Why We Should Celebrate the Resignation of Latin American Envoy Otto Reich

News Abroad
tags: Hugo Chavez


Mr. Friedman is assistant professor of history at Florida State University and a former assistant producer for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His NAZIS AND GOOD NEIGHBORS: THE UNITED STATES CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE GERMANS OF LATIN AMERICA (Cambridge, 2003), received the A.B. Thomas Book Award in Latin American Studies and the Herbert Hoover Book Award in U.S. History.

In the halcyon days of his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush often spoke of wishing to mend fences with Latin America. His first gesture was not promising: appointing a right-wing extremist to the key post of Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, then Special Envoy to Latin America, who had a record of supporting terrorists and whose tenure markedly worsened U.S.-Latin American relations. The departure of Otto J. Reich offers an opportunity, but only if President Bush does not repeat the mistake.

Otto Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela, was never known for his diplomatic finesse. He has compared Cuba to Nazi Germany and said that when the Baltimore Orioles played baseball in Havana, it was “like playing soccer in Auschwitz.” In his post in Caracas, he worked for the release of two terrorists who had blown up a Cuban civilian airliner, killing 73 people.

During the Central American wars of the 1980s, Reich headed a secret operation not seen in the United States since the days of Richard Nixon, Watergate and COINTELPRO: a concerted effort to spread propaganda from the White House to American citizens.

From 1983 to 1986, Reich directed the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, officially based at the State Department, but answering to Iran-contra conspirator Oliver North at the National Security Council. Reich’s task was to reverse the negative media coverage of the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, where Washington’s support for brutal regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, and U.S. underwriting of the sanguinary contras in Nicaragua, regularly produced opinion polls showing most Americans wanted no part of such policies. Reich’s office, according to an internal memorandum, would devote itself to “gluing black hats on the Sandinistas and white hats on [the contras].”

In pursuit of this mission, Reich hired psychological warfare specialists from the CIA and the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C. His staff spoke in a language of “psyops,” “cutouts,” “plans of attack” and “exploitable trends.” They began to do what they were trained for—except that this time, the target of the psychological warfare was the American public. They were shooting in the direction of home.

In March 1985, Reich’s deputy, Jonathan S. Miller, sent White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan a report listing “five illustrative examples of the Reich ‘White Propaganda’ operation.” The first item was the successful placement of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning of a Nicaraguan arms buildup, written by Reich’s staff. “Officially,” Miller noted dryly, “this office had no role in its preparation.” He proudly named other achievements: ghostwriting op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post to be signed by contra leaders, intervening with editorial offices at CBS and NBC News to alter their coverage of Central America, and organizing a tour for “selected” journalists to visit the contras in order “to get a true flavor of what the freedom fighters were doing; i.e. not baby-killing.”

This proved a tough sell. At the time the contras were routinely attacking civilians in Nicaragua; their strategy of deliberately targeting teachers, doctors, and other symbols of the Sandinista government’s development efforts in the countryside was widely reported in the press. I myself saw the results of the contras’ tactics during a one-month stay in northern Nicaragua in 1987, when I met women grieving for their murdered loved ones, and spoke with doctors who had to wash and reuse bandages for treating civilian victims at the overwhelmed hospitals.

The contras engaged in terrorism, pure and simple: calculated violence against civilians, designed to instill terror for political purposes. The white hats simply would not stick on their heads. And since American journalists would not stop reporting the facts from Nicaragua, Reich decided to attack the journalists. He warned editors at National Public Radio that his office was “monitoring” NPR and demanded more pro-contra stories. His office spread a rumor that reporters who wrote articles critical of the contras had been bribed by Sandinista agents with sexual favors, heterosexual and homosexual.

Gluing black hats on the Sandinistas was easier than rehabilitating the contras. Reich’s office went beyond “white propaganda” (covertly planting articles in the press) to “black propaganda” (spreading lies). Reich orchestrated a smear campaign linking the Sandinistas to anti-Semitism. Although the U.S. embassy in Managua found “no verifiable ground” for the charge, it entered the public discourse and stayed there.

When congressional investigations uncovered the array of illegal activities involved in the Reagan administration’s aid to the contras, Reich’s actions came under scrutiny. The House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in 1988 that “senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved…in a domestic political and propaganda operation.” The nonpartisan General Accounting Office found that Reich’s office “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities.”

Reich’s record of manipulating American public opinion alone should have disqualified him from holding any post in a democratic government. Worse still was the effect his appointment had on our relations with our southern neighbors. Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the war that Reich promoted, remarked, “many of us in Latin America are surprised and disappointed by George W. Bush’s nomination of Otto J. Reich…. Appointing someone of Reich’s ideological stripe and experience would be a real setback in hemispheric cooperation.”

Arias was right. In 2002, Reich welcomed Venezuelan coup plotters led by Pedro Carmona to the White House, where they discussed plans to topple the elected government of President Hugo Chavez. On the day Chavez was seized and Carmona claimed power, Reich called Latin American ambassadors to his office to argue that the overthrow of Chavez was not an end to democratic rule, and that the United States would support the new government. Two days later, Chavez was back, U.S. officials had egg on their faces, and Latin Americans lamented yet another instance of ham-handed intervention in their internal affairs by the “colossus of the North.”

When the Senate would not renew the president’s temporary appointment of Reich as Assistant Secretary, Bush made him a special envoy. The appointment was pure politics, a sop to the Cuban exile vote in Florida. Now that Reich has resigned, Bush should consider replacing him with a diplomat respected in the region. Or at least one without such contempt for democracy and a record of supporting terrorism.

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Nathaniel Brian Bates - 4/8/2005

I hold Otto Reich in special disfavor, since he overthrew democracy in Haiti.

As for Cuba, that is at least a dictatorship. Haiti was a friend to America.


Max Paul Friedman - 7/6/2004

No. Otto Juan Reich's father was a Jewish refugee from Austria who fled to Cuba, where Otto was born. His grandparents were murdered by the Nazis.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 6/25/2004

I am aware that during Project Paperclip the United States military "recruited" former Nazi's for their skills in counter-insurgency operations (such as Klaus Barbie). Reich wouldn't happen to fall under this category, would he?