Policy on Latin America Fails on Two Fronts: Cuba and Drug Trade

THERE is no question that US-Latin American relations have become warmer and more productive over the past six years, through both the Bush and Clinton presidencies.

With the spread of democratic politics and market economics, the end of Central America's wars, and the resolution of the debt crisis, Latin America increasingly appears to be an area of opportunity rather than a source of problems and conflict. The region, in turn, has welcomed such US policy initiatives as the Brady debt reduction plan, the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative and its promise of hemispheric free trade, NAFTA, the December 1994 Summit of the Americas, and Washington's response to the Mexican peso crisis.

Yet, on two fronts - relations with Cuba and the fight against illicit drugs from the region - US policy in Latin America remains mired in failure.

Whatever threat Cuba once posed for the US evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the termination of Soviet subsidies to the island. Cuba's economy shriveled along with its military prowess. Yet US relations with Cuba remain as hostile as ever. President Fidel Castro Ruz retains absolute power, and there is no near-term prospect of his either being displaced or allowing even a modest political opening. Human rights are systematically violated, and medical supplies and food are in short supply for ordinary Cubans.

US strategy, moreover, does nothing to address the two main threats to US interests - the potential for massive flows of Cuban refugees to Florida and the danger of a US-armed intervention on the island. No country in the Western Hemisphere or Europe supports the American approach. It may be that no US policy could have produced a much better outcome given the nature of the Cuban regime. Yet it's hard to imagine a policy that could have produced worse results.

The war against drugs in Latin America has failed just as badly. The two largest drug cartels have been destroyed and their leaders are behind bars or dead, more coca plant is being eradicated, greater amounts of cocaine are being interdicted, and money laundering has become more difficult. Despite this, the flow of cocaine to the United States has not diminished and the threat of narco-dollars to democratic institutions and legitimate businesses is growing worse in most places in Latin America.

The most disheartening evidence of failure, however, is US acknowledgement that it is still not getting the cooperation it seeks from the Latin American supplier and transit countries. US law requires the president to judge the antinarcotics efforts of other countries each year and to decertify those that are not cooperating. Last year, the three major coca producing countries - Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru - were decertified, although penalties against them were waived on national- security grounds. This month, Colombia was again decertified (this time without a waiver of penalties), and the administration had to resist pressure to deny certification to Mexico.

Clearly, there can be no effective war against drugs in Latin America without the cooperation of the supplier countries in the region. That such cooperation is still not forthcoming from so many countries suggests a deeply flawed policy approach.

No one can be sure why US policy toward Cuba and our war against drugs have failed so dramatically. But two explanations are worth contemplating. First, both policies have been driven mainly by domestic political considerations, rather than by any serious concern about US national interests or values. Appearing tough has been more important than being effective.

The second explanation, perhaps inextricably linked to the first, is that the two policies represent the US at its most unilateral, made-in-Washington style of international decisionmaking. The US rarely takes counsel with its friends and allies on either of these issues. We have not sought to develop any meaningful multilateral approach to deal with them. Maybe it's time we tried.

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