Monday, February 4, 2013

Can Santos’ Drug Reform Push Overcome Congressional and Public Opposition?

On January 29, Colombian Justice Minister Ruth Sella Correa made waves by announcing that the government will propose a bill to Congress which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamine. The bill is being drafted by President Juan Manuel Santos’ Drug Policy Advisory Commission, which was created with the intention of bolstering a June 2012 Constitutional Court ruling decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. The bill would solidify the ruling into legislation, as well as expand it to include synthetic drugs.

Not everyone is on board with the proposal, however. El Espectador reports that many Colombian lawmakers, including members of Santos’ coalition, are objecting to it. Senate President and member of Santos’ own U Party Roy Barreras called the measure “unviable,” whereas Conservative Party leader Efrain Cepeda announced that his party would reject the bill outright when it is presented.

Another obstacle to the initiative is its lack of public support. According to a May 2012 Latinobarometro poll, 69 percent of Colombians are opposed to decriminalizing drugs in the country. Because Santos is widely expected to run for re-election in 2014, he might not be willing to risk too much political capital on the issue, and may drop it if its detractors are vocal enough.

So far, however, he has shown no signs of backing down. Santos lashed out at his critics in a speech last week, accusing them of mischaracterizing the drug debate for political points. He also defended the initiative by making a direct appeal to Colombian parents, according to El Heraldo. "I ask all mothers and fathers, and I have a very clear answer...I have two sons and a daughter, if the police found them with a small amount of drugs, what would I prefer: for them to thrown into jail or taken to a rehabilitation center? I would much rather prefer a society that would put them in a rehabilitation center, and this is the issue," Santos said.

The bill is expected to be presented to Congress in March. In the event that it passes, it would be a major victory for the growing drug reform movement in Latin America, as it could spark a shift in policy from drug reformers’ largest opponent in the hemisphere: the United States. While Washington has been critical of alternative approaches to drug policy in the region, Colombia’s status as a reliable partner in the “war on drugs” would likely make it harder for the U.S. to continue to oppose decriminalization if it is instituted there.


News Briefs
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have announced that they will free the two policemen that the group captured in the southwest province of Valle del Cauca last week, in addition to a soldier who had apparently been taken captive in the southern province of Nariño. The Colombian Defense Ministry had not previously announced the soldier’s capture. According to El Colombiano, the FARC and officials are coordinating the captives’ release through the Red Cross. The New York Times has more on how the incident has raised tensions between rebel and government negotiators engaged in peace talks in Havana.
  • Paraguayan politician and retired general Lino Oviedo died yesterday. ABC Digital reports that Oviedo, who was a running as a minor party candidate in April’s elections, was returning from a rally when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed north of Asuncion. The New York Times offers a summary of his political career, which began after he helped overthrow General Alfredo Stroessner in 1989. Oviedo was linked to a cancelled coup attempt ten years later, as well as the assassination of Vice President Luis Maria Argaña in 1999. He was jailed in 2004 for the planned coup, but was released in 2007. The spokesman for his party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, is claiming that Oviedo was himself assassinated as part of a “message from the mafia.”
  • Argentina has become the first-ever nation to be censured by the International Monetary Fund for not releasing accurate data on inflation and economic growth. The IMF’s 24-member board announced the decision on Friday via a press statement in which it blasted the country for violating its conditions for membership. Although the decision will not have any immediate effects, it gives the Argentine government until November to change the way it tracks economic indicators, or else the country will face sanctions.
  • While the death toll resulting from last Thursday’s explosion at the PEMEX headquarters in Mexico City has risen to 36, officials say the cause of the blast remains uncertain. According to Reforma, a number of administrative records and internal audits were destroyed in the explosion, fueling the conspiracy that it was in fact a targeted attack. While this is pure conjecture, the state-owned oil company’s long history of corruption and being targeted by organized crime ensures that this cannot be entirely ruled out. Still, PEMEX’s poor safety record means an industrial failure like a gas leak or boiler explosion is the more likely culprit.
  • Following the recent escalation of Chile’s conflict with indigenous Mapuches in the south of the country, President Sebastian Piñera announced last week that he would prioritize constitutional recognition of the country’s indigenous groups, as well as create a council for indigenous peoples that would “allow them to raise their own voices about their future.” Despite the lofty rhetoric, however, many Mapuches are distrustful of the announcement. As Lautaro Mapuche chief Juan Carlos Huenchullan told Cooperativa, “If there were no problems in [the] region I think that the president would be still sleeping…I’ll accept it when we have the document.” In an insightful op-ed for El Mostrador, political scientist Jose Mariman claims that there is reason for skepticism, noting that several administrations since Chile’s return to democracy have promised special recognition for the Mapuche, all to no avail.
  • In an op-ed for Al Jazeera English, Central America analyst Mike Allison argues that recent developments in the United States, Colombia and Venezuela make it much more likely that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) could win the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, which many believed to be out of the question until recently.
  • John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation has conducted an analysis of publicly-listed U.S. Defense Department contracts in Latin America for fiscal year 2012, finding that the Pentagon issued $444 million in non-fuel contracts to private companies in the region last year. Interestingly, Lindsay-Poland found that more than a third of these funds were for projects in Cuba, although much of this funding went to operations on the Guantanamo naval base.
  • Meanwhile the Associated Press offers a another review of U.S. diplomatic and military spending in the region, finding that total defense contracts in the region jumped from $119 million in 2011 to $629 million in 2011, and that the U.S. sold “a record $2.8 billion worth of guns, satellites, radar equipment and tear gas to Western Hemisphere nations in 2011, four times the authorized sales 10 years ago.”
  • An elderly and frail-looking Fidel Castro made his first public appearance in months on Sunday in order to cast his vote in Cuba’s parliamentary elections. The BBC has footage of the incident, and reports that Castro spent over an hour speaking with voters and the media at his local Havana polling station. 
  • Rebecca Hanson and David Smilde have begun a series of posts at Venezuela Politics and Analysis taking a look at efforts to improve citizen security in Venezuela. The first post offers a useful overview of police reform initiatives that the Chavez administration has implemented in recent years.