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Three tarnished Reagan figures have hands in Bush foreign policy


Their names were synonymous with the U.S. “dirty wars” in Central America in the 1980s and the Iran-contra scandal. Today, Otto Reich, Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte have resurfaced and are helping run U.S. policy toward Latin America again.

The re-emergence of the Reagan-era hardliners is causing dismay among human rights activists and some Latin America experts who fear the United States is returning to the Cold War days when it backed brutal dictatorships, covertly supported coups and sabotaged leftist movements. “There isn’t a single democratic leader in Latin America that doesn’t reject and deplore the role that our government played in Central America during the 1980s,” said Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. “To choose men like Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich is an insult.”

Said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a left-of-center think tank in Washington: “We seem to have learned very little from an extremely bloody past. ... This is probably the most ideological and least talented Latin America team either in Republican or Democratic administrations that I have witnessed in monitoring this scene for 35 years.”

The return of Reich, Abrams and Negroponte comes as a wave of leftists rises to power across Latin America, largely riding a backlash against U.S.-prescribed free-market economic policies known as the “Washington Consensus” that some economists blame for exacerbating mass poverty.

Leftists now occupy the presidencies of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti. A left-of-center politician may also win next March’s election in Argentina, which would put two-thirds of Latin America’s population under leftist rule.

Since assuming their posts a year or so ago, the Bush team has come under fire for allegedly supporting a coup against Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, blocking economic aid for the government of one-time radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, and trying to undermine the campaigns of leftist presidential candidates in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Administration officials say they are promoting democracy in Latin America, encouraging free trade and waging a war on drugs. They defend the record of Reich, 57, a right-wing Cuban-American and ardent foe of Fidel Castro who until Nov. 22 was assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is now special envoy to Latin America.

“His performance as assistant secretary of state since January was exemplary,” State Department spokesman Robert Zimmerman said. “He has the complete confidence of the secretary of state and of the president and of the state department senior leadership.”

Zimmerman added: “Given his substantial expertise, his knowledge of the region, he has been asked to be the secretary’s special envoy for Western Hemisphere Affairs.”

Abrams, 54, who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Reagan administration, served until early December as the National Security Council’s senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. President Bush recently appointed him director of Middle Eastern Affairs at the White House.

Negroponte, 63, U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, now is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Another Iran-contra figure, John M. Poindexter, who served as national security adviser under Reagan, today is director of the Information Awareness Office at the Pentagon.

The Bush team has provoked controversy on a number of fronts in Latin America. In April it tacitly backed an attempted coup against Chavez, pledging to work with an interim government that lasted two days and abolished the constitution, the su-preme court and the Congress. A high-level State Department official called allegations that the United States supported the overthrow of Venezuela’s democratically elected president “absolutely false” and said the administration was cleared in a probe by the State Department’s inspector general.

“We investigated fully, and there was absolutely no winking or green light,” the official said.

Two months later, U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivians that electing indigenous leader Evo Morales could result in a cut-off of U.S. aid. The State Department official said Rocha was responding to provocative comments by Morales calling for the Drug Enforcement Administration to be thrown out of Bolivia and for the U.S. Embassy to be closed.

Morales, a Marxist, came soaring out of fourth place in polls after the comments and lost the election by 1.5 percent. Last year, U.S. officials made similar comments about former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega during Nicaragua’s presidential election. “It was a direct attempt to say we’re going to make you starve if you elect Ortega. And it worked,” Birns said. Ortega lost.

U.S. officials deny they meddled in the election.

The United States also is helping to block $500 million in international aid for Haiti, an effort, critics say, to strangle the economy and force Aristide out. U.S. officials contend Aristide has mismanaged Haiti and ruled in an autocratic way.

Not everyone thinks the United States is returning to an interventionist policy aimed at crushing leftists in Latin America, or that Reich has mishandled his post.

Steve Johnson, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said that after a rough start, Reich recently has established good relations with Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and put the United States on record as opposing any more coups in Venezuela. “I think he’s done fairly well,” Johnson said.

A so-called “recess appointment” in-stalled as assistant secretary of state for a year without congressional approval, Reich automatically lost his post when the most recent congressional session ended. Bush then named him special envoy, which does not require congressional approval. Officials say he will still play a key role in policy toward Latin America. Bush could nominate him to serve again as assistant secretary of state, but even conservative analysts such as Johnson say he would not automatically win approval from the Republican-controlled Congress.

“I don’t think Republicans are monolithic in their support” for Reich, Johnson said. He believes there is a tug-of-war in the administration on Latin America policy between hardliners such as Reich and moderates led by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell visited Colombia Dec. 3 and 4, but Reich did not accompany him. Some took that as a sign that Reich’s star is fading.

Still, Powell’s attention has been focused on the possible war with Iraq and the war on terrorism, leaving the United States without a clear policy toward the region, according to many analysts. “I’m not sure anybody really knows where the administration is going on Latin American policy,” Johnson said.

Birns said the policy under Reich has consisted mainly of attacking anyone perceived as friendly toward Reich’s archenemy, Fidel Castro. “He simply memorizes the names of those he considers to be communist, which means if you are for the normalization of relations with Cuba, you’re a communist,” Birns said. “Reich is looking for villains. He’s looking for some commies.”

But “the Soviet Union is dead. Cuba does not export revolution,” Birns added. “These are not the issues of today. The issues of today are that after several decades of the Washington Consensus development model, the number of poor in Latin America is greater than ever.”

The lack of a modern, post-Cold War policy is especially disturbing, analysts say, because the region is undergoing a traumatic upheaval. And meanwhile, the re-emergence of the Iran-contra figures is on few people’s radar screens. “Latin America is disintegrating, and nobody’s noticing,” said White, who is also president of the Center for International Policy, a left-of-center think tank. If Argentine leftists win next March’s presidential election, “roughly two-thirds of Latin America will live under reformist, populist rulers who explicitly reject Washington’s prescriptions of freer trade, globalization and the selling-off of public assets,” he said.

“Somebody should be paying attention to them,” White said. “Somebody should be talking about something else except how big a threat Fidel Castro is and the absurd charge that he’s a terrorist.”

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003