Monday, August 11, 2014

A Skeptical Look at Santos’ Approach to Drugs

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos discusses the deal his government reached with FARC rebels on drug trafficking, and restates his commitment to rethinking the dominant approach to drug policy in the hemisphere.

In remarks to the Post, the president called the drug agreement “remarkable,” noting the FARC’s commitment to assist in coca eradication and crop substitution efforts. “Instead of putting mines around the coca plants that blow up our soldiers and policemen, and instead of having sharpshooters killing the people who eradicate the coca, they will help us in substituting legal crops for illegal drugs,” Santos noted.

Later in the interview, he repeats his past critiques of the war on drugs:
You are in favor of the decriminalization of drugs. 
I am in favor of something new. What we have been doing for the past 40 years has not worked. I am in favor of finding a more effective way to take drug money out of criminal hands. It may be decriminalizing. It may be more of a health approach. If you find someone with marijuana in the street, instead of putting him in jail, you send him to a rehabilitation center. 
In the past 40 years of this war on drugs — quite frankly, we have not won.
While Santos certainly deserves praise for his commitment to debating drug reforms, it’s worth pointing out that, technically, he’s making two mismatched points here. On the one hand, he supports a completely new, health-based approach to the problem of drug consumption. But at the same time, he is in favor of continuing Colombia’s commitment to supply reduction through illegal crop eradication.

These two policies don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but Santos’ argument is off. The forced eradication of poppy, coca and marijuana, which began in Colombia in 1978, is the very definition of “what we have been doing for the past 40 years.”

In a new policy brief for the Transnational Institute (also see InSight Crime’s write-up of the report), researcher Ricardo Vargas makes this point well. As Vargas argues, the FARC-Colombia drug agreement is a step back from harm reduction strategies that are becoming more popular in the region. The Santos administration itself has made steady progress on harm reduction initiatives in recent years, as evidenced by its creation of an advisory commission on drug policy that has recommended extending decriminalization to synthetic drugs in the country. But the agreement seems to contradict these efforts, as Vargas writes:
Not only is this [harm reduction] approach not mentioned in the agreement, but the Colombian government, by making the FARC commit to cease its involvement in the cocaine base paste market and in any other stages of the illegal drug chain, has managed to consolidate a prohibition-based policy in the Colombian government. In this sense, it can be said that the government has effectively reaffirmed the key objectives of the standard drug policy that has been in force for decades.

News Briefs
  • In other drug policy news, La Nacion reports that the administration of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has given a green light for drug policy officials and legislators to prepare a bill that would decriminalize drug possession in the country, in line with a 2009 Supreme Court ruling.
  • Americas Quarterly editor-in-chief Christopher Sabatini writes a critical response to the recent Associated Press reporting on USAID operations in Cuba. Sabatini, who has worked for USAID as well as the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that democracy assistance efforts on the island are no different from similar, noncontroversial programs elsewhere in the world, and are only clandestine because of the authoritarian nature of the Cuban government. As he points out, USAID has conducted similar work in Chile under Pinochet, PRI-ista Mexico, Fujimori’s Peru and apartheid-era South Africa.
  • Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes has announced that UPP Social, a much-criticized city program presented as an effort to complement the work of Pacification Police Units (UPP) with increased social services, will be undergoing a facelift. In a press conference on Friday, Paes said that UPP Social would be known moving forward as Rio Mais Social, thereby losing its association with the state-run UPP policing program. He also announced some $400 million in new funds for the program.
  • The AP reports on Brazil’s apparently faltering efforts to stop the spread of HIV, noting an increase in the infection rate. Some health officials point to the influence of evangelical groups and their opposition to sex education as a primary contributor to the trend.
  • Over at Venezuelan Human Rights and Politics, Dimitris Pantoulas has an update on the political climate in the country following the ruling United Socialist Party’s national congress in late July. As mentioned in the July 28 briefing, there were no signs of opposition to President Nicolas Maduro at the congress despite all the buzz about an emerging split in the party. As Pantoulas notes, the PSUV managed to present a united front behind Maduro, which will put him in a better position to introduce potentially unpopular but necessary reforms in the coming months.
  • According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of children and families apprehended at the Mexican border in July fell by more than half from June. Authorities have expressed optimism that the trend will hold, but as the Washington Post reports, analysts say migration traditionally drops in the summer months due to hot weather.
  • Latin America security analyst Doug Farah identifies Five Myths About the Border Crisis for the Washington Post. In his column, he shoots down arguments for increased border security and more U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle, as well as assertions that: U.S. immigration policy caused the surge in migration, that migrants are among the poorest of the poor, and that migration spreads the influence of street gangs.
  • While the prospects of a U.S.-funded Plan Colombia-type aid package to Central America is off the table in Washington (Vice President Biden recently said the region was “not even close to being prepared” for one), some are calling for one anyway. Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, makes the case for such major security aid program in a recent L.A. Times op-ed, arguing that the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are committed to submitting a “credible, accountable and achievable plan to present to potential supporters in Congress.”
  • While U.S. President Barack Obama is moving to speed up deportations of Central American child migrants apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border, a new a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that this is out of line with majority opinion. According to the survey, 51 percent of Americans believe unaccompanied minors should be allowed to stay in the country “for some length of time.”