Read the full transcript of Head to Head - Should the US get out of Latin America? below:
Mehdi Hasan VO: For over a century the US has intervened, invaded, or supported coups. In almost every country in the Americas and treated its southern neighbours with contempt. But a new wave of democratically elected left wing leaders are no longer putting up with it.
My guest tonight was at the heart of US Latin American policy. Under the last three Republican presidents and advocates a much stronger hand against Cuba, and Venezuela
I’m Mehdi Hasan and I've come here to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Otto Reich. I'll be asking why many in Latin American see him as the personification of US imperialism and whether his country is guilty of bullying its neighbours?
Tonight I'll also be joined by: Dr Julia Buxton, a specialist on Venezuela and the War on Drugs at the Central European University; John Dew, former British Ambassador to Cuba and Colombia, and a former political attache in Venezuela; and Dr Francisco Dominguez, Head of the Latin American Studies Centre at Middlesex University and Secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Otto Reich.
Mehdi Hasan VO: George W. Bush's top official for Latin America, he was also linked to the Iran-Contra affair under President Reagan.
Mehdi Hasan: Otto Reich what would you say to those who argue that for far too long the United States has treated Latin America rather dismissively, rather high-handedly, as its backyard you hear that phrase often. In fact Secretary of State John Kerry used the phrase backyard just last year. What would you say to people who say that is the attitude of America, of the United States of America, it looks down on the rest of the region?
Otto Reich: Well I'd say he should not have used the term backyard, I've never used it. I haven't heard people in a Republican administration, I don't want to get too partisan, but…
Mehdi Hasan: He's a Democrat obviously and you were a Republican, or are a Republican.
Otto Reich: Your question leads to a misunderstanding, on the part of both Latin Americans and the United States. They think that the term backyard, which I do not think should be used is pejorative. The backyard in American society is where the family gets together for its most intimate moments.
Mehdi Hasan: That's good spin.
Otto Reich: Well, it happens to be true. I use the term neighbourhood. I think Latin America is our neighbourhood. If something happens in our neighbourhood it affects us and vice versa.
Mehdi Hasan: And, and are you the neighbourhood watch? Are you in charge of that neighbourhood?
Otto Reich: We have been, unfortunately, because as a, as in many neighbourhoods, there are some very bad people in the world, and there's been some very bad people in Latin America, and I've been involved in cases where Latin Americans have asked us to intervene in their countries.
Mehdi Hasan: The United States has clearly done a lot of good things in Latin America, let's be clear about that. At the same time, surely you would accept that the US also, has a pretty blood-stained record. Supporting coups, dictators, across the region, Samosa in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile, Stroessner in Paraguay, Batista in Cuba, death squads in Honduras, genocidal military dictators in Guatemala. So you'd surely not deny any of that, the blood-stained historical record in that neighbourhood?
Otto Reich: If you look at the historical record, there's no question that the United States, that many United States governments made a lot of mistakes and supported the wrong people. You mentioned just about the entire panoply of mistakes.
Mehdi Hasan: Mistakes? Is that what you would call them? These people committed horrific crimes.
Otto Reich: Mistakes from the perspective of where we stand today. Yes, in retrospect, they were mistakes. We're also the country that got rid of several of the people that you mentioned.
Mehdi Hasan: That doesn't make the initial crime any better, does it?
Otto Reich: Well, I'm not sure there was a crime.
Mehdi Hasan: If you take Guatemala, for example, General Rios Montt, who was the dictator there who went to jail for genocide. Ronald Reagan, your former boss, went to visit him in 1982, and after coming out of the meeting he said he's a man of great integrity, he's committed to democracy, he’s getting, quote, "a bum rap" from human rights groups. A UN Truth Commission said he couldn’t have done that without US military aid and support. Genocide, 200,000 people died!
Otto Reich: Ok, I was in the Reagan administration in 2000 sorry, in 1982. I don't recall that visit.
Mehdi Hasan: The fact that you don't recall the visit doesn't mean it didn't happen, with respect. So the UN Truth Commission Report that involved US testimony and Guatemalan testimony and experts from outside, which said that Guatemalan military would not have been able to carry out their genocide in the Eighties had it not been for US support, you don't agree with that?
Otto Reich: There was no US support.
Mehdi Hasan: There was no US support for Rios Montt, and Reagan never said he was getting a bum rap?
Otto Reich: I don't recall President Reagan ever making that statement. I do recall this. When Reagan came in in 1981, over 60 percent of the population of Latin America lived under military dictatorships, when he left in 1989, over 60 percent of the population lived in democracies.
Mehdi Hasan: And of all of those places, hundreds of thousands of people died, killed by military forces, paramilitaries armed by the US, supported by the US, trained by the US, funded by the US.
Otto Reich: Not true.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, let's talk about Venezuela, you were President Reagan's ambassador there in the late 1980s.
Otto Reich: That's right.
Mehdi Hasan: You were President George W Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, basically for Latin America, you were in that post in 2002 when Hugo Chavez was removed from office in a coup. Was the United States Government, were you, Otto, involved in any shape or form in that coup, because a lot of people believe you were?
Otto Reich: We were not involved, let me say that right from the outset. This was not a coup organised by the United States, this was the reaction by the military high command to an illegal order that Chavez gave to fire on the people of Venezuela, and it was not a coup. I mean, this was a mutiny. When Chavez gave that order to fire on the people, the military high command all went on national television and said I did not take the oath to defend this county by firing, I'm not going to do that by firing on the people of Venezuela.
Mehdi Hasan: You say, You say it wasn't a coup.
Otto Reich: They went to the presidential palace and told Chavez, you're finished. Now if you want to call that a coup, that's fine! I call it a mutiny.
Mehdi Hasan: When you say I, do I want to call it a coup…
Otto Reich: You just did.
Mehdi Hasan: A week before the coup, the CIA called it a coup. The CIA, in 2002, circulated a document a week before the coup, the mutiny, which was then only revealed in 2004
Otto Reich: How could the CIA have called it a coup a week before?
