Saturday, December 23, 2006

Latin American Leaders Less Willing To Play Along With U.S. Anti-Drug Agenda

Bolstered by the election of a cadre of coca-friendly leaders, opposition is growing across the Andes ridge to a U.S.-led anti-narcotics strategy long seen by people in the region as overbearing and hypocritical.

The abrupt announcement by Ecuador's president-elect, Rafael Correa, that he was canceling a Friday visit to Bogota is the most dramatic manifestation yet of the sentiment.

Correa said he couldn't visit unless Colombia at least temporarily halted aerial spraying of illegal coca crops, the basis of cocaine, along his country's border.

The brash move, announced as Correa ended two days of talks in Venezuela with its U.S.-bashing President Hugo Chavez, signals disdain for a major linchpin of U.S. policy in Colombia that has cost American taxpayers $4 billion since 2000.

"I couldn't be visiting our sister nation of Colombia while they are bombarding us with glyphosate on the border," Correa said, referring to the herbicide used in aerial fumigation.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, the staunchest U.S. ally in the region, steadfastly refuses to change course despite being increasingly painted by analysts in the region as Washington's lackey.

Instead, he has capitalized on the Washington-Bogota alliance to intensify his war against the country's drug-financed leftist rebels.

Under the protection of U.S.-supplied Black Hawk helicopters, Colombia's anti-narcotic police sprayed a record 450,000 acres of coca this year. But Colombia remains engulfed in a sea of coca -- the latest U.S. government survey found 26 percent more land dedicated to the plant used to make cocaine in 2005 than in the prior year. ...

Chavez on Wednesday lashed out at the U.S.-led war on drugs, calling it "the imperialists' excuse to penetrate our countries, run roughshod over our people and justify their military presence in Latin America."

This week, President Evo Morales of Bolivia said he wanted to expand the legal production of coca, a traditional elixir among Andean natives. And President Alan Garcia of Peru, a political moderate by comparison, is now extolling the virtues of coca, telling foreign journalists recently that the bitter-tasting leaf tastes great in salads. ...

So far, the United States has shown no willingness to reconsider its approach.

But a tour next week to Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru by a bipartisan delegation of six U.S. senators led by incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid may signal a shift in policy by a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Said (Michael Shifter, analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington): "That a failed U.S. policy is stuck in automatic pilot, and is generating so much discontent and bad will in the region, is costly and tragic."


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