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On-The-Record Briefing at the Foreign Press Center

On-The-Record Briefing at the Foreign Press Center

On-The-Record Briefing at the Foreign Press Center

Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

New York, New York


September 16, 2002

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Hello. In the interest of time, I'll just introduce myself. I'm Otto Reich. We've just saved about five minutes. (Laughter.) I'm the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and I've been up in New York for the last few days accompanying Secretary Powell and other members of the State Department in their meetings in the UN General Assembly.

The issues that we discussed, as you can imagine, cover the range of political and economic, trade, social, terrorism, narcotics and others that are on the agenda of US relations with the nations of the hemisphere. We, of course, talked about the effects of the attacks of September 11. Most of the nations once again reiterated their sympathy with the United States, and the United States reiterated its appreciation for the support that we have received from the nations of the hemisphere in our battle against terrorism.

We also talked about counternarcotics efforts in the hemisphere, emphasized the connection between illicit narcotics, trade -- the illicit narcotics trade -- terrorism and other international crimes. We also talked about some of the underlying causes of poverty in the region which some of the organized crime syndicates, the narcotics traffickers, the terrorists, some demagogues or other leaders take advantage of and making false promises that some people who are in a desperate state sometimes listen to.

We talked about the support or the response on the part of the United States to some of these conditions, primarily the importance of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. We highlighted the passage of the Trade Promotion Authority by the Congress in July, the Congress of the United States, the ongoing free trade negotiations with Chile, the initiative with Central America towards a free trade agreement. We talked about reinvigorating the hemisphere's security architecture, looking forward to the Mexico-hosted conference in the year 2003 that will complement the existing security mechanisms. We talked about redoubled efforts to combat corruption, which we believe is one of the principal obstacles to economic development in the region. There were many, many other issues, as you can imagine, with 34 nations. Many had individual issues that they raised. We, of course, talked about Iraq, and there, there was very little need to reiterate the US position -- it's well known, particularly after the President's speech to the UN last Thursday.

So, with that, I'll just open it up to questions and try to answer whatever I can.

QUESTION: If you could just speak for a moment generally on what you see as the biggest issues facing Latin America, and if you think those issues, those needs, may be overshadowed in the event that we do go to war with -- or in the event of a US-led attack on Iraq.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, the issues in Latin America, as I mentioned, are many. I mean, one of the biggest problems is how to restart the economic growth that the region had begun to enjoy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but in the late 1990s began to slow down considerably and has been accompanied now by a number of financial crises in countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, to a lesser extent Brazil, and others.

Other problems in the region include terrorism, of course. There's widespread terrorism in Colombia. The State Department has designated the three principal combatant groups in Colombia as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTOs for short. There is apparently some resurgence of terrorism in other countries, such as Peru. There are reports of terrorist cells in places like Buffalo, New York, as well as some other places in the hemisphere. If we can find them here, you can find them anywhere, I guess to paraphrase the famous song. So we're constantly looking for connections between some of these terrorist organizations.

Broad issues, as I mentioned -- trade, corruption, et cetera. What impact a Middle Eastern conflict would have on the region is very hard to tell. Frankly, it depends on how long it lasts, what amount of damage it does to the international economy, or perhaps it might even help the international economy in the long run by providing more oil. I don't know. That's strictly speculation. So the fact is that we have to deal with a clear and present danger in Iraq that threatens, if not dealt with, threatens to affect our national security.

QUESTION: Could I have a follow-up on that? With Colombia specifically, do you think it would affect beefed-up efforts now with Plan Colombia and the focus? The US is very involved in fighting terrorism and drugs in Colombia. Would that be lessened in the event of that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: In case of some problem in the Middle East? No, our efforts with Colombia have been pretty consistent. Plan Colombia was designed by the previous Colombian administration and approved by the previous US administration. It has since been enhanced by the incoming Colombian administration and supported -- the expansion of it has been supported by the Bush Administration. Even before the election of President Uribe, we asked the Congress for additional resources and expanded legal authorities to support the then-Pastrana administration in combating narcotics and terrorism, which in the case of Colombia are one are the same in many cases.

So our strategy towards Colombia is independent of our strategy in the Middle East. Obviously -- well, let me just leave it at that.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: The former head of the nuclear program of Iraq had an interview published today in the Times of London in which he accuses Brazil of -- not accuses, but he said that if Iraq builds a bomb it will be with uranium smuggled from Brazil. So I'd like to know if the administration has any information about that, if in his previous congress briefings he mentioned it, and if it has to do, in your opinion, it would have to do with the triple frontier in the south region of Brazil in which Brazilian officials maintain, still sustain, that there is no terrorist activity until now.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, I think those are two different things. First, I have seen the report that you mention and I don't know anything about it. This is the first that I've heard of it. But remember, this is not my area of the world and, you know, our intelligence information is highly compartmentalized. If you don't have a need to know, you don't have a need to know. So I don't know anything about that particular report. All I know is that I read it in the press.

