Monday, June 21, 2004

Reich: Goodbye, and good riddance

I missed the fact that Otto Reich, the Bush envoy to Latin America for the past 18 months (a post that does not require Senate confirmation), has quietly left. Most recently notorious for his meddling in the Salvadoran elections and the failed Venezuelan coup last year (not to mention Cuba), he apparently found it frustrating to be in a White House that has stopped paying attention to Latin America.

According to a report from the Down Jones Newswire,

Few policy initiatives have been directed elsewhere in the region [beyond Cuba], and almost all have failed. Reich's attempts to secure broad support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq met stiff opposition and several leaders bristled at the envoy's heavy-handed efforts to enlist their help in Bush's declared "war on terror."

"When (Reich) beats them over the head with a two-by-four and tells them they have to change their strategy to counter terrorism, they tend to be a little hostile," said Joseph Tulchin, head of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Tulchin isn't sure things are going to get much better any time soon.

"Bush is surrounded by very intelligent people, although none of them are particularly knowledgeable on Latin America or interested in Latin America," he said.

Roger Noriega, who eventually was approved by Congress to become assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, has maintained a relatively low profile. John Maisto, the U.S. representative to the Organization of American States, has a reputation for being a skilled diplomat but also isn't believed to be in Bush's inner circle.

The lack of a focus on Latin America comes at a time when there's a lot happening. Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the U.S., is in political turmoil. Weak governments in impoverished Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are in danger of toppling. And foreign bondholders are locked in a bitter dispute with Argentina over $100 billion in defaulted debt.

Relations with Brazil, Latin America's largest country, also could be better as Brasilia and Washington blame each other for stalled talks aimed at creating an Americas-wide free trade zone.

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