Friday, January 10, 2014

"Peace with drugs" could be better than the failed "war on drugs" - Uruguay shows the way

Uruguay was named as " the country of the year in 2013" by the Economist magazine ( 21 december issue) for its bold and pioneering decision to become the first country in the world to legalize and regulate production, sale and consumption of cannabis. "Heroic uruguay deserves a Nobel peace prize for legalizing cannabis", wrote Guardian in its 12 December edition. 

Uruguay passed a law in December 2013 decriminalizing, legalizing and regulating the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. Under the new law, which will come into force from April 2014, consumers can grow up to six plants of marijuana and possess as many as 480 grams for personal use. The National Institute for Cannabis Regulation will provide seeds to those who want to grow and control quality and quantity of production. Marijuana clubs consisting of 15 to 45 members would be granted permission to grow up to 99 plants at a time. The users can also buy cannabis from the licensed  pharmacies. Users would have to register in a national data base which will remain strictly confidential and available only for consultation by pharmacists to enforce the 40g a month limit for each consumer. The use of marijuana is limited to Uruguayan nationals above 18 years of age. 
The government has set a price of one dollar a gram of cannabis, making the drug affordable. The government will get tax revenue from the sale of the drug.
The new Uruguayan law breaks the dangerous dependence of the drug users from the criminal drug traffickers by offering cannabis legally and letting them to grow it themselves. The stronger and more expensive drugs sold by the drug cartels, will be less appealing to consumers who will find the legitimate lighter cannabis safer and inexpensive. The drug cartels will lose consumers and profits. Since the cannabis is affordable, the consumers will indulge less in stealing and other crimes to get money for their addiction. The government will save in policing costs and get some revenue by taxation from cannabis as they do in the case of alcohol and tobacco
The Uruguayan "experiment" as President Mujica of the country put it, is timely and inevitable given the global consensus that the war on drugs is a failure and that there is a need to explore other options to deal with the issue. Despite the enormous resources used against trafficking and imprisonment of millions around the world, the consumption continues unabated. Drug trafficking vitiates the society with crime, violence and corruption while making enormous illegal profits. The clearest example is the failed policy of former President Calderon of Mexico who had made the " war on drugs" as his top priority and put the armed forces besides the police to fight the traffickers. At the end of six years of his term, the situation has gone worse with more crime and violence.
Drug trafficking is a demand-driven business especially by the huge demand from US and Europe. The current way of dealing with the supply side alone can never succeed. Solutions need to be found by recognizing the reality of consumption and demand. It is not just a law and order issue that could be solved by jails and police. Equally, it is a social welfare and public health care issue. It is this logical realization which has lead to calls legalization of the drugs  by political and civil society leaders of Latin America. In their address at the UN General Assembly session in 2013, the Presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica, among other Latin American presidents, called for a review of the war on drugs and look at alternative solutions to the drug issue. They have argued that the effects of drug trafficking on the society  have been worse than the drugs themselves. It is in this background that Uruguay has taken the first step. It may, however, be noted that Uruguay, being a small peaceful country, did not have a serious drug problem or dangerous trafficking cartels as in the case of Mexico or Honduras. Netherlands and the US states of Colorado and Washington have already legalized consumption. From January 2014, Colorado is legalizing even the sale of cannabis.
The demand-driven drug problem of US and Europe is in complete contrast to the supply-driven drug problem created in China by the Europeans in the seventeenth century. At that time opium consumption was illegal in  China while the Europeans had considered their trafficking as legal. The British even started and fought the Opium Wars forcing the Chinese to legalize the opium trade.

The war on drugs bears comparison to the failed policy of prohibition of alcohol in US in the period 1920-33 mandated under a constituitional amendment. The policy of prohibition did not stop consumption but created mafias who supplied the market at huge profit and vitiated the society with criminality, corruption and violence. The US had to repeal the prohibition act in 1933 recognizing the failure of the policy. What Uruguay has done is a similar recognition of the failed policy on drugs. Uruguay will now deal with drugs similar to the way in which the world is dealing with alcohol and tobacco by regulating and taxing the consumption and production. 

Latin America has been a victim of the US-lead war on drugs and has suffered more death and devastation than other regions. The US has been fighting the drug war in the Latin

