Pubdate: Sun, 11 Feb 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Contact:  400 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times


He became the first head of state in the region to do so. He says 
traffickers would lose their economic incentive.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - This small, quiet, slow-moving nation does not make 
much news.

But Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle has figured out a way to get 
headlines. He has become the first head of state in the region - and one of 
the few anywhere - to call for the decriminalization of illicit drugs. 
Batlle, a blunt free-market reformer, questions the costs and effectiveness 
of a drug war whose primary theater of battle is Latin America.

"During the past 30 years this has grown, grown, grown and grown, every day 
more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarization," the 
73-year-old president told a radio audience recently. "This has not gotten 
people off drugs. And what's more, if you remove the economic incentive of 
the [drug trade] it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who 

If this were Colombia, Mexico, or another nation locked in mortal combat 
with the drug cartels, the reaction would be fast and furious. The 
president would be pilloried by rivals and the security forces. He probably 
would win cheers from some leftists and people who survive on the drug 
trade. The U.S. Embassy would no doubt express concern.

But this is Uruguay. The debate over Batlle's endorsement of legalization 
has been measured and civilized. The drug problem is growing but not 
monstrous, so some Uruguayans have not paid much attention. And because the 
president insists that his "philosophical initiative" will not affect 
antidrug enforcement, U.S. diplomats have kept quiet.

Breaking ranks with U.S.

Nonetheless, a line has been crossed. Although Batlle's voice may be small, 
the verve with which he speaks out on the issue at regional meetings of 
presidents and journalists probably will contribute to a growing debate. A 
Latin American leader has broken ranks - at a crucial and difficult time - 
with the hard-line antidrug campaign led by the United States.

These days, the term "drug war" is more appropriate than ever. Bolivian 
troops are approaching their goal of eradicating the coca crop used in 
cocaine production from a key jungle area - at the cost of deadly riots and 
economic hardship. Plan Colombia, the high-stakes, U.S.-funded attack on 
the cocaine trade linked to Colombian guerrillas, is cranking into gear.

The plan makes the leaders of Brazil, Ecuador and other nations nervous. 
They fear that violence, anarchy and displaced drug traffickers from 
Colombia will spread through the region. Batlle has expressed similar 
misgivings; he suggests that it would make more sense to decriminalize 
drugs and deprive narco-guerrillas of a multibillion-dollar business.

Concern over Colombia

"Look at the mess there is with Plan Colombia, where everyone thinks we are 
going to end up in a war like Vietnam and there is a kind of global 
psychosis," Batlle said recently. "And what are they going to do with Plan 
Colombia: give [billions of dollars] to Colombia to build schools and 
roads. What does 'Sureshot' [aging Colombian guerrilla leader Manuel 
Marulanda] care about that? Sureshot is not going to go to school; he's my 

As the effort against drugs heats up in Colombia, the hemisphere's antidrug 
strategy is in flux. The United States has acceded to pressure from foreign 
leaders and has proposed phasing out its much-resented yearly 
certifications of countries' antidrug efforts; U.S. and Latin American 
leaders want to replace the certification process with a multilateral 
evaluation developed by the Organization of American States. U.S. officials 
have increasingly accepted the Latin American argument that they must 
reduce demand for drugs, noting that the United States has cut use almost 
in half.

By espousing a far more radical change of direction, the Uruguayan 
president joins an assortment of public figures in favor of legalization, 
including billionaire philanthropist George Soros, former Baltimore Mayor 
Kurt Schmoke and Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago and 
Nobel laureate whom Batlle knows and admires.

After winning a narrow election in late 1999, Batlle cultivated a 
reputation for speaking his mind and stirring up Uruguay's staid political 
culture. He declared war on a contraband business that he says relies on 
well-placed allies in government. He criticized the cushy salaries of 
public servants.

Most notably, he pushed forward - with initial success - an uphill effort 
to deregulate and open up the economy in a country of 3.1 million that is a 
bastion of old-fashioned leftist statism.

His 48 percent approval rating is remarkable, according to political 
consultant Juan Carlos Doyenart, because Uruguayans are not enamored of 
bold change and split their allegiances equally among three political blocs.

The talk about decriminalizing drugs is part of a plain-spoken, irreverent 
style that serves Batlle well at home and draws attention overseas, said 
Doyenart, an occasional presidential adviser.

"He enjoys himself, and he knows that with these things he wins 
popularity," Doyenart said. "This gives him a space to enact his neoliberal 
economic policy. He is a sincere neoliberal; he believes in free markets."

The president's critics generally accept his argument that he wants to 
provoke an intellectual debate rather than dismantle current laws. But 
Congressman Alberto Scaravelli, Uruguay's former drug czar and its current 
emissary to the antidrug council of the OAS, thinks Batlle is playing with 

"The debate is fine, but I hope no one is going to get confused and think 
we encourage drug consumption here," said Scaravelli, an ardent opponent of 
legalization. "This was not part of the president's electoral platform. I 
have been assured that there will be no softening of the laws. If there is, 
I will be the first to stand and oppose it."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens