Friday, May 15, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 15, 2015

Spraying is out, but is legalization in?

Glyphosate will no longer be used in aerial coca eradication efforts in Colombia, but the issue is provoking deeper questions over how to combat coca cultivation, and regional drug policies in general.

Yesterday Colombia's drug policy council ratified President Juan Manuel Santos' recommendation to suspend a two decade program, citing health concerns. The decision runs counter to U.S. recommendations, notes the New York Times. U.S. officials released figures showing an increase of nearly 40 percent of land used for coca cultivation in the past year. Glyphosate is used around the world as a weedkiller, but Colombia was the only country to use it in aerial spraying.

Yet experts question whether the U.S. funded spraying program has really been practically and economically effective at combating the cocaine trade. 
Eliminating one hectare of coca requires spraying 30, according to a report released this week by apresidential advisory committee, as many fields are resown. This means that eradication of one hectare costs approximately $72,000, while the market value of the cocaine it would produce is about $3,600.

Many farmers simply replant in new areas, which means aerial eradication simply pushes coca cultivation into more land, notes The Economist.
WOLA's Adam Isacson applauds the decision, but notes that fumigation must be replaced by policies that provide economic opportunities to rural Colombia's coca growing population.

But alternative measures have not yet been developed, reports the Wall Street Journal, though crop substitution, manual eradication and targeting cocaine production facilities are some experts' recommendations.

The drug commission's report also recommends novel measures like regulating medical marijuana and giving drug policies a health focus rather than a criminal one. That would mean less focus on indicators such as arrests and hectares sprayed, and more mitigating risks to consumers, reports Silla Vacía.

The Economist takes it a step further, saying that legalizing cocaine is the "is the least bad option" in the decades-old war on drugs. Though the piece admits that legalization in Colombia is unlikely to happen soon, the newspaper argues that eradication itself should be forgotten in favor of pursuing laboratories, traffickers, and money launderers.

InSight Crime toys with the idea of what would happen in the region if cocaine were legalized, though it says Bolivia would be the most likely leader of such a policy change. It is "the coca-producing country that has the most to gain and the least to lose from regulating the production of cocaine," according to their analysis. It's trade ties to the U.S. are weaker than Colombia's, and it's economy had the most to gain. Though the potential ramifications of such a sea-change would be wide, several countries in the region would benefit from a reduction of drug related crime and violence.

The piece makes reference to a Brookings Institution piece: "After the Grand Fracture: Scenarios for the Collapse of the International Drug Control Regime."

News Briefs

  • Third time's a charm: Guatemalan lawmakers finally picked a vice president yesterday, after two suspended sessions this week and a couple of changes in the candidates submitted by President Otto Pérez Molina. Constitutional judge Alejandro Maldonado was chosen, in a session with no preliminary debate and with the opposition of minority parties, reports Página 12. Former VP Roxana Baldetti stepped down a week ago amid accusations of involvement in a multimillion dollar customs fraud scheme, La Línea, allegedly led by her former private secretary. But the political crisis the scandal has unleashed in Guatemala is unlikely to be appeased by the new VP, reports The Guardian. Protests demanding political change have been ongoing in the month since the scandal was first reported, and one scheduled for tomorrow will be asking for Pérez Molina's resignation. Such a move, five months before a presidential election, could create a power vacuum in Guatemala's fragile democracy, according to The Guardian's sources. But the left-wing opposition says it could be a watershed moment for Guatemala, where for the first time in decades the middle class has demanded political change.Plaza Pública sounds a negative note regarding the new VP's private secretary -- the very position last held by the alleged ring-leader of La Línea. Plaza Pública links Fernando Leal Estévez, named by Maldonado yesterday, to corruption allegations surrounding rail privatizations in 1995.
  • Four former members of the Brazilian Congress were charged yesterday in relation to the Petrobras graft case, the first lawmakers to be charged in the scandal. Three of them were arrested yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal. Investigators say state oil firm Petrobras inflated contracts, taking a cut and funneling the extra cash to politicians and political parties. An estimated $2 billion went to bribes. Since the start of the investigation a year ago, four former Petrobras executives and at least 23 construction executives have been charged with crimes, such as corruption and money laundering. 
  • President Dilma Rousseff, whose government has been greatly affected by the investigation, said she will maintain oil-industry requirements to use locally produced equipment and services as well as a more state-controlled regulatory scheme for key drilling areas. The Wall Street Journal says this is a disappointment for investors who hoped for a business-friendly overhaul.
  • China's ICBC plans to start a fund of up to $50 billion, to be managed by Brazil’s state-owned bank Caixa Economica Federal, that would invest in infrastructure projects, reports the Wall Street Journal. Details of the new fund will be announced in the next week, during the visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Brazil, according to the piece.
  • Millions of dollars might have been funneled from Honduras' social security institute to the ruling National Party, according to the AP. Opposition lawmakers say the funds financed President Juan Orlando Hernández's successful 2013 election campaign.
  • A multi-racial coalition won Guyana's elections earlier this week, ousting the Indo-Guyanese party that has ruled for 23 years. The former British colony is divided along racial lines between people of East Indian and African descent. But the coalition, which includes the traditional Black party, signals a step away from race politics, according to The Guardian.
  • A two month labor dispute with farmworkers in Baja California potentially concluded yesterday, when the Mexican government committed to paying a portion of workers' salaries in order to meet their demand of $13 a day minimum wage, reports the Los Angeles Times. The agreement comes after weeks of stalled negotiations and a few violent clashes, but won't be formalized until June 4. The measures were among 13 agreements announced late Thursday by the interior department, reports the AP. Other aspects of the agreement include an investment trust with funds from the government and private industry to foment development in the San Quentin area, and government benefits for the workers, according to Animal Político.
  • Some analysts are concerned that not enough is being done to prevent cartel money from impacting the upcoming Mexican midterm elections, in which he entire lower house of congress, nine governorships, and local offices in more than half the country will be voted on, reports Insight Crime.  
  • The value Venezuela's black market bolivar descended even further this week, reaching an exchange rate of 300 to the dollar, compared to 275 last week. The market was reacting to an announcement from President Nicolás Maduro that he will soon enact new economic measures, reports La Nación.
  • Canadian mining company Kinross has had a policy of monitoring potential political opponents in the Brazilian mining town of Paracatu, reports The Guardian. The site is Brazil's most productive gold mine, but the article suggests potentially severe health risks for the local population.
  • U.S. and Cuban representatives will meet next week to continue negotiations to reestablish regular diplomatic ties between the two countries, reports the AP.
  • NPR has a critical piece on the secrecy around the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Mexico, Chile and Peru, saying "The White House is making it considerably harder for lawmakers to discuss or analyze a trade agreement that is key to how they will vote on the fast-track bill."
  • A much anticipated River-Boca soccer match in Buenos Aires was suspended yesterday after members of the visiting team were attacked with pepper spray when entering the field for the second half. It's the latest in a long list of episodes that have plagued soccer in Argentina, reports the New York Times. Visiting fans are prohibited from attending domestic matches because of lethal violence between groups of supporters. 

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