By Kevin Gatter
Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
The Obama Administration is claiming major progress in the war on drugs, but the evidence is subject to challenge – and the good news surely hasn’t reached Latin America yet. On July 9, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released an annual report that asserted a significant decline in the U.S. cocaine market, with sizable decreases in both the number of deaths caused by cocaine overdose and the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace. It also suggests that potential pure cocaine production capacity in the Andes has fallen by approximately 41 percent since 2001, including 10 percent last year alone. The report credits this decrease to numerous factors, including U.S.-Colombia partnership, “strengthened democratic institutions,” an increased commitment to counternarcotics cooperation and citizen security in Peru, alternative development, enhanced law enforcement efforts, and focused and persistent education about drug abuse.
Other experts say the picture may not be as rosy. The UNODC has yet to find what it considers accurate data on coca cultivation since 2011 and, importantly, asserts that declines in past years were offset by an increase in efficiency in the manufacturing chain from coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride. Additionally, the UNODC estimates that while the estimated total area of coca cultivation in 2011 was only three-quarters of the level in 1990, the quantity of cocaine manufactured in 2011 was at least as high as in 1990. In any event, it is important to recognize that even if the U.S. is consuming less cocaine, demand for other drugs remains high. Some analysts speculate that the U.S. market is moving away from Andean cocaine and toward marijuana and methamphetamines from Mexico. Furthermore, some experts say that growing cocaine demand in Europe and elsewhere is driving prices up and reducing U.S. consumption.
ONDCP’s report has a self-congratulatory tone that – combined with Obama’s clear de-emphasis of counternarcotics at his Central American Summit in San José in May – suggests eagerness to declare victory in a 40-year war against a scourge that continues to have dire implications for every country touched by the drug trade, especially those in Central America and Mexico. The data are extremely difficult to corroborate. Cultivation estimates, based on satellite studies of a sampling of possible growing areas, have been notoriously suspect, and the UNODC’s concerns about ignorance of leaf-to-cocaine yield are valid. Many of the flow estimates are based on interdictions, but U.S. agencies have openly acknowledged that interdiction operations have been significantly reduced for budgetary reasons. A drug flow that Washington doesn’t detect is not a drug flow that has disappeared. Moreover, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is based on self-reporting in interviews and omits significant populations, including the homeless and incarcerated. Policy makers around the hemisphere surely hope that ONDCP’s triumphalism is warranted, but the key indicators of success will be a decline in drug-related violence, a weakening of transnational criminal groups, an end to the southbound flow of arms from the United States, the flourishing of alternative economic options for coca farmers, and reversal a pervasive popular suspicion that governments and security agencies have been corrupted by the billions of drug dollars flowing through the region.
Posted by clalsstaff on August 7, 2013
Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons
Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America. His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region. Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.
Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies. He offered neither details nor hints of change. Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala. Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.” He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.” When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.
As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio. Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers. His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power. Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.
Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do. Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level. By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred. Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs. Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.” This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.
Posted by clalsstaff on January 28, 2013
Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons
Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements. In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.” Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements. (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.) President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care. Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration. The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.
While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosul trading bloc. Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords. Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere. The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.
The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic. Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements. There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued. Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties. Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba. These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.
Posted by clalsstaff on October 29, 2012
Photo is in the public domain
Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country. Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship. In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused. Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications. In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era. “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana. “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.” The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.
Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration. In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.” On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre. In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere. But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings. “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo. “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.” Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.” A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear. Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.” Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”
A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver. Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region. While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries. Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.
Posted by clalsstaff on October 5, 2012