Enrique Marcarian/REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama (C) waves as he and other heads of state walk away after posing for a group photo at the Americas Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, April 15.

Drug policy and Cuba headline Summit of the Americas

The Sixth Summit of the Americas saw what Mexico's Calderón called a 'radical' change: candid conversation about differences over drug policy and Cuba.

Leaders from the Western Hemisphere meeting in this colonial port city over the weekend failed to agree on some of the region’s most contentious issues, but for the first time, according to several presidents, topics like drug policy and Cuba were discussed with frankness.

Thirty heads of state from the Americas, including President Obama, gathered in Cartagena for a two-day meeting where the issues of drug regulation and Cuba's inclusion in future regional meetings showed more divisions than the unity that the Summit of the Americas was meant to promote. The summit concluded with no formal declaration of signing ceremony, but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the leaders chose to discuss “the issues that unite us as well as the issues that divide us in a sincere dialogue,” behind closed doors.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón welcomed the fact that discussions were even held on these contentious issues, marking a “radical and unthinkable” change from previous summits. This was only the Sixth Summit of the Americas, but historically the summit agenda has been seen as dictated by the United States.

Cuba inclusion

President Santos said that the majority of countries present at the summit “support the participation of Cuba” in future meetings, while the United States and Canada stood firm on excluding the communist nation which has been suspended from the Organization of American States (OAS) since 1962 and subjected to a US economic embargo for half a century.

 But the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) – a bloc of Latin American nations created in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba as a counterweight to US influence in the region – said they would not participate in another Summit of the Americas without Cuba. ALBA member countries’ participation in this summit, in fact, was minimal. Ecuador, which pushed for Cuba to be invited to the Cartagena summit, boycotted the meeting, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez abstained due to health concerns. Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega did not attend, either.

But it wasn’t just the usual suspects from the Latin American left who called for Cuba’s inclusion. Santos, a moderate and seen as the closest US ally in the region, called the embargo on Cuba “anachronistic” and “ineffective.” Future summits without Cuba would be unacceptable, he said.

Mr. Obama, for his part, defended the US stance on Cuba, but said he was “hopeful” for a transition. “I am not someone who brings to the table a lot of baggage from the past and I want to look at this problem in a new and different way,” Obama said. Earlier in the weekend he said the discussion surrounding Cuba was reminiscent of “gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the cold war.”

But analysts say the US is in a time warp. “The only players in this movie who are stuck in the cold war are in the US,” says Eric Hershberg, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington. “The Latin Americans are saying ‘Let’s move on.’”

Drug policy debate

On drug policy, the leaders agreed to direct the OAS to initiate a thorough review of drug control policy in the region, analyzing alternatives to the “war on drugs,” initially introduced by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.  Most analysts agree the approach has been less than successful.

Santos said that Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has had relative success in cutting the cultivation of coca, the raw material used in making cocaine. But cultivation has spiked in Peru and Bolivia in what experts call the “balloon effect,” which describes a phenomenon where closing one channel for drugs pushes production up elsewhere. 

That same effect has been seen in drug trafficking-related violence which, without having totally disappeared in Colombia, has flared in Mexico and Central America, notably Guatemala and Honduras.

"We know that our success has [negatively] affected other countries,” said Santos, likening the fight against drug trafficking to pedaling on a stationary bike. "The moment has come to analyze if what we're doing is best or if we can find a more effective and cheaper alternative for society."

Santos said the new OAS mandate will look at all alternatives to drug policies now in place, ranging from legalization to what he called the “Asian model.” This refers to strict antidrug laws in some Asian countries that apply the death penalty to drug users.

But handing over drug policy decisions to the OAS is tantamount to “burying it,” says Arlene Tickner, an international relations analyst with the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota. This is due to the bureaucracy inherent to an organization like the OAS, based in Washington. “I imagine the US must be happy that it’s in the OAS’s hands,” she says.

Obama said in a business leaders’ forum before the summit that a discussion on drug policy was “legitimate” but that he believed legalization was “not the answer.”

Current drug policy “collapses under its own weight,” says Latin America political commentator Moises Naim, a former development minister in Venezuela. But the US position for years has been, “It’s not working, but we can’t change it.”

Moving forward

Following the summit, Santos and Obama met privately at the Colombian presidential vacation home in this Caribbean coastal city, where they announced the implementation of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the US.

The two countries signed a Labor Action Plan in April 2011 laying out steps the Colombian government needed to take to improve the rights of workers. However, labor unions from both countries have opposed the trade deal, saying Colombia still has not cleaned up its record of human rights and labor rights abuses.

The National Labor School (ENS), an organization that tracks labor issues in Colombia, said that nine of the 37 measures laid out in the action plan had not been implemented. The others, the organization said, have been applied only partially.  “There continue to be worrying situations of attacks on unions and restrictions to the right of association,” the ENS said in a statement released last week.

US Rep. James McGovern (D) of Massachusetts and four other members of the US Congress sent a letter to Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo last week, asking what steps were being taken to address the continued issues of labor rights and impunity for crimes against union members.

Between April 7, 2011, when the action plan was signed, and April 13, 2012, some 28 union members have been killed, 10 have experienced attempts on their lives, two have been forcibly disappeared, and nearly 500 have received death threats, according to ENS.

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