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Summary: Noam Chomsky explains why the drug war is a war on Latin America. "Latin Americans are the immediate victims, suffering appalling levels of violence and corruption, with addiction spreading through the transit routes."

Noam Chomsky explains why the drug war is a war on Latin America. (photo: Daniel Simpson)
Noam Chomsky explains why the drug war is a war on Latin America. (photo: Daniel Simpson)

The US War on Latin America

By Noam Chomsky, Nation of Change

12 May 12


hough sidelined by the Secret Service scandal, last month’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was an event of considerable significance. There are three major reasons: Cuba, the drug war, and the isolation of the United States.

A headline in the Jamaica Observer read, "Summit shows how much Yanqui influence had waned." The story reports that "the big items on the agenda were the lucrative and destructive drug trade and how the countries of the entire region could meet while excluding one country – Cuba."

The meetings ended with no agreement because of U.S. opposition on those items – a drug-decriminalization policy and the Cuba ban. Continued U.S. obstructionism may well lead to the displacement of the Organization of American States by the newly-formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, from which the United States and Canada are excluded.

Cuba had agreed not to attend the summit because otherwise Washington would have boycotted it. But the meetings made clear that U.S. intransigence would not be long tolerated. The U.S. and Canada were alone in barring Cuban participation, on grounds of Cuba’s violations of democratic principles and human rights.

Latin Americans can evaluate these charges from ample experience. They are familiar with the U.S. record on human rights. Cuba especially has suffered from U.S. terrorist attacks and economic strangulation as punishment for its independence – its "successful defiance" of U.S. policies tracing back to the Monroe Doctrine.

Latin Americans don’t have to read U.S. scholarship to recognize that Washington supports democracy if, and only if, it conforms to strategic and economic objectives, and even when it does, favors "limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied â(euro) [ (in) quite undemocratic societies," as neo-Reaganite scholar Thomas Carothers points out.

At the Cartagena summit, the drug war became a key issue at the initiative of newly-elected Guatemalan President Gen. Perez Molina, whom no one would mistake for a soft-hearted liberal. He was joined by the summit host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and by others.

The concern is nothing new. Three years ago the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy published a report on the drug war by ex-Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia calling for decriminalizing marijuana and treating drug use as a public-health problem.

Much research, including a widely quoted Rand Corporation study of 1994, has shown that prevention and treatment are considerably more cost-effective than the coercive measures that receive the bulk of funding. Such nonpunitive measures are also of course far more humane.

Experience conforms to these conclusions. By far the most lethal substance is tobacco, which also kills nonusers at a high rate (passive smoking). Usage has sharply declined among more educated sectors, not by criminalization but as a result of lifestyle changes.

One country, Portugal, decriminalized all drugs in 2001 – meaning that they remain technically illegal but are considered administrative violations, removed from the criminal domain. A Cato Institute study by Glenn Greenwald found the results to be "a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world."

In dramatic contrast, the coercive procedures of the 40-year U.S. drug war have had virtually no effect on use or price of drugs in the United States, while creating havoc through the continent. The problem is primarily in the United States: both demand (for drugs) and supply (of arms). Latin Americans are the immediate victims, suffering appalling levels of violence and corruption, with addiction spreading through the transit routes.

When policies are pursued for many years with unremitting dedication though they are known to fail in terms of proclaimed objectives, and alternatives that are likely to be far more effective are systematically ignored, questions naturally arise about motives. One rational procedure is to explore predictable consequences. These have never been obscure.

In Colombia, the drug war has been a thin cover for counterinsurgency. Fumigation – a form of chemical warfare – has destroyed crops and rich biodiversity, and contributes to driving millions of poor peasants into urban slums, opening vast territories for mining, agribusiness, ranches and other benefits to the powerful.

Other drug-war beneficiaries are banks laundering massive amounts of money. In Mexico, the major drug cartels are involved in 80 percent of the productive sectors of the economy, according to academic researchers. Similar developments are occurring elsewhere.

In the U.S., the primary victims have been African-American males, increasingly also women and Hispanics – in short, those rendered superfluous by the economic changes instituted in the 1970s, shifting the economy toward financialization and offshoring of production.