Second, as far as the triple frontier -- Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil -- we're watching it closely and we're in touch with the countries in the region, and it's pretty evident that there is more activity perhaps in one country than in others, or in two countries than in all three. But it's certainly worth watching because sometimes people and goods tend to cross borders relatively easily and not only in that part of the world, but as we know from our own experience, in our own part of the world.

QUESTION: I was wondering more broadly if you've looked at the rise of leftism and populism in the region over the past couple of years and, with it, a rise in anti-American sentiment, especially in the Andes, also in Argentina and Brazil, and whether you think the actions of this administration had anything to do with that and what you might be doing to counteract that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, you talked about three "isms" -- leftism, populism and anti-Americanism -- and they're not necessarily connected. There's right-wing populism in some countries, there's left-wing populism, there's populism that doesn't appear to have any ideology. You know, there definitely is more populism, I think, but as in most "isms" it doesn't offer any true solution to the problems of the region, and I think this too shall pass. We agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst system of government with the exception of all the others. And by the way, if you're going to translate that, please translate it properly because I just got through having to -- my press officers in the back having to explain to a Peruvian paper that I didn't say that democracy was the worst of all systems of government. (Laughter.) I said it was the worst with the exception of all the others.

You know, there are a lot of simple solutions that are presented by politicians of all stripes that in many cases don't work. I mean nothing comes easy. And we believe that the free market is the best system of economics, that with all of its problems it provides the best opportunity for the largest number of people in solving the largest number of problems and creating the largest amount of wealth. Certainly socialism didn't do it. Communism didn't do it. Nazism didn't do it. All the other forms of fascism didn't do it.

So we stick to our belief that democracy and free markets are the best systems. In fact, most the people in this hemisphere understand that and there is no great anti-Americanism, in spite of all the problems that exist, because I think they see the United States as trying to help, trying to help both bilaterally and multilaterally. The problem is that some of these problems are so huge, the amounts of money required to solve the problems of an Argentina or Brazil are so huge, the United States can't do it alone. In fact, the developed world together probably can't do it alone. This is why we work with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the other international financial institutions and development banks.

But the answer lies within the borders of each one of these countries. There is no reason, in my opinion, why countries as rich as the countries of this hemisphere have not developed further. They've made a lot of progress, frankly, but there can be a lot more. And I think it's due to the fact that they haven't properly implemented the free market policies. They've had, in some cases, democracy defined in a very narrow fashion; that is, just elections every few years without being sufficiently concerned about building the institutions of a democracy. And they've also not implemented the institutions of a free market. There's been far too much intervention on the part of the state into the financial transactions, not enough transparency, for example, in financial statistics of governments, et cetera.

But we're making progress. If you look at the hemisphere today, as opposed to 20, 30, 40 years ago, we're making enormous progress. Thirty years ago, the vast majority of the people of this hemisphere lived under military governments. Today, only Cuba is the exception to a democratically elected government. That's 2 percent of the population.

Now, are the governments perfect? No. There are no perfect governments in this world because there are no perfect people in this world -- present company excluded, of course; the same with economic systems. They have not properly implemented, I think, some of the free market policies. There has been too much intervention, too much cronyism in some cases, too much corruption in many cases. And this is one of the reasons why we're making, the Bush Administration is making, such a prominent, and we hope broad-based and effective attack on corruption.

Yes.

QUESTION: Did you or Secretary Powell met at any point over the past days with Colombia and Mexico foreign ministers regarding Iraq, specifically about Security Council action?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: I did not. I don't know if Secretary Powell did because he had separate meetings. I mean, we just left a meeting where Secretary Castaneda and Foreign Minister Barco were present, but so were the foreign ministers of the rest of South America. It was a meeting with South America plus Mexico.

QUESTION: What was discussed there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Everything that I mentioned in my opening statement. Everything: terrorism, economic development, trade, narcotics, the links between all of those issues. The Secretary mentioned Iraq but he did it in the same way that I did it at the beginning, that there's no need to repeat the US position; it's well known and it is what the President said on Thursday.

QUESTION: Why was Mexico included with South America?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Because, at one point, this was going to be a Rio Group meeting, but then we decided to have, in the interest of more discussion, we had a separate meeting with the Central American countries, a separate meeting with all the Caribbean countries, and a separate meeting with the South American countries. That would have left Mexico by itself, so Mexico was nice enough to participate in South America. But as far as we know, it has no geographic connotation. You shouldn't read anything -- there's no tectonic movement that we have detected.

