Cartagena Beyond the Secret Service Scandal

The United States is isolated from Latin American leaders calling for drug reform.

Noam Chomsky

Colombian police officers unload five tons of marijuana seized in the outskirts of Cali, Colombia, on February 27, 2012. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Though side­lined by the Secret Ser­vice scan­dal, last month’s Sum­mit of the Amer­i­c­as in Carta­ge­na, Colom­bia, was an event of con­sid­er­able sig­nif­i­cance. There are three major rea­sons: Cuba, the drug war and the iso­la­tion of the Unit­ed States.

When policies are pursued for many years with unremitting dedication though they are known to fail, questions naturally arise about motives.

A head­line in the Jamaica Observ­er read, Sum­mit shows how much Yan­qui influ­ence had waned.” The sto­ry reports that the big items on the agen­da were the lucra­tive and destruc­tive drug trade and how the coun­tries of the entire region could meet while exclud­ing one coun­try – Cuba.”

The meet­ings end­ed with no agree­ment because of U.S. oppo­si­tion on those items – a drug-decrim­i­nal­iza­tion pol­i­cy and the Cuba ban. Con­tin­ued U.S. obstruc­tion­ism may well lead to the dis­place­ment of the Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States by the new­ly-formed Com­mu­ni­ty of Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean States, from which the Unit­ed States and Cana­da are excluded.

Cuba had agreed not to attend the sum­mit because oth­er­wise Wash­ing­ton would have boy­cotted it. But the meet­ings made clear that U.S. intran­si­gence would not be long tol­er­at­ed. The U.S. and Cana­da were alone in bar­ring Cuban par­tic­i­pa­tion, on grounds of Cuba’s vio­la­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and human rights.

Latin Amer­i­cans can eval­u­ate these charges from ample expe­ri­ence. They are famil­iar with the U.S. record on human rights. Cuba espe­cial­ly has suf­fered from U.S. ter­ror­ist attacks and eco­nom­ic stran­gu­la­tion as pun­ish­ment for its inde­pen­dence – its suc­cess­ful defi­ance” of U.S. poli­cies trac­ing back to the Mon­roe Doctrine.

Latin Amer­i­cans don’t have to read U.S. schol­ar­ship to rec­og­nize that Wash­ing­ton sup­ports democ­ra­cy if, and only if, it con­forms to strate­gic and eco­nom­ic objec­tives, and even when it does, favors lim­it­ed, top-down forms of demo­c­ra­t­ic change that did not risk upset­ting the tra­di­tion­al struc­tures of pow­er with which the Unit­ed States has long been allied – [in] quite unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties,” as neo-Rea­gan­ite schol­ar Thomas Carothers points out.

At the Carta­ge­na sum­mit, the drug war became a key issue at the ini­tia­tive of new­ly-elect­ed Guatemalan Pres­i­dent Gen. Perez Moli­na, whom no one would mis­take for a soft-heart­ed lib­er­al. He was joined by the sum­mit host, Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos, and by others.

The con­cern is noth­ing new. Three years ago the Latin Amer­i­can Com­mis­sion on Drugs and Democ­ra­cy pub­lished a report on the drug war by ex-Pres­i­dents Fer­nan­do Hen­rique Car­doso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedil­lo of Mex­i­co, and Cesar Gaviria of Colom­bia call­ing for decrim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na and treat­ing drug use as a pub­lic-health problem.

Much research, includ­ing a wide­ly quot­ed Rand Cor­po­ra­tion study of 1994, has shown that pre­ven­tion and treat­ment are con­sid­er­ably more cost-effec­tive than the coer­cive mea­sures that receive the bulk of fund­ing. Such non­puni­tive mea­sures are also of course far more humane.

Expe­ri­ence con­forms to these con­clu­sions. By far the most lethal sub­stance is tobac­co, which also kills nonusers at a high rate (pas­sive smok­ing). Usage has sharply declined among more edu­cat­ed sec­tors, not by crim­i­nal­iza­tion but as a result of lifestyle changes.

One coun­try, Por­tu­gal, decrim­i­nal­ized all drugs in 2001 – mean­ing that they remain tech­ni­cal­ly ille­gal but are con­sid­ered admin­is­tra­tive vio­la­tions, removed from the crim­i­nal domain. A Cato Insti­tute study by Glenn Green­wald found the results to be a resound­ing suc­cess. With­in this suc­cess lie self-evi­dent lessons that should guide drug pol­i­cy debates around the world.”

In dra­mat­ic con­trast, the coer­cive pro­ce­dures of the 40-year U.S. drug war have had vir­tu­al­ly no effect on use or price of drugs in the Unit­ed States, while cre­at­ing hav­oc through the con­ti­nent. The prob­lem is pri­mar­i­ly in the Unit­ed States: both demand (for drugs) and sup­ply (of arms). Latin Amer­i­cans are the imme­di­ate vic­tims, suf­fer­ing appalling lev­els of vio­lence and cor­rup­tion, with addic­tion spread­ing through the tran­sit routes.

When poli­cies are pur­sued for many years with unremit­ting ded­i­ca­tion though they are known to fail in terms of pro­claimed objec­tives, and alter­na­tives that are like­ly to be far more effec­tive are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly ignored, ques­tions nat­u­ral­ly arise about motives. One ratio­nal pro­ce­dure is to explore pre­dictable con­se­quences. These have nev­er been obscure.

In Colom­bia, the drug war has been a thin cov­er for coun­terin­sur­gency. Fumi­ga­tion – a form of chem­i­cal war­fare – has destroyed crops and rich bio­di­ver­si­ty, and con­tributes to dri­ving mil­lions of poor peas­ants into urban slums, open­ing vast ter­ri­to­ries for min­ing, agribusi­ness, ranch­es and oth­er ben­e­fits to the powerful.

Oth­er drug-war ben­e­fi­cia­ries are banks laun­der­ing mas­sive amounts of mon­ey. In Mex­i­co, the major drug car­tels are involved in 80 per­cent of the pro­duc­tive sec­tors of the econ­o­my, accord­ing to aca­d­e­m­ic researchers. Sim­i­lar devel­op­ments are occur­ring elsewhere.

In the U.S., the pri­ma­ry vic­tims have been African-Amer­i­can males, increas­ing­ly also women and His­pan­ics – in short, those ren­dered super­flu­ous by the eco­nom­ic changes insti­tut­ed in the 1970s, shift­ing the econ­o­my toward finan­cial­iza­tion and off­shoring of production.

Thanks large­ly to the high­ly selec­tive drug war, minori­ties are dis­patched to prison – the major fac­tor in the rad­i­cal rise of incar­cer­a­tion since the 1980s that has become an inter­na­tion­al scan­dal. The process resem­bles social cleans­ing” in U.S. client states in Latin Amer­i­ca, which gets rid of unde­sir­ables.”

The iso­la­tion of the U.S. at Carta­ge­na car­ries for­ward oth­er turn­ing-point devel­op­ments of the past decade, as Latin Amer­i­ca has at last begun to extri­cate itself from the con­trol of the great pow­ers, and even to address its shock­ing inter­nal problems.

Latin Amer­i­ca has long had a tra­di­tion of lib­er­al jurispru­dence and rebel­lion against imposed author­i­ty. The New Deal drew from that tra­di­tion. Latin Amer­i­cans may yet again inspire progress in human rights in the Unit­ed States.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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