Pubdate: Sun, 18 Feb 2001
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Sebastian Rotella, LA Times


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 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 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. Although 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 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 business that generates billions of 

"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.

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. 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 anti-drug council of the OAS, thinks Batlle is 
playing with fire.

"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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