by Garry M. Leech
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, wasted little time before traveling to Bogotá to congratulate president-elect Alvaro Uribe. Reich followed the example set by the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, who violated protocol by visiting Uribe's campaign headquarters on election night to congratulate him on his triumph before he had even been officially declared the winner. With Uribe's victory, the Bush White House has been presented with a perfect opportunity to increase U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil conflict, but in order to do so, former Reagan administration propagandist Otto Reich will most likely have to cleanse the image of the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies. Consequently, these right-wing death squads may soon be presented to the U.S. public as "freedom fighters," Colombia's version of the Nicaraguan Contras.
From 1983 to 1986, Otto Reich was chief of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which served as the propaganda office for the Reagan White House. Reich was responsible for fomenting fear among the U.S. public of Nicaragua's Sandinista government and promoting the U.S.-backed Contras, a counter-revolutionary group consisting primarily of thugs and soldiers loyal to deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza who were intent on regaining power.
Following the 1985 decision by the U.S. Congress to cut off funding for the Contras, Reagan's war became a covert operation when Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North began illegally selling weapons to Iran and using a portion of the proceeds to covertly and illegally fund the Contra forces. Reich worked closely with Lt. Col. North and the National Security Council to manage White House policy towards Nicaragua until the Iran-Contra scandal broke, which led to the ODP's closure in 1987 following the release of a comptroller general's report stating Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities."
In March 2001, despite Reich's controversial and illegal activities during the Reagan years, George W. Bush made him the State Department's chief diplomat in Latin America. Reich's recent visit to Bogotá--his second in the past three months--suggests that the Bush White House intends to quickly establish close ties with the incoming Uribe administration as it develops an increasingly aggressive attitude towards Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
With Reich and his fellow Contra-supporting cohorts, Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte--now also members of the Bush administration's policymaking team--there exists the real possibility that a failure to achieve its goals overtly under the guise of the wars on drugs and terrorism in Colombia will lead the Bush White House to turn to covert operations as occurred with the Contras during the 1980s. If Reich's past activities at the ODP are any indication, the U.S. public can expect to be deceived and even blatantly lied to about Washington's escalating role in Colombia's conflict, especially with regards to U.S. links to the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies.
Following President Bush's nomination of Reich last year, Jeff Cohen of the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) addressed Reich's past history of propagandizing as a member of the Reagan administration: "Take the scary news that Soviet MiG fighter jets were arriving in Nicaragua. With journalists citing unnamed 'intelligence sources,' the well-timed story surged through U.S. media on the night of Ronald Reagan's re-election. At NBC, Andrea Mitchell broke into election coverage with the story. The furor spurred a Democratic senator to discuss a possible air strike against Nicaragua. But the story turned out to be a hoax. Several journalists later acknowledged they'd been handed the story by Reich's office."
Cohen also pointed out that "Reich's office promoted the fable that Nicaragua had acquired chemical weapons from the Soviets." This ODP lie is eerily similar to recent State Department accusations that Cuba is manufacturing biological weapons, although last week a government spokesperson reluctantly admitted there was no evidence to support these allegations. And when questions regarding Washington's role in last month's failed coup in Venezuela are taken into account, it appears that Reich, who is avidly anti-Castro and anti-Chávez, may already be up to his old tricks again.
Uribe offers the Bush administration a perfect opportunity to expand U.S. military intervention in Colombia in order to combat leftist guerrillas who control some 40 percent of the national territory. With the president-elect's militaristic campaign rhetoric and his past ties to self-defense groups in Antioquia that later evolved into illegal paramilitary units, the stage is set for Reich and company to relive their glory years by providing overt support to the Colombian military and covert aid to right-wing paramilitary death squads.
It is unlikely that a staunch anti-communist with Reich's track record will be deterred by the fact that Colombia's largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), is on the U.S. State Department's own list of foreign terrorist organizations and is responsible for more than 70 percent of the country's human rights abuses. Reich's re-energized propaganda machine may soon have unsuspecting Americans rooting for right-wing paramilitary death squads that will undoubtedly be portrayed as "freedom-fighting" Colombian Contras.
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org