QUESTION: Just two questions. Just first on Cuba, you were, if I understand correctly, one of the authors of the Helms-Burton law, whose application has been restricted by president --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: I'm sorry, I can't understand your question very well.

QUESTION: Just on Cuba, I wondered if you could explain to me whether you feel that the application of the Helms-Burton law, the application of a presidential veto on that, given the fact that you were one of the authors, I understand, of that law --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: I'm afraid you've been misinformed. I had absolutely nothing to do with the -- that's one of the many things that have been written about me that are incorrect. I wish I had been one of the authors, but I wasn't.

QUESTION: Okay. Maybe you could just explain just two things on Cuba. Is there any possible -- are we going to be seeing any -- is there any sign there may be an easing of the embargo on Cuba? And secondly, in terms of just on the application of Helms-Burton, would you feel that at some stage that presidential veto should be lifted?

And my second question is on Venezuela. I just wondered if I could ask you if in the event that another coup took place in Venezuela, would the administration be so rapid in supporting a new government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Let me answer the second one first. If you have any evidence, any piece of paper or any declaration, that shows that the administration supported the events of April 11 to 14, I'd like to see it, because I have never seen it. We never issued such a statement. We, in fact, condemned the breaking of the constitutional rule in Venezuela.

It is just amazing to me -- and I can say this because I'm not a career diplomat, as you can probably tell, how falsehoods are repeated in their entirety without people checking things. I mean, somebody came out shortly after the events of 11 to 14 April in Venezuela and said the administration, the Bush Administration, had supported the coup. The Bush Administration never did. In fact, we said, clearly, that the -- we said to the government that had declared itself to be the government of Venezuela that they had to restore constitutional rule. They didn't. And we all know what happened after that. That was the official US position. And, you know, obviously I'm not going to speculate as to what's going to happen next in Venezuela or in Costa Rica or in any other country -- in France -- because I'm not very good at reading the future. I'm a lot better at reading the past. I can tell you what happened in the past in Venezuela, and it's not what you said.

So what we had told the Venezuelans, both sides -- or all sides, because there's more than two sides -- is that we support constitutional rule in Venezuela. If the people of Venezuela are unhappy with their government, there are peaceful, democratic and institutional ways of demonstrating their disagreement with the government, just as there are in this country. There are a lot of people who disagree with our policies, and they do it peacefully, democratically, and if they disagree intensely, they can vote the party out of power at these regularly scheduled elections.

As far as Cuba, I'm not sure that I understood the question because you said can the veto be lifted. There's been no veto.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: You mean the waiver? Oh, the waiver. There's a waiver that's part of the law in Title III, and only the Congress can lift that waiver. There is no waiver on -- Title III is the trials, or the lawsuits, I should say, by former property owners against persons who are currently using those properties.

There's a presidential waiver that both Presidents Clinton and Bush have signed every six months. And they have done so because they have stated, and the law requires that they believe it's in the best interests of the United States to continue to waive that law, or that provision of the law because other countries, primarily the Europeans, the ones who would be affected, are -- have stated publicly that they're not going to provide or do either aid or trade with Cuba until there's political reform on the island.

And that is the, exactly the position, well, that is very similar to the position of the United States. President Bush stated on May 20th that he would go to the Congress to ask for a modification of the embargo and a lifting of the travel ban if the Government of Cuba instituted just a free election; to have an election with access to the media, with at least two parties or more than one party, multi-party elections as exist in every other country in this hemisphere.

Why should Cuba be the only exception to the rule of democracy in this hemisphere is what we're asking. So that's our policy. We're going to continue the policy of denying our markets to Cuba as long as Cuba denies rights to its people.

QUESTION: I would like to know if the issue of the ICC has been on the conversations and if so, what's the answer you've found in Latin America's ministers about the efforts of the American administration to reach bilateral agreements.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Yes, the issue was raised at practically every meeting and this morning the Dominican Republic was the first country to sign an Article 98 agreement with the United States. We were informed by the foreign minister of another country today that they will sign an agreement on Thursday. We were informed by another country, and I will let them, let those countries, you know, inform their publics and the world who they are. The Dominican Republic is open because they've already announced it. But we know of at least three countries that intend to sign such agreements this week with the United States.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Honduras?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: No, I can't. As I said, I would rather that they -- it's not up to me to decide. They should decide when to announce it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Yes. You know, there are some countries that have internal problems with signing a treaty. In has to go to their congress or it has to be studied by the lawyers, et cetera. Other countries are a little bit more agile. But the answer is pretty positive. I think they all realize that it's in the interest of the international community to allow the United States to continue participating in these peacekeeping operations without the threat of having US military or civilian officials being dragged off to some international court.

