Thursday, September 17, 2009

U.S.'s Closest Latin American Ally Cashing in on Both Sides of the Drug War

Colombia’s latest intelligence scandal links directly to intelligence practices pushed here in the U.S., and shows the hypocrisy of our elected officials on an international level.

Readers will recall that the sole reason for Manuel Zelaya’s ouster as the democratically-elected president of Honduras was his attempt to change the constitution to allow for re-election. Re-working and amending constitutions is nothing new or illegal. However, if a Latin American head of state’s political ambitions do not align with the ideal of U.S. intrusion into the region, any precept can be used to support your ouster. In the case of Honduras, President Obama has not explicitly stated any support for the coup, however his actions show his implicit support.

As scandals surrounding Colombian president Álvaro Uribe emerge, we see nothing similar to the coup Honduras. Uribe is currently vying for a third term as president, after having successfully extended Colombia’s single-term limit to two. He blatanlty abuses power, and seemingly faces no repercussions. While leftist governments like Venezuela and Bolivia have routinely denounced Uribe’s abuse of power, the U.S. has remained supportive of him. Now moderate countries like Brazil and Argentina are suspecting foul play.

The issue is far broader than U.S.-sponsored espionage programs against Uribe’s political opponents within Colombia. Uribe—a Harvard graduate and long-time mouthpiece for the Bush administration—has approved of a plan that will continue and increase U.S. military presence in Colombia. The plan includes up to 1,400 troops and personnel and $7 billion worth of military aid. (Read the full agreement here.) Ostensibly, the purpose is to combat drug traffickers and terrorists. We have already seen (for example, in Guantánamo) how anyone can be labeled a terrorist with no evidence against them. Also, Colombia has a history of encroaching onto the land of its sovereign neighbors—again, to root out “terrorists”—but terrorists by whose definition?

Uribe utilizes the buzzwords of the times—most notably concepts like “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism.” These phrases are borrowed directly from George W. Bush’s vocabulary. The two presidents were hardline allies. Uribe was the only president who didn’t actively participate in the Iraq War to be “honored” with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—one of Bush’s last acts as president.

But this issue transcends Americans’ conventional Democrat-Republican dichotemy. Plan Colombia—the placing of U.S. troops and equipment in Colombia for the purpose of eradicating coca farms—was started by Bill Clinton. The Obama administration is extending this practice, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is handling most of the negotiation.

(photo credit:

Both governments are quick to point out the humanitarian aspect of the agreement, noting that it even provides for relief in case of natural disaster. However, if the one hundred years of U.S. military presence in Colombia exists for humanitarian purposes, how can we cope with the deaths, dictatorships, wars, destruction of property, and increase in drug trafficking within this time frame?

It is important to note that the coca farms that are targeted are not creating cocaine. They produce a principle ingredient in cocaine; however, the synthesizing of coca leaves usually occurs far away from the farms that produce the leaf. Coca leaves are used in South America for medicinal purposes, and prove particularly effective against pain and altitude sickness (which is highly pertinent in Andean countries). Particularly relevant to indigenous cultures, coca is a crop that has been cultivated for 4,000 years. In modern times, the coca farmers--who now face various health ailments related to the herbicides dropped on their crops--are among the poorest citizens of South American countries, in stark contrast to cocaine traffickers and their political allies.

U.S. military presence in Colombia—and Obama’s continued support of Uribe—are blatant attempts to take advantage of indigenous farmers and other voiceless groups in the region. Now that Mr. Uribe’s weapons and intelligence secrets have been exposed, this is harder to deny than ever. He has proven links to the drug dealers he purports to be against, as does our own government. Mr. Uribe practices continuous abuses of human rights and international law. However, with the revenue generated from fighting both sides of the war on drugs, none of his old business professors at Harvard could ever accuse him of failing to see the bottom line.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Whose Bloody Drug War?

Mexico’s decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use at the federal level is a step in the right direction toward undermining the widespread violence that has plagued the country—and several others. However, is Mexico actually capable of significantly reducing violence and crime without the explicit and earnest support of the United States?

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Mexico has proven to be far more progressive on a number of key issues than the United States. Historically, these issues include genocide against indigenous possessors of coveted land and resources, as well as the enslavement of Africans (which existed in Mexico, though for a relatively brief period of history, and in a much less brutal and widespread fashion than in the U.S., Cuba, Brazil, and other European colonies). Modernly, this trend can be seen in such issues as capital punishment, access to health care, and now, drug policy.

