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Three Reagan-era hard-liners return to help run Bush's foreign policy team

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By Bart Jones

December 1, 2002

They were key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal and U.S.-backed "dirty wars" in Central America in the 1980s. Now Otto Reich, Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte are back, helping run White House policy toward Latin America.

The re-emergence of the three has caused consternation among human rights activists and some regional experts, who fear President George W. Bush's team is taking the country back to Cold War days, when the United States intervened flagrantly in Latin America by supporting coups, bankrolling dictatorships that suppressed leftists, and training soldiers linked to human rights abuses.

The return to power of the Reagan-era hard-liners coincides with the rise of leftists to power in several countries in Latin America. The leftists largely are riding a backlash against U.S.-prescribed free-market programs that critics blame for aggravating mass poverty. The new leaders include President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who on Oct. 27 was elected president of Brazil.

Analysts worry about a head-on collision between the Bush team and Latin America's newly empowered left. "We are going into volatile times," said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. "The prospect of a train wreck is real."

A year or so after settling into key foreign policy posts, Bush's Latin America team is under fire for allegedly encouraging an attempted coup in April against Chávez in Venezuela, meddling in elections in Bolivia and Nicaragua and blocking economic aid for the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's leftist president.

"The resurfacing of the Iran-Contra culprits has been nothing short of Orwellian in this administration," said Peter Kornbluh of the liberal National Security Archives, a Washington, D.C., research institute. "These are not 21st-century appointments. They are retrograde appointments, a throwback to an era of interventionism when the U.S. was the big bully on the block."

Administration officials and their allies say the Bush team is pursuing a forward-looking agenda of democracy, human rights and free trade.

Reich, 57, a Cuban-American and ardent foe of Fidel Castro, served until Nov. 20 as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. A so-called "recess appointment" installed in office for a year without congressional approval, Reich automatically lost his post when the current congressional session ended. But Bush kept him on by naming him special envoy to Latin America - which required no congressional approval - and officials say he will still play a key role in policy toward the region.

He "enjoys the support of the president," said a high-level State Department official. "He's traveled the region. He knows the personalities. He knows the issues relating to the hemisphere as well as anyone."

Abrams, 54, who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Reagan administration, now is the National Security Council's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations.

Negroponte, 63, U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, today is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Human rights groups say they already see signs of a return to old policies of reflexive opposition to leftist groups. The Bush administration initially failed to condemn the coup attempt against Chávez, sparking allegations that it supported the overthrow of Venezuela's democratically elected president. U.S. officials deny they sanctioned the coup attempt and say they support democracy in the region.

Days before June's presidential election in Bolivia, U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivians that electing indigenous leader Evo Morales, a critic of U.S. drug policy, could jeopardize aid.

The comment incited protests that the United States was meddling in Bolivia's internal affairs - and sent Morales' popularity ratings soaring. The State Department official said Rocha was responding to provocative comments by Morales calling for the Drug Enforcement Administration to be tossed out of Bolivia.

U.S. officials made similar critical comments about former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega during last year's presidential campaign in Nicaragua, which he lost.

"The message that the Latin Americans get is that we are all for democracy in the Americas as long as our guy wins," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a left-of-center think tank in Washington, D.C.

The United States also is helping block about $500 million in international aid for Haiti, where one-time radical priest Aristide is president. "They don't want Aristide to survive in office ... and one of the ways would be to economically asphyxiate the country," Birns said. U.S. officials say Aristide has strayed from the path of democracy and is mismanaging the country.

Not everyone believes the United States is returning to Monroe Doctrine-inspired interventions in Latin America, relying on the principle set forth in 1823 by President James Monroe by which the United States reserved the right to shape the Western Hemisphere to its own liking. Steve Johnson of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said the administration may be talking tough, but its actions don't match the rhetoric.

He said the United States lacks a clear policy on Latin America, and that tensions exist between hard-liners like Reich and moderates like former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela John Maisto, now the National Security Council's senior director for Inter-American Affairs. Many analysts believe the moderates are handcuffed, with Secretary of State Colin Powell's attention focused on places like Iraq.

"I don't think Secretary Powell has a large space reserved on his desk for Latin America," Johnson said.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.


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