No Relief

Lackluster cold warriors bungle Latin American policy

Martin Austermuhle

Roger Noriega, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of the American States.
Over the past two years, President Bush has done anything and everything in his power to keep Otto Reich in a position of authority regarding policy toward Latin America—so much so that the proverbial game of musical chairs has landed Reich positions as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, “special envoy” to Colin Powell for Latin American affairs, and now “special envoy” for Western Hemisphere initiatives. While his vaguely defined new position is little more than a concession to the right, it is a telling promotion for a man so closely tied to illegal covert operations in Latin America.

Since Reich failed to receive a confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—under either Democratic or Republican control—Bush instead decided to put forth Roger Noriega’s name early this year for the State Department’s highest position dealing with Latin America. Noriega is a former aid to Sen. Jesse Helms (during his reign over the Foreign Relations Committee) and current ambassador to the Organization of American States, a position he will hold until his nomination is confirmed by the Senate, and he looks like a plum choice compared to the scandal-ridden Reich. But in Washington, it’s not that looks can be deceiving, it’s that they are.

Noriega’s appointment to replace Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs may have garnered less vocal opposition than Otto Reich’s did two years ago, but that’s no reason to think policy toward the region will take a turn for the better. At best, we can hope Latin America actually shows up on the foreign policy radar. At worst, the Bush administration will keep stumbling around in the dark hoping to find the radar altogether.

While a marginal improvement upon his predecessor, Noriega’s nomination was described by Sebastian Edwards, former chief economist for Latin America at the World Bank, as “a political move aimed at pleasing the anti-Castro Cuban community in South Florida.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mused that maybe, just maybe, “With the Florida elections over and the next presidential election nearly two years off, the administration can now think more in terms of American interests, and less in terms of electoral advantage.” Not so, thinks Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Calling Noriega “a Cold Warrior looking for a cause,” Birns went so far as to claim that “in both style and content [Noriega] comes alarmingly close to being a warmed-over Reich, but with less exposure, skills and heft, and an equal predilection for invention and anti-Castro zealotry.” This spells trouble for a region marred by economic slowdowns and punctuated by political conflicts, an area feeling the strains of the Democratic and free-market honeymoon coming to an end.

What can be said about the future of U.S. policy toward Latin America when it is entrusted to the likes of Reich, Noriega and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy defense secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs? Nothing good. During his tenure as head of the Office of Public Diplomacy during the Reagan era, Reich played the role of Nicaragua Contra cheerleader, during which he committed acts considered by the U.S. Comptroller-General to be “prohibited, covert propaganda activities … beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.” Both Noriega and Reich influenced the creation of the Helms-Burton law in 1996, which tightened the 40-year-old embargo on Cuba. Pardo-Maurer served as a spokesperson for the Contras in Washington during the ’80s and has most recently been accused of giving the go-ahead to opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during that country’s coup attempt in April 2002, which the Bush administration quickly endorsed. These are not the reputations upon which great leaders are created, must less logical policies.

In the meantime, Mexico is begging for a comprehensive agreement on immigration. Bolivia—one of the IMF’s cherished “early reformers”—recently saw La Paz go up in flames after police and firefighters joined protests against government plans for a tax hike. Venezuela remains stuck between a rock (Chavez) and a hard place (the opposition). Brazil—the world’s eighth largest economy—successfully elected a president who has doubts about Washington’s plans for the hemisphere, most notably the Free Trade Area of the Americas, set to begin in 2005. Colombia can’t seem to escape the double bind of guerilla insurgency and cocaine production. In January, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue noted that “if relations with Latin America are more difficult, it’s because things are going so badly in the region, and the U.S. response has been at best sporadic and unimaginative.” It’s doubtful that Noriega will bring any new insights to policymaking.

President Bush stated on January 16, 2002, “We’re committed to building a prosperous, free, and democratic hemisphere. Nothing will distract us, nothing will deter us, in completing this great work.” Realistically, something will, and something has: Reich, Noriega and Pardo-Maurer.

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