The Summit of the Americas, WikiLeaks and the Failed War on Drugs
Back in the 1990s, when many Latin American governments were aligned with Washington’s wider political and economic goals in the hemisphere, the so-called “Summits of the Americas” rarely displayed any contentious fireworks. Yet times have changed and this year’s summit, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, could prove to be highly combustible.
Unhappy with the Obama administration’s failed war on drugs, which has led to widespread violence and endemic corruption, some Latin American leaders are bluntly calling for the decriminalisation of narcotics.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who is leading the charge, recently began openly advocating for decriminalisation of recreational drug use. Boldly, Pérez has labelled the war on drugs an abject failure and charges that the crusade costs Central American nations hundreds of millions of dollars every year, as well as the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
Facing dwindling support for the drug war, Obama recently dispatched Joe Biden to Mexico and Central America. There, the vice-president restated tired US opposition to drug decriminalisation and promised that the Obama administration would ask Congress for additional funding toward a Central American Regional Security Initiative. Revealingly, however, Biden conceded that the discussion around decriminalisation was “legitimate” even if the disadvantages of legalisation outweighed the benefits.
Managing the fallout from Bolivia
While somewhat surprising, Biden’s admission simply underscores the sense of futility permeating private US diplomatic correspondence released by whistleblowing outfit WikiLeaks. As far back as 2006, the Americans worried that coca nationalism in Bolivia might result in blow-back for US counter-drug strategy.
Writing to the State Department, the US Embassy in Buenos Aires declared that increased coca and cocaine production in Bolivia as well as diminished counter-narcotics co-operation with Washington could lead to a spillover effect.
WikiLeaks correspondence reveals just how complex, fraught and internationalised the drug war has become in recent years. Just over the Bolivian border lay Argentina, which, the Americans wrote, could easily become a dangerous drug transshipment point. Indeed, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) grew so concerned about such a scenario that it chose to fund a task force set up in northern Argentina.
American diplomats in Buenos Aires recommended that Washington dispatch technical experts to Argentina to brief high level authorities “on the scope and complexity of the US counter narcotics programme in Bolivia”. Diplomats conceded that they were overwhelmed by the fight, noting that they only had “limited counter-narcotics resources” in Argentina.
In addition, the Americans fretted over how to manage the public relations fallout from Bolivia. The US embassy in Buenos Aires recommended that Washington send DEA agents to Argentina directly, rather than dispatching them from Bolivia.
The latter option, diplomats noted, “could potentially negatively impact relations with both Argentina and Bolivia” and lead to negative PR flak for the US. Furthermore, if the Buenos Aires media [which supposedly had a “love affair with conspiracy theories”] ever got wind of a meeting between the Argentines and fleeing DEA agents from Bolivia, then it would have a field day with the fiasco and this could result in a “great potential for negative press”.
Little sympathy from Brazil