OAS Drug Report: Let’s Get Serious

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA - OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA – OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The Organization of American States’ most recent report on the drug problem in the Americas – released last week in Bogotá – takes a fresh, analytical look at the issue and, by advocating discussion of new approaches, subtly signals the “war on drugs” so far has failed.  The report was mandated by hemispheric leaders last year at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, who “agreed on the need to analyze the results of the current policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective.”  It takes an analytical approach toward drug-related problems in the hemisphere and includes a discussion of both the supply and demand factors of the drug trade.  (Click here to view the OAS documents.)

The report does not make bold policy recommendations.  It calls for greater attention to the public-health implications of the drug problem, but generally avoids advocating particular strategic solutions to the production, transportation and consumption of illegal narcotics, instead providing different scenarios for the evolution of the drug problem in the Americas.  It envisions the legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, in various countries, but makes clear that the OAS is not advocating legalization or decriminalization.  Instead, the report emphasizes the need for countries in the Western Hemisphere to work together to combat the drug problem and discuss new approaches.

The OAS’s unique status in the hemisphere – demands on its performance are high but support for its efforts  from key governments in the region is inconsistent – may not make it the best organization to take the lead on an issue as thorny as the “war on drugs.”  The increasingly clear consensus south of the Rio Grande is that the past couple decades of effort have been not been worth the cost in dollars and lost lives, and many Central Americans, in particular, believe the militarized approach has been disastrous.  Often criticized by U.S. politicians and bureaucrats, Secretary General Insulza was probably wise not to use the report to formalize the hemisphere’s rejection of Washington’s policies.  But moving the discussion to the analytical level – rather than parroting support for another Plan Colombia or Mérida Initiative – is a significant accomplishment in itself.  Rolling out the report in Bogotá, where talk of “new approaches” is also growing, probably helped strike the right balance between old and new.  In addition to platitudinous calls for regional cooperation, the OAS can demonstrate its leadership and relevance by channeling the criticism, the lessons learned, frustration with U.S. consumption, and regional governments’ prescriptions on the way ahead into a serious, constructive strategy for the hemisphere.  With this report, the OAS has indicated that it’s time to get serious about viable alternative solutions to this multi-faceted issue – and that clinging to old models and rejecting new ideas is no longer an acceptable response to calls for rethinking the “war on drugs.”

The Overlooked Dimension of U.S. Immigration Reform

By Eric Hershberg

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

The 2012 U.S. presidential elections brought national attention to the Latino vote and, with it, immigration reform.  Embarking on his second term, President Obama immediately labeled the matter a priority, and some but not all of the Republican leadership is eager to reach a deal.  Beyond electoral calculations, there are many good reasons for Washington to finally resolve the status of roughly 11 million people living in the United States without legal documentation.  The border with Mexico has become increasingly impermeable, stripping critics of reform of one of their principal talking points.  Virtually all credible studies demonstrate that immigrants contribute more to the tax base than they receive from public expenditures, and they are a crucial source of community revitalization in some of the nation’s depressed cities and towns.  Meanwhile, a generation of youth brought to the country as young children – the “Dreamers” – languishes without recognition of their de facto status as Americans.  There are also humanitarian issues: families and neighborhoods are torn apart by the more than 400,000 deportations in each of the past several years.

Immigration reform matters to Latin America as well.  With millions of Latin Americans residing in the United States, several of the region’s economies are highly dependent on a steady flow of remittances, which are destined to increase if undocumented workers come out of the shadows.  In 2012, Mexico and Central America received more than $35 billion from migrants in the U.S.  Particularly striking is the case of El Salvador, a U.S. ally.  Nearly a third of its population lives in the U.S., and remittances surpass all other sources of revenue – now 16 percent of GDP.  For several Central American governments the welfare of migrants working in the U.S. is not only a humanitarian concern: these citizens are a crucial foundation for economic viability – and thus nothing less than a national security priority.

Yet remarkably absent from the U.S. immigration debate are the implications of a comprehensive reform for the eroded credibility of the U.S. in Latin America.  Virtually alone among senior officials, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged soon before leaving her post that creating a pathway to citizenship “will be a huge benefit to us in the region, not just in Mexico, but further south.”  The point merits emphasis.  The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, the result of domestic policy shortcomings, has serious consequences for U.S. standing in the region – as serious as other policy failures such as Washington’s continued inability to normalize relations with Cuba, to stop illicit gun exports, or to stem the demand for illicit drugs that is fueling violence and corruption across the region.  If the new administration wishes to avoid a replay of the open rebellion by Latin American governments against U.S. policy that emerged at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, it would do well to show the region that it is willing and able to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

The U.S. Election: A Sigh of Relief, A Moment of Hope?

