Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Politics Behind Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill

A recent poll shows that most Uruguayans are opposed to marijuana legalization, so why is the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) pressing forward with the initiative? The answer lies in the committed activism of civil society organizations in the country, which has convinced much of Uruguay’s political class of the bill’s merit.

After months of internal wrangling and repeated revisions to the measure, the bill to regulate the cultivation, sale and distribution of cannabis in Uruguay will face a vote today in the country’s lower house, the Chamber of Representatives.

Lawmakers of Uruguay’s ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition have scheduled a special session to vote on the bill today, which will begin at 10:00am local time, and is expected to last into the evening.

As I wrote for InSight Crime last week, the initiative has changed significantly since marijuana legalization was first presented in June 2012 as one of 15 points of the FA’s strategy to improve citizen security. Unlike the initial proposal presented by President Jose Mujica, the bill will not create a state monopoly over the marijuana market.  In many respects, it is now similar to the marijuana legalization bill being implemented in Colorado state (see Friday’s post for the bill’s specifics).

The politics behind the bill are complex, and difficult to describe to those unfamiliar with Uruguay’s political landscape. Although a Cifra poll released on Monday suggests that roughly two-thirds of the country have remained consistently opposed to the measure since it was first presented, it has gained the support of a coalition of cultural figures, lawyers, healthcare workers, NGOs and unions, many of which make up core members of the Frente Amplio’s base. In May this coalition, which has adopted the moniker “Regulacion Responsable,” launched an aggressive lobbying and public awareness campaign dedicated to stressing the security, health and social benefits of regulating the black market for cannabis.

In a sign of Uruguay’s generational divide, the bill is also staunchly backed by the youth wings of most major political parties within the Frente Amplio. These groups, especially the Socialist Party Youth (JSU) and the youth of the Popular Participation Movement (MPP), were instrumental in getting the internal FA plenary to adopt a resolution calling for the marijuana bill to be approved “in the shortest time frame possible” in May.  This raised pressure on FA lawmakers to pass the measure, because they are bound to the plenary by the coalition’s internal rules.

Many of these youths are also active in Uruguay’s small but vocal marijuana legalization movement, which has held a series of rallies and marches in support of the initiative. Early Monday, as El Observador reported, an umbrella group of pro-marijuana organizations known as the National Coordinator for Marijuana Regulation organized a “green dawn” in the capital city of Montevideo, tying green bows and posting marijuana leaf flyers along major roads and on landmarks in the city in support of marijuana legalization.

So while most Uruguayans have doubts about the bill, it has the overwhelming support of the base organizations of the Frente Amplio, as well as that of a dedicated social movement.

The work of these actors appears to have convinced much of Uruguay’s political class of the need to regulate marijuana, even members of the opposition National and Colorado Parties. At least four opposition lawmakers have said they support the idea in principle (See Cronicas, Radio 180, and El Pais), and Montevideo Portal reports some of them are expected to vote in favor of certain provisions in the bill, though their parties’ leadership will not allow them to support it entirely.

It remains to be seen, however, if this will be enough to ensure the bill’s passage in the lower house. In order to move to the Senate, where the FA majority is expected to approve it with little debate, it must gain support of all 50 seats held by Frente lawmakers in the lower house (out of 99 seats in total). Although the Frente Amplio has been characterized by highly disciplined legislative conduct since its founding in 1971, FA Congressman Dario Perez has been an open critic of the bill since the beginning, and has been coy about whether or not he will vote for the measure. Today’s vote was initially slated to be held on July 10, but was rescheduled after he sent out signals that he needed more time to “reflect” on it.

Some of Perez’s opposition may be ideologically-based. He began his political career as a member of the conservative National Party, and while he has been a FA representative since 1994 he is seen as one of the Frente's most socially conservative members. He fought with the coalition in much the same manner against an abortion decriminalization bill  last September, before eventually allowing an alternate to vote for the measure in his place.

While there is a degree of uncertainty, it looks as though he will side with the FA on the measure, though he may rely once more on an alternate. According to today’s La Republica, the FA’s party whip in the lower house has said that he expects Perez to act with “Frente Amplio loyalty.” El Pais cites sources close to the lawmaker who say the same.


