Waiting for Otto

The name Otto Reich has popped up in the press again over the past several months. But who is this controversial former Miamian who still enjoys strong ties to South Florida? You should know, if only as a way to assess the health of our humble geopolitical region's clout in Washington these days. Test your acumen.

Is Otto Reich:


(a) President George W. Bush's confounding nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs who is an uncompromising supporter of the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba?

(b) a former Reagan administration official who is opposed by ranking Democrats for his role in the Iran-contra affair and for his judgment in the case of Orlando Bosch, a man once described by a senior justice official as a terrorist who is "unfettered by laws or human decency"?

(c) payback to Cuban-American voters for their crucial role in Bush's victory last year, backed by the Cuban American National Foundation and, paradoxically, also by its archenemy, the government of Fidel Castro?

(d) a public servant who "given a fair hearing can fully dispel any doubts about his capacity to steer U.S. policy in this hemisphere" even though he engaged in "misguided, even dishonest, attempts to propagandize the American public?"

(e) a nominee who has devotedly championed hard-line Republican issues on local AM radio but whose nomination may sink because of other Republicans?

See below for the correct answer(s).

If you guessed (a), you appear to be somewhat informed about an important State Department post that has remained unfilled for nearly the entire first year of George W. Bush's presidency. Whoever serves as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs is no less than the United States point man for winning friends and influencing people across the Americas.

Otto Juan Reich, age 56, is the clear choice for members of South Florida's Cuban-American political establishment. The son of an Austrian Jew who was beaten by "Nazi thugs" in 1938 and later married a Catholic Cuban woman, Reich left Cuba with his family in 1960 at the age of fifteen and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. His family history is "fraught with totalitarian nightmares," as he wrote in a speech he delivered to a business conference in Toronto in 1993. He articulated his opposition to tampering with the U.S. embargo. "I believe it is immoral to lengthen the days in which an undemocratic, brutal, unelected, totalitarian regime survives to imprison, torture, execute, and cause more innocent people to flee," he proclaimed. Foreign companies that do business in Cuba are risking their investments, he warned, "because of the political upheavals that will turn the current policies of the Castro government upside down."

Eight years later those policies are still right-side up, but it's the kind of fervor that wins you a ringing endorsement from the Cuban American National Foundation, which has been lobbying for Reich for months. Reich is a "true believer" regarding U.S policies aimed at thwarting communism in Cuba and in Central America, CANF's executive director Joe Garcia raved. "For the past twenty years, Otto has been on the winning side in Latin America, the side of freedom, democracy, liberty, and human rights, and that came to pass. And I think this administration is committed to those same values that brought a democratized hemisphere but for one [country]." He's also an old friend of the late CANF founder, Jorge Mas Canosa.

Reich has the backing of CANF's staunchest ally on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The committee approves State Department nominees. "People are pretty confident that he will get a hearing," Maurice Perkins, a Helms staff member, offered optimistically in late September. "President Bush needs to have his foreign policy team in place," he asserted. Until recently Perkins worked for Reich at RMA International, a small lobbying firm in Arlington, Virginia, whose clients include Bacardi (the rum producer evicted in the early days of the Cuban revolution) and Lockheed-Martin (one of whose goals has been to sell military jets to Latin-American governments). Reich is president of the company, which has a total of four employees.

The Republican Party activist's résumé is packed with governmental jobs. After receiving a bachelor's degree in international studies from the University of North Carolina in 1966, Reich spent two years in the U.S. Army stationed in Panama. He then went to Washington, D.C., and earned a master's degree in Latin-American studies from Georgetown University. He moved to Miami in 1972 and worked as an international representative for the Florida Department of Commerce until 1975, when he took a job as community development coordinator for the City of Miami.

When Ronald Reagan became president, Reich returned to Washington. During the twelve-year GOP reign, he served as an administrator at the Agency for International Development; director of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy; U.S. ambassador to Venezuela; and, under the first Bush administration, alternate delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Since the Nineties Reich's time has been split as a lobbyist and television commentator on CNN's Choque de Opiniones, a Spanish-language version of Crossfire. In addition he directs the Center for a Free Cuba, which is allied with Freedom House, one of Washington, D.C.'s bastions of anti-communist ideology during the Cold War.

