President Bush moved yesterday to bring order to his Latin American policy team, announcing he would nominate Roger Noriega, the current U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, as assistant secretary of state for the region. In a separate announcement, Bush said he had named Otto Reich, the previous holder of that post, as a special White House envoy for the region.
The assistant secretary slot has been vacant since Congress adjourned in late November, ending Reich's 11-month tenure. Bush had given him a recess appointment after the Democratic-controlled Senate refused to hold a hearing on his nomination. The appointment expired at the end of the congressional session.
Noriega, who wielded great influence over Latin American policy as a top aide to former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), is close to Reich and has a similar policy background. As State Department officials, both were involved in the bitter policy fights over Central America during the 1980s that led to the Iran-contra scandals during the Reagan administration. Both are favorites of the conservative Cuban American community, centered in the politically pivotal state of Florida. They also were among the architects of an increasingly tough U.S. policy toward Cuba that has the full support of the Bush administration, but dwindling backing in Congress.
Noriega, who was easily approved as OAS ambassador by the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, is unlikely to encounter the same confirmation difficulties as Reich, whose opponents included the new Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.). Although the White House had hoped that a GOP-majority committee would be more friendly toward Reich, Lugar advised Bush last month that there was no bipartisan support for his renomination.
In a recent speech, Lugar criticized the administration for what he described as a dangerous drift and lack of "vigor" in its Latin American policy, and a Lugar spokesman said yesterday that the new chairman would hold an early hearing on a Noriega nomination. Among other problems, concern has been rising in Congress and within the administration over political conflict and widespread strikes in Venezuela that have stopped its oil exports to this country.
Although the State Department's first choice for the job was Anne Patterson, the current U.S. ambassador to Colombia, officials there expressed relief that Bush was finally moving to fill the job with an apparently confirmable candidate. Reich's predecessor under the Clinton administration, Peter Romero, served for years in an "acting" capacity after Helms, who was then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, charged he was insufficiently committed to the fight against leftist guerrillas in the region.
Reich's appointment to the White House revives the special envoy position held by Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty under President Bill Clinton. Although Bush had said he would do away with such "special" positions, White House political advisers were concerned that failure to find Reich another place in the administration would undercut the support of the strong South Florida constituency.
The White House said in a statement yesterday that the new job, which does not require Senate confirmation, would include coordination of "long-term policy initiatives" and advancement of U.S. goals in the hemisphere, including "to foster and strengthen democratic institutions, to promote and defend human rights, to advance free trade and to promote economic development and poverty alleviation."