Monday, October 14, 2013

Crisis Tests Independence of Colombian Drug Policy Commission

A crisis broke out for Colombia's much-lauded advisory commission on drug policy last week after its president, Daniel Mejia, announced his resignation in response to pressure from the government to withhold publication of a research paper on the negative effects of anti-coca aerial spraying. While his resignation was refused, the incident proved to be an important assessment of Colombia's commitment to maintaining the independence of the drug policy commission.

As mentioned in last Thursday’s brief, the conflict began on October 7, when Mejia gave an interview to W Radio in which he criticized the government’s response to a report he co-authored with Adriana Camacho of the Universidad de los Andes (available for download here). The report analyzes the harmful health effects of aerial spraying, as well as the limited effectiveness of glyphosate, the pesticide most frequently used for coca eradication. While rural Colombian villages are seeing a rise in breathing problems and skin conditions as a result of exposure to the chemical, Mejia and Camacho found that it was not fully effective at eradicating coca. For every square hectare sprayed with glyphosate, the authors found that the chemical produced only a 15-20 percent reduction of the crop.

In his remarks to W Radio, Mejia accused the Colombian Foreign Ministry of pressuring him to delay the paper’s publication. He said this was so it would not coincide with an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on a lawsuit filed by Ecuador on behalf of rural farmers who had been affected by illegal cross-border spraying. The suit was eventually settled out of court, and a copy of the agreement obtained by news site La Silla Vacia reveals that aerial spraying campaigns on the Ecuadorean border will now be held to higher standards than in the rest of the country.

When Mejia refused to delay the publication the Foreign Ministry changed tactics, and criticized his findings before the ICJ, countering it with evidence allegedly furnished by former contractors of Monsanto.

Mejia was so appalled by this, Semana magazine reported, that he submitted a letter of resignation from his position as president of the drug policy advisory commission created by President Juan Manuel Santos. “Being an independent and academic commission, created by the Colombian government to undertake a thorough assessment of drug policy in Colombia and issue a series of policy recommendations on these issues, I cannot allow an institution of the same government to question me like this,” he wrote in his resignation letter to Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez.

On Friday, however, Gomez Mendez said he would not accept Mejia’s resignation, and expressed support for both his research and the independence of the commission. In a Twitter post yesterday, Mejia thanked the justice minister for his endorsement, and announced that he would stay on with the drug policy commission.

While the full impact of Mejia’s high-profile spat with the Foreign Ministry remains to be seen, it appears that it may have achieved some concrete policy changes. At the very least, it has forced the Santos administration to acknowledge aerial spraying as a controversial issue. On Friday, Deputy Justice Minister Miguel Samper announced that the government would review of its approach to coca eradication. The minister framed the current policy as inefficient in the long run, because spraying did nothing to build state presence in affected areas. “The review of this policy will come from an analysis of how to build links to historically coca-growing areas,” Samper said.


News Briefs
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro reports that, after the controversial closure of the Tutela Legal human rights office (which was deftly covered over the weekend by Al-Jazeera English), the Catholic Church in El Salvador has announced it will create a new office that fulfills the same function. The Archdiocese of San Salvador did not say when the new office would be opened, however.
  • A new Datafolha poll published over the weekend by Folha de São Paulo shows that in spite of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s reduced public approval rating, she is still far more popular than her two closest competitors a year ahead of the 2014 elections. The poll found that Dilma leads voting intention with 42 percent, compared to 21 percent for Aecio Neves and 15 percent for Eduardo Campos. As Reuters notes, if these numbers remain unchanged she will win re-election without a runoff vote.
  • The Miami Herald profiles U.S. Congressman Joe Garcia, who has made a name for himself as an advocate of a less hardline approach to Cuba policy, breaking with other Cuban Americans in the House of Representatives.  As the Herald notes, however, Garcia rejects allegations that he is “soft” on Cuba, citing his support for the designation of Cuba as a state supporter of terror and his opposition to certain cultural exchanges promoted by the Cuban government.
  • The Associated Press reports on fears of impunity for those responsible for Colombia’s “false positive” scandal, in which thousands of noncombatants were murdered and then registered as guerrillas killed in combat. As the AP points out, a controversial law passed in June could make it harder to prosecute officials accused of war crimes, ensuring that they face trials in the military justice system rather than in civilian courts.
  • It appears that Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill, which was approved in the lower house on July 31, will face a Senate vote sometime in November. In remarks to UNoticias last week, Congressman Julio Bango -- one of the bill’s sponsors in the lower house -- said that the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition expects a vote next month. Still, his statement was decidedly cautious. “The idea is that in the course of November we should see the possibility of a vote,” said the lawmaker.
  • As Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro continues to pressure the country’s National Assembly to pass a bill granting him decree powers he says are necessary to root out corruption, the government continues to crack down on abuse of power. El Nacional and the Wall Street Journal report that the mayor of Valencia, the country’s third largest city, has been arrested on corruption charges. The official is a member of Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party.
  • In a move that is sure to put further distance between his administration and civil society, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo dismissed allegations of human rights abuses committed by the government as part of an international conspiracy against him. “Many international organizations are trying to say that here we are at war, that there is political persecution and these are situations that aren’t true,” Lobo told local press, El Heraldo reports.
  • On Sunday, the New York Times editorial board weighed in on the lawsuit recently filed by Haitian human rights advocates against the United Nations over the strong evidence that UN peacekeeping forces introduced a deadly cholera epidemic to the country. Whether or not the case proceeds, the editorial argues that the UN should “acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them.”
  • On Friday, Venezuelan naval officials seized a U.S.-chartered oil exploration ship in the Caribbean, accusing the vessel of conducting "unauthorized scientific work" in Venezuelan maritime territory. The crew, which includes five U.S. citizens and two Brazilians, is being detained on board for questioning, the AP reports.
  • After a successful operation to remove a blood clot on her brain, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been released from the hospital and is recovering from the procedure at home, according to administration spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro. It remains unclear, however, when she will be fit to resume her duties.