Summit of the Americas: Hugs and Drugs

The media’s favorite SOA topic is the great drug debate. While the drug trade and its ensuing violence is undoubtedly a huge issue in the region, it makes great fodder for the press and thus has been the most visible element of the upcoming SOA (or possibly the only visible element if you’re in the U.S.) I’ve been sifting through Colombian and international papers, websites and blogs, and everyone has something to say about the Summit and drugs.

In an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Michael McKinley, the U.S. ambassador in Colombia, stated that the United States isn’t afraid of the drug debate. That’s great, because we would look like huge asshats if we refused to talk about the elephant in the room, but it doesn’t mean the United States is willing to talk about it productively. Guatemalan president Otto Perez, among others, is calling for strictly regulated legalization of the drug trade. While Biden admitted that the drug debate was “legitimate,” the last word you’ll hear from the administration is “legalization” in an election year when the southern half of our population still thinks Obama is a Muslim terrorist.

Reporter María Isabel Rueda – she’s feisty and I’d really like to chat about life over mojitos sometime – asked if the U.S., being unafraid and open to discussion, was also open to the idea that someone else (!!!) could be right about the legalization debate. McKinley skirted the question, saying that all countries had to work together. Of course.

Everyone loves their constructed negative image of Colombia as a total drug state, but in constructing that image it’s vital to remember that the cocaine industry would go nowhere without a market – and if there’s any universal constructed image of the United States, it’s consumerism. The drug trade is a presence and a cycle in all the Americas, and the Summit is a terribly appropriate and convenient time to start making tangible progress towards a viable solution.

I’m pessimistic. I don’t foresee anything productive resulting from this weekend’s meetings regarding the drug debate. It’s in the news because it sounds scandalous and controversial, but I think its glory days will end the second the cops and bomb-detecting robots disappear from Cartagena’s (beautiful, labyrinthine cobblestone) streets.

Effectively tackling the drug trade will require cooperation, compromise and resources. I hate seeing the impact in Latin America and its international image. Colombians always, always mention their country’s image in the U.S., and I hate telling them that yea, everyone up north does think it’s a dangerous drug haven. It’s not. I hate reading about the violence in Guatemala, the Department of State travel advisories and that the Peace Corps is being removed. The problems may be on the other side of the country from Santiago Atitlán but I hate that such a genuine, lovely place is being ravished with violence. I want to see constructive discussion from the SOA, and real ideas for working towards a solution.