Mehdi Hasan: Well there you go. This is a CIA briefing. It goes out to several members of the Bush administration, I'm not sure if you were on the list, guess what the memo is called from the CIA? "Conditions are ripening for a coup attempt. Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers are stepping up efforts to organise a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month.
Otto Reich: Oh yeah, conditions were definitely pointing in that direction, and what caused…
Mehdi Hasan: Did you get this memo?
Otto Reich: No, I did not. I did not. I left the White House, after the State Department I went to the White House and left in 2004. But I would not have been on this…
Mehdi Hasan: This is from April 2002. This is from a week before the coup. You were the Assistant Secretary of State…
Otto Reich: Oh yeah, no, I thought you said it was 2004.
Mehdi Hasan: It was only released in 2004, we only got to see that you guys weren't telling the full truth in 2004. Listen to this bit, this is good. "To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations later this month." It's exactly what you just described.
Otto Reich: Of course everybody knew the conditions were there, but the detonator was Chavez's illegal order to fire on the people. And it was illegal by his own constitution.
Mehdi Hasan: And you were happy to see him go.
Otto Reich: I was happy to see him go, yes.
Mehdi Hasan: You're not a fan of a man who won four elections in Venezuela.
Otto Reich: I’m not sure that he won four elections in Venezuela, but I was happy to see him go…even if…
Mehdi Hasan: What did he do with them, then?
Otto Reich: Do you think that these elections in Venezuela have been free and fair and transparent?
Mehdi Hasan: Some might say they were freer and fairer than the one that got your boss elected in 2000 in Florida!
Otto Reich: Well, they can say it, that's fine. If they can show me, if they can show me a Supreme Court, as in the United States, that wasn’t appointed by Chavez, but in the case of the Supreme Court of Venezuela, they were all appointed by Chavez at some point then I would say well they may have a point.
Mehdi Hasan: In 2004, for example, thanks to good old WikiLeaks, we discover that the US Ambassador, his strategy, which he laid down to his team, penetrating Chavez's political base, dividing Chavismo, isolating Chavez internationally. If a foreign ambassador arrived in Washington DC and had that as their set of goals about the US government, how would you feel about that?
Otto Reich: Oh, the US media does that. They don't need a foreign ambassador to do that.
Mehdi Hasan: But you take my point.
Otto Reich: There's no question that we, we helped train, for example, private volunteering, NGOs, non-governmental organisations, in community organising. Because in Venezuela there was practically no history of civic involvement and civic organisation, but we didn't… This is nothing. Whatever we did, was nothing compared to what we did in Eastern Europe, that helped bring down those dictatorships, and I was very happy to see them go, and I would, I would have been very happy to see Chavez go at that moment, especially since we had nothing to do with it.
Mehdi Hasan: You don't believe Chavez was a totalitarian dictator, do you?
Otto Reich: No, I've actually said, and a lot of my Venezuelan friends have been upset, it's still not even a dictatorship today. It is very much an authoritarian regime. It has totally eliminated the free press, by either intimidating it or buying it. There's no more of the old Fidel Castro supporting guerrilla movements. Now what they do, as in Chavez, Morales, Correa in Ecuador, etcetera, they win an election and that's the last free election that is held in that country. The military the police…
Mehdi Hasan: Hugo Chavez lost a referendum and abided by it!
Otto Reich: Which one?
Mehdi Hasan: In 2007, I believe on constitutional reform, extending the term limit.
Otto Reich: Exactly, he, but the one that he…
Mehdi Hasan: And he abided by the results.
Otto Reich: The one he really lost, the one he really lost, and then he changed the results was in 2004, August 15 of 2004.
Mehdi Hasan: We've got to move on, just very quickly, many would say that the reason the US had a problem with Chavez, and other left-wing leaders is because they don't follow a US political or economic agenda. In Venezuela, Chavez did a lot to help the poor, to help people who were struggling under previous governments, didn't maybe help the rich so much didn't help the elites. Why don't you applaud Chavez for reducing poverty by half, absolutely poverty by 70 percent? [TALKING OVER] increasing the number of do…
Otto Reich: [INTERUPTING] Because he didn't. Number one, because he didn't.
Mehdi Hasan: Those are the World Bank's figures! That well known Communist organisation!
Otto Reich: Wait a second, where does the World Bank get its statistics?
Mehdi Hasan: You tell me.
Otto Reich: From the countries themselves.
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, so it's all, it's all manufactured statistics.
Otto Reich: Absolutely. I will tell you he did reach out to the poor of Venezuela that had been ignored by the elites, but Chavez at the same time was interfering in the internal affairs of his neighbours, providing weapons to the FARC in Colombia, and you know there's a lot of evidence of that, real evidence.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, that’s disputed evidence, but one last question on Venezuela, because we have to move on. You once called Hugo Chavez a president of, quote, "limited intellectual powers". Do you see the irony of someone who once worked for George Bush mocking the intellect of other world leaders? [LAUGHTER APPLAUSE]
Otto Reich: It is true, he did graduate from Harvard and Yale so he kind of.., I mean Bush, not Chavez.
Mehdi Hasan: I'm sure Daddy didn't help at all. Let's bring in our panel here I want to come first to Professor Julia Buxton, who's a specialist on Latin America at the Central European University in Budapest. Otto doesn't think Venezuela was very democratic under Chavez, that he didn't win four elections freely or fairly. I believe you were an international observer at some of those elections, do you agree with Otto's take on that?
Julia Buxton: Well I’m really struggling with this, this very deceptive presentation of what's actually happened in Venezuela. It's quite a staggering rewriting of the history under Chavez. I've observed elections in Venezuela on five occasions. We're talking about an electoral system which is technocratically advanced. People vote, that vote goes directly to the National Electoral Council. People receive a ballot slip. It’s fully audited. One of the big criticisms we had from the opposition on the two last elections observed, 2006 and 2013, was this claim that people were being intimidated at the ballot boxes, that Chavistas were riding round on motorcycles and intimidating them. There was no evidence of this. We saw no evidence of this in any of the areas that we were sent to observe.
