Three Tarnished Reagan Figures Have Hands in Bush Foreign Policy. (Nation)

Article excerpt

Their names were synonymous with the U.S. "dirty wars" in Central America in the 1980s and the Iran-contra scandal. Today, Otto Reich, Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte have resurfaced and are helping run U.S. policy toward Latin America again.

The re-emergence of the Reagan-era hardliners is causing dismay among human rights activists and some Latin America experts who fear the United States is returning to the Cold War days when it backed brutal dictatorships, covertly supported coups and sabotaged leftist movements. "There isn't a single democratic leader in Latin America that doesn't reject and deplore the role that our government played in Central America during the 1980s," said Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. "To choose men like Elliot Abrams and Otto Reich is an insult."

Said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a left-of-center think tank in Washington: "We seem to have learned very little from an extremely bloody past.... This is probably the most ideological and least talented Latin America team either in Republican or Democratic administrations that I have witnessed in monitoring this scene for 35 years."

The return of Reich, Abrams and Negroponte comes as a wave of leftists rises to power across Latin America, largely riding a backlash against U.S.-prescribed free-market economic policies known as the "Washington Consensus" that some economists blame for exacerbating mass poverty.

Leftists now occupy the presidencies of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti. A left-of-center politician may also win next March's election in Argentina, which would put two-thirds of Latin America's population under leftist rule.

Since assuming their posts a year or so ago, the Bush team has come under fire for allegedly supporting a coup against Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, blocking economic aid for the government of one-time radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, and trying to undermine the campaigns of leftist presidential candidates in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Administration officials say they are promoting democracy in Latin America, encouraging free trade and waging a war on drugs. They defend the record of Reich, 57, a right-wing Cuban-American and ardent foe of Fidel Castro who until Nov. 22 was assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is now special envoy to Latin America.

"His performance as assistant secretary of state since January was exemplary," State Department spokesman Robert Zimmerman said. "He has the complete confidence of the secretary of state and of the president and of the state department senior leadership."

Zimmerman added: "Given his substantial expertise, his knowledge of the region, he has been asked to be the secretary's special envoy for Western Hemisphere Affairs."

Abrams, 54, who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Reagan administration, served until early December as the National Security Council's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. President Bush recently appointed him director of Middle Eastern Affairs at the White House.

Negroponte, 63, U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, now is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Another Iran-contra figure, John M. Poindexter, who served as national security adviser under Reagan, today is director of the Information Awareness Office at the Pentagon.

The Bush team has provoked controversy on a number of fronts in Latin America. In April it tacitly backed an attempted coup against Chavez, pledging to work with an interim government that lasted two days and abolished the constitution, the supreme court and the Congress. A high-level State Department official called allegations that the United States supported the overthrow of Venezuela's democratically elected president "absolutely false" and said the administration was cleared in a probe by the State Department's inspector general. …