WASHINGTON -- The Bush White House last week closed an open wound to minimize apparent pain. To avoid a prolonged Senate confirmation struggle for Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, he was given a new advisory post at the White House. Reich's former State Department job went to veteran foreign policy operative Roger Noriega, whose anti-Castro credentials are no less solid than Reich's. So, why aren't American foes of Cuba's communist regime happy?
Fidel Castro has hit his target. From the moment President Bush nominated Reich, the Cuban dictator worked to block him. Committed to eventual regime change in Havana, the Cuban-born Reich symbolized refusal to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations without democratization by Castro. Getting rid of Reich marked partial triumph for State Department professionals.
It was only partial because the Foreign Service officers, backed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, could not place one of their own as Reich's successor. Reich's fate was complicated by international and domestic factors. In the Western Hemisphere, radical regimes in Venezuela and Brazil have ended Castro's isolation. In the U.S., George W. Bush would not be president today were it not for the Cuban-American vote in Florida.
During the 2002 Florida campaign when Gov. Jeb Bush was re-elected, there was no hint that Reich's days at State were numbered. Reich, whose previous government positions included ambassador to Venezuela, had collided with the 2001 Democratic takeover of the Senate. Sen. Christopher Dodd, pressing for normalization with Castro, resented Reich's Reagan administration mission of building support for the Nicaraguan contras. Dodd denied him a hearing in his subcommittee.
With Reich serving through 2002 as an unconfirmed recess appointee, his supporters hoped Republican recapture of the Senate would mean his renomination and confirmation early in 2003. Instead, once Jeb Bush was safely re-elected, word spread through Cuban-American circles that Reich was finished. As early as Dec. 4, Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba wrote in The Miami Herald: "If Reich is not renominated, expect Castro to be celebrating in Havana, and the anti-embargo lobby . . . to be re-energized."
Gov. Bush told Cuban-Americans he was urging Reich's renomination, but there is only so much a brother can do. Dodd was inflexibly opposed. So was at least one Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee (Michael Enzi of Wyoming). Sen. Richard Lugar, the incoming Republican chairman of Foreign Relations, said he would grant Reich a hearing -- but promised nothing more. Reich was not renominated. With unusual governmental promptness, his name was taken down from the assistant secretary's office at year's end.
The White House informed Reich that his confirmation was by no means certain and would require some seven months of bitter infighting. Would he not be better off, freed of the confirmation burden and bureaucratic duties, taking a newly created White House post on Latin America? A good soldier, Reich had no choice other than to accept.
Secretary Powell, a consistent champion of the Foreign Service, then pushed a professional diplomat for the State Department post: Anne Patterson, currently U.S. ambassador to Colombia. That would have replicated the situation in the Clinton administration when the president inveighed against Castro and his diplomats sought normalization. Powell was overruled by Bush, who selected Noriega. A Kansas-born Mexican-American, Noriega was a Latin American specialist for then Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms and is now U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States.
The changing of chairs was very nearly undone. Reich was told by the White House to keep quiet and also keep his friends quiet, but the three Cuban-American House members from Florida had their say. Presidential aides wondered aloud whether this kind of people was fit to rule Cuba after Castro.
"I would see it as a victory for Havana," Calzon told me, adding that Reich's effectiveness in his new role remains to be seen. Reich, the grandson of Austrian Jews who perished in the Holocaust, was defamed by Castro's propaganda machine as a fascist and Nazi. As for the specific charges by his senatorial foes, he never will be able to answer them in open hearing. Democrats refused in 2001, and President Bush had higher priorities in 2003.