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Waiting For Otto

The name Otto Reich has popped up in the press again over the past several months. But who is this controversial former Miamian who still enjoys strong ties to South Florida? You should know, if only as a way to assess the health of our humble geopolitical region's clout in Washington, D.C., these days. Test your acumen.

Is Otto Reich:

(a) President George W. Bush's confounding nominee for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs who is an uncompromising supporter of the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba?

(b) a former Reagan administration official who is opposed by ranking Democrats for his role in the Iran-contra affair and for his judgment in the case of Orlando Bosch, a man once described by a senior justice official as a terrorist who is "unfettered by laws or human decency"?

(c) payback to Cuban-American voters for their crucial role in Bush's victory last year, backed by the Cuban American National Foundation and, paradoxically, also by its archenemy, the government of Fidel Castro?

(d) a public servant who "given a fair hearing can fully dispel any doubts about his capacity to steer U.S. policy in this hemisphere" even though he engaged in "misguided, even dishonest, attempts to propagandize the American public?"

(e) a nominee who has devotedly championed hard-line Republican issues on local AM radio but whose nomination may sink because of more moderate Republicans?

See below for the correct answer(s).

If you guessed (a), you appear to be somewhat informed about an important State Department post that has remained unfilled for nearly the entire first year of George W. Bush's presidency. Whoever serves as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs is no less than the U.S. point man for winning friends and influencing people across the Americas.

Otto Juan Reich, age 56, is the clear choice for members of South Florida's Cuban-American political establishment. The son of an Austrian Jew who was beaten by Nazis in 1938 and later married a Catholic Cuban woman, Reich left Cuba with his family in 1960 at age 15 and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. His family history is "fraught with totalitarian nightmares," as he wrote in a speech he delivered to a business conference in Toronto in 1993. He articulated his opposition to tampering with the U.S. embargo. "I believe it is immoral to lengthen the days in which an undemocratic, brutal, unelected, totalitarian regime survives to imprison, torture, execute, and cause more innocent people to flee," he proclaimed. Foreign companies that do business in Cuba are risking their investments, he warned, "because of the political upheavals that will turn the current policies of the Castro government upside down."

Eight years later, those policies are still right-side up, but Reich's rhetoric demonstrated the kind of fervor that wins you a ringing endorsement from the Cuban American National Foundation, which has been lobbying for Reich for months. Reich is a "true believer" regarding U.S policies aimed at thwarting communism in Cuba and in Central America, CANF's executive director, Joe Garcia, raved. "For the past twenty years, Otto has been on the winning side in Latin America, the side of freedom, democracy, liberty, and human rights, and that came to pass. And I think this administration is committed to those same values that brought a democratized hemisphere but for one [country]." Reich is also an old friend of the late CANF founder, Jorge Mas Canosa.

Reich has the backing of CANF's staunchest ally on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The committee approves State Department nominees. "People are pretty confident that he will get a hearing," Maurice Perkins, a Helms staff member, offered optimistically in late September. "President Bush needs to have his foreign policy team in place." Until recently, Perkins worked for Reich at RMA International, a small lobbying firm in Arlington, Virginia, whose clients include Bacardi (the rum producer evicted in the early days of the Cuban revolution) and Lockheed-Martin (one of whose goals has been to sell military jets to Latin-American governments). Reich is president of the company, which has a total of four employees.

The Republican Party activist's résumé is packed with governmental jobs. After receiving a bachelor's degree in international studies from the University of North Carolina in 1966, Reich spent two years in the U.S. Army stationed in Panama. He then went to Washington, D.C., and earned a master's degree in Latin-American studies from Georgetown University. He moved to Miami in 1972 and worked as an international representative for the Florida Department of Commerce until 1975, when he took a job as community development coordinator for the City of Miami.

When Ronald Reagan became president, Reich returned to Washington. During the 12-year GOP reign, he served as an administrator at the Agency for International Development; director of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy; U.S. ambassador to Venezuela; and, under the first Bush administration, alternate delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Since the 1990s, Reich's time has been split as a lobbyist and television commentator on CNN's Choque de Opiniones, a Spanish-language version of Crossfire. In addition, he directs the Center for a Free Cuba, which is allied with Freedom House, one of Washington's bastions of anti-communist ideology during the Cold War.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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