Out from the Shadows: First Latin American Anti-Prohibition Summit Convenes in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico 2/21/03

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The first hemispheric conference organized to call for an end to prohibition and the drug war took place in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, Wednesday, February 12 through Saturday, February 15. Some 300 academics, activists, government officials, journalists and legislators from the United States, Latin America and Europe gathered at the Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century conference to seek new approaches to drug policy centered on regulation and legalization of drug consumption and the drug trade. Sponsored by DRCNet, with the cosponsorship of the Transnational Radical Party's International Antiprohibitionist League and Narco News, and hosted by the Yucatán newspaper Por Esto! and the Autonomous University of the Yucatán, Out from the Shadows brought together for the first time the many disparate voices calling for drug legalization in the Americas.

Argentine harm reductionists exchanged tips with their Mexico City counterparts, North American activists met with Andean coca growers and their supporters, Mexican marijuana activists mingled with Brazilian legalizers, and legislators from five Latin American countries came face to face with a hemispheric drug reform movement in all its diversity. In two days of speeches and workshops and innumerable informal encounters, advocates of drug legalization in the Americas began to take the first steps toward, as DRCNet's David Borden put it in his opening remarks, "demarginalizing our viewpoing and shifting it into the mainstream of the public debate."

But it was the grand old man of Latin American legalizers, former Colombian Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff, who set the tone for the summit in his opening address. Calling the policy of drug prohibition "a failed policy, an erroneous policy," de Greiff bluntly observed that it is "a strategy that does not work." Citing years of drug war in his home country, the bespectacled, white-haired scholar noted that, "It is illogical to think we can suppress drug use or drug consumption. It is a big lie."

There is a better way, he said. "We need a politics of regulation of drug production and consumption, one that includes education on the dangers of drugs and treatment for the fallen," he told a rapt audience. "The policy of legalization is not a policy of supporting drug use," he added, "but a strategy designed to ruin the business of the narcos and the corrupt, and to help the addict." De Greiff also touched on another theme popular with speakers and attendees alike: the malignant role of US drug policy on the countries and societies of the hemisphere. "Other countries have to follow US policy because of economic and political pressures," he lamented.

It was a theme taken up the same day by Por Esto! publisher Mario Menéndez, who accused US officials not only of foisting a failed and destructive prohibition policy on the hemisphere, but of actively abetting the trade. "The US is the biggest consumer drug market in the world," he said. "The drugs enter the US because of corruption. All that cocaine... the US authorities who say they are fighting drugs allow the smugglers to enter because the US receives the benefits. In Mexico, the government gives orders to let pass the drugs that enrich the US. They talk about getting the narcos, but they don't chase the powerful ones. This is business," he said. The US has a long history of cooperating with the drug trade, he added, citing the World War II-era deal with Italian mobster Lucky Luciano as well as Oliver North's dealing with cocaine-trafficking Contra "terrorists" in the 1980s. "Where are those famous puritan principles?" he asked. "What moral principles are we talking about?"

For Menéndez, too, the correct policy was clear. "The politics of Por Esto! is to legalize," he said. "The drugs must be distributed free to addicts in health centers, and we must have a campaign of education and rehabilitation. Drug prohibition is a perversion," he thundered. "You in the US have your prisons full of low-end drug offenders; they go in and they are not human beings anymore when they come out. US prisons are like factories for drug dealing; people come out as a labor force for organized crime. And now it is happening here."

But if Menéndez' call for legalization was uncontroversial at the conference, his attack on the US provoked Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) director Ethan Nadelmann to respond the next day. Nadelmann's reply both illustrated the difference in perspectives between North and South and represented an attempt to create a dialectic to bridge that divide.

"I want to challenge you to think in new ways about the forces behind the war on drugs," Nadelmann said. "Our capacity to organize and to act strategically depends on how sophisticated our analysis of the problems is. We cannot interpret all information through a single lens, and understanding what drives US drug policy is not so simple. I don't believe the war on drugs is driven primarily by economics," he added, conceding that there are economic interests that do profit from the drug war. "But the war on drugs is fundamentally in opposition to US economic and strategic interests."

