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 will.
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.