<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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WOLA Drops the Ball with New Book, Shifts to the Right on Drug War

The Book, Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, Is an Expensive Disappointment


By Jeremy Bigwood
Special to the Narco News Bulletin

February 2, 2005

Two all but unnoticed events have transpired in the drug war over the New Year. One is the beginning of US-Colombian government aerial eradication of coca in the Chocó region of Colombia’s Pacific Coast – widely considered the most biodiverse area in the Western hemisphere. The other is the release of a large tome by a Washington, DC non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) on US drug policy. With the release of this book, WOLA, has moved from being an interlocutor between Latin American NGOs and the US government to something more like a quasi-governmental actor, a move rightward from its three-decade long tradition of advocacy for the center-left. WOLA has become Washingtonized.

Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy is a thick and heavy book, that includes selectively edited reports from academics and others.

The book is divided into ten chapters and two appendices. At first glance it appears that all of Latin America and the Caribbean are covered. But a closer look reveals that this is not the case. There are three chapters that focus on US military and police “assistance” to Latin American countries, followed by separate chapters for Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Central America are given the short-shrift. Paraguay is not addressed at all.

There are some useful charts and tables, but the most striking feature is the impenetrable density of the verbiage. Indeed, for a person interested in drug policy – even for someone who tries to keep up-to-date with the technical literature of this field, this is a difficult muddy read – requiring extreme dedication (combined with massive stimulant use) to reach the final page.

WOLA presents the US drug war as bad and unwinnable – big surprise – and acknowledges that US-supported militarized anti-drug forces are themselves threats to local democracy. But the position is weak. The book appears to support some forms of US police intervention in Latin America. Consider Rachel Neild’s approving nod to U.S. police assistance:

“Many Latin American policymakers are open to constructive U.S. participation, such as former New York Police Department commissioner Bill Bratton in advising the Municipal Police in Caracas, Venezuela, or the Giuliani Associates’ current contract with Mexico City authorities.”

Does WOLA see US assistance to the Caracas Metropolitan Police as a positive development? As I was writing this review I came upon a FOIA response from the US Embassy in Caracas lauding Bratton’s assistance in forming the first anti-drug squad in that police force. Are more drug squads throughout the region what WOLA really wants?

And where does WOLA now stand on Venezuela? The Bratton-trained Caracas Metropolitan Police force was and still is in the hands of the US-backed Venezuelan opposition and as such is viewed as a US-supported armed force against the democratically-elected Chavez government. Chavistas claim that many of the killings that were the pretext for the April 2002 coup against their president were actually the work of the Metropolitan Police, a claim supported by Human Rights Watch. During the short-lived reign of US-backed coup-leader “President Carmona,” the Metropolitan Police behaved ruthlessly in Caracas, arresting, killing and wounding dozens of Chavistas. How can WOLA put a positive spin on Bratton and his training regimen?

And what of Ms. Neild’s pitch for the Giuliani Associates, the “Zero Tolerance for Crime” guys? Does WOLA really think that it should be supporting the expansion of the Rockefeller-style drug laws and private prisons, both components of the Giuliani Associates agenda?

WOLA also supports USAID “democracy promotion.” In most of Latin America, this has involved the creation, or outright buying, of local NGOs and unions by USAID with the aim to carry out U.S. policy, something that has nothing to do with democracy.

The book also attempts to be a historical record of the drug war in Latin America. In this aspect it also fails miserably. Take the mycoherbicide issue as an example. Mycoherbicides are toxic fungi developed to attack drug crops, and their proposed use in Latin America was part of the Plan Colombia legislation of 2000. Critics of the proposed use cited serious environmental and human health problems. (Some of the toxins produced by the fungi were so toxic that they had been stockpiled by belligerent nations as chemical warfare agents.) In response to this threat from the north, members of the Andean Community of Nations voted unanimously to reject the use of these fungi, and the US program died. This was a major victory for democracy in the drug war, and it was not even mentioned in the book.

Some of the Americas’ most progressive drug laws regarding personal use are found in Latin America. And these laws were adopted despite the “war on drugs.” In Colombia, for instance, drug possession for personal use is not a crime. Furthermore, Colombia was able to re-legalize coca tea –illegal for decades previously. These examples of de-escalation of the drug war counter the US paradigm, and are certainly worthy of discussion, but are not mentioned.

Ayahuasca, the potent entheogenic brew of the Amazon basin, is not even mentioned. In a rare instance of South to North policy, Brazil legalized its use some time ago for religious purposes, and the US has recently followed suit!

But the biggest failure of the book is that it barely touches the issue of legal coca, ignoring the many voices inside and outside Latin America who believe that the medicinal leaf should be available globally as a mild stimulant in tea or in other preparations. How can WOLA talk about democracy and ignore such a popular movement throughout the region?

People are reaffirming traditional uses of drugplants in a major way, and the Washington-bound authors of the WOLA book have simply missed the boat.

The book and its three years of associated projects did not come cheap; most sources state that it was funded by almost a million dollars from Soros’ Open Society Institute as well as other donors. Others have put the figure at over two million dollars. And what has been the result?

There is no call in this tome for a new drug policy in Latin America or anywhere else. The aim here is merely to “tweak” the present policy, with more “transparency” and presumably more WOLA people doing the policy. It was not a coincidence that this book was programmed for release just when it was hoped that the Kerry administration would be taking over the reigns of government, with the aim of bringing some of the authors into the new administration.

A far better use of all of this money would have been to attempt to legalize coca tea in Brazil or other Latin American countries, opening a huge legal market and removing a lot of pressure on coca leaf growers and those concerned about excess coca production. And had the money been spent on endangered species studies in Colombia, the US aerial fumigation would not have started in the Colombian Chocó.

The shortcomings of this book have consequences that are very real because the destructive drug war blunders on, harming both the ecosystem and human life.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America