American soil by forcing the Latin American armed forces and police to use destructive chemical sprays of agricultural land to eradicate coca cultivation and helicopter gunships and lethal weapons to fight the drug traffickers. This has resulted in bloodshed, destruction and disaster for Latin America. The Latino drug traffickers kill each other and civilians in order to continue to supply the US consumers. Even militant political and terrorist groups such as FARC of Colombia and Shining Path guerrillas of Peru have used drug trafficking to finance their activities. On the other hand, the drug crime is fuelled by the illegal flow of arms and dollars from US.
The worst example is
Mexico, which is being torn apart by the beheadings, assassinations and other acts of horror unleashed by the drug traffickers day in and day out. The number of people killed in the drug-related violence in Mexico ( estimated to be over 60,000 in the last six years ) should be more than the number of deaths caused by drugs in US.
Colombia almost became a failed state and drug cartels held the country to ransom for many years. S
mall countries such as
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have become the the most violent countries in the world because of the drug traffickers, who use these countries as transit points
. Drug trafficking and related crimes have made many cities and countries of Latin America unsafe.
The US has pumped lot of money, resources and weapons to the armed forces and police of many Latin American countries in the name of aid for the " war on drugs". The US has militarized the issue with linkage to its defense industries and intelligence agencies. The US Drug Enforcement Agency ( DEA), which has offices in many countries and cities of Latin America is believed to continue the work of CIA in the past. It is because of this suspicion that President Evo Morales forced the US to close the DEA office in La Paz. The American pressure on the law enforcement agencies of Latin America to focus excessively on the war on drugs distorts the local law and order priorities. The US had also used drug cartels of Latin America for their dirty wars in the region including in the Contra War against Nicaragua. The US had patronized dictators such as Noriega of Panama and allowed his drug trafficking in return for his support in the Contra War. US provides arms, training and intelligence liaison to the Latin American law enforcing agencies in the name of the fight against drugs. Clearly, such US support to and linkage with Latin American armed forces is seen as politically undesirable given the history of US-inspired military coups in the region. The Honduran armed forces, which overthrew the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, are a large recipient of US aid for the fight against drugs.  This coup, the first in the twenty first century Latin America came as a rude shock and wake up call for the Latin American democracies which had come out of military dictatorships in the nineteen eighties. . There is, therefore, a strong suspicion in Latin America that the so called " war on drugs" by US has a broader political agenda than simple fight against drug trafficking. The US war on drugs is seen as resembling their war on communism which was used to destroy democracies and create military dictatorships in Latin America.
There is another Latin American dimension to the issue of drugs. In Bolivia, Peru and some parts of the Andean region, indigenous people chew coca leaves as part of their tradition. Coca leaves, considered as sacred, are used in religious ceremonies, similar to the use of betel leaves in the Tamil tradition in India. People in the Andean mountains chew coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness,to fight hunger and also for medicinal purposes.  But the UN Convention on Narcotics equates coca leaves with heroin and cocaine and says that" coca leaf chewing should be abolished". The Bolivian government under the indigenous president Evo Morales, who himself  comes from a coca cultivators community, has fought for the rights of his people to chew and grow as part of their tradition. When his demand was not agreed, Bolivia withdrew from the UN Convention in 2011 but has rejoined in 2013 as a party with the right to use coca leaves for traditional purposes. Peru, which has recently replaced Colombia as the largest producer of coca leaves, is also against demonisation of coca leaves.
The new drug law did not pass unanimously in the Uruguayan Congress. In the senate, the bill was passed by a narrow margin of  16 to 13 and in the lower house 50 to 49. There was lot of opposition among the political parties and even the public opinion was divided. Critics hold the view that the new law will encourage and lead to increase in consumption. Critics point out that the users of hard drugs as well as young consumers below 18 years of age will continue to go to the illegal traffickers. The International Narcotics Control Board has criticized the Uruguayan law, saying that it violates the UN treaties on drugs. But the Uruguayan President has upheld the right of his country to try a new solution for the issue and has called for the support of the world in this new policy experiment.

The world will watch closely the Uruguayan experiment. Other Latin American countries might follow the example of Uruguay. The Argentine head of the anti-narcotics agency has already called for a debate on the drugs issue in the wake of the Uruguayan initiative. The Uruguayan experiment could not only lead to a solution for the drug issue but will also free the region from the US interference on the pretext of the war on drugs.

It is, indeed commendable that the small ( population just 3.4 million) Uruguay has had the big vision and boldness to try an alternative approach to the global issue of drugs. This is not surprising, given their past tradition of being in the vanguard of many reforms. For example Uruguay declared itself as secular in 1917; In 1913 it became the first in the region to grant divorce to women who requested them. It introduced voting for women in 1927; It approved abortion in 2012 and same sex marriage in 2013.

Those upset with the initiative of Uruguay should not forget that the tiny Uruguay had caused the biggest upset in World Cup football history by winning against the colossal Brazil in 1950. Uruguay went into the final as an underdog with 3 points while the favorites Brazil with 4 points needed just a draw to win the cup. It had caused an earlier upset in the 1930 World Cup beating the other neighboring giant Argentina.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

2014 holds promise of better political future and higher economic growth for Latin America

Politics of the region will be more pragmatic and less polarized  and radical in 2014 and in the coming years thanks to the end of Chavism. The death of Chavez in March 2013 is a turning point for the region which was polarized by his virulent ideological warfare in the last fourteen years. He had revived the bad old image of "Caudillos" ( strong men) of the region. He saw his country and the region as a black and white world of either followers or enemies. In the name of his confused " 21st century socialism" he was hostile to private sector business and ruined it in Venezuela. Chavez had divided Latin America with his extreme positions on regional and global issues. With his petrodollar patronage he tried to create a group across the region to follow his example.  Venezuela today is much worse politically, economically and socially than before Chavez came to power. It has the highest inflation in the region, power shortage, huge black market for foreign exchange, import controls, long queues in front of poorly supplied supermarkets, rampant corruption and the worst law and order situation. Although Chavez gave some hope to the poor people with his populist policies, he has damaged the democratic and other institutional framework of the country very severely. This has given a clear message to the other Leftists in the region that this is the path they should avoid. Fortunately, Chavez's successor Nicholas Maduro does not have the charismatic and destructive talents of Chavez. More importantly, he does not have any pretensions to lead the region. He is becoming more flexible and less confrontationist. This is the best news for Latin America.

