Otto Reich, a controversial Reagan-era diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for hemisphere affairs during George W. Bush's first term, is a long-time U.S. political operative with close ties to right-wing factions in Latin America. A Cuban-American who has been a vociferous anti-Fidel Castro militant, Reich was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal as a result of his work in Ronald Reagan's Office of Public Diplomacy, the propaganda outfit charged with planting op-eds that disparaged critics of Reagan's Latin American policies and lauded Contra leaders.
Because of his contentious record working under Reagan, Bush made Reich a "recess appointment" to the State Department, thereby avoiding congressional opposition. The appointment provoked widespread criticism. Wrote one observer: "Reich, along with fellow Reagan administration cohorts, Elliott Abrams and John Negroponte, were discredited for their covert activities and false assertions when the United States intervened in Central America in the 1980's and '90s, but have been reinstated in prominent positions in the second Bush administration." Similarly, the San Antonio Express-News opined, "Like a disturbing dream from a not-so-distant past, [Reich] floats up out of a time when Ollie North was running guns to the Nicaraguan Contras and Robert McFarlane was bearing a key, a cake, and a Bible to stiff-necked Iranian ayatollahs."
In 2001, shortly after Reich's name was floated for a Bush administration post, the National Security Archive published an "Electronic Briefing Book" detailing Reich's work at the Reagan-era Office of Public Diplomacy. Among the declassified documents published by the archive was a bipartisan report of the Congressional Iran-Contra Committees, which found that "In fact, 'public diplomacy' turned out to mean public relations-lobbying, all at taxpayers' expense." According the archive, another report, by the U.S. Comptroller-General, "found that some of the efforts of Mr. Reich's public diplomacy office were 'prohibited, covert propaganda activities,' 'beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities….' The same September 30, 1987 letter concluded that Mr. Reich's office had violated 'a restriction on the State Department's annual appropriations prohibiting the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.'"
Reich served as assistant secretary of state until 2002, when he was tapped to serve Condoleezza Rice as special envoy for western hemisphere initiatives. He served in this capacity until 2004. Not long after Bush appointed him as special envoy to the western hemisphere, Reich was also nominated to serve on the board of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, better known as the School of the Americas—the U.S. Army's controversial training ground for Latin American military leaders, including Panama's Manuel Noriega and Argentina's Leopoldo Galtieri. Said Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the crusading School of the Americas Watch, of Reich's nomination: "This only renews our conviction that this school of coups, torturers, and assassins must be closed down for good."
After leaving the administration in 2004, Reich began his own Washington D.C.-based business consultancy, Otto Reich Associates. He has also remained a high-profile political actor and commentator. In 2008, Reich served presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as an advisor on Latin American policy. In this capacity, he compared leftist leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Hitler and Mussolini, leading observers to conclude that as president McCain would have pursued an exceedingly hawkish line in Latin America.
In early June 2009, after the Organization of American States voted to revoke Cuba's 1962 suspension from the group, Reich went on the offensive, arguing that Latin American leaders, who can be "so destructive," had isolated themselves from the Barack Obama administration—this despite the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "pleased" with the vote.
In April 2009, Reich accused left-of-center Honduran President Manuel Zelayo of being involved in purported bribes paid by the state-run telecommunications company, Hondutel. In response to the accusations, Zelayo said he would bring a defamation lawsuit against Reich and accused Reich of reacting out of bitterness over the cancellation of a communications contract with a Honduran business with which he is associated.
Reich's business dealings have long been the subject of debate, as Foreign Policy in Focus reported in 2001: "In recent years, Reich has also associated himself with some of America's least favorite industries: liquor, tobacco, and armaments. He's a lobbyist for Bacardi, British American Tobacco, and Lockheed Martin. But a new wrinkle has arisen in Otto Reich's suspect resume. He is the vice-chairman of Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production or WRAP, a clothing industry front founded in June 2000 to undermine the growing anti-sweatshop movement. Reich joined WRAP at its inception, associating himself with an operation that connects some of the unsavory elements of the cold war with a new, PR-driven approach to sustaining non-union sweatshop production."