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06/10/2002 | Reich or Wrong?

Martin Edwin Andersen

Latin America Confidential

 

The flap over remarks about problems of regional corruption made by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich to a Spanish newspaper appears far from over [see "Reich Denies 'Corrupt' Menem Remark," Latin America Confidential, Oct. 3, 2002]. On Sunday, El Pais of Madrid published an interview with Reich in which the carefully spoken diplomat allegedly included former Argentine president Carlos Menem in his list of "corrupt" foreign officials. On Thursday, Reich denied he cast Menem in an unfavorable light, calling reports that he did so "unjust." However, new information emerging Thursday and Friday cast doubt on the denial.

The interview with the Miami-based correspondent of El Pais received wide comment throughout the Americas. Asked by reporter Rosa Townsend what topped the Bush administration's priorities for the region, Reich replied, "corruption, because it is the principle obstacle to democracy and economic development."

Reich replied that the hemisphere "provided fertile ground for the corrupt." He singled out former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman, who, Reich said, "supposedly stole more than $100 million dollars" in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

The El Pais interview also had Reich listing erstwhile Argentine and Mexican heads of state Carlos Menem and Carlos Salinas de Gortari, respectively, among the list of corrupt leaders. Both Menem and Salinas de Gortari - both favorites of former president George H.W. Bush – symbolized to many critics of U.S. policy in the region a murky recent past of unseemly American alliances with corrupt authoritarians. By including Menem, who is
currently running for a third term as president of Argentina, Reich's reported comments appeared to sound the death knell to the Argentine's claim of a supposed preferential relationship with the White House and Wall Street.

The El Pais interview created an uproar in Buenos Aires. However, on Thursday, Argentina's paper-of-record, La Nacion, published an interview with Reich in which he denied including Menem in the infamous list. "The statement is wrong and has caused damage to President Menem, and it's not fair," Reich said. "I didn't say that Menem was corrupt." In a telephone interview also published Thursday in Clarin, a Buenos Aires tabloid, Reich attributed the comment to Townsend's alleged lack of English skills.

However, both Clarin and the left-of-center newspaper Pagina/12 report that Townsend worked for more than 10 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald. "I am an American," Townsend told Clarin. "I think I speak English pretty well."

On Friday Pagina/12 reported that Reich had gone further even than Townsend had reported. Citing a "textual transcription" of a tape recording of the interview with Townsend, the paper reported the following exchange between Reich and the journalist:

"Question: Don't you think the United States caught on to the corruption issue a little late? This didn't happen on the Republicans' watch, but during the Clinton administration Menem was one of the U.S.'s closest allies, while at the same time on a per capita basis he robbed ...

"Answer: I don't have much affection for the Clinton administration, but to be fair one often doesn't know what these people do until they leave power. For example, how did we find out about the corruption in the Salinas government - not just corruption, but assassinations too - after they occurred? Or why is it that we are finding out about the charges you mention against Menem only after he left power?

"Because when these people control the government many times they control the mass media, they intimidate the press and people are afraid to reveal information. In fact, the worse the crime, the greater the danger in revealing it." On Thursday, the Argentine Anti-Corruption Office formally asked a court in Buenos Aires to prosecute Menem for maintaining a secret bank account in Switzerland. Menem admitted he possessed the account in July, despite never declaring it on financial disclosure forms, as he rebutted accusations carried in the New York Times.

The Times reported that Menem allegedly received $10 million from Iran while president of Argentina in exchange for helping cover up Tehran's alleged participation in a July 18, 1994, bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were killed in the attack.

Martin Edwin Andersen is a reporter for Insight.

Insight Magazine (Estados Unidos)

 



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