Otto Reich Tackles a Big Repair Job, Hemisphere Policy

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady 

March 4, 2002

Otto Reich, President Bush's new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, sat down with me on Tuesday and talked about the administration's vision for Latin America and the Caribbean. What emerged was clear: after eight years of drift, serious policy makers are back in charge. "Dialoguing" with guntoting power seekers and propping up corrupt regimes is out, which may help explain why the Reich nomination ran into so much political flak from the Senate left, forcing the president to put him in office through a recess appointment.

What remains murky, however, in light of domestic protectionist pressures on the administration, whether Mr. Bush will have the nerve and political skill to deliver on the centerpiece of his hemisphere policy, which calls for freer trade. Without rapid trade liberalization, the rest of the administration's goals for the region become

After a rather promising start to the 1990s decade, Latin America and the Caribbean steadily slouched toward chaos, partly because there was no meaningful leadership from the U.S. When Bill Clinton announced in 1994 that there would be a Free Trade Area of the Americas, unilateral trade opening stopped dead, with Latins preferring to hold all tariffs as chips for future negotiations. Institutional and economic reform ground to halt in most nations. Then the trade agenda stalled.

                                                                                                                                                                                             The Clinton sleaze factor also came into play, making some of the most decadent of Latin American governments seem not so bad by comparison. Today the region is mired in crime and characterized by financial instability, trade protectionism, economic malaise, political upheaval, terrorism, and now, an officially recognized war in Colombia.

                                                                                                                                                                                     Fortunately none of this seems to discourage Mr. Reich, who goes about his new job with Reaganesque optimism and a love of liberty born of his early life as a Cuban subject to Fidel Castro's tender mercies. He wants to be tough on terrorism and speaks passionately about free trade. Mr. Bush's March visit to Monterrey, Lima and San Salvador, he says, is a signal to Latin America that despite the heavy attention to the war in Afghanistan, helping the region advance ranks high on the Bush agenda.

                                                                                                                                                                                             Mr. Reich began his remarks by noting that in the president's priorities for the Western Hemisphere "the common denominator is freedom." That might sound like political boilerplate, but Mr. Reich is really talking about an essential for economic development. "Political and economic freedom," he says "translate into economic opportunity, and the vehicle we plan to use to drive that is the Free Trade Area of the Americas. For that, of course, you need Trade Promotion Authority."  

                                                                                                                                                                                            "We want security. This is the fight against terrorism. And we want governmental integrity. That's the fight against corruption and the proper use of governmental resources. Not just avoiding malfeasance but being efficient and utilizing market forces, less government intervention in the economy and more attention to private enterprise and individual initiative."

                                                                                                                                                                                  "Supporting democracy," he says, "is not just having an election every four years and forgetting what happens in between. We want to try to support the strengthening of democratic institutions." And "governmental integrity is a very important component because corruption is one of biggest obstacles to economic development ... the problem with corruption is that not only does it steal resources from the people but it corrodes the confidence of the people in their institutions." He says that one of the administration's tools to fight this will be a practice of the revoking of U.S. visas of government officials who have stolen from the public purse.

The office of the Haitian democratic opposition, right photo.  It was consumed  by flames on December 17, 2001 after Jean-Bertrand Aristide ordered his bandits to set it ablaze.                                                                                                    

Freedom, trade openness and good governance, these ideas are hardly new. But they were not advanced much during the Clinton years. Besides equivocation on trade, there was a remarkably close relationship between the U.S. administration and some dubious regimes, such as the Menen government in Argentina. Mr. Clinton's "special Envoy to Latin America" was Thomas "Mack" McLarty, a close crony who spoke no Spanish. In Haiti, Joseph P. Kennedy II and former Democratic National Committee finance man Marvin Rosen went into business with Haitian President J.B. Aristide, whose Lavalas party was noted for its ruthlessness toward any political opposition. For whatever reason, Mr. Clinton never could make a very good case against corruption to Latin leaders.

Thankfully for 7 million Haitians, the Bush policy with regard to Mr. Aristide, whose style of government has been condemned by both left- and right-of-center figures, is markedly different from the Clinton policy. "We are trying to use our resources to bring about political and economic reforms from the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide," says Mr. Reich, "although, frankly I have to admit it, very unsuccessfully so far. He doesn't seem to be responsive to almost anything, any outside pressure or inside pressure. He wants to put pressure on us to give him more money without maintaining reform."

Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Haiti as a private citizen to help the U.S. effort to return Mr. Aristide to power. "He has said     he has a right to be disappointed at what has happened there," Mr. Reich says. "There isn't democracy, there isn't economic development, there's a great deal of crime, a great deal of corruption and allegations of narcotics trafficking."                                                                                                                   On Colombia, Mr. Reich says, "We're asked for $98 million dollars to defend the Cano Limon pipeline because it represents such a large amount of income to the government of Columbia. They lose $40 million a month from the sabotage of the pipeline." Congress has not yet approved that request but Mr. Reich detects a mood of realism among members he has met with since Colombia's decision to end the "peace process" a week ago. They "understand that there's no daylight between narcotics traffickers and the terrorist groups; that they represent a danger to the region."

It's refreshing to hear a U.S. official condemn Mr. Aristide and Colombia's guerrillas. But as Mr. Reich says, the U.S. wallet also has limits. This reinforces the fact that the bulk of the burden of change is on the shoulders of wealth-creating trade. An administration that placates protectionists is not likely to be able to lead the region to open markets, security and strong democracy. Either Mr. Bush will lead on trade or Latin America will founder.


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