Analysis: Obama faces
Latin America revolt over drugs, trade
By Brian Winter
Nov 9, 2012
PAULO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will
face an unprecedented revolt by Latin American countries
against the U.S.-led drug war during his second term and he
also may struggle to pass new trade deals as the region once
known as "America's
backyard" flexes its muscles like never before.
ability to influence events in Latin
has arguably never been lower. The new reality is as much a
product of the United States'
economic struggles as a wave of democracy and greater
prosperity that has swept much of the region of 580 million
people in the past decade or so.
not that the United States
is reviled now - far from it. Although a few vocally
anti-U.S. leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez tend to grab the media
spotlight, Obama has warm or cordial relations with
and other big countries in the region.
Latin American leaders were rooting, either privately or
publicly, for his re-election on Tuesday.
said, even close allies are increasingly emboldened to act
without worrying about what "Tio Sam" will say or do.
Nowhere is that more evident than on anti-narcotics policy.
2012 as never before, many governments challenged the
four-decade-old policies under which Washington has
encouraged, and often bankrolled, efforts to disrupt the
cultivation and smuggling of cocaine, marijuana and other
drugs in the region.
reasons for the unrest: Frustration with what many perceive
as the pointless bloodshed caused by the "war on drugs,"
plus a feeling the United States has not done enough to
reduce its own demand for narcotics - if, that is, it's even
possible to curb demand.
are hardly new complaints but they used to be aired in
private. In April, several presidents voiced doubts about
anti-drug policies at a regional summit that Obama attended.
At the U.N. General Assembly in September, the leaders of Mexico, Colombia
- historically three of the most reliable
partners on drug interdiction - called on world governments
to explore new alternatives to the problem.
and other U.S. officials
have energetically lobbied against legalization of drugs or
letting up in the fight against powerful smuggling gangs.
Yet some leaders and well-connected observers across
Latin America expect substantial shifts in the
next few years.
taboo is broken," said Moises Naim, a senior associate at
the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in
Washington. "2012 will go down as
the year when Latin American governments became assertive
and began making changes of their own accord."
It remains unclear what exactly the
changes will look like or how many countries will embrace
Some leaders, such as Guatemalan
President Otto Perez, have openly proposed legalizing or
"decriminalizing" certain drugs. Others have pushed for less
dramatic changes such as legalizing only marijuana or, like
Mexico's Felipe Calderon,
have spoken in vague terms of a "less prohibitionist"
has gone furthest, proposing a bill this year that would
legalize marijuana and have the state distribute it. That
move was regarded as too extreme by many in the region,
although this week's decision by voters in
and Colorado states to
legalize marijuana for recreational use showed that, even in
the United States, the status quo is
"Nobody knows where this is going yet,"
said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former Brazilian president
and part of an influential group of statesmen who have met
behind the scenes with current leaders to advance the
"I'd describe this as a phase of timid,
controlled experimentation," Cardoso told Reuters. "It's
going forward, and it seems there will be changes ... Nobody
seems very concerned with how the United States
DEMOCRACY IS COMPLICATED
Cardoso, 81, remembers an era of
powerful U.S. ambassadors and so-called "banana republics"
- when Washington often
played a hand in installing leaders across
and deposing those who incurred its wrath.
That period basically ended with the
conclusion of the Cold War. Still, as recently as a decade
ago, the United States still enjoyed more leverage than it
does now - thanks to trade, foreign aid, and loans from
groups like the International Monetary Fund in which
Washington plays a major role.
United States' economic
slump has contributed to the changing dynamic. But so has a
wave of broad-based economic growth in Latin America that
has lifted some 50 million people into the middle class
since 2003, allowed countries such as
to pay off debts to the IMF, and made the region broadly
less subject to foreign pressure.
Although there are exceptions,
Latin America as a whole has also become more
democratic. That makes it more complicated for Washington to
shape events than it was during the 20th century, when one
U.S. secretary of state famously described a Caribbean
dictator as "a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."
"Laugh if you want, but there's no one
son of a bitch for us to go talk to anymore in these
countries," said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert at
the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There are still some people in
who don't fully understand that these democracies are just
as complicated as ours is ... and that ends up hurting us
She said the more robust democracies
help explain the recent pushback against drug policy. "What
you're seeing is a popular outcry against the violence, and
these governments are responding to it."
envoys are now respectful of countries' sovereignty but
still circle the region and warn about the dangers a change
may pose. Obama said just before the April summit that
legalizing drugs would not do away with violent cartels and
"could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than
the status quo."
Some countries such as Peru have heeded such warnings and
are intensifying their drug crackdown. Alvaro Uribe, who was
a stalwart U.S. ally as president of Colombia from
2002 to 2010 and meets regularly with some of the leaders
feeding the debate, said it may result in fewer changes than
"A lot of it is lip service," Uribe
told Reuters. "In private, few speak of substantial
Uribe, Cardoso and others agree that Mexico's incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto
will be a key piece to the puzzle because of his country's
size and proximity to the
United States, as well as
Mexico's status as the
prime battleground for drug violence. Some 60,000 people
have died in Mexican drug violence in the past six years.
Pena Nieto is likely to discuss drug
policy when he meets Obama before taking office in December.
Aides have said Pena Nieto opposes legalization, although
Chihuahua state governor Cesar Duarte - an ally
of the incoming leader - told Reuters that Mexico should legalize the export of marijuana
and consider other changes following the votes by
BIG PUSH ON TRADE
On the other big issue the
United States cares most about in
Latin America - trade - the road ahead also
Naim said Obama administration
officials have told him they want to make a major push for
free trade throughout the hemisphere during a second term.
"They'll try to start with the big countries," Naim said.
"Whoever wants in can join."
The push may find receptive ears in
countries such as Mexico and Peru
on Latin America's Pacific coast, which tend to be more open
to trade, in part because of their relative proximity to
Asia. Several of those countries already enjoy
trade deals with the United States,
but stand to gain from a broader agreement.
However, new trade talks have faced
huge barriers in recent years because of strains on the
global economy and Latin American countries are likely to be
even more insistent on negotiating thorny issues like U.S.
agricultural subsidies than they were in the past.
That's in part because they have other
options. China's trade with Latin
America soared from near nothing in the past
decade and now accounts for about 11 percent of trade in the
region. The U.S. share has
fallen from 53 percent to 39 percent.
O'Neil said the most likely outcome may
be a "divide down the hemisphere" in which
Argentina, Venezuela and a
few other countries stay out of any new trade deal.
Together, they account for about 60 percent of
Latin America's economic output.
The more fertile ground for cooperation
may lie in less glamorous, but still important issues like
energy policy, education and intellectual property rights.
Even there, though, it's clear the relationship is ever more
one of equals.
"Latin America, especially
represent a huge opportunity for the
United States - if they can
take advantage of it," said Andres Rozental, a former
Mexican deputy foreign minister. "But the era of
unilateralism and the almost monolithic influence of the
Americans in the world is just not what it was."
(Additional reporting by Pablo Garibian
and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by
Kieran Murray and Bill Trott)
TAGS: President Barack Obama, Latin
American countries, Carnegie Endowment for International
Washington, cultivation and smuggling of cocaine, marijuana,
Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert, "He's a son of a
bitch, but he is our son of a bitch," China's trade with Latin
America, Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico,
Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, issues like energy policy,
education and intellectual property rights