At the White House's request, Reich has not spoken publicly about his nomination since Bush tapped him in March. But his remarks on a radio talk show on Miami station WQBA-AM (1140) before his nomination provide a fairly fresh glimpse of ideas he might share with members of the Foreign Relations Committee, if he ever gets a hearing. The program, Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles), originally aired in January and was rebroadcast just after the nomination.

"Fidel Castro is still seen as a dinosaur of the Cold War who supported the Soviet Union, who damaged the interests of this country, and who continues to damage them," Reich told the station. "And the only reason he can't damage them more is because he doesn't have money. I think that we have to avoid letting money into him from whatever source, private or international, because we know what Fidel Castro will do with this money, and that is to again support terrorism. As he said recently, very proudly, that he effectively supported the guerrillas in all of the Latin-American countries with the exception of Mexico, and I don't believe that either."

Reich's chances looked pretty rosy while Helms was still chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That changed in May, when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party and gave Democrats control of the Senate. Joe Biden (D-Del.) replaced Helms as chairman of the committee. Last August assistant senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acting on behalf of fellow Democrats, sent Reich's nomination back to the White House. It was a way of suggesting Bush find someone else for the job, though Reid told reporters that if Bush felt strongly about Reich, he could resubmit the nomination. The president did just that in early September.

But despite CANF's lobbying efforts and the newfound congressional unity in the wake of September 11, Reich's nomination is in serious doubt. Democrats have qualms about his propaganda work for the Reagan administration foreign-policy team that brought us the Iran-contra affair. "The Reich nomination is dead," concluded one committee staffer who works for a Democratic senator from a Midwestern state. To make matters worse, some of Reich's fellow Republicans don't even back him on the issue at the core of his diplomatic persona: the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Answer (b) also is correct. Beginning last March, two senior members of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), began publicizing their concerns about Reich's involvement in the Reagan administration's covert activities, spearheaded by Lt. Col. Oliver North, to aid anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Some of the senators' qualms are the same as those contained in a 1987 report by the bipartisan congressional committees that investigated the Iran-contra affair. Otto Reich is featured in a section titled "White Propaganda," which referred to his work at the Office of Public Diplomacy. The report described the OPD's operations as "a new, nontraditional activity for the United States government," which involved the illegal use of taxpayers' money for public-relations lobbying. For example the office produced op-ed pieces that were published in national newspapers without disclosing OPD involvement. The report quoted Reich's description of his modus operandi as "a very aggressive posture vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile press."

The U.S. comptroller general, after another investigation, soon concluded that Reich's operations were "prohibited covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public." The OPD had violated a restriction barring the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.

His background briefings, in which he often accused journalists of being communist sympathizers, are legendary in Washington. National Public Radio editors recall a meeting in which he testily referred to the network as "National People's Radio." His crusade also targeted U.S. reporters working in Central America. Miami-based author (and former New Times staff writer) John Lantigua remembers having lunch with Reich during a visit he made to Nicaragua in 1985, when Lantigua was freelancing for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Reich was quarrelsome, Lantigua recalled, when the diplomat was confronted with facts that contradicted his ideology-laden conceptions about the socialist Sandinista government. "In retrospect he was fishing. He was being provocative to see who would argue with him," Lantigua surmised. The journalist soon found himself the subject of a report by Accuracy in Media, which claimed that the Sandinista regime was providing sex slaves to Lantigua in exchange for favorable reporting. Reich later took credit, telling a New York magazine writer that he had gotten the information from Sandinista defectors. "The guy's a slimeball," Lantigua scoffed.

Reich also engaged in potentially far more volatile forms of disinformation. In November 1984, purportedly citing classified intelligence documents, Reich told journalists the Sandinista government may have received a shipment of Soviet MiGs. Network news programs and major newspapers picked up the tidbit, which proved to be false. But the OPD goal, in this instance to malign the Sandinistas, was met.

