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Who is Otto Reich?

JP Leary
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

A Cuban American and a favorite of conservative anti-Castroites, Otto Reich is a former ambassador to Venezuela and was a lobbyist for the Bacardi rum corporation and Lockheed-Martin before taking his current job in the State Department. But it was with the Reagan-era Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (S/LPD) that he made his name.

In 1983, as President Reagan faced increasing domestic pressure over American involvement in Central America—particularly its support for the Contras in Nicaragua—S/LPD was created to supervise what it called “White Propaganda” in support of the administration’s policy.

In order to “improve the quality of information the American people are receiving,” as one government memo on the agency put it, S/LPD secretly drafted op-ed pieces that ran in US newspapers under the phony bylines of contracted academics or Contra leaders; fed government information to news organizations and pro-Reagan lobbying groups; aggressively lobbied journalists covering US policy in Central America; and planted sometimes fabricated stories about Sandinista misdeeds in the US media. A story about Soviet MiG fighters arriving in Nicaragua was leaked by Reich’s office and was broadcast on the evening news by journalists detecting a new Cuban missile crisis. The report turned out to be a hoax.

The Comptroller General shut down the operation in 1987, saying it engaged in “prohibited, covert propaganda activities.” A House Foreign Affairs Committee report determined that

    …senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an obscure bureau in the Department of State which reported directly to the National Security Council rather than through the normal State Department channels…These private individuals and organizations raised and spent funds for the purpose of influencing Congressional votes and US domestic news media.

Despite this record, Reich has now taken over the State Department’s highest-ranking post for Latin American affairs over opposition from the Senate committee that for a time refused to even consider his nomination. President Bush therefore avoided confirmation hearings by making a recess appointment during the winter legislative break.

Reich is a favorite in the Bush White House and one of several figures from Reagan’s Central America team working in the current administration. His appointment is also considered by some a payback to the Florida Cuban Americans who helped win George Bush the presidency, and who his brother Jeb must carry for his upcoming gubernatorial race.

As a recess appointee, however, Reich must still face hearings at the next Congressional session, at which time he may have to go back to peddling cheap rum and F-16s.