Instead, Nadelmann continued, the motivating force behind US drug policy is "a quasi-religious imperative that comes from deep within our culture." In that sense, he added, US drug policy in Latin America is largely a projection outward of US domestic policy. "For you in Latin America who see the tremendous harms committed by my government, know that millions are also suffering in the US. And for those of you who ask, 'why doesn't America crack down harder at home,' I ask you to please stop saying that. Instead, we must build alliances across borders, across left and right, across the lines that divide worker and businessman."

With that appeal, Nadelmann touched upon another division within the hemispheric drug reform movement: the ideological divide between a Latin America historically more attuned to socialism, populism and anti-imperialism, and the libertarian impulse so prominent in the US drug reform movement and, increasingly, within Latin America itself. That tension was illustrated during the address of Fernando Buendía, advisor to new Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez and a leading official of Pachakutik Movement, the political branch of the nation's largest indigenous organization, CONAIE, and the driving force behind Gutierrez's electoral victory.

Buendía gave an eloquent speech, rooted in the traditions of Western dissent, in which he called drug abuse a result of the "crisis of Western civilization," which worships reason but destroys the social fabric. "Savage capitalism," said Buendía, "destroys human community and converts us into a set of atomized consumers. It decomposes ancient social bonds among families and communities, and people look to fill the immense vacuum with drugs. The war on drugs is part of savage capitalism," Buendía argued.

While his remarks were well-received by many in the audience, Costa Rican legislator Rolando Alfaro, for one, grimaced noticeably and shook his head at times. Alfaro, a member of Costa Rica's libertarian-leaning Movimiento Libertario party, had earlier told the conference he hoped for the triumph of the same Western reason that Buendía criticized. How the tension between the libertarian call for individual rights and the Latin American concern for community and society plays out will undoubtedly be a point of continuing concern as drug reformers of the left and the right seek to forge a unified movement.

But ideological and other divisions at Mérida should not be overstated. Most of the conference, both in formal sessions and in informal conversations, centered on addressing the concrete problems of creating a hemispheric movement for regulation and legalization. Whether it was Uruguayan Deputy Margarita Percovich calling on neighboring Brazil to step forward on drug reform, Mexico City harm reductionists seeking to forge links with their Argentine counterparts, the Bolivian delegation calling on the rest of the hemisphere to support its struggle on behalf of coca farmers, or Transnational Radical Party Members of the European Parliament urging Latin American governments to support change in the United Nations conventions on drugs, the primary focus of the conference was not debating differences but finding ways to work together.

The Bolivian delegation certainly had little time for philosophical questions. With their nation in flames -- fighting between police and soldiers left 19 dead in Bolivia the day before the conference started (see related story below) -- the Bolivians arrived without their most prominent leader, Congressman Evo Morales, who had initially planned to attend. But Congressman Felipe Quispe, El Mallku (high leader) of the indigenous Aymara Nation, did make it to Mérida, where he gave a heartfelt address vowing never to surrender to the coca eradicators in La Paz and Washington. "Coca may be a poison for the white man, but it is a blessing for the Indians," said Quispe. "Coca is everywhere. There is no other agricultural production in the coca areas. This is our livelihood; it buys us food to eat and clothes to wear. If we can't grow coca, what will the government do? They want to stop us, but it is impossible."

The Bolivian government cannot win, said Quispe, because its soldiers and police do not want to die for coca eradication. "We are willing to die for our coca," he vowed. "Coca or death! The government will never win because the Indians are mobilized and we will not stop here. In the eyes of the elite, my brown face makes me invisible, but the middle ranks realize they will never win. We demand respect," said Quispe, "we demand respect for our traditions and for the coca plantations."

And if, as Quispe argued, "coca is everywhere," that was certainly evident in Mérida. Many conference attendees sampled coca leaves and coca candy courtesy of Peruvian coca expert Baldomero Cáceres and the delegation from the National Association of Coca Producers. (Meanwhile on the streets of Mérida, a conservative and relatively isolated provincial city, both cocaine powder and crack could be procured quickly and cheaply by any interested party.)