In March Senator Dodd told the New York Times he didn't think Reich was "the right person" for the job. The right person, he suggested, would be someone with the diplomatic and political skills "to maintain bipartisan support for U.S. policies in the hemisphere." In July Dodd told NPR reporter Steve Inskeep he thought Reich's performance at the OPS was grounds for disqualifying his nomination. "I don't care what your party is or what your politics are, if you don't tell the truth and you lie to Congress, I'm not going to vote for you," Dodd declared.

In an October 11 letter to the Wall Street Journal, Dodd chastised Reich for waiting until October to submit a plan for avoiding conflicts of interest involving his public-relations clients, such as Bacardi. Dodd urged the administration to send "a qualified candidate" to the Senate, indicating he is not likely to support a hearing.

But at a hearing we could learn more about his history in the case of Orlando Bosch, a long-time advocate of violent struggle against the Castro government and a participant in more than 30 terrorist attacks in the Sixties and Seventies, according to the first Bush administration's Justice Department. In 1968 Bosch was sentenced to ten years in prison for firing a 57-millimeter bazooka shell at a Polish freighter in the Port of Miami. He violated parole in 1974 and landed in Venezuela. Authorities there arrested him in 1976 in connection with the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación jetliner that exploded after takeoff from Barbados, killing 73 people. He was still in prison and awaiting trial by a military court when Reich arrived at his Caracas post as ambassador in 1986. At Bosch's trial prosecutors presented evidence showing he was in contact with two men convicted for the bombing. But a Venezuelan military court acquitted him in 1988.

In confidential cables (now declassified thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the nonprofit National Security Archive) Reich queried the State Department about whether Bosch could become eligible for a U.S. visa. In one Reich informs Washington that friends of Bosch were poised to "whisk him out of Venezuela within four hours of his release from jail." In another Reich says an intelligence source informed him that "a hit team consisting of two men and one woman had arrived in Venezuela from Cuba to assassinate Orlando Bosch."

After his release Bosch returned to Miami in 1988 without a proper entry visa and was arrested upon arrival at Miami International Airport. While Bosch was detained for his 1974 parole violation, acting Associate Attorney General Joe Whitley ordered him deported in 1989. "His actions have been those of a terrorist, unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims," Whitley wrote, citing public and confidential information about Bosch's bellicose activities. But Whitley ruled out sending Bosch to Cuba, and no other nation would accept him. In 1990 George H.W. Bush's Justice Department released Bosch after he agreed to accept a form of house arrest.

In a recent interview with New Times, Bosch denied ever having contact with Reich. "I don't know Reich, nor have I ever seen Reich, nor did I ask him for anything," the 75-year-old pediatrician groused at his small one-story house in west Miami-Dade. "For me Otto Reich is like you. I don't know who you are." But when pressed, Bosch conceded he knew more than that. "He was ambassador to Venezuela," Bosch added. "I know that he is Cuban American and that he is going to be ambassador to Latin America [sic]."

According to the Washington Post, Dodd's office is preparing a set of questions for Reich in order to clarify his role with regard to Bosch.

If you guessed (c), you are probably a political junkie of some sort and quite possibly a cynical one. Would the president of the United States really nominate an anti-Castro ideologue for this important post just to keep a critical mass of Cuban American voters onboard?

Some members of the committee think it's conceivable. Without those votes George W. Bush probably would have lost Florida's historic cliffhanger and, hence, the 2000 election. Another motivator: The president's brother Jeb will also need that critical mass in his gubernatorial re-election bid a year from now. It is interesting to note that Reich enjoys the backing of other politicians who believe they need hard-line Cuban-American voters, for whom support of the embargo is an article of faith. The list includes Florida's two U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats.

"The president is heavily indebted to Florida," observed Andy Summel, who recently left his job as aide to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. "He's heavily indebted to his brother. The Cuban-American community is a political force down there certainly but also in the country as a whole in terms of shaping legislation."

