Monday, January 30, 2012

Colombia President Calls Drug War a “Stationary Bike”

President Juan Manuel Santos expressed more support for the legalization of illicit drugs while speaking at a panel at the Cartagena Hay Festival of Literature and Arts. As Semana reports, his remarks followed a comment by another panelist, Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramirez, who stated, “I know this cannot be an opinion of the state and the president of a republic cannot express this, but as an ordinary citizen, I can. The solution is decriminalizing drugs.”

Santos responded: ¨And I say it as president of a republic: this solution would be acceptable to Colombia, if the rest of the world goes along.”

Colombia Reports has a video of the remarks.

Santos has emerged as one of the most explicit supporters of drug legalization in the region. This is partly possible because, as the former defense minister and as a president who has continued Colombia’s tough military campaign against drug-trafficking groups the FARC and the so-called “bandas criminales” (criminal bands - BACRIMs), it would be hard to accuse him of being “soft” in the drug war. As Semana notes, Santos made reference to this experience while speaking at the Cartagena panel:

“He said that while in the Defense Department, he learned that the DEA’s measure of success, in the US, was measuring the price of cocaine in the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, in New York. ‘So if the price of cocaine went up in these cities, we could all give ourselves a little pat on the back,’ he said.”

Referring to such experience appears to be a key part of Santos’ strategy when discussing drug legalization in such explicit terms. He is able to present himself as a drug war insider who has seen all the rules of the game, and knows what does and does not work. “[The drug war] is like a stationary bike. You look up and around and you’re in the same place. The scenary’s changed but the problem persists.”

But while Santos has spoken in favor of drug legalization many times over the years, in terms of actual policy, his approach is not that radical. Other top figures in the Santos administration, including the prosecutor general and the Minister of the Interior, have also said the issue deserves to be debated. But the administration has not pushed to legalize drugs inside Colombia, nor has Colombia done much to raise the issue at international bodies like the United Nations. As Colombia Reports points out:

“The Colombian President has promoted a discussion on a possible revision of the war on drugs on several occasions, but has always reiterated that Colombia does not want to take the initiative to avoid being stigmatized. According to Santos, the debate should be started by drug consuming nations rather than the drug producing nations.”

One sign that Colombia truly intends to promote more debate on a liberalized drug policy would be if the country expressed more explicit support for Bolivia’s campaign to decriminalize the coca leaf. This is probably the best example of a Latin American country pushing for a more liberalized global drug policy in terms of actual policy, instead of

The Pan American Post has more analysis on Santos’ rhetoric on drug legalization from November 2011, when the president told a British newspaper he would “welcome” a more open policy.


News Briefs

  • Foreign Affairs looks at the Venezuelan presidential contest, in light of the decision of a prominent opposition candidate, Leopoldo Lopez, not to run. The magazine judges that this greatly improves the chances of Henrique Capriles, a popular former governor often presented as a rising star of Venezuela’s opposition, and whom Lopez endorsed. The magazine notes: “If he does win the primary, Capriles Radonski's most valuable quality is that no one can accuse him of belonging to Venezuela's political past. At 39, he is younger than Chávez... Moreover, he has avoided explicitly criticizing Chávez's ideological agenda. He understands that competing directly against Chávez's popular social agenda is an unwinnable fight. So instead, he relies on credibly delivering political reconciliation, fighting crime, and promoting a more effective and less politicized perspective of social programs.”
  • Blog the Devil’s Excrement also has useful analysis on Lopez’s withdrawal from the presidential contest, judging the move to be “politically masterful.” Lopez was already lagging in the polls behind Capriles, but more significantly, thanks to a ruling by the Venezuelan court which banned him from holding public office, but which was overturned last year by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it was unclear whether Lopez could actually assume the presidency if he won the election. According to Devil’s Excrement, Lopez’s decision to withdraw guarantees a better chance for his Voluntad Popular party, which looks set to combine forces with Capriles’ party Primero Justicia. Foreign Policy has its own take on the Venezuelan presidential contest, judging that no matter who wins, “Venezuela’s political and economic conditions are likely to worsen.”
  • The New York Times has a feature on urban graffiti in Sao Paulo, one of the most visual symptoms of Brazil’s social ills. According to the article, the graffiti subculture, known as pichação, is unlike other forms of urban street art found in the rest of the world, thanks to its reliance on heavy rollers instead of spray paint. The practice is also risky, with some graffiti artists willing to scale skyscrapers in order to paint them.
  • Raul Castro aggressively defended Cuba’s one-party system during the Communist Party’s national conference, reports the AP.
  • The Miami Herald details the history of church-state relations in Cuba, in anticipation of the pope’s visit to the island this March.
  • Reuters has a feature on the piles of trash accumulating along the US-Mexico border. The garbage is increasingly harder to clean up because migrants are increasingly forced to use more remote border crossings, the article says.
  • Fox News Latino examines Mitt Romney’s position on immigration policy, after the former governor spoke at a conference of conservative Hispanic leaders in Miami last Friday. On a similar note, Foreign Policy has a long piece arguing that the Republicans will likely lose the Hispanic vote in the November presidential elections, because they have been forced to adopt the “anti-immigrant narrative being driven, in large measure, by the views of the Republican base -- and in particular the Tea Party wing.” In more news related to the US presidential campaign, Romney just received the endorsement of Puerto Rico’s governor, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports.
  • World Meets US has a good translation of an Op-Ed first published by La Jornada, detailing the ways in which US military contractors have benefited from the Mexican drug war. According to the article, under the Merida Initiative contracts with US companies reached $6.4 billion by 2008.
  • A fire in a Peruvian drug rehabilitation center killed 27 people Saturday, reports the AP. The tragedy calls attention to the lack of resources dedicated to drug addiction treatment in Peru, according to EFE.
  • Mercopress profiles the son of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Maximo Kirchner, steadily becoming a greater political influence in Argentina thanks to the expansion of his political youth group, La Campora.
  • The AP on Chavez’s threats to nationalize banks which refuse to finance government-backed agricultural projects.
  • The Independent reports on the corruption scandal dogging Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, with more than 60 people facing allegations of fraud and taking kickbacks. The Mothers was one of the most prominent groups to protest Argentina’s military dictatorship.
  • Time reports on Cuba’s offshore oil exploration, causing many US officials to wring their hands over the risks of a possible spill that could affect Florida’s shores.