Council on Hemispheric Affairs
MONITORING POLITICAL, ECONOMIC AND DIPLOMATIC ISSUES AFFECTING THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
Noriega's Latin American Policy
A Disservice to the Nation
On July 29, two years to the day after his Senate confirmation, Roger Noriega announced that he would be stepping down
from his post as the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs. While Noriega’s
personal assessments of his accomplishments in office have been profoundly generous, most specialists outside the
administration, and many within it, including a large number of career Foreign Service officers, have rated his tenure
as an unqualified disaster.
To better understand the peaks and valleys of his incumbency, it must be recalled that throughout his career Mr. Noriega
was seen as a person less of great convictions, than as one who tended to match his belief system to the job opening of
the day. After several relatively low-level positions in the OAS, he used his ingratiating skills to better provide
service to people of influence, which helped him obtain a staff position with the House Intelligence Committee, then
chaired by hard-right Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY) and later again used his assiduously nursed contacts to move on to the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he served under the even more extremist Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).
While working his role as a Latin American policy maker, Noriega appears to have failed any objective test for advancing
U.S. national interests, while showing no respect for our Latin American neighbors. It is no mystery that, like
Secretary of State Colin Powell before her, Condoleezza Rice was no great admirer of Noriega’s. Once she took office his
days were numbered, particularly after she transferred Noriega’s all-important Cuba portfolio – which all along he
viewed as the stem of his Latin American jewel collection – leaving him with no other choice than to receive the
administration’s telephone call from above loud and clear. Noriega’s resignation ends two tumultuous and unusually
fallow years at the helm of the United States’ hemispheric policy. Presumably, this brings to a close the public career
of a visionless ideologue who spent far more time refreshing his contacts in the neo-con camp in order to strengthen his
bureaucratic base, than infusing U.S. policy towards the region with respect, rationality, balance and genuine good
Noriega replaced Otto Reich in the Latin American post; the latter’s own reputation as an unyielding hardliner who was
burdened by a stressful curriculum vitae, was too severe a hindrance and far too controversial to win a confirmation
vote by the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Once in office, Noriega was intent on continuing
Reich’s policy of singling out for retribution those nations in the hemisphere which revealed any indication of being
interested in engaging in a constructive opening to Havana. Indeed, it was Noriega’s actions with respect to three of
the hemisphere’s hot spots – Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba – as well as his lack of deference for regional nations that
mainly defined his failed record as the administration’s chief Latin Americanist. He also proved inept in coping with
the immensely unpopular Iraq war, his counterproductive strategy to isolate Chávez’s Venezuela and his dealings with
Washington’s one-sided trade policies.
After assuming his post, Noriega fell in line with Reich’s rabid stance regarding Castro, Chávez, and Haitian President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide and. Both Noriega and Reich saw Aristide’s passionate rhetoric regarding social justice as little
more than a born-again Castroism. Noriega’s policy toward Haiti culminated with Aristide’s forced “resignation” in
February of 2004, an act which most analysts and area journalists likely view as a U.S. sponsored para-coup with Noriega
as the playmaker. Noriega was not only integral in the planning and carrying out of Aristide’s overthrow, but he would
later cynically counsel the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Aristide resignation “may eventually be
considered his [Noriega’s] finest hour.” Haiti proved to be just one instance of many in which Noriega directed U.S.
government resources and personnel to undermine the national interests of a number of Latin American governments with
which Noriega had previously crossed swords.
Cuba has proven to be especially sacred ground for Noriega to continue to spread the ideologically-charged rhetoric
which had been put into place by Reich after he had been given a recess appointment upon failing to win confirmation.
Regarding Cuba, Noriega simply continued to spew the mindless propaganda which he had picked up while working for
Gilman, Helms, and Reich, perhaps without it occurring to him that even within the fetid confines of the Bush
administration’s regional policies, he might try out new strategies to replace those which had patently failed again and
again. Predictably, Noriega served the same mixture of ideological fervor and hyperbole that those two aforementioned
legislators had ecstatically concocted on trips to Miami to kiss the Papal ring.
If his definitive role in the death of Haiti’s constitutional government must be considered one of the peaks of
Noriega’s disservices to this country’s regional standing, his most recognizable failure as Assistant Secretary of State
has to be his attempts to isolate and discredit the Hugo Chávez Frías government in Venezuela. His plan to achieve this
was to vehemently gainsay, in ungenerous tones, that Chávez was anything but an authoritarian and a fraud.
In Noriega’s eyes, Chávez’s tainted commitment to democracy and his fatal relationship with Fidel Castro rendered him an
unacceptable candidate for normal relations with the U.S Rather than policy maker, Noriega then became a launching pad
for unconfirmed, if not entirely spurious, charges that the Venezuelan leader was intent on destabilizing the region by
supporting rebels in neighboring Colombia’s civil war, as well as egging on the indigenous populations of Bolivia and
Ecuador against their governments. While scripting snarling critiques of the Chávez administration without a sliver of
incriminating evidence, Noriega continued Reich’s strategies of trying to subvert the Venezuelan government by funneling
funds to opposition groups in the country, whose supposed love of democracy was expressed by their effort to bring
Chávez down even if it meant destroying the economy and constitutional norms in the process.
During Noriega’s watch, Washington funneled large sums of money annually through USAID and the National Endowment for
Democracy to Venezuelan domestic groups opposed to Chávez. These funds were accompanied by a barrage of didactic
fulminations accusing the Venezuelan leader of not playing by the democratic – i.e. Washington’s – rules of the game.
Yet, despite Noriega’s most vehement efforts, the Venezuelan leader repeatedly has won various votes of confidence;
including a referendum aimed at toppling him. Meanwhile, Chávez earned standing ovations at international summits, such
as September’s meeting of world leaders at the United Nations in New York, as well as at regional gatherings, while
Noriega was routinely being tendered wooden receptions outside of Miami.
Now Roger Noriega leaves his post after failing to accomplish anything of substance over a two-year period; he leaves
behind a tsunami of wrecked initiatives, resulting in a massive decline in America’s standing in the region. As Noriega
was fantasizing that he, the little man, would topple the bearded one in a battle, mano a mano, the bits and pieces that
make up the inter-American relationship were coming apart in his hands, dissolved by the acidulous formulae that Noriega
so generously lavished on the region – a recipe that included insulting remarks, belittling observations, invidious
comparisons and bully-boy warnings; as well as threats of cut-offs if Latin American nations voted incorrectly, didn’t
comply with Washington’s diktats, refused to oppose the ICC, or joined the pro-environmental side on global warming.
Upon resigning to move to the private sector, Noriega was quoted as saying that it “seemed like a good time to make a
change.” But that change could not come soon enough for those who watched his incompetence, hyperbole and the almost
perfect illiteracy regarding Latin American issues that he manifested in office to the detriment of the general welfare
of all the peoples of the Americas.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Associate Julian Armington.
October 4, 2005
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COHA Opinion 05.23
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