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THE NATION

Anti-Communist Reich Given State Dept. Post

January 12, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — His father was an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazi Holocaust by fleeing to Cuba. His mother was a Catholic Cuban who escaped Havana after Fidel Castro came to power. Their son, Otto Juan Reich, came to America at 14 with a personal and passionate distrust of dictatorships.

Now 56, he is the assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, named by President Bush in a recess appointment Friday intended to circumvent the opposition of Democrats who refused to hold hearings on his nomination.

Critics, led by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), revile Reich for what the U.S. comptroller general called "prohibited, covert propaganda activities" in support of the contras who battled the communist Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. At the time, Reich was public diplomacy advisor at the State Department.

They charge that Reich, while U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, helped a known terrorist, Orlando Bosch, seek asylum in the U.S. (State Department officials say Reich opposed the visa request.)

And opponents say Reich is an ideologue, not a diplomat, whose appointment is a bouquet to the Cuban Americans in Florida who helped put Bush in office.

"Certainly, this wasn't [Secretary of State] Colin Powell's choice, this was [White House political director] Karl Rove's choice," said William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy. During the confirmation process, Goodfellow started an anti-Reich site on the Internet: http://www.stopottoreich.net.

Defenders counter that Reich, unapologetic for his fierce anti-communism, is an ideal candidate. With Argentina in financial meltdown, Colombia's fragile peace talks with guerrillas in collapse and Mexico suffering from Washington's focus on anti-terrorism, Latin America, they argue, needs Reich.

"When you have to fight for controversial policies, you need a political type who knows about [Congress] and can fight within the administration for time and attention," said Jose Sorzano, a former U.S. diplomat at the U.N. who now runs a consulting firm that arranges joint ventures between U.S. and Latin American companies.

Reich wrote his master's thesis in Latin Studies at Georgetown University on the totalitarian trademarks of dictatorships. A disciple of Thomas Jefferson, he is fond of quoting the former president's famous line: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Reich, raised as a Roman Catholic, is proud of the background of his father, a furniture manufacturer who fled oppression in Europe and Cuba before coming to the U.S.

But Sorzano, who served with Reich in the Reagan administration, thinks he knows the key to Reich's character: "Regardless of where his parents came from, he's a Cuban. Like any Cuban, he's voluble."

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