- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

Otto J. Reich, the administration's leading hard-liner on Cuba, will move from the State Department to a new post inside the White House, reporting directly to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on Latin American policy, administration officials confirmed yesterday.

The move sidesteps a potentially nasty confirmation fight in the Senate, where Democrats have vowed to torpedo efforts to make permanent Mr. Reich's position as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the department's senior post for the region.

Mr. Reich's new position as "presidential envoy" to the Americas would not require Senate confirmation. The new posting was first reported in yesterday's Miami Herald.

The Cuban-born Mr. Reich is a hero to many in the Cuban-American community for his longtime opposition to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and his unapologetic defense of free markets and conservative causes in the bitter ideological battles that raged across central and South America in the 1980s and 1990s.

President Bush was forced to make Mr. Reich a recess appointment to the State Department job after the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to confirm him. The temporary appointment expired late last year and Mr. Reich has been in diplomatic limbo as an underused "special envoy" to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Latin American issues.

With a constitutional crisis brewing in Venezuela, a civil war under way in Colombia, a new leftist president taking office in Brazil, and battles over immigration, free trade and economic aid to the region all on the agenda, J. Curtis Struble, a career diplomat who was Mr. Reich's top aide, is serving as acting assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere.

Congressional and State Department sources indicated yesterday that Roger Noriega, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and a former staffer to retired Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, is Mr. Bush's pick to succeed Mr. Reich. That could set up another confirmation battle, as Mr. Noriega is also seen as ardently anti-Castro.

Although Republicans regained control of the Senate in the November elections, incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, has made clear his opposition to Mr. Reich's renomination to the State Department post.

Latin America watchers were divided over the impact of the Reich decision.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro human rights group, said that "Havana will be celebrating" at the news.

"A foreign government has been able to play a role in who represents this country," he said. "The message to Foreign Service employees is if you are loyal and defend the president's policy, you will be punished."

Mr. Calzon said Mr. Powell had failed to use his "considerable talents" to lobby for the Reich nomination, adding, "It is a disgrace that [Mr. Reich] was not allowed to appear before Congress to defend himself."

But Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow and deputy director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the White House posting means "Otto Reich is still in the game."

"It suggests the White House is dodging a political fight, but I don't see it as much of a policy shake-up at all," she said.

White House correspondent Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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