According to a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an independent public-policy research group in Washington, D.C., Governor Bush urged his brother to nominate Reich at the behest of vehemently pro-embargo Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has made a career bringing anti-Castro tirades to the Capitol. Diaz-Balart reportedly informed the governor that if he wished to count on the support of Cuban Americans in his re-election in 2002, he needed to encourage his brother to nominate Reich.

New Times queried the governor's office on the veracity of this account and received this fluffy statement from his communications director, Katie Baur: "Mr. Reich is an excellent choice for this position. The governor strongly supports Mr. Reich and believes it is time for his hearing to take place. His commitment to this country and diverse background makes him the right man for this very important cabinet post." After some prodding on the Diaz-Balart connection, gubernatorial spokeswoman Leslie Steel relayed this response from the governor: "He said, “I've supported Otto Reich for a long while and so has Lincoln.'" Steel added: "It has nothing to do with votes." (Diaz-Balart did not respond to interview requests made to his press secretary.)

Thus the nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs is playing a far bigger role in domestic politics than in foreign policy. Even if the nomination goes nowhere, the president can likely guarantee Cuban-American support as long as he is perceived to be fighting for his hard-line, anti-Castro nominee. "In Washington, at the White House, in the Republican Party, they still see the Cuban-American electorate made up mostly of hard-liners," offered Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen. "I would personally question that analysis, but I think that's the way they see it and that's the way they play it." According to his voter surveys, the pro-embargo electorate is shrinking. "I think the whole political analysis that says to be able to get the Cuban-American vote you need to be a hard-liner is disintegrating quickly," he concluded.

But Bendixen thinks the president would not jeopardize his brother's re-election by giving up on Reich. "I think the president's advisors would tell him that dropping Reich would not be helpful with Cuban Americans."

Other prominent Cuban Americans share Bendixen's view. "I think that the majority of the Cuban community doesn't even know who Otto Reich is," noted Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer, Bay of Pigs veteran, and former Florida Democratic Party chairman, who favors a policy of dialogue with the Castro regime.

But what would happen if the president decided to abandon his controversial nominee? Hoping to assess the political cost of such a move, New Times queried Joe Garcia, CANF's executive director. Garcia dodged the question, saying he didn't believe withdrawing was an option. "I think you've missed the [Bush administration's] motivator," he insisted. "I think Otto Reich is a highly trained diplomat who's good at what he does. You're putting the administration in a box that I don't think they see themselves being in. I don't think that's an option, and I don't think they see it as an option. They could have, but they don't. It's an absurd question. It's like asking me what if my grandmother were a hippo? They've committed to go down the road with Otto." Garcia then suggested New Times put that question to Dennis Hays, CANF's highly diplomatic, Irish-American lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Hays also ducked. "Everything I've seen from this president is that he does not abandon a friend, and he doesn't abandon his choice when there is no information, no whatever, that indicates the individual has done anything other than be a first-rate servant of this nation," he declared.

Oddly enough CANF's archenemy -- the Cuban government -- thinks Otto Reich is a "magnificent" choice. "Otto Reich is the ideal undersecretary for a failed U.S. foreign policy in Latin America," Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of the People's Power, chortled during a recent interview in Havana. "I'm not worried in the least. The United States is who should be worried." Alarcón said Reich has already generated a negative reaction among Latin-American opinion leaders. He cited a widely published opinion piece by former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, who warned that "appointing someone of Reich's ideological stripe would be a real setback in hemispheric cooperation."

Alarcón continued: "Otto Reich is more amusing to us than anything else. He is going to be concerned not only with Cuba but the whole continent. Perfect. Letting him help destroy U.S. relations with Latin America strikes us as a brilliant idea."

If you selected (d), you're right, at least as far as the Miami Herald editorial board is concerned. The bit about "misguided, even dishonest, attempts to propagandize the American public" comes straight from a March 26 editorial in the Pulitzer Prize-winning daily. But somehow that dark cloud didn't obscure the board's belief that Reich could "dispel doubts about steering U.S. policy" in Latin America. The editorial's endorsement noted that he enjoys the support of Governor Bush and Senator Graham but mentioned none who oppose him. Reich brings "solid diplomatic credentials and key contacts" to the job, the editorial assured.

