In a series of increasingly pointed comments at international forums, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle has become the first sitting head of state to call for drug legalization. Batlle's remarks were the latest moves in an incipient effort by Uruguay and its Mercosur partners -- Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay -- to chart an independent path out of the US-led drug war quagmire.
Although Batlle spoke out weeks ago, on November 20th at the 10th Latin American Summit of Heads of State in Panama City and at the December 1st inauguration of Vicente Fox in Mexico City, both events well-attended by the international media, American media consumers never knew it happened. Not until the Narco News Bulletin (http://www.narconews.com) broke the story a week ago, with the Week Online and the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation both running with it, did any mainstream media outlet give mention.
The following paragraph appeared under Clifford Krauss' byline in the New York Times on December 23rd. It is the sum total of mainstream media reporting to date on Batlle's remarks.
"President Jorge Batlle, who is known for speaking his mind on contentious subjects, spoke out in favor of the decriminalization of drugs in a television interview. He said he was only trying to provoke debate, but it was the first time a Latin American president had suggested that partial legalization of drugs could help fight addiction."
Here's the rest of the story:
According to a Narco News investigation, Battle's advisors began circulating trial balloons last summer. (Visit http://www.narconews.com/heroyear2000.html for the complete account and links to Uruguayan press stories.)
On June 16th, Batlle's chief of staff, Leonarda Costa was quoted by El Observador (Montevideo) as saying Uruguay would open discussions with its Mercosur partners about "the idea of legalizing the consumption of drugs."
According to the newspaper, Batlle had already told the weekly Brecha he favored the legalization of drugs, and Costa confirmed it. "When the president said what he said, he was expressing his personal philosophy," he said. "But it is viable to the extent that other countries also do it."
Those remarks came as Batlle and other Latin American leaders confronted American pressures to support Plan Colombia, the US-designed military solution to Colombia's deep-seated civil war and drug production.
Batlle joined other South American leaders at the Brasilia summit at the end of August. In a joint declaration, they praised the Colombian government's protracted negotiations with leftist guerrillas, but pointedly refused to endorse Plan Colombia.
Then, on November 20th, while attending the Tenth Iberoamerican Summit of Chiefs of State and Government in Panama City, Batlle spoke out in greater detail.
According to Terra, an Uruguayan web-based news provider, Batlle called for a future summit devoted to the topic of the drug trade. "We can't go on avoiding things in life," he told his fellow leaders.
"How do you eliminate the profit from all of this?" asked Batlle. "Do you think that as long as that substance has such fantastic market power there could be any mechanism created to prevent its trafficking? How do you make it lose value so that everyone loses interest in that business?"
Batlle's answer? End prohibition.
"If that little powder was worth only 10 cents, there would be no organizations dedicated to raising a billion dollars to finance armies in Colombia," he said.
He also urged the assembled heads of state to "stop playing games, take a deep look and start seriously confronting the drug problem. But even if I'm wrong, why is there such a fear of asking ourselves this question?"
Ten days later in Mexico City, Batlle went even farther. According to El Observador, he pointed at the root of the problem. "The day that it is legalized in the United States, it will lose value, and if it loses value, there will be no profit. But as long as the US citizenry doesn't rise up to do something, they will pass this life fighting and fighting."
Again, Batlle's position appeared driven by concern about Plan Colombia. "You have to think about the origin of the thing," he argued. "Basically, where is this consumed? A minimum of 50 percent is consumed in the United States. It seems fine with me that my friend Pastrana (the Colombian president) tries to improve education, health and roads... but this doesn't resolve the problem."
He also compared today's drug wars to alcohol Prohibition, and predicted that the current stalemate will end "on the day that the consumers announce that this cannot be fixed by any other manner than changing this situation in the same way that was done with the 'Dry Laws.'"
And, Batlle told El Observador, he had personally pitched the idea of legalization to President Clinton. Batlle did not report on Clinton's response.
The 72-year-old Batlle won the presidency this year as head of the conservative Colorado Party, which defeated a coalition of centrist and left parties.
(Ed: Actually, we're not absolutely certain whether Batlle is the very first head of state to call for legalization. We're pretty sure he's the first in the Americas. A few years ago the King of Lichtenstein suggested "controlled legalization." We're not sure whether the King is an official head of state or an honorary position.)