'Cold warrior' at heart of US Cuba policy

Campaign News | Friday, 27 February 2004

Profile of Otto Reich

U.S. policy toward Cuba is dominated by one man, a scandal-plagued Cold War relic who has no business being President Bush's chief adviser on Latin America.

That's what U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has to say about Otto Reich.

"He's known as a hard-liner, not only with regards to Cuba, but Colombia, Venezuela and other areas in the hemisphere," Roberts told the Journal-World. "I just don't think Mr. Reich is the man for the job. Mr. Reich, I think, is still back in the Cuban Missile Crisis era."

Roberts is a Bush administration ally, though he differs with the president in favoring relaxed relations with Cuba. Bush critics have worse things to say about Reich. But critics and friends alike agree the fierce anti-Castroite who left Cuba at age 15 has been key in the administration's crackdown on Cuba and Americans who travel there.

"Otto Reich," Roberts said when asked why the federal government -- after decades of mostly looking the other way -- has begun prosecuting Americans who travel to Cuba.

Travel crackdown

"I think it is fair to say that Otto Reich is driving this policy of basically trying to end all relations, all contacts, everything between the United States and Cuba," said Ann Louise Bardach, an investigative reporter who spent 10 years researching a book about U.S.-Cuban relations.

The White House press office did not cooperate with the Journal-World's requests to reach Reich for an interview.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts says Reich, who has ties to the Iran-Contra scandal, is not the right man for the job.

The administration's stepped-up enforcement of the travel ban has created a wave of fines against about 2,000 Americans, including everyone from an Indiana missionary who distributed Bibles in Cuba, to Bob Augelli, a Lawrence man whose travels resulted in an art exhibition on the island.

Reich has been an administration lightning rod. His appointment was controversial not only with Roberts and fellow senators but across Latin America.

Recess appointment

When Bush named him assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the choice was so unpopular Bush did it while the Senate was in recess, an acknowledgment that Reich's appointment would not be confirmed. He served about a year at the State Department before Bush named him to a newly created post on the National Security Council and made him his chief Latin American envoy and adviser.

Reich's elevation drew immediate rebuke from across Latin America.

Oscar Arias, the former Costa Rican president awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end war in Central America, wrote an open letter characterizing Reich as a "hawkish" propagandist whose history of involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan years made him untrustworthy in the eyes of Latin American leaders.

"Virtually every country in Central and South America and Mexico has complained officially or unofficially" about Reich, Bardach said. "The guy is very, very far right, and Latin America has had a very decided shift. All of Latin America is lurching to the left, and who do you have handling Latin America for the administration? Otto Reich. You've got to say to yourself: What is this administration thinking of except a few votes in Dade and Broward counties?"

Cuban family feud

Bardach was referring to the south Florida counties that decided the 2000 presidential election. The counties are the major stronghold of the Cuban exile community in the United States and are predominantly anti-Castro.

Bardach said Reich was appointed with the backing of Cuban-American Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose district includes Dade and parts of Broward counties, and his brother, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents another Miami district heavy with Cuban-Americans.

The father of the Diaz-Balarts was interior minister for Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator overthrown by Fidel Castro's revolution. The Diaz-Balarts' aunt was Fidel Castro's first wife and the mother of Castro's oldest son. When she and Castro separated, there was a bitter custody battle over the boy, according to Bardach, who has interviewed both Castro and the senior Diaz-Balart.

"On one level this is very much a blood feud," Bardach said of the animosity between the Castro regime and the Cuban-American exiles. "The Diaz-Balarts fought very hard to put Otto Reich in this position."

Bardach said her research convinced her that Lincoln Diaz-Balart aimed to succeed Castro as Cuba's leader once the dictator was toppled. The congressman did not respond to the Journal-World's requests for an interview.

Reich's background

Reich is one of several Cuban-Americans appointed to key positions in the Bush administration.

He first gained national attention in 1983 working at the State Department, reporting directly to Oliver North. Reich was in charge of the propaganda effort aimed at winning support for Reagan's policies supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. His office was shut down after the U.S. Comptroller General concluded it had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities," using tax dollars for illegal public relations and lobbying.

But there were bigger fish in what came to be called the Iran-Contra scandal, and Reich was named ambassador to Venezuela, a post he held from 1986 to 1989.

Six weeks after Reich presented his credentials as ambassador, according to Bardach's book "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana," convicted anti-Castro terrorist Orlando Bosch was freed from a Venezuelan prison. Bosch had been jailed for his alleged role in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that left 73 people dead. His surprise release was criticized by a former Venezuelan president familiar with details of the case, who asserted Bosch's file "had been tampered with."

Campaign issues

Bardach said her review of State Department documents showed Reich had cabled his superiors that Bosch had been "absolved" and asked about Bosch's eligibility to return to the United States, where in 1968 he had been convicted of firing a bazooka at a Polish freighter in Miami Harbor. Bosch returned and was arrested for parole violation. The FBI considered him a dangerous terrorist. But he was a freedom-fighting hero in the eyes of Miami's Cuban exile community.

The campaign for Bosch's pardon and release became a central focus of the 1988 campaign of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American elected that year to Congress. She lauded Bosch as a hero and patriot. Her campaign manager was Jeb Bush, son of the then president and brother of the current president. Jeb Bush is now Florida's governor.

Bardach reported in her book that the first President Bush overrode his own Justice Department's recommendation and interceded to grant Bosch U.S. residency

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