Otto Reich: You have heard… You say that there was no evidence that, that voters were intimidated? You've heard of the Lista Tascon and the Lista Maisanta? You've heard of the fact that the government required all of its workers to to put their fingerprint in order to vote, and people were told, whether it happened or not, that the government would know exactly how the person with this fingerprint voted, whether yes or no. I know very few Venezuelans that would agree with Miss Buxton's description of the election, of the transparency…
Mehdi Hasan: Apart from the majorities who voted for Chavez's four terms?
Otto Reich: No, it was not a majority, that’s the point. We will never know, actually, because they destroyed the ballots.
Mehdi Hasan: This is starting to sound a lot like Florida! [APPLAUSE] John Dew is the former British Ambassador to Cuba and Colombia, and also served as a political attaché in Venezuela, I believe, in the 70s. When you listen to Otto speak about the US/Venezuela relationship, what perspective do you bring to this debate as a former British diplomat?
John Dew: I think how things have changed. We’re still not clear what Otto is supposed to have done in 2002. It doesn't amount to very much, compared with '73 coup in Chile, Pinochet, what on earth are we talking about in Venezuela, a few phone calls?
Mehdi Hasan: So your point is compared to previous US interventions, which were much more heavy-handed, Venezuela in 2002 was a bit of a mild one.
John Dew: I'd say the historical record is that things are getting better all the time.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let's bring in Dr. Francisco Dominguez, who is head of Latin American Studies at Middlesex University. He's Secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. I want to ask you two very quick questions if you could take both, one is, do you accept this view that US interventions, military interventions, undemocratic interventions are a thing of the past in the region? And the other question is, the economy - we hear so much about the Chavez record. Otto says it's all made up.
Francisco Dominguez: All the figures from the Venezuelan economy are verified by the Economic Commission for Latin America. It is one of the best, bona fide, sources of information and data and you can double check every single figure that the Venezuela government gives. The second point is anybody who believes that US interventions and destabilisation plans in Latin America have come to an end, they should go and get their brains examined, because it's as heavy as before, but it's different. It doesn't have the same format. The basic idea is to penetrate society from within through monies, NGOs, all of the bodies and so on, the National Endowment for Democracy has channelled about $120m to opposition groups in Venezuela.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, I just want to turn to a country which you have described as a dictatorship, which many would describe as a dictatorship. You were born in Cuba, I believe. Everything the US has done in Cuba, from trying to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar to putting an embargo on that island. Many would say it's been 50 years of failure, this embargo, which persists, and I would say to you, you know, Einstein is often quoted as saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. So on that basis, your Cuba policy is insane.
Otto Reich: Well, I guess it wasn't designed by Einstein, but Einstein wasn't a politician. I'll tell you what's insane, what's insane is that you have a government in Cuba that has been in power for 55 years, with no freedoms, not one single free media and yet, in all of the great halls of academia in the world what people focus on is Fidel Castro's principle obsession, which is removing the embargo. The embargo will stay in place as long as it brings a cost to Fidel Castro of eliminating all of the freedoms of the people in Cuba.
Mehdi Hasan: Some would say actually Castro's not bent on removing the embargo, he quite likes the embargo, because, it doesn't hurt him, it hurts the people, and he gets to blame America for all the problems. So why not lift the embargo and not give him an excuse to blame America for everything. It hasn't worked, your embargo.
Otto Reich: The embargo is symbolic, Mehdi, it's symbolic. There is not one single product…
Mehdi Hasan: It's not symbolic to people who are suffering from it!
Otto Reich: No, they're not. They're suffering from 55 years of Marxist economics; that's what they’re suffering from. They're suffering from the fact that they cannot establish a private business without the permission of the government and, once they start making money, the Castros will take the permit away from them.
Mehdi Hasan: So you wouldn't be in favour of easing the embargo in any way, lifting certain restrictions
Otto Reich: No, I would not.
Mehdi Hasan: keeping it as it is?
Otto Reich: Keeping it as it is.
Mehdi Hasan: And that's because Castro's undemocratic, no freedoms?
Otto Reich: No, undemocratic is too kind.
Mehdi Hasan: Fine, your old boss, President Bush, in 2008, came out of the White House and did a press conference, announced that he was going to lift a range of key financial sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, which Cuba is also subjected to, on North Korea. In what world is North Korea somehow less oppressive or less undemocratic than Cuba under Castro? Seriously?
Otto Reich: You, you want to know what I think about that? President Bush made a mistake. We know that now.
Mehdi Hasan: How about China? Would you put China under an embargo? Communist China, forget Communist Cuba! America is China's biggest trading partner. You can trade with China but not with Cuba, how does that work?
Otto Reich: The differences between China and Cuba are…
Mehdi Hasan: That China is far more oppressive, kills far more people, but also…
Otto Reich: I don’t know.
Mehdi Hasan: But also makes you a lot more money…
Otto Reich: But the changes in China have been real. There are no changes in Cuba.
Mehdi Hasan: One last question on Cuba before we go back to the panel and move on. You've called the Cuban government not just a dictatorship, you've called it a terrorist government, a sponsor of terrorism, yet you yourself are accused of having lobbied for Orlando Bosch, who was a Cuban American terrorist. Many people have said that you lobbied for him to be given safe haven in the US. This is a man who was accused of bringing down a Cuban airliner, killing 76 people on board. The US Justice Department called him, said he advocated, encouraged, organised acts of terrorist violence. Orlando Bosch died a free man in 2011 in Miami, Florida. Do you see how a lot of Cubans get annoyed about that, that you talk about terrorism…
Otto Reich: I get annoyed, I'll tell you why I get annoyed, because you have just repeated the Cuban government propaganda line, which is absolutely false, and I can prove it. Orlando Bosch came to the Embassy when I was ambassador. He was turned down. He was rejected. He did not qualify.
