Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Reexamine the War on Drugs

“We still need the United States at our side to advance the cause of human rights in our countries.”

Photograph by Nicolas Villaume/Aurora Select

The Next U.S. president has a unique leverage to shape humanity’s destiny. The disproportionate importance of the United States to the affairs of other countries creates a cruel paradox for those of us who are not U.S. citizens. We do not have the right to vote, but the outcome of the presidential elections will have a greater impact on Latin Americans—as well as on the citizens of other countries—than the outcome of our own local contests. We can only hope, therefore, that the policies which have caused such widespread damage over the last eight years will be replaced by significant and positive changes.

One area that calls for immediate re-evaluation is drug policy. It is time to discuss (together, instead of unilaterally) the anti-drug effort in the region. The U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to stop the flow of drugs to the north. The results are, to say the least, meager.

Recent figures show that the potential of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to produce cocaine is even greater today than it was ten years ago. Any success against the drug cartels that can be claimed in Colombia is offset in Mexico, which has seen a great increase in drug trafficking. Moreover, Mexican society is now experiencing unprecedented levels of drug-related violence. It is not a matter of condemning a priori all that has been done, but re-evaluating jointly what can be done. Among other issues we need to assess are the real impact of the programs aimed at reducing the production of coca leaves, marijuana and poppy plants; the success or failure of policies to reduce the demand for drugs in the U.S. and the region; the balance between the policies devoted to reducing the production of drugs; the effects of the “war on drugs” on citizen security and state corruption; and how to improve strategies to track and punish money laundering.

In the larger global arena, which also deeply affects Latin America’s future security, the new president needs also to focus on three specific areas in which U.S. credibility and action have been sorely damaged: climate change, international security and human rights.

The previous administration’s decision not to sign the Kyoto Protocol and its refusal to control greenhouse gases has caused damages to the environment that could be insurmountable. In my country, Peru, the snow on the Andes is melting at an astounding rate. Second, the world has become much less secure since the invasion of Iraq. Hate, frustration and distrust—all of which feed terrorism—are now considerably more intense and widespread than only a decade ago. Last but not least, by refusing to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, by approving and legitimizing torture in interrogations, by denying prisoners in Guantánamo their basic rights, and by fostering an environment that allowed the abuses in Abu Ghraib, the U.S. has diminished its moral authority on human rights.

Such policies adversely affect its neighbors in Latin America by giving silent sanction to the abuse of rights—and they must be reversed. But we must be consulted as well. The fact is, Latin America has changed, and the next president will need to take account of that fact. While the U.S. must reverse its policies that adversely affect its neighbors, the next president must also understand the significant changes taking place in the region that will affect the United States. In spite of our persistent and sometimes increasing internal divisions, Latin Americans are now prepared to have their own voice in global discourse. We are less likely to follow the U.S.’s lead. For instance, Mexico and Chile, two countries that can hardly be described as anti-American, both with free-trade agreements with the United States, expressed their opposition to the Iraq invasion in the United Nations Security Council.

We are also listening carefully to other voices outside the United States. Latin America has been strengthening its political and economic ties with Europe and Asia. For example, Mexico, Chile and Peru are active members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum. China is now a major market for our products and is heavily investing in many Latin American countries. Their growing economic importance for us is bound to generate, sooner rather than later, stronger political influence.

We are also paying attention to the growing importance of Hispanics within the U.S., and we hope the new president will, too. Listening to their voices will help you formulate policies toward the region that reflect our new realities.

For example, it is important to renew U.S. leadership regarding human rights in the region. I can attest, from personal experience, how committed the U.S.—especially the Department of State and the Congress—were to the improvements in the human rights situation of my country during the 1980s and 1990s. It is true that mistakes were made and sometimes U.S. leaders trusted the wrong people in government, thinking that in spite of their many flaws in other areas they were reliable allies in the counter-narcotics effort. Ultimately, they were proven wrong. But even with that, the balance was very positive and contributed to the improvements that took place not only in Peru, but in the region as a whole.

However, even if the situation is better that in the past, old threats persist and new threats have emerged. In some countries, democracy and human and political rights are menaced by elected governments themselves that bend and pervert institutions. We still need the U.S. at our side to advance the cause of human rights in our countries. We do not ask, pretend or even want, to be at the top of the U.S.’s priorities. We are not naïve. This is not going to happen. Actually, drawing a prudent distance has proven healthy for us. But a more mature and mutually productive dialogue on issues that are important for us can make a difference. The new president should take heed: political declarations will not be enough. It is time for action that renews the clear and undisputed moral authority of the United States. Leading a collaborative, honest discussion of U.S. drug policies is a great place to start.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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