- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Battle lines have been drawn over President Bush's expected choice for chief diplomat on Latin America, which could produce a political struggle almost as bitter as that over the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general.

Otto Reich, a Cuban-American who was once ambassador to Venezuela and is a staunch supporter of the economic embargo on Cuba, has emerged as the White House's top choice for assistant secretary of state for Latin America.

Conservatives love him. Liberals hate him. Both sides have lined up to renew the ideological battle that marked the 1980s war in Nicaragua between the Sandinista government and U.S.-backed Contras.

The issues facing the United States in Latin America in this decade have more to do with drugs, civil war in Colombia and illegal immigration. But Mr. Reich's supporters say the issue that is inflaming people on both sides is Mr. Reich's support of the 37-year-old embargo on Cuba.

"Mr. Reich is an enormously qualified individual with wide experience in the hemisphere," said Marc Thiessen, spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"There are some who would prefer that President Bush appoint someone who opposes his policy on Cuba, but I do not think that will go very far."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, yesterday called Mr. Reich the "ideal candidate for the job."

"He is a man of integrity and honesty, who had fought in the private and public sector for economic and democratic reforms in Latin America," said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, noting that Mr. Reich would suffer a huge cut in pay from his present lobbying work to take the job at the State Department.

Critics of Mr. Reich point to his stint as head of the State Department's defunct Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, which he ran from June 1983 until January 1986.

The office was accused of turning out illegal domestic propaganda against Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinistas and in support of the Contras, who were backed by the Reagan administration.

The National Security Archive, a repository for government documents at George Washington University, contains several documents that question the propriety of Mr. Reich's actions at the Office for Public Diplomacy.

One investigation found that Mr. Reich came close to skirting the law, but found no evidence that he did anything illegal.

"If you drive 55 mph in a 55 mph zone, you are close to the line but entirely legal. I never crossed the line," said Mr. Reich at that time.

"I don't think Otto did anything illegal, but if you want a bipartisan foreign policy that inspires consensus, you don't name Otto Reich," said Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy.

Among those opposing a Reich nomination is Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, who said he feared his appointment would end any hope for bipartisanship on Colombia and other Latin American issues.

"Based on his past public service, it is questionable whether Mr. Reich has the prerequisite skills to be successful in that effort," said Marvin Fast, spokesman for Mr. Dodd.

Reich supporters disagree.

"I think Otto is an excellent diplomat who served fantastically when he was ambassador," said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. Mr. Menendez said yesterday that the attacks on Mr. Reich were ancient history, dredged up by opponents of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Neither the White House nor the State Department had anything to say on the anticipated nomination yesterday, but Mr. Reich has been interviewed for the job and is undergoing a White House background check.

Mr. Reich was ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 through 1989. He was also instrumental in writing the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the embargo on Cuba.

For the past six years, Mr. Reich has worked as a lobbyist. His client list includes Bacardi-Martini, which has had a long-running legal battle with the Cuban government over the expropriation of its interests there. Other clients include Lockheed-Martin, International Paper, Mobil Oil, DaimlerCrysler and Mariott.

The office of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in Tallahassee, yesterday confirmed that the governor has lobbied the president in favor of Mr. Reich.

Top Cuban officials recently told visiting American reporters that the nomination of Mr. Reich to the Latin America desk would "send a negative signal."

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