Mehdi Hasan: And yet, when he got to America
Otto Reich: Anybody who reaches the United States, even if they have been accused by the Cuban government, a terrorist government… he was accused, he was never found guilty. But I'm not going to defend… I never met the man, I never had any dealings with him.
Mehdi Hasan: He was a terrorist, though?
Otto Reich: I don't know.
Mehdi Hasan: Why?
Otto Reich: I was not in the trial.
Mehdi Hasan: Somebody who brings down an airliner is not a terrorist?
Otto Reich: How do you know he brought down that airliner? It was not proven in, in the Venezuelan court.
Mehdi Hasan: Dick Thornburgh, who was Ronald Reagan and George Bush's Attorney General, he called Bosch and unrepentant terrorist. All I'm asking you is would you say the same?
Otto Reich: Absolutely, if he committed that crime, he's a criminal.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let's go back to our panel. John Dew…
Otto Reich: I don't have the evidence.
Mehdi Hasan: John Dew, you were Ambassador in Cuba. If you look today, the British government, the EU is also opposed to the US embargo. Do you think the US is really isolated still on this subject today in the international community?
John Dew : Well it's certainly isolated, because the only country that supports the US on the embargo every year in the UN is the Marshall Islands, which is not really a sort of sign of great credibility. I think the embargo is out of date. It may have made sense in the Cold War. It makes no sense now. It's also incoherent, because the US is the biggest supplier of agricultural produce to Cuba. What kind of embargo is that?
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let me bring in Francisco Dominguez. It's Marxist economics that's failed Cuba, not the embargo; it's the way they run their economy. There are no freedoms there, as Otto Reich pointed out. What would you say in response?
Francisco Dominguez: I mean the economic weight of the United States is huge, is enormous, and you cannot buy aspirins in the United States, you are Cuba. You need to buy rice from China, which is very expensive, because of transport costs. You cannot buy antibiotics and so on. The application of the blockade goes further, because it applies sanctions to third countries that actually trade with Cuba, and the result is that the United States has a very active policy of deterring trade between Cuba and every other country that it can, and it threatens Latin America when Latin America doesn't. It doesn't have any effect any more. So definitely has had a tremendous effect.
Mehdi Hasan: Julia, what do you think the US relationship with Cuba tells us about the wider region, this kind of focus on Cuba, this embargo, this non-shifting policy. What does it tell you?
Julia Buxton: Well, I mean the United States has always seen Latin America as within its sphere of influence. I mean going right back to the 1820s and the Monroe Doctrine, Latin America has been central to US security considerations, and I think Cuba just really represents this unending US interference in the region. We can look back over the last 100, 200 years and we can't really say that US engagement in the region has delivered any major dividends or benefits to South America, absolutely on the contrary, and I think Cuba is really a manifestation of this.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, on that note, before we go to a break, Julia mentioned major dividends to people. Over the past decade, and I think you mentioned earlier in the programme, Latin American voters have elected left-wing governments, governments that haven't quite been, had the best of relationships with the United States, which have stood up to the United States in Venezuela, in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia. Is that evidence that Latin Americans are finally fed up of US interfering in the quote unquote backyard and they're saying, you know what, we're going to elect who we want to elect, and if they don't, you don’t like them, tough. Is that the message that you think you’re being served?
Otto Reich: Is that a rhetorical question? Because I mean they've always elected who they want to elect, especially as the, the Ambassador said, you know, since the United States, frankly, has paid a lot less attention to the region lately, and I think that's not good, the difference… Again, let's say if you want to call them leftist governments, the difference in the leftist governments is a Chavez versus a Lula da Silva in Brazil.
Mehdi Hasan: But let's be clear, Lula was also a big critic of American policy, wasn't that…
Otto Reich: Yes, he was. But, you know, what, with President Bush, whose intelligence you derided earlier, during the six years that…
Mehdi Hasan: Trust me I'm not alone on that.
Otto Reich: No, I know, but don't worry.
Mehdi Hasan: You're the one who said he made a bad move on North Korea, but anyway.
Otto Reich: He did make a bad move on North Korea, and that's because I'd left the government. [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: He couldn't get you through Congress.
Otto Reich: Have you ever sat down and talked to President Bush privately?
Mehdi Hasan: I'd love to. Could you set that up?
Otto Reich: I probably could.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, let's get him on this show
Otto Reich: You're going to have to get better sources for your information.
Mehdi Hasan: It's going to be a tough one with George W. Bush.
Otto Reich: Yes, exactly!
Mehdi Hasan: On that note, we're going to have to take a break there. We will be back in part two, where we will be talking about groups in Latin America that the United States have supported that some would say are terrorists. I'll be getting Otto Reich's views on that, and we'll also be hearing from our very patient audience here in the Oxford Union. Join us for part two of Head to Head.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back. You're watching Head to Head on Al Jazeera English. My guest here today is Otto Reich, former point man on Latin America for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior back in the early 2000s. Otto, during the Cold War, you were at the heart of some of President Reagan's policies towards Latin America. You were the Director of the Office for Public Diplomacy you were actively working to get rid of the left wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You were also linked to one of the most controversial episodes of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s, which saw the US secretly selling weapons to Iran via Israel in order to fund the anti-Communist paramilitary group in Nicaragua, well, let's be honest, terrorist group in Nicaragua, the Contras, and you cut some corners, some would argue. An official investigation in 1987, into the Iran-Contra scandal, accused you and your office of carrying out, quote, 'prohibited, covert propaganda activities beyond the range of acceptable public information activities'. So what I wanted to ask you was, is this how the US tries to make its case on Latin American problems, through covert propaganda activities?
Otto Reich: Well, first of all it was not covert propaganda, it was only overt. The, the reason the office was established was because President Reagan himself felt that the information that he was seeing in newspapers or on television was completely opposite of what he was seeing in the information provided by US government sources, embassies, the State Department or the CIA or the Defense Department, and there's no question, Mehdi, that at that time the American media was determined to undermine President Reagan's policy. They didn't like it. The fact is that the policies were correct.