On the other hand, the Left in the region is likely to be more inspired by the moderate and pragmatic Michelle Bachelet who has come back to power in Chile in the December 2013 elections. She has won against the candidate of the ruling right wing party without resorting to radical rhetoric or threatening capitalism. Bachelet has promised course correction in governance by more inclusive development policies. She attaches as much importance to creation of wealth as much as to distribution with her mix of balanced pro-poor and pro-market policies. Similar models are already working well in Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. This is the model which is setting the long term trend for Latin America.

Mexico has set a new paradigm in the region in democratic functioning by the Mexico Pact under which ruling and opposition political parties have worked together with consensus on fundamental reforms and vital national policies of the country. The Mexico Pact has already delivered in just one year six vital reforms which would not have been possible but for the Pact. This has inspired confidence and optimism of Mexicans about the political system and set an example to democracies around the world which suffer from divisive politics.

Uruguay has set an example to the region and the world on the drug issue by enacting a path-breaking new law decriminalizing, legalizing  and regulating the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. This is, again, a turning point for Latin America which is a victim of the US-lead " war on drugs". More countries from the region are likely to follow the example of Uruguay in future.

The manifestation of people's power expressed through protest movements in Brazil and other countries in the region in 2013 have given a clear message to the political leaders to be more responsive to the aspirations of the people and be more accountable. The empowered middle class of the region might continue with protests from time to time to rein in the political leaders to deliver good governance.

Among the challenges being faced by the region drug trafficking, crime and violence continue to be a major concern in many countries and cities of Latin America. Mexico and Central America have suffered the worst from drug traffickers.The Colombia- Nicaragua maritime dispute flared up in 2013 due to Colombia's refusal to accept the 2012 ICJ verdict which gave a larger part of the disputed area to Nicaragua. This problem has the potential to raise some tensions in 2014 since the two countries have taken rigid stands.

The Colombian government negotiations with FARC guerrilla group has made some progress giving rise to optimism for conclusion next year. The retreat of the guerrillas has opened new business opportunities for oil and gas exploration, mining and agricultural production in the areas previously controlled by them.

Regional integration did not make any significant progress in 2013. Mercosur remained paralyzed due to the issues of suspension of Paraguay and inclusion of Venezuela. Paraguay has now accepted  Venezuela's membership and the two countries have restored diplomatic relations. Argentina's import restrictions and Brazil's protectionism continue to block Mercosur's further integration and external openings. UNASUR had also remained dormant in 2013. The Andean Community and the Central American regional group SICA also did not move much for further integration in 2013. On the other hand the Pacific Alliance has deepened its integration and is reaching out to other countries in the region as well as outsiders. 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of NAFTA but there were no grand celebrations, since US has been focussed on Trans Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships. There have been calls from trade and industry organizations of the three members to move towards a NAFTA II. Thanks mainly to the rising Chinese wages, Mexico has regained its manufacturing competitiveness and has increased its exports.  Mexico, Chile and Peru are participating in the Trans Pacific Partnership ( TPP) negotiations. Colombia and Costa Rica have expressed interest in membership of TPP.

Despite the absence of significant forward movement in regional integration, the intra-regional and intra-subregional trade have been steadily increasing over the years. Intra-Latin American trade is about 20% of the global trade of the region.

There was revival of  anti-US sentiments in the region following the forced landing of the aircraft of President Evo Morales and the Snowden revelations of US spying on Brazil and Mexico among others. Brazil took the lead in raising in the UN the issue of US spying and is convening a global summit in April 2014 on internet security. President Dilma, as a show of displeasure, canceled her state visit to US scheduled in October.

China continued to strengthen its trade and investment partnership with the region and participated with a large delegation in the sixth China- Latin American and Caribbean Business Summit in Costa Rica in November. China is expected to overtake Europe as the second largest trading partner of Latin America by 2016. Chinese exports to Latin America are already more than those of Europe.

The EU- Central America Association Agreement signed in 2012 became fully effective from December 2013 with the ratification by the parliaments of all the Central American countries. The EU- Mercosur trade negotiations have been postponed due mainly to the Argentine import restrictive policies. Latin American exports to Europe have gone down due to the debt crisis and other economic problems in Europe.

The region will have Presidential elections in seven countries: Costa Rica( February), El Salvador(February), Panama(May), Colombia(May), Brazil(October), Uruguay(October) and Bolivia( December). In the two major countries namely Brazil and Colombia, the incumbents are expected to be reelected.

The biggest show of the year in 2014 will be the World Cup football in June-July in Brazil, the land of the " beautiful game".