Monday, July 26, 2010

Obama, The Drug War and US foreign policy

Obama, the drug war, and US foreign policy

The government has made significant changes in its drug policy since Obama became president. It is no longer prosecuting sellers of medical marijuana in states where that is legal. They are now funding the distribution of syringes. More attention is being paid to the health effects of drug abuse. The government is making a serious effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS due to intravenous drug use. Using crack -- the drug of the poor -- is no longer being punished more harshly than using cocaine which the rich prefer.

All of this is a genuine improvement. But the overall shape of the war on drugs has not changed. A program that spends $ 1.5 billions a year, still devotes two thirds of its resources to attempts to reduce the supply of drugs and only one third on programs to help addicts. That imbalance continues in spite of the fact that most qualified observers agree that the efforts to reduce supplies coming from outside the US have failed.

This persistence of a program that has always been wrong headed and, in addition, appears to be unsuccessful, in spite of huge sums of money spent, is truly bizarre. Commentators interpret it  as a victory for some bureaucrats over others. They say that the people who have a personal investment in the drug eradication programs from Afghanistan to Bolivia won out over more progressive thinkers in the Administration.

From the perspective of Latin America, however, the drug war looks very different. Until 1989 the US regularly justified its support of dictators over democratically elected governments in Cold War terms. The Cold War was used as a pretext for US domination of the hemisphere. The cold war against Communism served as a convenient cover for interfering with governments in the hemisphere.

But after 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union that pretext was no longer available. The war on drugs is a substitute. In the name of the war on drugs, the US government has given millions and millions of dollars to Colombia to help them put down a left-wing uprising that still controls significant portions of the country. The US has bought the loyalty and support of the Colombian government and made it into a staunch ally.  In the name of the war on drugs the US has sold weapons and Blackhawk helicopters to Mexico thereby cementing relations with our neighbor. In Bolivia and Peru the US government has insisted on coca eradication programs. Peru has become another US client. In Bolivia, on the other hand, the anti-drug programs have fueled intense anti-Americanism and resentment against US interference.

The hundreds of millions of dollars supposedly dedicated to cutting off the supply of drugs from Latin America are continuing to be spent in spite of the program’s failure. The reason is not the narrow self-interest of some bureaucrats. Nor is the failed drug eradication program just one more example of how governments can’t get anything right. The so-called anti-drug programs are merely a cover for US surveillance of and interference with the internal affairs of different Latin American countries. The so-called “war on drugs” is in reality one part of the US war on political movements that are opposed to US interests in Latin America. It has little to do with drugs and everything to do with keeping Latin America safe for us investment and control.