While many U.S. states have taken steps toward decriminalization and treatment for drug users, there is no comprehensive federal law that regulates these steps, and there likely will never be. We purport to be a nation grounded on the principles of human rights, justice, and compassion. However, none of our federal leaders have taken steps toward a comprehensive re-imagining of drug policy. Instead, administration after administration turns a blind eye to the issue, leaving state governments to enact laws that vary by region, scope, and effectiveness.

The lack of practical, comprehensive drug policy results in selective policing and sentencing. Police are overly brutal toward drug users and dealers in inner cities, while suburban youth routinely attend raves and other events with no fear of repercussions.

The problem is even more obvious abroad. Ciudad Juárez has seen over 1,200 deaths this year, and Tijuana over 400. These are Mexican border towns—crucial entering points for smugglers. These massacres are occurring within several miles of towns like El Paso, San Diego, and Nogales, Arizona. But our officials continue to ignore the problem, behaving as if these issues (and the immigration that inevitably accompanies them) are not our problem.

Demand for drugs grown in Latin America overwhelmingly stems from the U.S. The demand for cocaine and heroine in American cities is the single most contributing factor to violence and chaos in places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. However, our news media, as well as film and music industries, regard this as a purely Latin problem—a phenomenon that proves detrimental to the functionality of the countries involved. Headlines such as “Mexico’s Bloody Drug War” (the Weekly Standard) and “Mexico’s Hopeless Drug War” (the Wall Street Journal) serve to fuel the assumptions that drugs and crime are rampant in Latin America while governments are ineffective and unable to seriously curb them. While this is an effective way to sell newspapers—reinforcing the popularly held beliefs of the public is not a new strategy—it serves only to exacerbate the problem by failing to identify our own role as the both the cause and effect of violence, uprisings, instability, and fear across borders.

To the administration: I challenge you to make a comprehensive change in the way we handle drug users. Only by altering the illegal status of these substances can we undermine the drug lords who benefit from their illegality. The so-called war on drugs, which includes Plan Colombia and our modern revision of it, is simply a war on Latin America’s disenfranchised, while the culture of drugs and over-indulgence in our own country is encouraged through all media and political norms.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Obama's Biteless Barks Amount to Complicity

The New York Times has touted President Obama’s restriction of visas for Honduran citizens as “raising pressure on the government that took power” after the coup d’êtat in Honduras on June 28, 2009. What American mainstream media fails to point out, however, is that President Obama’s actions have thus far been symbolic at most, and tantamount to complicity at least. The president’s initial response to the coup that ousted a democratically elected president in our hemisphere failed to condemn the act. His stance on the coup has been called “tepid” by rightful president Manuel Zelaya and his supporters, and his inaction has incited anger across Latin America, as his promises to extend human rights and democracy to neighboring countries have proven false.

While the Times insists that the administration has “repeatedly condemned the military coup,” and that the restriction of visas shows the president’s resolve on the matter, why has he failed to restrict the visas of the very military junta he supposedly condemns? Why has he failed to freeze the assets and cash of de facto president Roberto Micheletti in U.S. banks?

The U.S. has a long history of supporting and instigating coups, dictatorships, juntas, and their crimes against humanity in Latin America. The consistency among these “interventions” is that they always remove a progressive leader whose policies benefit the poor, the working class, the indigenous, women, students, and the politically powerless. While these may sound like fringe groups to many the Times’ readers, please recall that in Latin America, big business, the wealthy, and the elite are a slim minority of the population. However, these are the very groups who hold the vast majority of power and wealth, often stemming from intimate ties with the U.S. and Europe.

In this case, Zelaya, a rancher and long-time timber worker, whose economic stance is left of center, was ousted. Micheletti, his replacement, has ties with the U.S. (he lived and studied in Florida and Louisiana), as well as an economic stance that would directly benefit large American corporations. Ideologically, Micheletti is similar to a moderate conservative who prioritizes big, international businesses over the working poor of his own neighborhoods. Also, in Latin America, where indigenous blood runs through the veins of about 70% of the population, his Italian heritage has not gone unnoticed.

The State Department’s assertion that “President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal” is a classic case of blaming the victim. To borrow an analogy penned by Dr. Martin Luther King, this blame game is much like naming a robbed man as the culprit, since he possessed something of value, which led to his being robbed.

