A snapshot of policy trends and successes in the region.
Latin American frustration with the “war on drugs” is growing. Harsh anti-drug laws have failed to stem apparently rising drug use, and incarceration rates are climbing—up 40 percent on average in Mexico and South America over the last decade—with more drug users and low-level dealers behind bars. But high-level drug traffickers carry on with impunity.
Increasingly, many countries are leaning toward decriminalization as an alternative approach, hoping that it will be effective both in reducing consumption and dealing with associated health problems. This approach treats drug abuse as a public health and social policy issue rather than as a criminal justice problem. The goal is to encourage addicts to seek help, reduce prison overcrowding and free law enforcement to focus on dismantling drug-trafficking organizations.
Decriminalization proposals often spark fears that drug use will rise, but experts such as the University of Maryland’s Peter Reuter find no evidence of this in the case of personal marijuana consumption.
On August 25, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose criminal sanctions for the personal possession of drugs. Although narrowly written, the judgment paves the way for legislation that would decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal consumption.
The debate over health care reform in the United States has echoes in Latin America. But across the region, a variety of attempts to improve health care delivery—with Chile, Cuba and Colombia offering starkly different approaches—has resulted in quality care still being largely inaccessible. Some Latin Americans benefit from access to good local and international health care, but the majority struggle to obtain basic care.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, Latin American health care systems were quite similar. Typically, health care was offered to employees in the formal labor market through public health insurance plans paid for by a combination of employer, worker and government contributions. The poor had access to publicly delivered services of variable quality, while the wealthy relied on private services. Private charity organizations—mostly religious groups—attempted to fill the gap. But the result was fragmented and inequitable systems.
In 2006, high-school students in Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s education system, sparking President Michelle Bachelet’s first major crisis. Known as the Penguin Revolution (a term that refers to the students’ white and black uniforms), the protests accomplished what decades of public debate had failed to do: force a political agreement to reform institutional practices in place since the 1980s. The student movement—perhaps the most successful in the country’s history—responded to widespread complaints that despite public education funding, the system’s guiding principles perpetuate socioeconomic differences.
As a result, needed change has come to Chilean education. But there is still much work to be done.