The Herald editorial also ignored its own excellent reporting, including articles on the comptroller general's conclusion concerning Reich's propaganda activities in the Iran-contra scandal. Also omitted was any reference to a 1987 Herald article based on a report by the General Accounting Office, which determined that Reich's office had awarded a noncompetitive contract worth $187,000 to Richard Miller, the president of a public-relations firm that funneled private money to the contras. The GAO found the contract in violation of the ban on funding for covert propaganda operations. Miller currently is a partner of Reich's at RMA International.

The Herald's analysis of Reich continues to be mushy, perhaps so as not to offend members of the Cuban-American political establishment. It's an attitude that contrasts sharply with that of other major newspapers not known to be soft on Castro. The Chicago Tribune, in an October 15 editorial, likened the Reich nomination to "a moldy, B-grade production that inexplicably keeps popping up at the neighborhood moviehouse." The missive read: "The U.S. embargo against Cuba -- an article of faith among the majority of Cuban exiles in Florida -- is a weary, failed policy, and widely reviled around the world, particularly in Latin America. President Bush has spoken boldly about forging a new American policy with Mexico and Latin America. That's a role that cannot be played by a has-been with so many negative past performances as Otto Reich."

If you put your finger on (e), you are as savvy as some Senate insiders. Reich would obviously need to win over Republicans for his nomination to be confirmed. But the uncompromising policy toward Cuba is steadily eroding among GOP ranks, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Cuba's not a huge market. But it's a market," maintained Andy Summel, the former aide to Sen. Richard Lugar. "It's not as big a market as Iran or Iraq would be if sanctions were modified there. But it would be a market, and it would be a market that would be sustainable over time. It's geographically close. And if the country were to grow economically, it would be a growing market.

"We have an independent view on Cuba," Summel continued. "Lugar and I personally think we ought to be selling food and medicine there, and we ought to lift a lot of the sanctions and put the pressure on Castro, rather than letting him benefit from our sanctions. He needs them politically."

Unfortunately for Reich, Lugar isn't the only one on the GOP side of the dais who thinks this way. At least five of the nine Republican senators on the committee also have supported lifting some sanctions against Cuba.

How would Reich refute them? "Cuba's economy cannot grow as long as Castro is in power," Reich declared on his WQBA appearance. "I think the policy of the United States should be, and again I'm speaking as a private citizen, to demand that there be internal changes in Cuba before the United States changes [its embargo policy]."

Polos Opuestos host Maria Elvira Salazar noted that a Republican president, Richard Nixon, had orchestrated a historic diplomatic opening with another communist country, China. She asked Reich why he opposed the idea of this Republican president trying the same thing with Cuba.

"China isn't Cuba," he replied. "From an economic and commercial perspective, China and Cuba are two completely different countries." He then digressed into some of the capitalistic reforms, such as private businesses, that the totalitarian, one-party Asian behemoth has adopted since the Nixonian dialogue. But Reich seemed to be unaware of the paladares (private restaurants) and casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts) that anyone who travels to, lives in, or reads about Cuba can't miss. "A Chinese person can have private property; he can have his own business," Reich maintained. "You can't do that in Cuba."

Reich was asked to reconcile the fact that many of his fellow Republicans, including Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft, support a loosening of the embargo. "I believe that the majority of North American companies know that Cuba is not a market," Reich insisted. "And frankly, that the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce says one thing or the other isn't important because the Chamber of Commerce was against almost all of President Reagan's international economic policies. They opposed economic sanctions that Reagan imposed on the Soviet Union. They don't like economic sanctions in general."

By choosing Reich and sticking with him, Bush may have won points in South Florida, but he has lost some in Washington, especially inside his own party. "I think some [senators] are just concerned about why the president would want to choose somebody of that controversy, with that background, when it was known in advance that it would be a problematic nomination," observed Summel.

The answer to that riddle comes from the man who would be President Bush's chief diplomat in the Americas. "Cuba has an additional ingredient," Reich told WQBA's Salazar, "which is local politics."

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