For the past few months, Washington has suffered through its worst winter in a decade. The temperature rarely rises above freezing, and the President busies himself with wrecking the economy and the environment, piling on deficits, warmongering and spewing jingoistic hatred. As if this were not bad enough, last month, he briefly turned his attention to Latin America and took a moment to toss off a new diplomatic appointment for a man we had all hoped was long gone: Roger Noriega. A junior partner in the Ultra-Right Stuff Club, Noriega will shortly be elevated to the highest position for Latin American policy-making at the State Department.
A brief survey of reactions to the appointment among progressives here yielded only the dismayed and discouraged opinion, “Well, at least he’s not Otto Reich.” Reich, as you will recall, was Bush’s first choice for this appointment. His nomination ran aground last year amid charges of illegally operating an unauthorized, taxpayer-financed propaganda campaign to convince Congress that the Contra narco-guerrillas were “freedom fighters,” during a time long ago when this sort of thing was still frowned upon. As investigations of Reich’s past proceeded, conflicts of interest involving the Bacardi (Rum) family and lobbying the Chilean Armed Forces on behalf of Lockheed also came to light, together with an embarrassing effort to aid terrorists in Venezuela. As Ambassador to Venezuela under Ronald Reagan, Reich was allegedly instrumental in springing Orlando Bosch from jail in Caracas where he was serving a 10-year sentence for blowing up a Cubana airliner and killing 73 people. Plus Otto seemed to suffer from frequent bouts of pathological lying and insanity. Even in the docile “whatever-you-say, Mr. President” political climate that followed September 11, Reich could not pass muster and the Senate refused to confirm him.
Reich occupied the post anyway last year under a recess appointment that did not require confirmation. During this period, he distinguished himself by bungling the U.S. role in an inept coup designed to topple President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. When the coup failed, the U.S. was left hanging out there, the only sovereign state to endorse Chavez’ overthrow other than the Holy See. Given this performance, it was clear that Reich would have to go.
Which left a desirable vacancy available for Noriega, who himself had quietly slipped through the Senate confirmation process in the wake of September 11. He then took up his new post as the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, the regional body for the Western Hemisphere. Roger was biding his time there. In fact, throughout his undistinguished career, Roger typically cools his heels, collects a six-figure tax-free salary, and lies in wait at the OAS for a better position. His dubious political connections first landed him an OAS sinecure in 1991 writing technical brochures that no one read. At the time, he needed a place to hide out because he had been superficially burned by Iran/Contra, the whimsical foreign policy episode conducted by Oliver North, John Poindexter and Ronald Reagan in Central America.
Roger’s political injuries from that caper were minimal, although he was deeply involved. He had been at USAID at the time, where he oversaw “non-lethal aid” shipments to the Contras. In subsequent investigations, unseemly associations surfaced. For example, a Miami-based money launderer with ties to the Medellin cartel testified to a Senate committee that he personally had cleaned up $230,000 by cycling it through a bank account used for non-lethal Contra aid. While at USAID, Roger also steered a $750,000 grant to the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, headed by Verne Chaney, a close colleague of retired General John Singlaub, who, in turn, helped Oliver North run the illegal arms supply network to the Contras during the U.S. aid cutoff. For his part, Chaney did a survey of the Contras’ medical needs in 1985 together with Rob Owen, who was subsequently nailed as Ollie North’s bag man. When this all blew up into televised hearings, special prosecutors, threatened indictments and jail terms, Noriega found it convenient to lie low.
But not too low and not too long. After churning out brochures for a bit, Noriega called on his Hill contacts, Contra-collaborators Jesse Helms and Benjamin Gilman, to pressure the OAS Secretary General into creating a no-work high-salary post of Special Advisor just for him. On this occasion, the OAS Secretary General confessed to his confidantes that he didn’t really want any special advice from Noriega, but he promoted him anyway, giving him “little respect and no assignments” according to a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
After Iran/Contra blew over, Noriega moved on to a job with Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), then chair of the House International Relations Committee, where he unsuccessfully undertook to implicate the security guards of Jean Bertrand Aristide, President of Haiti, in a series of political killings in Port-au-Prince and an attempt on the life of the Haitian ambassador in Washington (TO, May 22, 1998). From there, he went to work directly for Jesse Helms as a senior staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he tried to secure a tighter embargo of Cuba, endearing himself to the Florida Cubans, Otto Reich and that whole sick crew. The Washington Post wrote about this stint: “Roger F. Noriega earned a reputation for many things. Tact was not one of them. He was ultra conservative, intolerant and even hostile to people with opposing views. And as the Republicans’ Latin America expert on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Jesse Helms, he left the U.S. diplomatic corps deeply wounded. His was an unforgettable ‘reign of terror,’ for those who lived through it.”
Returning to the OAS in 2001 as Bush’s ambassador, Roger apparently behaved himself for a year or so and earned the distinction of the “Grand Master of the Order of the Sun,” from the government of Peru. Despite this august award, foreign policy analysts for Latin America report that they are disappointed with Bush’s nomination of Noriega to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Endorsements are tepid to say the least: William Goodfellow of the Center for International Policy, who organized the fight against Reich in 2001, said that Noriega was not the “heavy hitter” that people expected. Goodfellow was “astonished that they would pick someone with his resume,” and, in a burst of understatement, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said, “There are a number of individuals with a great deal more stature.” Nonetheless, everyone believes that, unlike Reich, Noriega will be confirmed. His experience with Congress will help him, especially in this Congress: he is not insane and will probably do as he’s told. Word has it, though, that if he had to be confirmed by the State Department instead of the Senate, he would never make it: the diplos are not impressed by the Grand Master of the Order of the Sun, and at least half of the U.S. ambassadors now stationed in Latin America suffered through some very tough times at the hands of Noriega and Helms.
Meanwhile the Cuban American National Foundation, to which Bush is deeply indebted for his theft of the 2000 election in Florida, is jubilant, and called Noriega’s nomination “a wonderful addition to the State Department Team.” And as the dust settled last month, Otto Reich came home to roost in the basement of the Executive Office Building (EOB), now as the President’s Special Envoy to Latin America.
In the United States we have short memories. Many of us can barely recall the distant days of relative peace we enjoyed during the 1990s. But it’s hard to forget what happened the last time a brainless right-wing president stashed a renegade red-baiter and Cuba-hater in the basement of the EOB: the ayatollahs turned up with weapons that they didn’t used to have, and years of random killing were visited upon the Central American poor in the interests of “freedom.” In those days, of course, all of this was condemned as illegal and ultimately stopped. But with Noriega now at the helm, Reich in the basement and Bush on the warpath, God alone knows what may be in store for Latin America.
Gabriela Bocagrande writes about Inter-American hijinks for the Observer. She has a very long memory.