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Public Diplomacy?

Contra Warrior Otto Reich Returns to the State Department

by John Patrick Leary

Another seminal figure from one of the most troubling episodes in the United States’ recent history has been quietly restored to his old stomping grounds. Otto Reich, like Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte one of the officials most responsible for devising and administering the destructive "Reagan doctrine" in 1980s Central America, has been given a top job in the Bush administration. The former head of a pro-Contra government office, Reich was named Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the February Senate recess.

Elliot Abrams, the conservative State Department official who during the 1980s regularly misled Congress and the public about the abuses of the U.S.-supported Salvadoran dictatorship, was later pardoned by the elder George Bush before standing trial for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. His son rewarded Abrams with a top White House job last year. In 1981, when the U.S. ambassador to Honduras complained about human rights abuses by the Honduran military regime (which the U.S. was supporting), Reagan promptly removed him and replaced him with yes-man Negroponte. He is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Lastly, there is the Cuban-born Reich, who was first nominated for his new position last March. During the Reagan administration, Reich led a murky interagency outfit called the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, an obfuscatory bit of official nomenclature which, like the German Democratic Republic or "military intelligence," is something of a paradox, as Reich’s office was, in fact, neither public nor diplomatic.

The organization, which was declared illegal after a 1987 investigation by the U.S. Comptroller General, was charged with disseminating what it called "White Propaganda"-covert misinformation designed to influence public opinion in favor of Reagan’s military campaign against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and other leftist groups in the region. (This is, of course, exactly the work currently handled by the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Influence, the subject of much recent controversy.)

For starters, Reich’s office drafted pro-Reagan op-ed pieces that ran under fabricated bylines; White House statements supposedly written by American university professors and Nicaraguan Contras thus made their way into U.S. newspapers (Reich himself reportedly liked to refer to National Public Radio as "Moscow on the Potomac").

More mundanely, the office regularly planted stories designed to embarrass or contradict the Sandinista regime. After distributing one secret Nicaraguan government communication, a smug OPD official wrote his White House colleague Pat Buchanan in a memo: "Do not be surprised if this cable somehow hits the evening news." But manipulating the press was not the only trick up the OPD’s sleeve; the Comptroller General’s report also indicates that the office supplied "a great deal" of information to pro-Reagan lobbying groups and political organizations that favored the Contra war.

For a president whose campaign promised to restore candor and diplomacy to official Washington, the ex-director of an outlawed propaganda office seems a puzzling choice indeed for one of the government’s most important posts in Latin American affairs.

Furthermore, at a time when our government is engaged in a righteous "war against terrorism," it is notable that Bush has chosen to reinstate a central figure from a time when the U.S. armed, funded, and trained a right-wing landowner’s militia that it called an army of "freedom fighters," which amounted to a distinction of more than just semantics.

Bush deliberately appointed Reich during the February Senate recess, and so he will assume his post without the confirmation hearings that are customary for a job of this importance. Legislators like Joseph Biden (D-DE), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will not hold hearings on this appointment, quietly expressed their displeasure with Bush’s tactics.

The president has made much of his desire to forge a new relationship with Latin America based on mutual cooperation and "openness," economic and otherwise. The return of old Reagan Contra-warriors like Abrams, Negroponte, and Reich–not to mention outfits like the Office of Strategic Influence–do more than just summon old grudges and sad memories. The US right has recently begun clamoring for intervention in Colombia’s civil war, where death squads and a corrupt military–frequently acting together for what Eduardo Galeano aptly termed the Colombian "democratorship"–combat two aging insurgencies.

Recast as a theater in the new "war on terrorism," the Colombian civil war reminds us instead that the horrors of torture and war–and the more massive scourges of poverty, illiteracy, and inequality–have not left the hemisphere that gave the English language a dreadful word, "the disappeared."

Bush’s move to circumvent the confirmation process in appointing the ex-propagandist Reich recalls that more contentious time in U.S. relations with Latin America, when secrecy, expediency, and inept self-interest were far more familiar than any "public diplomacy."

John Patrick Leary lives in New York City. He can be reached at: johnpatrickleary@yahoo.com