Cáceres and Quispe were not the only ones waving coca leaves. In an emotional speech, Peruvian cocalero leader Nancy Obregon from the Huallaga Valley, told the conference that her people would never give up their coca. "For us, the sacred coca leaf is our life," she said. "It is our history, our economy, it provides the education for our children. It is the source of our history and the source of our heritage," explained the 35-year-old subsecretary general of the Peruvian Confederation of Coca Growers (CONCPACCP). And Obregon called for stronger struggle against the machinations of Washington, exhorting her audience to stand tall against eradication. "What is it we lack to confront Washington?" she asked. "Is it courage? Do we lack the will? We lack dignity, my friends, and to regain this dignity, we must fight to achieve our objectives."

For Cáceres, too, the leaves of the coca plant are "holy leaves, a gift from Father Son and Mother Earth. But I can't take them to the US." How can a plant be illegal?, he asked. "These are medicinal plants, not drugs." Cáceres also urged a reevaluation of attitudes toward drug use. "I smoke marijuana and I am not disturbed, but the psychiatrists say I am an addict," said the sixty-something academic. "Also, I drink alcohol. Therefore I am a complete lunatic in the eyes of Catholic Lima, which believes in sin."

It was not sin on the minds of parliamentarians in attendance, but changing the global prohibition regime. "Los dos Marcos," the Italian Radical tag-team of Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato, entranced legislators and activists alike with their discussions of efforts to reform the system of UN conventions that dictate the bounds of the permissible in national drug policies. UN anti-drug strategy will be evaluated at a meeting in Vienna in April, Cappato said. "A reevaluation of the failed war on drugs is possible at the UN," he noted. "We are coordinating legislators from around the world and we are talking about how to unite to take our efforts to the next level."

While urging governments to cooperate in amending or revoking the UN conventions, Cappato also called for other forms of political action. "We need proposals for governments to take to Vienna," he said, "but we must also go to the streets. We are right, but being right isn't enough. The prohibitionists seek to impede debate, so we must transform our ideas into political action, into popular action."

Likewise, Colombian senator and former chief justice of the Colombian Supreme Court Carlos Gaviria was more interested in human rights than morality. Gaviria, who authored the 1994 decision legalizing the use and possession of drugs in Colombia, also called for legalization as the only workable solution. "The drug problem must be seen as an economic and human rights problem," he told the conference. "The only solution is legalization, but it will be a long, hard process." Drug consumption by itself should not be within the purview of the state, he added. "Just taking drugs in itself does not hurt the rights of others, and a democratic, pluralistic state cannot justify this. There is no worse dictatorship than that which seeks to impose its ideas over all others."

But the current Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe is heading in a different direction, Gaviria told DRCNet. "They are seeking a referendum to recriminalize drug use," he said. "This is a very repressive position from a very repressive government. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to accomplish this."

But while Colombia under its current leadership is heading steadfastly backwards, other governments in the region may be more amenable to change, according to various conference participants. Uruguayan legislator Margarita Percovitch told the assembly efforts are underway at home to create more progressive drug policies. And although Brazilian Deputy Fernando Gabeira could not attend the conference, he sent a statement in which he vowed to work for change under the new government of President Lula Da Silva. Similarly, Ecuador's Buendía told DRCNet that while the new government there has barely had time to take office, it was reviewing drug policy and that Ecuador had already decriminalized drug use. But consumption is not the problem in Ecuador, Buendía said, the problem is the drug traffic and the resulting "sinister proposals like Plan Colombia, that seek to militarize and control the region."

For all the talk about coca and the drug war in South America, the conference took place in Mexico, and delegates from the host country also had plenty to say. Mexican congressman Gregorio Urias German from the state of Sinaloa, long a hotbed of the drug traffic, called for bringing the debate on drug policy to a new level. "If we can't even discuss the alternatives, if we can't even admit the drug war is a failure, then we will never solve the problem," Urias argued. Existing forums, such as the UN and the Organization of American States, are not fruitful places to advance this discussion, he said, "because only the repressive policies of the United States are discussed at these forums." Instead, Urias said, he has been working with a group of Latin American parliamentarians to advance discussion of the issue.

