While he constantly preaches about “democracy,” in truth his authoritarian tactics make him one of its worst foes. He calls other people liars, when, in fact, he is leagues ahead of any would-be rival in public life in crafting tall tales with no substance. On a strictly competitive basis, he would struggle to acquire any job requiring honesty, public rectitude or a strong moral foundation.
Reich has repeatedly shown that he is the anti-Christ for any crusade for responsible democratic self-rule, and his name will rank high among those pathalogues who manage to diminish everything they touch. His resignation marks the second retirement of one of the ill-reputed officials from the Reagan area who was exhumed after the Bush victory, for another round at public life. They had all participated in the Iran-Contra Affair’s “Iron Triangle” ó Reich, John Negroponte, current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Elliot Abrams, current senior director of the National Security Council’s Office for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations, and Admiral John Poindexter (Ret.) who was recently forced once again to resign in disgrace. He leaves behind him a tainted record characterized by a series of abject dirty deeds committed under the guise of promoting democracy in Latin America.
This analysis was prepared by Will Conkling and Sam Goble, COHA Research Associates