Bush Envoy Puts Latin Post, and a Stormy Past, Behind Him

By TIM WEINER
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Published: June 17, 2004

MEXICO CITY, June 16 - Otto J. Reich, President Bush's special envoy to Latin America, resigned on Wednesday, taking with him a lifetime of experience fighting Fidel Castro and other opponents of American foreign policy.

Mr. Reich, who was 15 when he fled Cuba after Mr. Castro came to power in 1959, cited "personal and financial reasons" last month in announcing his intent to leave the post.

In 2001, President Bush nominated Mr. Reich to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the top State Department post for Latin America. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the president's brother, and the state's anti-Castro Cubans supported the nomination.

But the Senate would not confirm him; some Democrats called him an ideologue. After a bitter fight, the president appointed him temporarily when Congress recessed. After that yearlong term expired, he took the special envoy post, which did not require Senate approval, in January 2003.

But by then Latin America had lost the foreign-policy prominence it had held under President Bush before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the post held little real power.

Mr. Reich had strong views, and rarely failed to express them, in words or deeds. When sworn in as temporary assistant secretary of state in March 2002, he noted in mock indignation that his critics had "said that I can't make rational decisions because of my ideology."

"Well," he said, "they are not saying that anymore, because I had them all arrested this morning!"

Mr. Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela, also led the State Department's office of public diplomacy under President Ronald Reagan. He carried out the president's policy of undermining the left-wing leaders of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas. He tried to generate public support in the United States for anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras, after Congress cut off funds to them in 1984.

In 1987, the comptroller general of the United States reported that Mr. Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert activities" of domestic propaganda "designed to influence the media and the public to support the administration's Latin American policies.'' Those acts violated restrictions on the use of public funds for propaganda without Congress's consent, the report said.

Mr. Reich was not charged, though many Reagan administration officials were, with breaking Congress's ban on aid to the contras. But the memory rankled, as did the fight over his appointment. In March 2002, days after his swearing-in as assistant secretary of state, he opened a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington with, "Friends, colleagues, un-indicted co-conspirators...."

In the 1990's, Mr. Reich worked as a lobbyist. He helped persuade Congress to tighten the American embargo on Cuba. His clients included Lockheed Martin, which sought to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Chile.

In May 2001, shortly after he joined the administration, Chile agreed to buy 10 F-16's for more than $600 million, ending a two-decade United States ban on the sale of high-technology arms to Latin America.

 
 

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