Mehdi Hasan: You and your office planted stories in the papers…
Otto Reich: We did not.
Mehdi Hasan: …to make Nicaragua look bad, the US government look good. It was called white propaganda, I believe.
Otto Reich: No, do you know what white propaganda means?
Mehdi Hasan: You tell me.
Otto Reich: It's advertising. We declassified information, and we put it out to the press. We spoon fed them. They didn't swallow it if they didn't want it or if they didn't believe it. Everything we provided…
Mehdi Hasan: The US press…
Otto Reich: Again would you…
Mehdi Hasan: You didn't plant stories?
Otto Reich: No, we did not plant stories.
Mehdi Hasan: This is a declassified document…
Otto Reich: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Sent to Pat Buchanan, Communications Director at the White House…
Otto Reich: Right.
Mehdi Hasan: …from your office.
Otto Reich: Right, and it mentions white propaganda.
Mehdi Hasan: Called White Propaganda.
Otto Reich: Again, what is white propaganda?
Mehdi Hasan: Well, let's read it. Attached is a copy of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Professor Gilmartin has been a consultant to our office and collaborated with our staff in writing the piece. It's devastating in its analysis of the Nicaraguan arms build-up. Officially, this office had no role in its preparation.
Otto Reich: And uunofficially, this office had no role, because the man did not work for us. What this…
Mehdi Hasan: So you collaborate in writing an op-ed...
Otto Reich: That was his… No, no that was written..
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERUPTING] don't you think the public should know that the American government is helping writing articles…?
Otto Reich: That was written by Jonathan Miller, who was trying to get a job in the White House.
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, I see, so it's all false, this document, everything in it?
Otto Reich: No, no, not false
Mehdi Hasan: But it says…
Otto Reich: If you read it carefully…
Mehdi Hasan: We're having opposition leaders meet through cut-outs.
Otto Reich: Right. [LAUGH] This is a young man, a very young man in his 20s, who was enamoured of CIA terms like cut-outs.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Otto Reich: You know, when we met, of course we met with opposition leaders. There were hundreds of them.
Mehdi Hasan: We're prepa.. we're preparing two op-eds for the Washington Post and the New York Times, and we're going to put the signatures of opposition leaders on them. Sounds great..
Otto Reich: That never happened. That never, never… did not happen.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERUPTING] Never happened. Okay… Don't you think the Washington Post would have investigated that?
Mehdi Hasan: Okay
Mehdi Hasan: Well, on, on Nicaragua, isn't it ironic today that the leader of the Sandinistas at the time, Daniel Ortega, who the US was at war with, that was working for the Soviet Union, Cold War, etcetera, he's back in power in Nicaragua. He's been the elected president of Nicaragua since 2007. So, in a way, some might say that all those innocent people who died in Nicaragua, who were murdered at the hands of the Contras, armed and funded by your government, they all died for nothing, really.
Otto Reich: How about the ones that died at the hands of the Sandinistas?
Mehdi Hasan: But one side doing the killing was backed by you, so how do you, how were you bothered by killing that you were helping happen?
Otto Reich: By the same way that we were, were in favour of the Allied Forces doing the killing of the Germans in World War Two.
Mehdi Hasan: The Contras… The Contras are the equivalent to the Allied Forces in World War II
Otto Reich: One side was fighting for oppression, one side was fighting for liberation.
Mehdi Hasan: Which side was …. which side was fighting for Oppression ?
Otto Reich: At that time, the Sandinista government was trying to impose a military dictatorship in Nicaragua
Mehdi Hasan: And the Contras were fighting for liberation and freedom.
Otto Reich: Yes, they were, and you know what? They won.
Mehdi Hasan: Today, people are rightly shocked to see ISIS or ISIL or IS or whatever it calls itself, beheading aid workers, raping Yazidi women. It causes huge outrage, and rightly so, yet in the 80s, you and your government were backing and funding a group, the Contras, which beheaded people, raped women, castrated their opponents, murdered nuns, tortured children. Forget the politics for a moment, I just wonder how do you morally justify supporting people like that? Just in moral terms.
Otto Reich: I, I, first of all I could not morally justify supporting people like that, because half of what you just said is simply false.
Mehdi Hasan: Edgar Chamorro. Former spokesman for the Contras, he testified at the International Court of Justice in 1986 that the CIA, quote, organised, armed, equipped, trained and supplied us. We were told by the CIA that the only way to defeat the Sandinistas was to kill, kidnap, rob and torture. The former CIA director, Stansfield Turner, testified in Congress that the Contras have to be classified as terrorists, state sponsored terrorist.
Otto Reich: Well, first of all, Stansfield Turner was Jimmy Carter's CIA Director.
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, so that means he doesn’t know anything
Otto Reich: No, he wasn't even there! He was CIA Director in the 1970s.
Mehdi Hasan: Otto, let's make this very simple you tell me then, what did the Contras do wrong? You said they didn't behead, they didn't rape, they didn't castrate. What did they do? You tell me.
Otto Reich: In what respect…
Mehdi Hasan: What bad things did they do, or they didn't do anything?
Otto Reich: No, I’m sure they did. I’m sure…
Mehdi Hasan: Congress stopped funding them they were so worried about the human rights abuses.
Otto Reich: Yes, Congress stopped funding them for domestic political reasons. That's not why Congress stopped funding them. But by the time Congress stopped funding them, they were so strong in Nicaragua that they forced the Sandinistas into an election they did not want to have.
Mehdi Hasan: What human rights abuses did the Contras commit?
Otto Reich: Oh, I'm sure they committed a lot of human rights abuses.
Mehdi Hasan: Not I'm sure, what did they do? You were working then, you must know.
Otto Reich: They were… I'm sure they murdered people. I mean, you know, unfortunately, in war those things happen, you know. I'm not justifying it… Absolutely, and if, if one of them committed a crime they should be brought to justice…
Mehdi Hasan: Most human rights groups…
Otto Reich: But, but they were being killed by the Sandinistas. What about…
Mehdi Hasan: But they were being armed and funded by you, so you have to take responsibility for those murders.
