How Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy?

By Isabella Bellezza-Smull*

A graffiti street sign

A “Say no to drugs” sign spotted in Santiago de Cuba. / tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cuba – unlike neighbors long wracked by the drug trade and its violence – has one of the lowest drug-use and homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, but national drug experts are debating how to adapt the country’s strategy to new challenges.  The debate is taking place amid positive evaluations by the Cuban government, the U.S. State Department, and others that indicate rates of illicit drug consumption, production, and retail in Cuba have been negligible, while reliable anecdotal information suggests a rise in drug use and transit as the country opens its doors to foreign trade, travel, and allows emergence of a domestic private sector.

  • Cuba credits its success to a comprehensive approach that includes confrontation, collaboration, prevention, and treatment. In conversation with U.S. drug enforcement counterparts, Cubans emphasize tough-on-drugs policies, including sanctions for drug possession, production, and trafficking, and to the effectiveness of the anti-drug police force, interdiction operations, and some 40 bilateral counternarcotics agreements.  To other partners, they stress multi-sector, humanistic prevention and treatment efforts directed by the Comisión Nacional de Drogas (CND).  The CND coordinates national health, education, justice, and community sectors to prevent and delay the initiation of drug use – and to treat it as a public health issue when it does occur.  Even though drug possession is a crime, the diversion of illicit drug users from the criminal justice system to health clinics has been an important element of national strategy.

Despite its successes, Cuba faces a number of challenges with respect to illicit drugs.  If Cuba continues to increase tourism and diversify its foreign trade, the possibility of drugs – and recreational drug cultures – reaching Cuban shores will increase, putting further stress on the country’s “just-say-no” approach.  The emergence of a class of Cuban entrepreneurs with increased disposable income could create a new appetite for drugs, and the possible exacerbation of economic inequality could make the illicit-drug market attractive, whether as producers or retailers.  A well-established context of informal markets and back-channel networks already exists that could be repurposed to distribute drugs.

Cuba’s robust public health, educational, and community-based institutions – the basis of protective factors related to drug abuse – afford the country an opportunity to adopt a more progressive approach to drug control.  The CND remains publicly committed to prohibition and fighting illicit drugs, but there are also signs that alternative strategies are being considered.  Cuba’s leading research center for drug treatment, the Centro para el Desarrollo Académico sobre Drogodependencias (CEDRO), is beginning to explore harm-reduction measures as an alternative to abstinence-based approaches – acknowledging, as its coordinator has said, that “not everyone who comes to consultation is willing to assume abstinence.”  Decriminalization of drug-use and possession appears extremely unlikely, even though studies in other countries show it reduces high-risk behaviors that increase the spread of infectious diseases and death from overdose, the diversion of law enforcement resources from serious criminality, and exploding prison populations.  More likely, Cuba’s debate probably will touch on adopting harm-reduction measures to treat and prevent problematic drug use, and investing in alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets involved in production, transport, and sale.

December 7, 2017

* Isabella Bellezza-Smull is Latin America coordinator for Global Exchange.  This article is adapted from a study – Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy for the Twenty First Century? – that she prepared for the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro.

Peru’s “New” Drug Strategy: Déjà Vu?

By Paul Gootenberg*

Eradicacion de la coca

“Peru’s national drug control agency just released a four-year counter-drug strategy in April that warns of the urgency to reverse the ongoing surge in cocaine production.” / Editora Perú / Creative Commons

Peru, with a capacity to produce about 350-450 tons of cocaine a year, has been approaching Colombia as the world’s top exporter since around 2011, but its new drug strategy is not likely to reverse that trend.  Most Peruvian coca now comes from the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM), and most cocaine flows towards Brazil not the United States.  Peru’s national drug control agency, DEVIDA (National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs), just released a four-year counter-drug strategy in April that warns – again – of the urgency to reverse the ongoing surge in cocaine production but offers few compelling or new ideas on what to do.  The report notes the “high risk for Peru that our country will repeat the cases of Colombia and Mexico” in violence, corruption, and other costs of a massive illicit narcotics trade.  The strategy has some serious flaws, however.

  • Although the report touts itself as a “Plan Integral,” military spending and eradication far outstrip “alternative development.” Coca “supply control” is the core of the program, though development efforts (mainly with cacao) are offered. Peru’s plan is mechanically sequenced – Pacification, Eradication, Services, and Development – and its rigid militaristic strategy draws criticism.  The latter seems basically directly against VRAEM peasants.  In 2014, a similar plan was announced to eradicate “50 percent” of the VRAEM coca in just one year, but nothing occurred because of the risky security environment.
  • The sources of some key data are unclear. The report cites UN information but apparently without taking into account the substantial flow of cocaleros and cocaine traffickers deeper into Amazonia, near the Brazilian and Colombian borders.  It generally treats the VRAEM, Peru’s main producing area, as an isolated containable “world apart” – poised for national “recuperation.”  Security threats in the area, including guerrillas, actually made holding off eradication since 2014 a wise move – it would have pushed cocaleros into the arms of guerrillas – but the new report fails to consider any blowback from its plan.
  • It glosses over the shortcomings of Peru’s security services to carry out what remains a heavily security-based strategy. It makes the startling admission that only 1.5-2.0 percent of VRAEM cocaine and 3-8 percent of cocaine nationally is seized – one of the lowest interdiction rates in the world.  (Colombia’s improved intelligence enables it to grab about half of cocaine in-country, and even weak Bolivia does better policing illicit cocaine.)  The ease of smuggling in Peru is directly related to the open corruptibility of Peru’s police, military, and politicians.  But except for money laundering, DEVIDA’s report barely addresses the corruption problem.
  • Peru, unlike Colombia and Bolivia, has never questioned the UN/U.S. international drug regime, nor does this report. But Peru should expect little overseas eradication aid in the Trump era, raising big doubts about the sustainability of a long-term program.

As Colombians learned after decades of drug war against coca growers, including Plan Colombia, forced eradication is one of the most inefficient and futile ways to combat drugs. Studies by Colombian economist Daniel Mejía show that the marginal cost of eliminating a kilo of cocaine from markets by aerial spraying is a whopping $247,000 – far more than a kilo’s price on the street.  Eradication also provokes violent conflict and propels growers to new areas, and Peru has many tropical basins ripe for raising coca.  Effective intelligence to hit labs and intermediary layers of cocaine trades pays bigger dividends.  So does enlisting cocalero unions on the side of the state – to self-police as in Bolivia (now with the region’s least illicit cocaine) and Colombia (where the 2017 peace accord now recognizes cocalero rights).  Peru marginalizes cocaleros, precluding the sort of socio-political strategy needed for success.  All in all, DEVIDA’s strategy makes it interesting to see whose plan will produce the best results by 2021 – Peru’s, Colombia’s, or Bolivia’s?

June 13, 2017

* Paul Gootenberg is Chair of the Department of History at Stony Brook University and author of Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.