Interview by Shweta Mukesh
Dr. Casas-Zamora, former Vice President of Costa Rica and current senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization Brookings Institution, visited UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IRPS) last November. During his weeklong stay, PROSPECT had the opportunity to sit down with Casas-Zomara to discuss flaws in U.S. drug policy and future prospects for Latin American nations.
PROSPECT: U.S. foreign policy towards Central America is often described as a failed
status quo. How would you define this term in relation to preventing drug trade?
CZ: The failed status quo refers to the White House’s emphasis on stopping supply rather than curbing demand. Washington’s reaction to the drug trade has consistently been: eradicate cultivation, prevent drugs from entering the U.S. and incarcerate those who are caught in possession of narcotics.
This approach has caused immense collateral damage. The number of people sent to jail for minor offenses relating to drugs is staggering—in the last ten years this number has more then doubled. Drug trade has had a negative impact on Central America and the current policies have exasperated the harmful effects. The production, trade and policy measures have increased violence, corrupted political systems and most importantly eroded the wok ethic of an entire generation.
PROSPECT: You mentioned that Washington has always focused on reducing drug supply. How can a government reduce demand?
CZ: This country has been successful in reducing the demand of tobacco. However, reducing demand requires a different approach. U.S. politicians need to accept that drugs are available and always will be. Therefore the aim of policies should be on diminishing the social and criminal harm that drugs create. It is imperative that one takes the drug debate away from the moral debate. If drug trade remains a moral issue there will be little room for healthy debate or innovative policy strategies.
PROSPECT: Drug trade is heavily financed by black money. How should local governments go about limiting illicit cash flows?
CZ: Latin American nations have made major strides in regulating campaign finances. They have increased regulation to stem the flow of money. The problem is implementing the laws that have been created. From a legal standpoint most nations have free and fair elections. There is freedom of press, which is more important than any legal framework. Over time the press and the legal system will gain strength, which will eventually limit and stop the flow of illicit money.
PROSPECT: A survey was recently conducted in Latin America. The findings reported that the public has little faith in their local governments. Can you comment on this?
CZ: The surveys show that over 60 percent of people support democracy and the political system. The problem is that people do not support specific institutions. Corruption scandals reduce what little trust people have in the political systems. It also does immense damage by destabilizing democratic institutions. Once we can address corruption, people will respond more positively to local governments.
PROSPECT: How does one address the weak legal system and how does it affect drug trade?
CZ: Law enforcement is crucial. Currently over 80 percent of crimes are not reported. This is because people believe that law enforcement is either useless or counterproductive. This number is staggering and creates an incentive to commit crimes.
Latin America does not have failed states. However, there are areas within the state where state writ does not operate. These places are not villages or remote areas. The state has lost control in multiple parts of urban areas. The state needs to recuperate these areas. They need to invest in these areas and work on integration. This must come from the state not from the police.
PROSPECT: What are your thoughts on Brazil and Venezuela?
CZ: Brazil is on the right track. Their macroeconomic policy is responsible. [Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva] has created a foundation to help other aspects of the society flourish and aid the poor in very tangiable ways. Brazil is finally living up to its potential.
Venezuela, on the other hand, is on the wrong track. Any positive change made in Venezuela has come with large negative externalities. There are no checks and balance or freedom of press. All the elements needed for a normal democracy to flourish have been destroyed. It will be difficult for Venezuela to rebuild its democracy. The economy is currently in shambles; it is the only country in Latin America to have negative growth for a second year in a row. Furthermore, the security situation is terrible. Homicide rates have tripled in the last ten years. In 2000, the per-capita homicide rate was around 20 per 100,000 citizens. Today the figure is closer to 50 per 100,000. There has been an erosion of the political culture in Venezuela. The country is terribly polarized. I believe that [President Hugo] Chavez’s legacy will be similar to [that of Juan] Perón.
PROSPECT: Which country will be the Latin American story?
CZ: Brazil will be the Latin American story. Brazil, alongside Chile, has managed something, which has eluded all the other countries in the region. They have proven that it is possible to reach a consensus with the elite about the country’s future. Lula proved that a politician can be on the left, nurture social change, and still be economically responsible.
PROSPECT: What about Ecuador and Colombia?
CZ: Both countries will face the challenge of creating more inclusive political systems. They need to figure out how to integrate the society without destroying democracy in the process. Brazil has accomplished this and will, therefore, serve as a good role model. Ecuador, because of [Rafael] Correa, is showing signs of stability. The destructive part of Correa’s revolution is over and the future looks optimistic. Likewise, [Álvaro] Uribe brought positive changes to Colombia. He re-established effective government control over national territory. Some of his methods were violent. However, there was enough democratic maturity in Colombia to prevent Uribe from running for a third term. The achievements of Uribe were preserved and the political maturity has lead to a healthier environment. I am optimistic about both these countries.