Pubdate: Sun, 28 Jan 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer


Narcotics: President Says His Stance Is Aimed At Provoking Debate. But 
Critics Contend That He's Playing With Fire.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- This small, quiet, slow-moving nation doesn't make 
much news. That's part of being a small, quiet, slow-moving nation.

But Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle has figured out a way to make 
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 [business] it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who 

If this were Colombia, Mexico or another nation locked in mortal combat 
with the 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 here is growing but not 
monstrous, so some Uruguayans haven't paid much attention. And because the 
president insists that his "philosophical initiative" will not affect 
anti-drug enforcement here, U.S. diplomats have kept quiet.

Nonetheless, a line has been crossed. Though Batlle's voice may be small 
and symbolic, 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 anti-drug 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 infect 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.

"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 'Sure Shot' [aging Colombian guerrilla leader Manuel 
Marulanda] care about that? Sure Shot is not going to go to school--he's my 

As the effort against drugs heats up in Colombia, the hemisphere's 
anti-drug 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' anti-drug efforts; U.S. and Latin American 
leaders want to replace the certification process with a multilateral 
evaluation developed by the Organization of American States, or OAS. U.S. 
officials have increasingly accepted the Latin American argument that they 
must reduce demand for drugs and have noted that the United States has 
significantly reduced consumption.

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 University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize 
winner whom Batlle knows and admires.

After winning 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% 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 advisor.

"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 anti-drug czar and now 
emissary to the anti-drug council of the OAS, thinks that Batlle is playing 
with fire.

"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."

The patrician president approaches the drug issue from the 
libertarian-style perspective of free-market purists and is considered more 
pro-U.S. than his Europe-oriented predecessors. It's quite a departure from 
the family dynasty: Batlle is the son and grandnephew of presidents who 
built a welfare state that gained Uruguay a reputation as the Switzerland 
of Latin America.

Uruguay has historically had the continent's most modern laws when it comes 
to social issues such as divorce and the separation of church and state. 
Under a law that dates to 1974, the nation does not punish possession of 
drugs if judges determine that the quantity was intended for personal use.

Nonetheless, the country's top anti-drug official makes it clear that there 
are no plans to create an Amsterdam-like haven for users. On the contrary, 
said Leonardo Costa, the deputy minister who coordinates the National 
Council on Drugs, enforcement efforts continue.

In 2000, "our seizures went up," he said. "Nobody is going to do any 
'narco-tourism' in Uruguay."

This country does not produce the raw materials for drugs or provide a base 
for major smuggling operations. Its main significance on the map of the 
global underworld is the presence of money laundering facilitated by bank 
secrecy laws.

Uruguay has avoided the surge in cocaine trafficking and consumption that 
brought an explosive growth of violence and organized crime to neighboring 
Argentina in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, the Batlle government preaches the importance of education. 
Among a batch of initiatives, Costa shows off a new interactive Web site in 
which citizens can ask anonymous questions about drug-related problems.

As for the potential moral questions raised by the president's 
philosophical stance, Costa said the state should focus on education, 
prevention and rehabilitation.

"We are not in a position to pass moral judgment on people's conduct," 
Costa said. "In this area we cannot judge what is moral and what is not. We 
are trying to combat the problem with information and more information."
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