News Briefs
  • Today’s New York Times features a profile of Steven R. Donziger, an American lawyer known for representing thousands of indigenous Ecuadoreans in an environmental damage suit against Chevron Corporation. After a local court in Ecuador ordered the oil giant to pay $18 billion in damages to his clients in 2011, Chevron pulled its assets out of the country to avoid payment. The plaintiffs have since gone after the corporation’s assets in Argentina and Brazil, though they have had mixed success with courts there. As a result of Donziger’s work, Chevron is suing him for billions in damages, alleging that he bribed judges and led a conspiracy to “extort and defraud the corporation,” according to the NYT. Donziger has been compelled to turn over his communications as evidence in the case, and claims that his accusers have him under surveillance.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have once again announced that they are willing to free Kevin Scott Sutay, a U.S. ex-marine captured last month in Guavire Department, but they have laid out conditions for doing so. El Tiempo reports that FARC spokesman Rodrigo Granda said told reporters in Havana that the guerrillas are willing to turn him over to “a commission of high-profile individuals,” and are waiting on the government for a response. This clashes with the wishes of President Juan Manuel Santos, who as the AP notes, has said he would not allow the FARC to make a media spectacle out of the release.
  • Some 100 poor Paraguayan farmers briefly restarted an occupation of contested land yesterday in the eastern Curuguaty province, where a clash last year between police and agricultural workers killed 17 and ultimately led to the ouster of President Fernando Lugo. ABC Digital reports that 150 police were sent to the scene, and eventually the protesters were compelled to leave. Police say they were demanding the release of 12 of their associates who were arrested and face criminal charges as a result of last year’s incident. A judge in Asuncion is expected to rule soon on whether to proceed in the case, according to Telam.
  • After Pope Francis deftly sided with protesting youths while avoiding a direct clash with the Rousseff government in his recent trip to Brazil, it appears he now faces a new test of his willingness to get involved in Latin American politics. EFE reports that Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has requested a meeting with the pontiff, and asked the Vatican to play a “mediating” role in the country’s political climate.
  • On the subject of Venezuela’s political climate, over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights David Smilde offers a helpful analysis of recent poll numbers in Venezuela, released by Datanalisis. According to the pollster, public approval of President Nicolas Maduro’s job performance has remained steady since his election, while negative perception has increased by eight points. However, the same polls found that support for Capriles is waning, having fallen several points since March. Smilde argues that this suggests public opinion has settled since the turmoil of the April 14 election, although lingering perceptions of instability indicate that most Venezuelans see Maduro as lacking a firm hold on the government, especially in comparison to his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
  • El Universal reports that lawmakers in Mexico’s Colima state have passed legislation legalizing same-sex civil unions there. According to the Mexican paper, it passed with the support of the majority of state lawmakers, but was opposed by members of the center-left PRD party, who argued that it was discriminatory. The AP reports that it is the second state to recognize same-sex civil unions, after the northern state of Coahuila. Gay marriage, meanwhile, is legal Mexico City as well as Oaxaca and Quintana Roo states.
  • Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special investigator on human rights and counter-terrorism, has issued a statement urging the government of Chile to stop using a Pinochet-era antiterrorism to crack down on Mapuche activists in the country. After a two-week country visit, Emmerson said the law was discriminatory, and had been in an arbitrary manner “which has turned into a real injustice that has impaired the right to a fair trial.” So far there has been no response from the Chilean government.
  • A protest against the administration of Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin was held last night in the city of Sao Paulo, according to O Globo, and was hijacked by extremist elements who began to vandalize local businesses. Police reprtedly arrested some 20 individuals involved. 
  • The leaders of the ALBA bloc met yesterday in Guayaquil, Ecuador, for the 12th ALBA Presidential Summit. The summit ended in a resolution which, among other things, expresses a commitment to guaranteeing social welfare in member countries, seeks to explore the potential of expanding ALBA by incorporating the Mercosur and Caricom trading blocs, as well as create a “technical-juridical” committee to investigate NSA surveillance activity in the region. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also used the forum to once again express discontent with the Inter-American human rights system, at one point asking his fellow leaders to reflect on reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, asking: “How long are we going to tolerate this?”
  • The Christian Science Monitor has an overview of Americas Quarterly’s Social Inclusion Index, an assessment of how well 16 countries in the  region foster conditions for their citizens to “enjoy a safe, productive life as a fully integrated member of society – irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.” At the top of the list is Uruguay, followed by Chile. Interestingly, the index scored both countries relatively highly on every scale except civil society participation, although this is not explained. The full Index will be made available in the Summer 2013 issue of AQ