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A Nominee Who Stands for War

April 29, 2001|OSCAR ARIAS | Oscar Arias was president of Costa Rica from 1986-1990 and winner of the Nobel peace prize in 1987

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — Given the importance of the role of the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, many of us in Latin America are surprised and disappointed by George W. Bush's nomination of Otto J. Reich for this post. Reich headed the Office of Public Diplomacy, which was closed down by Congress in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal because it had, to quote official investigations, "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."

More than almost any other U.S. diplomat, the person in this post will have the power to shape the relationship between the United States and Latin America for better or worse. Virtually everything that the U.S. needs to do with Latin America, from establishing a free-trade area to dealing with drug policy and immigration, will require a bipartisan approach. Appointing someone of Reich's ideological stripe and experience would be a real setback in hemispheric cooperation.

I offer my experience as president of Costa Rica as testament to the importance of compromise on hard-line policies. With my region torn by civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, I proposed a peace plan whose essence was democracy as a precondition for lasting peace. The plan was signed by five Central American presidents in August 1987, but President Ronald Reagan refused to support it. He would settle for nothing less than military victory over the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It was not until George Bush became president in 1988 that the United States backed off its dogged support for war and let the Central American leaders give diplomacy a chance. It was Bush the elder and his foreign-policy staff, including Secretary of State James A. Baker and Bernie Aronson, then-assistant secretary of State for inter-American affairs, who changed U.S. policy from one of undermining our efforts to strongly supporting them, and thus contributed greatly to a peaceful solution to the Central American conflicts.

I am afraid that Reich will cling more closely to the Reagan model than that of the former Bush administration. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this will be so. His involvement in the Office of Public Diplomacy until 1986 demonstrated his allegiance to the Reagan administration's hawkish policies toward Central America. The purpose of his office was none other than to get the American people to side with war over peace, using propaganda methods determined to be "improper."

Reich's support of militarism did not end with the wars in Central America. According to news reports, he has made his living in recent years as a lobbyist and consultant representing corporate interests in Washington, among which is the arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Reich apparently helped Lockheed overcome the executive ban on the sale of advanced weaponry to Latin America. As a result, the company is poised to sell a dozen of its F-16 fighter jets with advanced missile technology to Chile.

Ever since the ban was lifted in 1997, I have been active, along with former President Jimmy Carter, in trying to convince Latin American leaders to submit to a voluntary moratorium on buying such weapons. If a Latin American country goes shopping for sophisticated weaponry, it will touch off the last thing this hemisphere needs--an arms race. In the face of continued poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease in so much of our region, investing in unnecessary military technology is an act of grave irresponsibility. That Reich has been an accomplice to this deal makes me feel very uneasy about what ends will be served by his potential leadership in our hemisphere.

One last example will illustrate the poor fit that Reich would be for the interests of hemispheric cooperation: his unwavering support for the long-running and unproductive embargo against Cuba. I believe many American farmers and businessmen are aware that U.S. economic warfare against Cuba harms broader U.S. interests, while at the same time injuring the people, but not the government, of Cuba.

To those who think it unbecoming for a foreigner to comment on the appointment of a U.S. official, I would say that although the assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs will make little difference in the lives of ordinary people in the United States, he could have a profound effect on the lives of Latin Americans.

There is so much work to be done in our part of the world over the next four years, and enough inherent problems and strains in the relationship between the United States and Latin America, that we will be assuring ourselves of getting nowhere if we give in to hard-line ideology over flexibility and bipartisanship. On behalf of Latin Americans, I hope that the administration of George W. Bush can find another candidate for this job--one capable of building trust and earning respect from all the leaders of this hemisphere.

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