Photo by: Hanoian | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin American media see a glimmer of hope in President Obama’s reelection that was largely absent during the campaign.  The breadth and composition of the coalition that carried Obama to victory appears to have impressed commentators, and some believe that Obama might be freer of political constraints in a second term.  In Mexico, undergoing its own presidential transition, there is expectation that continuity in Washington will facilitate a smoother transition there.  The prospect that Obama will be willing, and perhaps more able, to press for additional stimulus measures to jumpstart the U.S. economy – with obvious benefit for interdependent Mexico – may also be a factor.  El Tiempo in Colombia noted that “with Obama, there won’t be surprises,” and that stability is welcome during the difficult peace talks.  The ALBA countries generally welcomed Obama’s reelection, and – probably reflecting a wider view – Cuban media proclaimed: “U.S. elections: the worst one did not win.”  Some media, such as Brazil’s O Globo, reminded readers that the U.S. House of Representatives remains under Republican control, and that the GOP “had been kidnapped” by the Tea Party.

A quick review of regional commentary reveals interest in the fact that Latino voters, more than 70 percent of whom opted for the President, were an important part of his coalition in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico.  Despite the Obama administration’s record number of deportations and its failure to introduce comprehensive immigration reform during its first term, there is little doubt that the President’s June 2012 decision to implement provisions of the Dream Act increased enthusiasm.  Challenger Mitt Romney’s tough talk on Cuba and Venezuela did not win over South Florida, suggesting that demographic change is undermining support there for hardline policies.  Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “Obama needs to recognize and pay that debt to the Latinos.”

No one so far has dared to expect a major shift in emphasis toward Latin America during Obama’s second term, but reelection gives the President another opportunity to make good on his vision for “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.”  Early analysis of the voting, particularly in Florida and in Latino communities, suggests that he will have the political space to live up to the expectations created by his soaring rhetoric during his first Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Not only can he explore reasonable approaches to longstanding issues such as Cuba, which will improve the U.S. image throughout the region; he can reengineer Washington’s relations with Central and South America in ways that reflect the region’s own evolution and ambitions – enhancing and facilitating them, rather than fearing or even resisting change.  If Latin America is ready to move into the future with a new, constructive interaction with the United States, now is the time to give it a try.

The Demise of Partnership?

Graphic: Summit of the Americas organization; public domain.

The real news at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April was the dissonance between the Obama administration – with its sincere but content-free rhetoric of partnership – and Latin American leaders across the political spectrum, even among the friendliest.  This was in sharp contrast to the Summit in 2009, when the region was palpably excited about the new American President.  This year, press reports portrayed President Obama as unaware that the hemisphere is changing, and noted that he oddly said that criticism of U.S. policy was reminiscent of the Cold War, while he put himself out on the fragile limb of defending a Cuba policy rooted in, precisely, the Cold War.

Most observers in the region judge that the main takeaway from Cartagena is that while Washington offers little and listens less, Latin America is moving away.  Over the past decade South America has sustained rates of economic growth higher than any since before the oil shock of 1973, and the U.S. is hardly an unchallenged source of trade and investment.  (Chinese and EU trade with South America has surpassed that with the United States.)  Chavez’s aid to Cuba and Nicaragua far exceeds Washington’s meager offerings to even best friends like El Salvador.  The Brazilian National Development Bank, BNDES, provides more loans in the region than the World Bank and Inter-American Bank combined.

Americans’ fascination with the Cartagena prostitutes dwarfs interest in the lessons of the serious regional dynamics that played out in the Summit.  Whether U.S. political leaders and pundits acknowledge it or not, failure to dialogue seriously with neighbors about the 50-year effort to change the Cuban regime or the failure of the 40-year “War on Drugs” will have consequences for the United States.  Washington rejects the region’s efforts to re-think issues, such as the wisdom of the current approach to narcotics, at its peril.  Central America was an unhappy front-page story in the 1980s and now threatens to reemerge as a major headache because of domestic crime (fueled by U.S. deportations) and the drug trade – while Washington fiddles with time-worn formulas and programs.  The Obama Administration still has time to make good on its pledge of “partnership” and get serious about listening to and working with our neighbors.