Otto Reich: Oh, so, wait a second. Let me see if I understand. If the other side, a murderous side, the Soviet Union and Cuba are funding the Sandinistas who are killing Nicaraguans, we should just sit there and watch the Nicaraguans be killed and not help the Nicaraguans? Who want to rise?
Mehdi Hasan: How do you morally justify the murder, your word, of innocents supported by the US government you were part of.
Otto Reich: The, the purpose of supporting the Contras was to remove the Sandinistas from power. That was a war. The Sandinistas committed crimes. They killed, they raped, they…
Mehdi Hasan: And when I have a supporter of the Sandinistas sitting here. I'll ask them that, but I’m asking a supporter of the Contras to justify their crimes.
Otto Reich: And so when Reagan came in, he saw Nicaragua as part of the…
Mehdi Hasan: He called the Contras the moral equivalent of the founding fathers of the US. Francisco Dominguez, The Contras, the human rights abuses that I mentioned, they were exaggerated some murders were committed, but it was part of a wider war. Your response to that?
Prof Francisco Dominguez: The Sandinistas were never forgiven by having overthrown the main supporter, the main ally of the United States in Nicaragua. The Somoza dictatorship that was there for 40 years, That is what, actually, unleashed the war. This is the most powerful military machine in the world. The United States, supporting a war of attrition against a little country of three and a half million people. The result was thousands of people, tens of thousands of people dead, and they did arm, they did support, they did train and so on, the Contras. Everybody knows it. There is absolutely ample evidence,
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, let me bring in John Dew, a former British Ambassador in the region. You were there very recently. You retired, I believe, in 2012, what is the legacy of the 80s of that Reagan period, that Cold War period on US Latin America relations today, do you think?
John Dee: I think it makes it very difficult for the US to get a fair hearing. Things have changed, but the legacy remains. It's very, very easy to blame the US for all sorts of problems that are not entirely the US's fault. You were talking earlier in the programme, General Rios Montt gone to prison. That would have been unthinkable back in the '80s. People can blame the US in Venezuela, when the US record in Venezuela is milk and water compared to what was happening in Central America.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you think, do you think, Julia Buxton? The US gets an unfair hearing in Latin America today because of its history, what's your response to that?
Julia Buxton: Well, I think another angle also, I just wanted to pick up on in terms of Nicaragua was also the relationship with cocaine, and the way that the cocaine economy transverse through Central America, all the released documents that we've had from the United States demonstrates that the United States government knew that the Contras were also being funded by the cocaine trade through Central America. So I think, in terms of, you know, the US getting an unfair hearing, it's this persistent inability of the US, which is not a monolithic actor, there's lots of different interests in the United States, obviously, but this persistent failure to reflect on the past hurts, on these past legacies. We were talking before about these human rights abuses, Nicaragua, the military dictatorships. There's never been this kind of one-to-one discussion, this meeting of equals to actually go over these issues of the past and allow for some form of reconciliation. It's this continual sclerotic US perspective on South America.
Mehdi Hasan: Just on, on that issue, can I ask you that question. You said, at the very start of this programme, that mistakes were made…
Otto Reich: Yes
Mehdi Hasan: Some would say that's an understatement in terms of the dictators who were supported and the crimes that were committed by them. I'm saying, would the United States government, should it apologise to those countries in Latin America for supported those monsters?
Otto Reich: I'Il personally, I’m not going to apologise for mistakes that were made by people who…who…maybe…before I was born. So…
Mehdi Hasan: Well a lot of it happened on your watch, as we’ve just been discussing. Rios Montt was in the 80s, Somoza was in the 70s
Otto Reich: We did not support Rios Montt, okay.
Mehdi Hasan: Every bit of public evidence suggests otherwise.
Otto Reich: Okay, well why don't we, why don't we look into that?
Mehdi Hasan: So your answer is you wouldn't want to apologies?
Otto Reich: If you give me a specific, and we were… You haven't told me [TALKING OVER EACH OTHER]
Mehdi Hasan: [TALKING OVER EACH OTHER] You're the one who told me at the beginning there weren't any specific mistakes, your words
Otto Reich: At the beginning of the show you would asked me to apologise for giving Orlando Bosch a visa, when we did the exact opposite.
Mehdi Hasan: That's not what I asked, I asked you to point out the mistakes that you had identified [TALKING OVER EACH OTHER]
Otto Reich: [TALKING OVER EACH OTHER] No but your information, your base of information is wrong. So you should tell me what it is you want me to apologise for, and if I agree with you that we were in error, and especially in a crime, yes, I think we should.
Mehdi Hasan: Ok, before we go to the audience, and I want to bring in the audience here, one last global question. When you worked for George Bush one of the things you did was lobby hard for Latin American countries to get behind the war on terror, the war on Iraq, etcetera. George Bush launched that war on terror in 2001, and it’s now into its 14th year. Can you say with a straight face, that the world is safer today than it was before you launched your war on terror? From where I'm sitting, all it's given us is more war and more terror.
Otto Reich: I personally can't say the world's safer, no.
Mehdi Hasan: And why do you think that is?
Otto Reich: Because there are a lot more evil people than anybody could have anticipated, I suppose. I mean why have we been… We could have this, this discussion about every century in human history. I mean…
Mehdi Hasan: But the war on terror failed to meet its objectives.
Otto Reich: Well the war, the war on terror's not over, so it can't be said….
Mehdi Hasan: When will it be over?
Otto Reich: I suppose it will be over when terrorism is eliminated. but it's sort of like the war on Poverty
Mehdi Hasan: …its a tactic,
Otto Reich: It's like war on poverty, when will that be over
Mehdi Hasan: So never ending
Otto Reich: And possibly never-ending
Mehdi Hasan: Great, Ok, let’s go to our audience. We’ve talked about…
Otto Reich: But let me ask you, why does it fall on the United States to eliminate all of those evils?