It should also be noted that Micheletti’s regime celebrated the statement issued by the State Department, being able to read between the lines fairly easily.

President Obama has stated that the “the situation must be resolved by Hondurans and their democratic institutions in accordance with the rule of law.” It hardly seems necessary to point out that democracy and law have been destroyed in Honduras, while international law has not been enforced by the U.N., the U.S., or any other powerful institution. While the Organization of American States (OAS) has voted overwhelmingly for the “immediate and unconditional” return to power of Zelaya, the Obama administration has failed to lend the support necessary to make this a reality. Was this vote not democratic? Are the laws of the OAS not to be considered valid?

Obama claims he “can’t push a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” In its most absurd and literal sense, this statement is true. However, the president of the United States cannot pretend to be powerless with respect to Latin America. While there is no magic button, there are obvious and easy ways to put real pressure on Micheletti’s junta. He could easily remove our ambassador (who was inconveniently out of town at the time of the coup). Ending diplomatic ties with Micheletti would topple his government almost instantly. The freezing of his assets in U.S. banks—which amount to millions—would cripple the junta.

Restricting visas for middle class Hondurans who wish to work and study in the U.S. will do nothing to disable Micheletti, and the lack of meaningful action shows our president’s complicity with the illegal coup in Honduras.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wealth Discrepancies and Women's Issues: from the Developing to the Developed World

The New York Times Magazine has come out with a piece of investigative journalism highlighting a global issue that hits close to home for many progressives: women’s rights. Undeniably, if we are to address inequality and social injustices on a global scale, the treatment of women ranks among such issues as land rights, clashes over drug routes, religious disputes, and any other political confrontation that has taken on violent tones. The most exceptional aspect to the issue of women’s rights is the intimacy involved. Clashes often take place not in the streets or battlefield, but in the very homes and workplaces of people involved. This blog thanks Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn for bringing many of these issues to light.

However, we must ask ourselves about some of the assumptions our authors are dealing with. When addressing a large hotel-turned-brothel in India, for example, the authors chronicle a young girl who wishes to work as a maid, but instead is beaten, raped, and forced into prostitution and slavery. This is a grim, yet accurate portrayal of the life many women encounter globally. The authors go on to state, “In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy.”

It is at this point that the investigative journalist must ask the bigger, perhaps more obvious question. Who were the patrons of this hotel in India’s capital? Who visited the hotel and expected to have a young prostitute at-hand? From what countries do these guests come? For what companies do they work?

To assert that “poor countries” simply need more education to send more individuals into the “formal economy” is to omit the role that members of wealthy nations who participate daily in their economies play in the problem. Is it not possible that “formal economies” contribute to—and benefit from—abuse, rape, prostitution, and slavery?

Perhaps for the sake of asserting some optimism, the authors include an anecdote about Terrari Trent, a Zimbabwean girl who overcomes an abusive marriage, and goes on to receive a PhD from a university in the U.S. The assumption seems to be that in wealthy cities of wealthy countries—say, New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, etc.—brutal discrepancies do not exist. However, Terrari is the exception, not the rule. Too often, women and girl immigrants risk their lives and families to make it to one of these presumed havens of compassion, only to find themselves in similar conditions to those described in the New Delhi hotel.

In another instance of extreme tunnel vision, the authors state, “If you’re reading this article, the phrase ‘gender discrimination’ might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved.” Yet how removed is the developing world from the laptops on which we receive our daily newspaper? A shocking percentage of the products we (in the developed world) take for granted are the effects of exploitation of resources and labor in the developing world. In fact, the developed and undeveloped worlds depend so heavily on each other that without one, the other collapses. Also, who at the New York Times wishes to argue that de facto slavery does not exist in our own country?

In perhaps the most irresponsible statement of the whole Sunday Times, we read that “If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries.” If it were only the poor who were paying for prostitution it would be a meager economic endeavor. However, the pervasiveness of prostitution (as well as studies and common sense) indicates that the primary cause of prostitution globally is the sponsorship of wealthy men from wealthy nations.

To be clear, I thank the authors for their contribution to our collective awareness of such a grave issue. I much prefer a flawed piece to no piece at all, and its location as a centerpiece of the New York Times Magazine ensures that this article will be widely read by an educated audience. But please, let’s not blame the horrendous crimes committed against women and girls on poverty and poor people; until we see that these are two symptoms of the same disease, neither will be addressed effectively.