David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 10/31/03
The US government's foreign policy agenda in Latin America is not doing so well these days. Last year's elections saw leftist governments take power in nations such as Brazil and Ecuador. In Bolivia, coca grower leader and socialist Evo Morales didn't quite win Bolivia's presidency, but he and his party did rise to dramatically greater political prominence by coming in a close third. Earlier this month the administration of Sanchez de Lozada was forced out of power amidst mass demonstrations after numerous protesters were killed by Bolivian authorities.
And just this past week, Luis Eduardo "Lucho" Garzon, opponent of Colombia's president Uribe, critic of US-imposed anti-drug policy, and a former member of Colombia's communist party, was elected mayor of the capital city, Bogota, considered the nation's second most important office. Key planks in his campaign were ending the drug war and resolving the nation's long-running civil war with the FARC rebels through negotiation -- positions which both conflict fundamentally with the US foreign policy agenda. Garzon has vowed to use his new position to challenge Uribe's policies. Finally, a voter referendum including a range of Uribe measures the US wanted was soundly defeated.
A little background on that referendum: A few years ago, Colombia's Supreme Court ruled that the legality of personal drug possession and consumption was guaranteed by the nation's constitution. The ruling was written by then chief justice and now senator Carlos Gaviria Diaz (a keynote speaker at our conference last February). After taking office, Uribe announced the referendum, including a provision aimed at overturning that ruling to prohibit drug consumption once again. Criticizing the anti-drug provision in Colombian media, Sen. Gaviria pointed out that the announcement came closely in the wake of a visit to Colombia by George W. Bush.
The drug measure didn't actually make it to the ballot, though. It was struck out of the initiative earlier this year, again by the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly -- after all, it was unconstitutional, the court had found the first time. No great friend to Colombia's constitution, Uribe vowed to pursue the matter legislatively instead. He drew criticism for that comment -- the provision would be just as unconstitutional as legislation now as it had been when the court struck it down the first and second times.
That could just have been empty rhetoric, of course. Far more serious are Uribe's attacks on NGO critics of his policies, accusing them of supporting terrorism, words which some have seen as giving a green light to killings of human rights activists. The government has even been accused of rounding up and detaining some critics on unsubstantiated charges of involvement with terrorism themselves. President Uribe isn't just a bad president; he is evidently a bad person too. Ironically, while Uribe has been unwilling to negotiate with the FARC, he has vigorously pursued negotiations with the right-wing AUC paramilitary groups, by all accounts the most terroristic of Colombia's extra-legal militias, responsible for thousands of political murders every year. But the paramilitaries are tacitly allied with the government, as evidence presented by human rights organizations of collaboration between those groups and the military has illustrated multiple times.
This is the ally the US government has chosen in Colombia, and the situation is not unique. Around the world, fighting drugs is a justification used by US foreign policy warriors for supporting undemocratic or unsavory regimes. Also unfortunately, it is an area of policy in which some regimes are willing to bow to US pressure in order to decrease the pressure a little in other areas. For example, the da Silva administration in Brazil came in talking about significant drug policy reform; Lula is on the record for many years criticizing the war on drugs. But one of the first favors he did for the Bush administration was to team up with the US in drug fighting; and then, to the consternation of supporters who expected better, he appointed a general to head the nation's anti-drug agency, not a public health professional as reformers and members of his own administration wanted.
Bolivia should have been a lesson to the US foreign policy mafia, and so should Colombia, but they probably won't be. Seeking US-style drug war there as around the world, they have found that the drug war in some countries is a little more violent and oppressive than large portions of the populace are willing to tolerate. By strong-arming national leaders into regressive drug policies that directly harm the people of those nations, they are alienating citizenries throughout the region, thereby undermining their allies and the rest of their policy objectives.
It's time for US drug policy makers to break with the autocrats of the world's dictatorships and pseudo-democracies, and rejoin our allies in the free world. We'll gain many more friends, or at least better friends, if we do.