Mehdi Hasan: Oh, I can assure you, I don't think people, a lot of people wanted you to try and eliminate that evil.
Otto Reich: Well we'd be very happy not to have lost all the people that we lost…
Mehdi Hasan: …and killed a lot of people along the way. Let's bring in our audience here. Let's start with this lady here in the front row. Wait for the microphone to come to you.
Audience Member 1: I would like you to explain in detail why Cuba is in the list of terrorist countries.
Otto Reich: Well, Cuba's on a list of state sponsors of terrorism because it qualifies under the definition of the law, which is that it has supported and continues to support, terrorist groups, look Cuba was smuggling weapons to North Korea. North Korea is not a democracy. It can be said to be a terrorist state, in fact it is also on the list of terrorist states. Cuba is an ally of North Korea.
Mehdi Hasan: So is China.
Otto Reich: No, I don't think China's an ally…
Mehdi Hasan: China is not an ally of North Korea?
Otto Reich: I don't think China… China has actually been exerting…
Mehdi Hasan: North Korea would collapse tomorrow without the Chinese.
Otto Reich: Well, that doesn't… We can… [TALKING OVER EACH OTHER]
Mehdi Hasan: …You need to think a bit about your China arguments, because every time I raise China you don't really have a response.
Otto Reich: Well, because China's not an easy…
Mehdi Hasan: Because you need China. Let's bring in some other members of the audience. Gentleman at the back of the hall with the glasses. Yes, you.
Audience Member 2: If Cuba is a terrorist state, why do they hold peace negotiations, Colombia and the FARC in Cuba and which Colombia is an ally of the United States, obviously?
Otto Reich: One explanation that I was given for that, is that the Cubans offered Havana because they could bug all the rooms and know what everybody was discussing ahead of time and then passing it to the FARC.
Mehdi Hasan: The US never bug or surveil or spy on anyone, obviously.
Otto Reich: Oh no, absolutely, yes
Mehdi Hasan: Never, never, Edward Snowden. Good old Edward! Gentleman there in the third row, yes, with the jacket.
Audience Member 3: Yeah, you're on public record as being a cheerleader for the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who’s a serial human rights violator and it seems to me that you basically support violence of the right against any democratic or left-wing project in Latin America. You've complained about exporting revolution, but you fail to recognise that the people of Latin America themselves want and need revolution against poverty. In fact you're the one who's exporting counter revolution all over the continent. You haven't apologised for justifying violence against any political project in the whole continent which you disagree with, because it challenges US interests. [APPLAUSE]
Otto Reich: I'm not a public cheerleader for anybody, number one. Number two, I want to tell you something, about right wing regimes. My grandparents were killed by the Nazis, and I learned very early on that right wing killers were just as bad as left wing killers. I refused to shake the hand of Pinochet at a meeting in Washington in 1977. I refused to shake the hand of Samosa in 1975, at a meeting in Tampa, Florida, because they were dictators. They may have been, at that time…
Mehdi Hasan: Our dictators is the phrase you're looking for.
Otto Reich: No, they were not our dictators! We don't have any our dictators…
Mehdi Hasan: General Pinochet was not a US, supporter
Otto Reich: You know, You know the United States imposed sanctions on Pinochet?
Mehdi Hasan: Do you know that the United States helped to bring Pinochet to power?
Otto Reich: Well let;s have, let’s have a programme about that, but I'm not that person to answer that question, but the fact is that I resent your question, sir, because it was false. When I was secretary when Alvaro Uribe was running for office, one of the things that we needed to know was if all of those allegations that you're repeating were true, and we looked into it, and they were not true.
Mehdi Hasan: Forget the, forget the former president. We kind of got into a discussion about the former president who is not here to defend himself.
Otto Reich: Do you want to give Uribe a little bit of credit for having, for example, disarmed the paramilitaries that were, along with the FARC undermining the democracy of…
Mehdi Hasan: Also accused of having supported those paramilitaries…
Otto Reich: Accused? Accused by whom?
Mehdi Hasan: Well, the US State Department, for example, in 2013, said problems, including extrajudicial, unlawful killings in Colombia, including military collaboration with members of illegal armed groups, that’s your government said that, the US government said that. Are they liars as well?
Otto Reich: No, I don't know, I don't know what you're… First of all, I'm a little reluctant to accept what you, what you're reading as fact after the Orlando Bosch, and some of the other things…
Mehdi Hasan: Just deal very quickly with the Colombia point. Colombian military commits massive human rights abuses, yes or no?
Otto Reich: Do they? Do they?
Mehdi Hasan: That's the 2013 US State Department…
Otto Reich: If you have, if you have evidence of that, I think you should take it to those…
Mehdi Hasan: Who should I take it to? It's your State Department are the ones who are saying it!
Otto Reich: Well, I mean look…
Mehdi Hasan: Otto, Otto… Gentleman here, gentleman here in the jacket, yes.
Audience Member 4: Regardless of whether or not you were personally involved do you feel regret, or do you even feel guilty of the state today of US Venezuela relations, and what would you have done or what would you do now differently?
Otto Reich: I mean I feel, yes, I feel regret. I wish that Hugo Chavez had passed on earlier, and perhaps which by the way .. I don't qiute put myself in the position of the person who made that decision, but… He died of cancer, as you know. Although, by the way, I've been accused of injecting him with cancer. Maduro actually accused me of injecting Chavez with the cancer that killed him. This show you the ridiculousness of the allegations.
Mehdi Hasan: Maybe that's because the US tried to kill Castro several times, did it not?
Otto Reich: Yes. Yes, it did. Actually, it did, the US did, and, and I'm sorry that it failed. Just like, you know, if we had been able to kill Hitler in 1938, we should have with no regrets. Now, let me just tell you, I had nothing to do with that coup, and what I used to joke at that time is if I had something to do with the coup it would probably have turned out differently.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, I'm going to go back to the audience, you made your point. Lady here in the front row
Audience Member 5: Due to the recent violations of human rights by the Maduro government to student protests, do you think the American government is going to impose sanctions to members of the Venezuela government ?