But while Urias averred that his interest was "the majority of society, not drug users," members of the Mexican pro-marijuana movement spoke of an emerging drug consumers' movement in there. Members of groups such as the Mexican Association for Cannabis Studies (AMECA), magazines such as Generación, and web sites such as Ricardo Sala's vivecondrogas.com, described the growth of the movement in Mexico, regaling attendees with tales of the Million Marijuana Marches in Mexico City and the nascent struggle to open a space for pot-smokers in a country that remains a leading marijuana producer. Similary, Julio Schnell of hemp.com.mx described the emergence of activism around hemp issues in Mexico. And Cuban-born Mexican resident Sylvia Maria Valls would have been at home at any US pro-pot rally. "We must revoke any laws that criminalize the use of these plants," the activist grandmother said. "Cuban independence hero Jose Marti once said 'the final struggle is between false erudition and true knowledge,'" she continued. "We must trust the wisdom of our people."

A single report cannot do justice to all that occurred in Mérida -- the workshops on social movements, organizing for Vienna, and attacks on freedom of the press in the name of the drug war; the panels on legislative efforts, the informal gatherings and much more. DRCNet will be providing videotapes of the entire conference in the near future, as will Italy's Radio Radicale, and interested readers may also want to visit the Narco News web site, which is already full of reports from the 26 young journalists awarded scholarships by the Narco News/Por Esto! School of Authentic Journalism who covered the conference and who retreated this week to Isla Mujeres off the Cancun coast for more studies.

The Mérida conference was a first for the hemisphere, and numerous participants told DRCNet that while no concrete proposals resulted and no manifestos were drafted, the conference was the beginning of something bigger. Enthusiasm for making the conference an annual event was also high, with the refrain "next year in Rio," being heard repeatedly. Alternately, Ecuador's Buendía suggested that DRCNet bring a delegation to the annual Global Social Forum, which will convene next January in Quito.

And as a first try, the conference was not perfect, or at least, some participants had suggestions to make it better. A number of attendees complained of a lack of time for discussion or questions. "It might have improved matters a bit if we could have had questions and comments at the end of long speeches," said Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt of the London-based Mordaunt Trust and editor of the Users' Voice, a British harm reduction publication.

That critique was echoed by Silvia Inchaurraga of the Latin American Harm Reduction Network. "Some people came from very far away and had many things to discuss, but didn't get a chance to do so," she told DRCNet. "And perhaps we should have had a declaration or manifesto of common purpose," she added. "We also need more clarity about different models of legalization or regulation and the distinctions between decriminalization and legalization. This is not something that is necessarily clear to the Latin Americans."

And though conference organizers strove to maintain a strong focus on Latin American voices, attendees from throughout Latin America had a complaint they didn't expect -- more of the speakers should have been from the US.

But all in all, conference attendees seemed uniformly happy to be there and pleased with the results. They were, after all, present at the birth of what promises to be a vigorous and growing hemispheric drug reform movement that can play a vital role in a global effort to end prohibition in the 21st century.

Visit http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/shadows/ for background information and ongoing updates on the global anti-prohibition campaign.

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Issue #275, 2/21/03 Out from the Shadows: First Latin American Anti-Prohibition Summit Convenes in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Mérida Interview: María Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca | Mérida Interview: Luiz Paulo Guanabara, Brazil, Executive Director of Psico-Tropicus | Rosenthal Verdict Fallout: Angry Jurors, Media Attention, a New Bill in Congress | Victory for Bolivian Coca-Growers Imminent, Reports Say Government Will Allow Coca in the Chapare | Thailand War on Drugs Turns Murderous, 600 Killed This Month -- Human Rights Groups Denounce Death Squads, Executions | Peoria Needle Lady Busted in Pekin, But Charges Later Dropped | Drug Czar's Office Masks TRUE Costs of War on Drugs in Federal Budget | Newsbrief: DEA Kills 14-Year-Old Girl in San Antonio, Claims Self Defense | Newsbrief: US Spooks Killed, Captured in Colombia | Newsbrief: French Cannabis Activist Faces Jail for "Encouraging Drug Use" | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week I | Newsbrief: Corrupt Cop of the Week II | Newsbrief: Oklahoma Report Urges Sanity in Sentencing | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar
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