You know, we are pretty severe with people who commit crimes, even if they're accidental, such as the bombing of the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan or the accident that occurred in Italy with the gondola that was cut by an airplane. I mean, I think people know that we are serious about keeping our forces disciplined and we don't need some international court telling us how to do it.

Yes?

QUESTION: You mentioned in your opening remarks talks about hemispheric security architecture. How do you reconcile these upcoming conferences with Mexico's decision to withdraw from the ITR?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, you know, that was obviously Mexico's sovereign decision. They had announced it a year ago and President Fox --

QUESTION: He said he was going to consider, and then he postponed it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, I believe he said when he was in, yeah --

QUESTION: He said he was going to --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Right. But I believe he said they were going to do it within a year. And it was exactly 365 days later. So, you know, we believe that the Inter-American Treaty is a very important part of the hemispheric security architecture. We very much appreciated the Brazilians and Canadians taking the lead last year to invoke the Rio Treaty after September 11. It meant a great deal to the United States and we appreciated it. And, as well, by the way, it s the entire hemisphere voting unanimously to invoke the Rio Pact at the time. So we think it's a very important element, but there are other elements to a security architecture and we're curious to see what Mexico proposes.

QUESTION: Do you expect Mexico to backtrack or --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: No. I think that question needs to be addressed to a Mexican official and not to me.

QUESTION: One quick follow-up. You talked about the United States working with the International Monetary Fund. You also talked about an excess of intervention in free markets. Was the State Department consulted at all over the $30 billion aid package to Brazil, which was announced in August, and if so, what was your position?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well actually, the Treasury Department is the one within the US Government, the one that has the relationship with the international financial institutions. As far as the internal policy recommendations of the US Government, I would rather not get into that.

Yes?

QUESTION: Thank you. Just one other quick question about Colombia. Thank you. As I'm sure you know, just in this past week, President Uribe has taken some further steps under the state of unrest that was declared a week into his presidency such as curfews and restricting travel. I'm just interested in the US perspective on those steps he's taking, which, you know, some human rights and different politicians in Colombia are saying are extreme, and if you see that there is a line that he could go too far with this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, as far as I understand, all the measures that the Government of Colombia has taken are legal and constitutional. The real threat to Colombian security and the real violations of human rights are clearly coming from those three terrorist groups, particularly the FARC. I mean I happened to be in Bogotá on August the 7th in the Legislative Palace when the FARC indiscriminately fired -- you can call them rockets, you can call them mortars, it's, you know, it's different descriptions -- but they fired weapons designed to kill people. And they did. They killed about 80-some people, mostly innocent, I mean not all of them, I believe, all of them innocent civilians including a pregnant woman and three of her children, or three children. I'm not sure if the woman was the mother of the three children. I believe that I read one report where it was the mother and three children in a house. That's terrorism. That's what the human rights groups really should be condemning and I'm sure they are.

If the actions of the Government of Colombia are legal and constitutional, and are not a violation of human rights then I think they're a legitimate response to this kind of vicious attack by armed groups, in most cases supported by illicit activities like narcotrafficking and kidnapping. Those are the two major sources of income of the FARC, the ELN and the AUC -- narcotrafficking and kidnapping. And what these groups are is they're organized crime syndicates. I don't think they have any kind of an ideology. If they did, 30-40 years ago, it would have been sort of Stalinist. And it may still be because they haven't had much interaction with the outside world except for terrorist instructors who have come to them, such as, for example, three IRA bomb makers who were captured in Colombia by the Colombian Government teaching the FARC how to make more powerful bombs; one of whom, by the way, was the resident IRA representative in Havana, which I think is certainly worth somebody looking into as to the connections. What are the connections between the IRA and other groups or countries such as Cuba, which is still on the US Government's terrorist, or list of terrorist sponsored states, sponsoring states.

Yes?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Just to come back to my question, please. Has the Department asked any cooperation to the Brazilian officials regarding that matter of the selling of nuclear material during the 80's?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: Well, as I said, I just learned about that today, and I learned about it right here when I came in, so don't know if the Department has or has not. I'm sorry I can't help you. I just found out about it.

Yes?

QUESTION: What are you thinking of when you talk about demagogues in the region that take advantage of poverty to make false promises? Anybody in special you were talking about?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY REICH: No, nobody in particular. No. Just use your imagination. But it's not new. I mean, one of my many vices is that I've been studying Latin American issues for 30-some years and you know, you go back to the history of the hemisphere and it's full of demagogues. I mean not that Latin America has a monopoly on demagogues, they're spread pretty evenly around the world. It's just that I happen to have studied more of them, I suppose. So it's nothing new. You know, you want an example? Fidel Castro, I suppose. But there have been many, many others. Okay? Well, thank you very much.

[End]

Released on September 16, 2002


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