Friday, January 24, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Talks Drugs at Davos

Remarks by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on drug policy reform at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland yesterday have generated a flurry of media attention. But while Santos spoke about a potential turning point in drug policy on the international stage, his administration is also facing a unique political opening for drug reform in the ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels.  

Santos spoke at a panel on drug decriminalization featuring Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Texas Governor Rick Perry. While the first two have openly called for ending the criminalization of drugs before, Perry raised eyebrows by touting his promotion of drug courts in the state as a path towards decriminalization. A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed this to the San Antonio Express-News, though she stressed that Perry was opposed to outright legalization.

As El Tiempo reports, Santos framed his support for alternative drug policies not only as a security strategy, but also as a human rights issue. “How I can tell a campesino from the mountains of Colombia who grows one hectare of marijuana that he could go to jail for that, when in Colorado or Washington state it is legal to smoke it?,” he asked attendees. According to the president, this “contradiction” illustrates the need for a global debate on drugs, though he did not specify any particular policy remedy. El Espectador notes that Santos also repeated past calls to approach drug reform through international consensus, not unilaterally.

CNBC and El Colombiano report that Santos was hopeful that progress on the issue could be made at a number of upcoming forums, including the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March and the planned 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.

An abundance of drug policy reform hype paired with a lack of substance seems to have become a recurring theme at the annual forum in Davos. Last year, for instance, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina made waves by announcing that he would host a summit for world leaders and policy organizations on alternative drug control proposals in Tikal, but the event never happened.

Meanwhile, Santos did not mention the ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, which are currently centered on the issue of drug trafficking. On Thursday, the rebels closed the latest round of negotiations by presenting another plan to radically alter Colombia’s drug policy. Like previous proposals by the guerrilla group, this statement calls for the state to recognize health and medicinal uses of coca, marijuana and poppy plants, as well as to regulate their cultivation.

Also this week, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, whose government passed a historic marijuana regulation law in December, offered to meet with FARC and President Santos at the CELAC summit in Havana next week. As a former guerrilla turned politician himself, the Uruguayan president seems well qualified to mediate between the two parties, especially on the issue of drug policy reform.

According to Caracol Noticias, Santos said Mujica had so far made no official request to meet with him, though he said it would be possible to talk  on the sidelines of the CELAC conference.

News Briefs
  • Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has bought himself a few more weeks in office, at least. Yesterday the Administrative Tribunal for Cundinamarca province suspended his removal order, finding that it violated the mayor’s political rights, El Espectador reports. The AFP notes that Petro’s defense lawyer said the Colombian Inspector General’s Office is expected to appeal the decision to a higher court, however.
  • A new poll by Chilean research center CERC shows widespread support for President-elect Michelle Bachelet’s main policy proposals. According to the poll, 80 percent of those surveyed agreed with education reform, 63 percent backed tax reform and 71 percent supported an overhaul of the Chilean constitution. Bachelet, who takes office on March 11, was initially rumored to unveil her cabinet picks yesterday, but the announcement has been postponed to later today. La Tercera has some speculation over her potential choices; according to the paper, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza is rumored to be a top contender for Interior Minister.
  • BBC Mundo looks at the symbolism of the big Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Havana next week, noting that it demonstrates Cuba’s success in overcoming regional isolation.
  • The Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program has released a collection of policy recommendations for U.S. President Barack Obama going into 2014, “Big Bets & Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book.” The report contains only two memos pertaining to Latin America, one pertaining to Cuba and the other to Venezuela. The first, by Ted Piccone, urges the president to “double down” on engagement with Cuba and expand trade, travel and communications with the country. The second, by Harold Trinkunas, warns that economic instability in Venezuela could lead to popular violence and ultimately threaten U.S. oil interests. Trinkunas thus recommends that Obama “begin a conversation” with Brazil (whose interests are also at jeopardy) to encourage Venezuela to shift its economic and political policies.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has released a statement expressing concern over a new law in Peru which guarantees that police officers and soldiers who use their firearms to kill or wound civilians "in compliance with their duty" cannot be prosecuted. The law has generated controversy in the country, with civil society organizations claiming that its potential to further impunity for police abuses amounts to  a “license to kill.” 
  • The New York Times reports on a rare instance of seemingly spontaneous demonstration in Cuba, sparked by a crackdown on vendors selling unlicensed goods at a market in the southeast city of Holguin. In response, dozens of newly self-employed workers reportedly marched to local government offices and demanded the right to work without interference from authorities. A video posted to YouTube lends weight to the reports, although the NYT suggests that the fact that it was posted by a militantly anti-Castro group may cast doubt on the claim that the incident was not organized by dissidents.  
  • With only days left before their current term ends, legislators in Honduras’ outgoing Congress passed a law breaking up the state-controlled electricity company ENEE on Monday. Reuters and El Heraldo report that the move will divide ENEE into three parts in an effort to pursue investment in the electricity sector and bring down costs. RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics has a less positive take, criticizing the law as an abuse of the dominant National Party’s majority before the opposition takes a greater share of seats.
  • As the governments of Chile and Peru ready themselves for a Hague ruling on a decades-long ruling over a maritime border dispute, Reuters reports that both countries have promised to abide by the decision.
  • Just as the Venezuelan government rolls out changes to its currency exchange system, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta has an overview of the incredible distortions caused by currency manipulation in the country. As a result of the government’s fixed exchange rate, those with access to U.S. dollars are able to take advantage of the black market rate to reap extraordinary profits, while those without such connections struggle to make ends meet.

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