Otto Reich: I think there should be sanctions imposed on those who committed the human rights violations, yes, not on the whole country. The country was not responsible, in fact the country was the victim. The fact is that since nobody complains about it. The Latin American countries look the other way. They'll only ask us for help when it’s their people being killed, but unfortunately, you know, somebody has given us this, this great power, you know, as Francisco said, to influence events and we’re going to continue to influence the events in the way that they have been influenced over the last 50 years at least,
Mehdi Hasan: Let's go back to the audience. Lady there in the white top.
Audience Member 6: What are the lessons learned, and what is the present day pertinence of the allegedly failed war on drugs in Latin America?
Otto Reich: Oh, there are a number of lessons in my view. I think that we have, we haven’t put enough emphasis on the demand side, way too much emphasis on the supply side, particularly early on in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think we need to do a lot more to educate people to the damage that the drugs not only to their own brain but to the, to the hemisphere and to the whole world. And I think we should be much more forceful with the people in the United States who benefit from this, the, the people who have become rich from the trafficking of drugs.
Mehdi Hasan: I just want to bring in very briefly Julia Buxton, you've written and lectured on this subject a great deal. How much has the quote, unquote, war on drugs, especially in places like Colombia, scarred relations between the United States and Latin America?
Julia Buxton: Oh, tremendously, and it's created these hugely militarised societies, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and what we’ve seen is this persistent pattern, is that whenever we've had these very harsh source-focused US supported counter-narcotics operations, for example in Colombia, it's simply shifted the trade into Peru. So there's been a clampdown in Peru, and it's shifted to Bolivia. So there's been this constant chasing around of the drug trade of the region, and we've got to the point today where cocaine use in the United States has actually fallen, but the most recent World Drug Report says that the largest drug consumed currently in the United States of America is amphetamine. So the United States has essentially become a, a self-supporting drug producing nation.
Mehdi Hasan: I want to go to this gentleman here with the beard,
Audience Member 7: Imagine I was a younger colleague of yours rising in the ranks of United States foreign policy making, and seeking your advice, I were to tell you I'm having trouble sleeping at night because of this moral contradiction I have between wanting to promote United States foreign policy values and discourse on democracy and human rights, but ending up pursuing United States interests instead throughout the region?
Otto Reich: I would say that if you had been working with me in the State Department at the time, you would have had a lot better information than what we've heard here tonight, and you wouldn't be having trouble sleeping, because you would know what this editor from the Washington Post told me 25 years later, that instead of us killing nuns or torturing children, we were trying to do what, in fact we did, which was to build a political centre, isolate the violent extremes in places like Salvador and Nicaragua, to allow democracy to take hold. These are not easy grounds on which to plant democracy.
Mehdi Hasan: Otto, you've already conceded yourself that some of those groups you were supporting carried out murders. Are you saying that never weighs on your conscience, never bothers you're totally fine?
Otto Reich: No, I mean, but I also told you that you’re drawing a false moral equivalence
Mehdi Hasan: It's a very simple question. Yes or no, does it bother you what the Contras did.
Otto Reich: I told you yes, if they committed murders
Mehdi Hasan: Not if!
Otto Reich: That's it.
Mehdi Hasan: You said they committed murders, Otto. There's no if, you said it! It’s on tape [LAUGH]
Otto Reich: Yes, if they committed murder, it's on my conscience.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, good. That was real hard to get out of you. Let's try this gentleman here in the second row
Audience Member 8: Given the great success of US policy in Colombia, fighting the war on terror, fighting the war on drugs, improving respect for the rule of law and for human rights, how do you feel that can be replicated across the whole region when so many South American leaders use the US as a political punching bag?
Otto Reich: That's what all the left, all over the world does, blame America first but when the United States withdraws what happens? When it withdraws from the stage, what happens?
Mehdi Hasan: They elect governments who cut poverty.
Otto Reich: Really?
Mehdi Hasan: Just a suggestion.
Otto Reich: Give me an example.
Mehdi Hasan: Venezuela. [LAUGHTER] Let's go back to I promised a question. Lady there, has she got a microphone?
Otto Reich: Look at the figures, look at the figures
Audience Member 8: American corporations have come under serious scrutiny in Latin America for both collaborating with left and right governments in committing human rights violations, and also committing those human rights violations themselves in order to forward their gains in the region. What do you think the response should be from the US government in order to curtail and regulate this behaviour, even if it occurs outside the United States?
Otto Reich: I think that if they’re responsible for violating human rights they should be sanctioned. They should be punished. As a government official, you're sort of at odds in both supporting the economic presence of US industry and pursuing foreign policy interest.
Mehdi Hasan: Sadly, we've run out of time. I want to ask one last question to you. As I said, you worked for three different presidents, you've been involved at the heart of Latin America foreign policy, what is your biggest single regret?
Otto Reich: [LAUGH] I thought you were going to ask me what was your biggest single victory? [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: You've really misunderstood this show when you came on!
Otto Reich: Not at all!
Mehdi Hasan: Good, so what's your biggest, what’s your number one regret, looking back over the 35 years…
Otto Reich: Oh, absolutely. My biggest single regret is that we did not get rid of more dictatorships, right or left. A big regret is not having done more in terms of corruption. The level of corruption in Latin America is hard for this audience to understand unless you come from one of those countries. If you come from one of those countries, you know what I'm talking about. And I think We should have known more about that event in Venezuela that removed Hugo Chavez, certain things happened in Venezuela that we could not control, even if Francisco thinks we're Superman and we control everything, we don't.
Mehdi Hasan: Sadly we've run out of time now, Otto. Thank you very much for coming Head to Head today. Thank you very much to our panel for coming here and joining us. Thanks to our audience here in the Oxford Union for joining us, and thanks to you all at home for watching. Head to Head will be back on Al Jazeera English next week. Good Night.