Monday, December 8, 2014

Mujica and Vazquez Shift on Uruguay’s Cannabis Law

It’s been just a week since Uruguay’s presidential election, but the past few days have seen some subtle indicators of how outgoing President Jose Mujica and President-elect Tabare Vazquez will address the country’s historic marijuana law in the coming years.

Mujica, for his part, has shown that he is becoming more comfortable advocating drug policy experimentation abroad.  Proceso and El Pais report that after arriving in Cancun on Friday for this year’s Ibero-American Summit, the Uruguayan leader suggested that Mexico may be better off considering drug legalization than fighting the drug trade head-on. “It is better not to confront what is inevitable,” said the president. “Organize it, legalize and regulate it, and you do not want to cover it up because the more you want to, the more it costs you and it’s worse.”

While hardly a formal policy prescription, the remark represents an important shift for the Uruguayan leader. Until now he has consistently framed his country’s cannabis law as a domestic “experiment,” one that he would support ending if it does not bring the expected results. He neglected to mention the law in a much-anticipated UN General Assembly speech last year, and officials in his government like drug czar Julio Calzada have deliberately rejected the idea that Uruguay is a model for other countries.

The remark also came on the same day that Mujica published an open letter addressed to his country and to U.S. President Barack Obama. In it, he clarified his reasons for accepting the six Guantanamo detainees who arrived in Montevideo Sunday morning. According to the president, the transfer is in keeping with Uruguay’s place at the “vanguard” of international peace initiatives, and would be a “ripe” opportunity for Obama to lift the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba.

This too suggests that when Mujica leaves the presidency for a senate seat on March 1, he can be expected to use his elder statesman status to continue speaking out for human rights causes.

President-elect Tabare Vazquez has also shifted his public position on the country’s cannabis regulation law recently. In the lead-up to the election the ruling party candidate sought to distance himself from the unpopular measure, making it clear that he had doubts about the plan to sell the drug in pharmacies.

But in a December 4 interview on popular local talk show “En la Mira,” (see the 52:50-minute mark here) Vazquez appeared to have overcome at least some of these concerns. When asked about his position on pharmacy sales, Vazquez said he supported it, at least “in principle.”

It may seem a minor point, but the comment suggests his position has evolved considerably since October, when he described this aspect of the law as “unheard of” and even expressed concerns that pharmacists could be in danger. In an October 23 interview  on public television, Vazquez said he was worried that the law would expose pharmacies to the “relentless” violence of drug traffickers as a product of economic competition. “Surely they will come and tell [pharmacy owners], ‘we will set fire to your pharmacy or you will have some kind of accident’” Vazquez said.

Of course, the incoming president made it clear that he continues to have reservations about the law (“If I said I didn’t view [the law] with concern I would be lying,” Vazquez also said, as El Observador reports). But he also made it clear that he would implement the law to the letter and support a strict monitoring and evaluation process, which is essentially the same position held by the Mujica administration.

This is important, as local media and analysts are becoming increasingly skeptical that the law’s signature component -- the creation of a state-regulated marijuana market -- will be implemented before Vazquez’s inauguration. As experts consulted by El Observador note, it would be nearly impossible for a massive crop to be harvested and made available by March, even if the government were to select its commercial growing partners in the coming days.

News Briefs
  • In other Uruguay news, local paper El Pais has received a letter from Abd al Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, one of the six freed Guantanamo detainees who arrived in Montevideo over the weekend. In it, the Syrian citizen thanked Uruguay for freeing him from the “black hole” of Guantanamo, and promised that he and his five companions would bring “only goodwill and positive contributions” to the South American country. The Wall Street Journal notes that Foreign Minister Luis Almagro said all six took Spanish lessons in Guantanamo.
  • The Mexican attorney general’s office has confirmed that a university laboratory in Austria has matched up the DNA of remains found in a Guerrero dump to one of the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa, Reforma reports. The New York Times notes that the discovery lends weight to officials’ claims that the 43 were killed by a local drug gang working for corrupt officials. Animal Politico reports that the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) was also sent the analysis of remains, and met with family members of the disappeared on Friday to discuss the results.
  • Colombian ex-President Alvaro Uribe is once again playing peace talk saboteur. As Caracol Noticias reports, Uribe took to Twitter yesterday to claim that he had received word that the FARC were placing eight “conditions” on the continuation of the Havana talks. Among these are that the government cease referring to the guerrillas as terrorists, facilitate the demobilization of rebels and pay reparations to families of guerrilla commanders killed in action. Government sources have reportedly told BluRadio that this list is false, but Semana magazine notes that it is still generating backlash from figures in the country’s political establishment like Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.
  • O Globo reprots that Brazilian Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot has said he is preparing indictments against 11 construction company executives in connection with the country’s developing Petrobras scandal. As the New York Times notes, however, Janot himself has come under fire after an Isto E magazine report claimed he was preparing a plea deal for the accused that would keep the Rousseff administration shielded from legal scrutiny.
  • After NGOs PROVEA and the Venezuelan Prison Observatory released a statement last week calling for the resignation of Prisons Minister Iris Varela in light of recent inmate deaths in Lara state, the country’s opposition has embraced the demand as well. El Universal reports that the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) issued a press release advocating her removal, an independent investigation into the recent deaths, and for the prison system itself to be “decentralized.”
  • InSight Crime has a look at a high-profile criminal corruption case in Peru which has ties to President Ollanta Humala. Former Humala press advisor Martin Belaunde Lossio is accused of helping to embezzle money and finance criminal activity in the administration of former Ancash province Governor Cesar Alvarez, which the news site notes is the latest sign of disturbing criminal connections among Peru’s political elite.
  • While the Peru climate talks are entering their final week with clear conflicts emerging between developed and developing nations, last week saw the development of an important environmental accord among eight Latin American countries. As Reuters and La Tercera report, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru have signed on to Initiative 20x20, an effort to restore 20 million hectares of land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020.
  • The AP reports that a Cuban doctor who contracted Ebola while working in Sierra Leone last month has undergone a full recovery after being treated in a Swiss hospital, and returned hom to his country on Saturday.