Uruguay: Uruguayan Leader Urges Legalizing Drugs

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  1. Media Awareness Project

    Uruguay: Uruguayan Leader Urges Legalizing Drugs
    URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01.n252.a10.html
    Newshawk: M & M Family
    Pubdate: Sun, 11 Feb 2001
    Source: Inquirer (PA)
    Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
    Contact: Inquirer.Letters@phillynews.com
    Address: 400 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19101
    Website: http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/home/
    Forum: http://interactive.phillynews.com/talk-show/
    Author: Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times


    He became the first head of state in the region to do so. He says traffickers would lose their economic incentive.

    MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - This small, quiet, slow-moving nation does not make much news.

    But Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle has figured out a way to get headlines. He has become the first head of state in the region - and one of the few anywhere - to call for the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Batlle, a blunt free-market reformer, questions the costs and effectiveness of a drug war whose primary theater of battle is Latin America.

    "During the past 30 years this has grown, grown, grown and grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarization," the 73-year-old president told a radio audience recently. "This has not gotten people off drugs. And what's more, if you remove the economic incentive of the [drug trade] it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate."

    If this were Colombia, Mexico, or another nation locked in mortal combat with the drug cartels, the reaction would be fast and furious. The president would be pilloried by rivals and the security forces. He probably would win cheers from some leftists and people who survive on the drug trade. The U.S. Embassy would no doubt express concern.

    But this is Uruguay. The debate over Batlle's endorsement of legalization has been measured and civilized. The drug problem is growing but not monstrous, so some Uruguayans have not paid much attention. And because the president insists that his "philosophical initiative" will not affect antidrug enforcement, U.S. diplomats have kept quiet.

    Breaking ranks with U.S.

    Nonetheless, a line has been crossed. Although Batlle's voice may be small, the verve with which he speaks out on the issue at regional meetings of presidents and journalists probably will contribute to a growing debate. A Latin American leader has broken ranks - at a crucial and difficult time - with the hard-line antidrug campaign led by the United States.

    These days, the term "drug war" is more appropriate than ever. Bolivian troops are approaching their goal of eradicating the coca crop used in cocaine production from a key jungle area - at the cost of deadly riots and economic hardship. Plan Colombia, the high-stakes, U.S.-funded attack on the cocaine trade linked to Colombian guerrillas, is cranking into gear.

    The plan makes the leaders of Brazil, Ecuador and other nations nervous. They fear that violence, anarchy and displaced drug traffickers from Colombia will spread through the region. Batlle has expressed similar misgivings; he suggests that it would make more sense to decriminalize drugs and deprive narco-guerrillas of a multibillion-dollar business.

    Concern over Colombia

    "Look at the mess there is with Plan Colombia, where everyone thinks we are going to end up in a war like Vietnam and there is a kind of global psychosis," Batlle said recently. "And what are they going to do with Plan Colombia: give [billions of dollars] to Colombia to build schools and roads. What does 'Sureshot' [aging Colombian guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda] care about that? Sureshot is not going to go to school; he's my age."

    As the effort against drugs heats up in Colombia, the hemisphere's antidrug strategy is in flux. The United States has acceded to pressure from foreign leaders and has proposed phasing out its much-resented yearly certifications of countries' antidrug efforts; U.S. and Latin American leaders want to replace the certification process with a multilateral evaluation developed by the Organization of American States. U.S. officials have increasingly accepted the Latin American argument that they must reduce demand for drugs, noting that the United States has cut use almost in half.

    By espousing a far more radical change of direction, the Uruguayan president joins an assortment of public figures in favor of legalization, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago and Nobel laureate whom Batlle knows and admires.

    After winning a narrow election in late 1999, Batlle cultivated a reputation for speaking his mind and stirring up Uruguay's staid political culture. He declared war on a contraband business that he says relies on well-placed allies in government. He criticized the cushy salaries of public servants.

    Most notably, he pushed forward - with initial success - an uphill effort to deregulate and open up the economy in a country of 3.1 million that is a bastion of old-fashioned leftist statism.

    His 48 percent approval rating is remarkable, according to political consultant Juan Carlos Doyenart, because Uruguayans are not enamored of bold change and split their allegiances equally among three political blocs.

    The talk about decriminalizing drugs is part of a plain-spoken, irreverent style that serves Batlle well at home and draws attention overseas, said Doyenart, an occasional presidential adviser.

    "He enjoys himself, and he knows that with these things he wins popularity," Doyenart said. "This gives him a space to enact his neoliberal economic policy. He is a sincere neoliberal; he believes in free markets."

    The president's critics generally accept his argument that he wants to provoke an intellectual debate rather than dismantle current laws. But Congressman Alberto Scaravelli, Uruguay's former drug czar and its current emissary to the antidrug council of the OAS, thinks Batlle is playing with fire.

    "The debate is fine, but I hope no one is going to get confused and think we encourage drug consumption here," said Scaravelli, an ardent opponent of legalization. "This was not part of the president's electoral platform. I have been assured that there will be no softening of the laws. If there is, I will be the first to stand and oppose it."

    MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens

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