Wednesday, September 10, 2008

U.S. questions Venezuelan and Bolivian counter-narcotics strategies

Every year, the President is required by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to submit to Congress an annual report identifying (a) major drug-producing or transit countries and (b) those countries not "cooperating" with U.S. counternarcotics measures and subject to sanctions. Using the "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" published by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) every March, the "Majors List" is compiled each year and presented to the Secretary of State for consideration before being approved by the President and sent to Congress.

Of the twenty countries that made the "Majors List" last year, only Venezuela and Burma were found to have "failed demonstrably" to cooperate. While making it to the second "non-cooperating" list stipulates that a country not receive U.S. assistance under the foreign operations appropriations act, the President can reinstate assistance if the "provision of such assistance is vital to the U.S. interests." Last year, President Bush determined that while Venezuela "failed demonstrably" to cooperate, "support for programs to aid Venezuela's democratic institutions is vital to the national interests of the United States," and therefore assistance was not revoked.

This yearly process is going on right now and we should expect to see the list for 2009 sometime next week, which coincides with a recent increase in coverage of the United States' criticism of Venezuela's and Bolivia's drug policies. While Venezuela and Burma are most likely to make the "non-cooperating" list for 2009, Bolivia is a wild card.

Recent U.S. criticism of Venezuela:
According to Reuters, the United States accused Venezuela's government "of failing to fight back against drug gangs moving huge amounts of cocaine through the South American country." This criticism stems from the decline in drug seizures from 63 tons in 2005 to 35 tons in 2007 and what the United States has cited as being a "more than 16-fold increase in the amount of cocaine departing Venezuela by air since 2002." The dispute continued, with President Chavez threatening to kick the U.S. ambassador out of the country and dismissing White House drug czar John Walters' criticisms as 'stupid'. According to the an Associated Press article, Chavez insists "that Venezuela doesn't need U.S. help in fighting drug trafficking" and that Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez said that "Venezuela is cooperating internationally - just not on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's terms."

Recent U.S criticism of Bolivia:
Under President Evo Morales, Bolivia has adopted a "zero cocaine, but no zero coca" policy, allowing for the cultivation of nearly 30,000 acres of coca for traditional uses, a policy which, according to Reuters, the United States has described as "permissive." However, the United States has started to critize Bolivia's drug policy as a result of a recent UN report on coca cultivation in the Andes region, which measures the cultivation in Bolivia increased by 5% in 2007 and covers 71,660 acres.

A recent article in El Espectador shows that despite the increase in drug-seizures in Bolivia from 18 tons in 2007 to 19.5 tons between January and August 2008, the U.S. government "considers that the increase in confiscations only is proportional to the increase in the production of coca" and the New York Times quoted a U.S. official saying "Let's put it this way: [Bolivia's] going in the wrong direction," in reference to Morales' drug policies.

While coca cultivation in Bolivia did increase in 2007, the UN report shows that coca cultivation also increased by 27% in Colombia and by 4% in Peru, two of the United States' main allies in the region, while confiscations increased 29% in Bolivia and decreased by 9% in Colombia and 30% in Peru. Bolivia remains far behind Colombia in increased coca cultivation and has improved its capacity to confiscate drugs in route, yet Bolivia is still being scolded by the United States.

Whether or not Bolivia makes it on the "failed demonstrably" to cooperate list, the recent U.S. criticism of President Morales' drug policies and belittling of Bolivia's increase in drug seizures so far in 2008 in light of the records of Peru and Colombia makes us wonder if all of this is just because Bolivia wants to pursue a different, yet effective, drug control approach, rather than do everything the United States asks?

You can read more of the recent coverage of the United States' criticism of both Venezuela's and Bolivia's drug policy here.