The Gathering in Cartagena: The Global Social Forum Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, War, and the Drug Trade 6/20/03

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More than 4,000 activists and academics met in Cartagena, Colombia, on Monday for a week-long confab to discuss war and peace, democracy and repression, the drug war and drug legalization. Convening under the rubric of the Global Social Forum, whose first general session drew 30,000 people to Rio de Janeiro last year, this special thematic meeting marked the first time the so-called anti-globalization movement has put drug policy and drug prohibition on its international agenda.

But drug policy is only part of the social forum, with its dozens of speeches, panels, workshops and roundtables on topics ranging from women's rights to alternative media to organizing against violence, and much more. Even the most well-attended drug policy events draw only a quarter of the social forum participants, but that is unsurprising given the multiplicity of panels and forums going on at any given hour.

Drug reform is an issue whose supporters span a wide political range including the progressive left, the libertarian right, and others in between and outside those points on the ideological spectrum. The Cartagena forum fell solidly in the left portion of the spectrum, and this defined many of the aspects of gathering as a whole. Perhaps the single most outstanding feature of the forum was the drumbeat of criticism of the policies of the US government -- something that has been a staple of the Latin American left for decades, but which has now, in the post-Iraq war era, deepened and spread among delegates from all over the world.

This anti-Americanism, sharpened to an angry edge by the militarism of the Bush administration, was perhaps less evident in the drug policy sessions than among the forum in general, but it still informed the analysis of speaker after speaker. Strident words about US foreign policies, however, should come as no surprise at a meeting deliberately convened in Colombia, a country that has suffered terribly as US military aid to a government deeply complicit in the worst kinds of human rights abuses on one side, and drug trade profits on the other side, continue to escalate a decades-long civil war and violence of all kinds.

[While DRCNet was a willing participant in the social forum as part of its ongoing effort to help forge a global anti-prohibitionist movement, as an organization it takes no position on issues other than drug policy.]

Many panels consisted of presentations of academic work on various aspects of drug policy, while others provided a forum for peasant, student, youth and labor leaders to address their struggles with the war on drugs and its ramifications on their lives. Indeed, some of the most powerful presentations came not from scholars but from grassroots activists, such as Nancy Obregón of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Producers (interview below). "They call us the initiators of subversion, those who cause war, they say we are malicious and the coca leaf is evil," an impassioned Obregón told a rapt audience of hundreds. "Sadly, now to be a peasant is a sin. Our leader, Nelson Palomino remains in jail as a terrorist and a narco, and where does this persecution come from?" she asked. "Imperialism," she answered herself.

Talk of imperialism may sound quaint or trite to North American ears, but the view is quite different on the other side of the Caribbean. And on drug policy at least, they have a point -- as evidenced by the fact that Peru's president went straight to the US embassy for his next appointment after Obregón's meeting with him last spring.

"I'm not some big professor," Obregón continued, "just a humble peasant, but I speak from my heart. The sacred leaf is our life, and we are here to say no to the war on drugs, no to the violence it brings, no to war. We are defending the lives of the most humble, we are defending the kids who need a chance. The coca leaf is not a drug, cannabis is not a drug -- they are plants. They are not evil -- they are plants. This war on drugs is a big show and it is the great punishment of the world," she continued. "We must now stand against neoliberalism and with our Colombian comrades. The same that happened in Peru is now happening in Colombia -- more war, more hunger, more children without parents. We want Colombian children to live in a humane condition and we reject the violence of the war, whether by the government or the rebels or the paramilitaries. They talk about the war on drugs, but we are not drugs, we are human beings."

Just in case Obregón wasn't clear enough, Cuban academic Louis Soares drew the connections that seemed obvious to most of the audience. Noting that there had been no noises from Washington about invading countries like Holland, a leading manufacturer of synthetic drugs, particularly ecstasy, Soares declared that the US war on drugs is a "selective employment of the theme of consumption and traffic of drugs as part of a politics of aggression and hegemony toward the third world." Agreeing that plants are not somehow illicit, he blamed US capitalism. "Capitalism transforms the most sacred plants into commodities, then demonizes them," he said. "They do this to justify their politics of aggression. I invite all who have read the new Bush national security doctrine to note that it includes drug traffickers as one of the threats. This occurs within the political discourse that seeks to legitimize Plan Colombia, seeks to legitimize US military bases all over Latin America, and seeks to strengthen the forces of repression, supposedly to fight the drug traffic," he said to sustained and enthusiastic applause.

As DRCNet will report next week, not all the talk at the conference was the fire-breathing anti-American or anti-capitalist rhetoric exemplified by Soares. There were reasoned analyses of Afghanistan opium production and numerous micro-analyses of various aspects of the drug war, from the impact on peasants in the Andes to the rise of the drug "commands" in Brazil's favelas. Stay tuned for an in-depth report on the conference in our next issue.

Also next week, DRCNet will report on the resolution of an effort by global drug reformers, organized by the Mama Coca organization (, to form an international commission to research the damage done by prohibition as part of the struggle to convince governments and international organizations that prohibition must end. In a working session attended by nearly 80 drug reformers from around the world, participants began working to arrive at a consensus on whether a global commission was the correct step. There will be more meetings on this potentially very important step today (Friday), and DRCNet will update you on the results next week.

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Issue #292, 6/20/03 DRCNet Needs Your Help | Editorial: No Drug War Exception to Good and Evil | The Gathering in Cartagena: The Global Social Forum Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, War, and the Drug Trade | DRCNet Interview: Nancy Obregón, Sub-Secretary General of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers | DRCNet Interview: Anthropologist Anthony Henman | Dozens of Students to Embark This Weekend on 50-Mile "Skate for Justice" | Newsbrief: 12 Tulia Victims Walk Out of Jail | No Rockefeller Reform This Session | Candidate Dean Bending on Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: RAVE Act Reverberations | Newsbrief: Teachers Against Prohibition Reborn as Educators for Sensible Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Kentucky Supreme Court Tightens Law on Methamphetamine Prosecutions | Newsbrief: Thais Get Drug War Help from US | Newsbrief: US-Peru Anti-Drug Flights Set to Resume | Newsbrief: Israeli Company Receives Notice of Allowance from US Patent Office for Synthetic Marijuana Pharmaceuticals | Teen Facing 26 Years for First-Time Marijuana Offense Sentenced to Two | Marc Mauer Testimony on Comparative International Rates of Incarceration | The Reformer's Calendar

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