WASHINGTON -- Fidel Castro seldom gets involved in the U.S. Senate's confirmation process, but he is this year. Coincidentally or not, his target is the appointee of President Bush who is most likely to be rejected.
The imperiled nomination: Otto Reich to be assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs. Nobody questions Reich's competence or experience, which includes Reagan administration service as head of Latin American aid and ambassador to Venezuela. Castro, American leftists and liberal Democratic senators all target him for the same reason. Reich is an anti-Castro Cuban-American and doughty crusader against Marxist revolution in the Western Hemisphere.
His fate poses opposite tests within Washington's divided government. Shall the newly dominant Senate Democrats flex their muscles to rid themselves of somebody they detest because of what he stands for? Shall the president throw Reich overboard to appease the new masters of the Senate?
Reich's nomination set off alarm bells in Havana the moment it was announced. Castro himself set the pattern, calling Reich "a nasty person with a fascist mentality." The Cuban dictator's hand-picked National Assembly president, Ricardo Alarcon, played with words to accuse Bush of trying "to impose a kind of Third Reich in Latin America." Reich is "a member of Miami's anti-Castro Mafia," Alarcon added, and "a notorious character throughout the Iran-Contra operation."
The Cubans are not the only foreigners to interfere with Senate confirmation. Oscar Arias, former Costa Rican president and Nobel peace laureate, delivered an assault on Reich in a Los Angeles Times article ("A Nominee Who Stands for War"). This appointment, Arias contended, exalts "hard-line ideology over flexibility and bipartisanship." He brazenly demanded that Bush "find another candidate for the job."
Arias's bill of particulars against Reich is a watered-down version of wild attacks by The Nation magazine and other left-wing sources that are circulating on Capitol Hill. Republican senators see the hand of Janice O'Connell, longtime foreign relations aide to Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd (who simultaneously is launching a campaign for better U.S. relations with Castro).
Such disparate anti-Reich sources as Castro, Arias and O'Connell share a common animosity. They cannot forgive Reich for his persistent Reagan administration role in keeping the Contras alive, assuring the ultimate fall of Nicaragua's Marxist dictatorship. Arias specifically bemoans Reich's "allegiance to the Reagan administration's hard-line policies toward Central America."
The assault by the Cuban Communists is particularly noxious in its fascist and Nazi name-calling. Reich's father, an Austrian Jew, fled Hitler's Anschluss in 1938 for Cuba, where Otto was born. His grandparents, left behind in Austria, perished in the Holocaust.
While less venomous than the Cubans, Arias was just as far off the mark. He claimed that Reich successfully lobbied the Clinton administration on behalf of Lockheed Martin to permit the sale of F-16 warplanes to Chile; in fact, Reich did not go to work for the company until after the ban on high grade weaponry had been lifted. Contrary to Arias, Reich was never even accused of wrong-doing in supporting the Contras as head of the Reagan administration's Office of Public Diplomacy.
The settling of old scores on Nicaragua also has targeted John Negroponte, Bush's nominee as ambassador to the United Nations. While an active Contra supporter as ambassador to Honduras in the '80s, Negroponte is a less inviting target than Reich.
One influential conservative Republican senator believes Reich may be the sacrificial lamb to appease Senate Democrats. He notes that Secretary of State Colin Powell, on Fox News Sunday, June 17, lavishly praised Negroponte but said nothing for Reich.
The explanation may be that Powell was asked about Negroponte, but not Reich. A recent meeting between White House aides and Senate GOP staffers agreed there should be a vigorous effort on Reich's behalf. Veteran Republican operative Tom Korologos, an expert on the confirmation process, was asked last week to add Reich to the pack of Bush nominees he is shepherding (though, thanks to red tape, Reich's nomination has not yet officially reached the Senate).
George W. Bush may be underestimated again, this time by his own conservative base. Naming Otto Reich to head Latin American policy was an act of solidarity with Reaganism. That Fidel Castro has targeted Reich validates the choice.