Thanks largely to the highly selective drug war, minorities are dispatched to prison – the major factor in the radical rise of incarceration since the 1980s that has become an international scandal. The process resembles "social cleansing" in U.S. client states in Latin America, which gets rid of "undesirables."

The isolation of the U.S. at Cartagena carries forward other turning-point developments of the past decade, as Latin America has at last begun to extricate itself from the control of the great powers, and even to address its shocking internal problems.

Latin America has long had a tradition of liberal jurisprudence and rebellion against imposed authority. The New Deal drew from that tradition. Latin Americans may yet again inspire progress in human rights in the United States. your social media marketing partner


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+42 # grouchy 2012-05-12 10:16
A question each of us should ask ourselves is just how much is all this nonsense costing EACH OF US out of our own wallet to maintain such a system! I would hope someone would research and post that figure worldwide--espe cially on billboards all over the U.S.. I think the figure would be outrageous.
+38 # noitall 2012-05-12 12:32
The problem is, and the reason this "nonsense" continues is that unscrupulous (outwardly respectable) people are getting filthy rich. Arms manufacturers, Arms merchants, Govt. recipients of "aid" to help us fight this so-called war. Did you notice that whenever a problem is attacked as a "WAR" it is EXPENSIVE and NEVER-ENDING. That fact should be the big tip-off. All these wars amount to, are wars against peace and wars to fill the pockets of the unworthy, and wars to make life miserable for anyone within the "theater" which is always poorly, (if ever), defined.
+12 # Peace Anonymous 2012-05-12 21:04
Quoting grouchy:
A question each of us should ask ourselves is just how much is all this nonsense costing EACH OF US out of our own wallet to maintain such a system! I would hope someone would research and post that figure worldwide--especially on billboards all over the U.S.. I think the figure would be outrageous.

The cost goes to the people. The profit goes to who??? The same with Afghanistan and the same with the oil in Iraq. Are you now beginning to see the pattern? They do not care about the debt...that belongs to you, the taxpayer. Follow the money.
+54 # spanky 2012-05-12 10:19
Why is it that Americans hang on to concepts that simply don't work? The drug war has been a dismal failure from its inception. Now we (and Europe) are floundering in an ill-conceived, fear based theory of austerity which can only destroy our economies. Have we no memory? The Great Depression came from the greed of speculators, as did our current Recession. Austerity then did nothing but make things worse. Austerity in Germany led to the rise of the Third Reich. When will we begin to get it?
+6 # John Locke 2012-05-13 09:39
Spanky; It works for those in Government and their handlers, and to keep the prisons full...then they privatize the prison system and more of the 1% profit...if Latin America and the individual states turn against us the CIA will move into Latin America to bring about regime change watch this play always does! and always has!

All legal schlors for the past 40+ Years have been in favor of legalizing drugs to take the profit out ...we learned this from prohibition... we made the criminal empires very powerful and they had politicians on their payroll, Think Capone!
+33 # goodsensecynic 2012-05-12 10:47
From the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, through the Spanish-America n War at the turn of the previous century and on to the overthrow of democratic governments in Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973) and Haiti (twice) in the past few decades, the policy of the United States has been nothing if not consistent.

American hegemony is asserted; perceived American economic interests will be defended; political movements and freely elected governments will be undermined and deposed where possible by covert and overt military action if necessary.

Even the laws of the United States (cf. the illegal war against Nicaragua under Ronald Reagan) will not protect Latinos with the impudence to consider administering their own affairs in the interest of their own people.

The only thing that's new in the current process is the excuse (it used to be "communism" now it's "drugs" and it may soon be incorporated into the "war on terror").

Americans should learn that they needn't worry about social justice and a permanent escape from tyranny among the peoples of South America, Central America and Mexico (part of North America) that should trouble them. It would be enough to consider their own rational self-interest.
+44 # Peace Anonymous 2012-05-12 10:51
America hangs on to concepts that work very well - for a select few. Nothing happens by mistake. The money from the drug trade is going into all the right pockets which is exactly why there is no intent to decriminalize it. Follow the money and you will see a similar situation coming in Afghanistan.
+23 # jwb110 2012-05-12 11:47
The Americas could be self-sufficient and be able to stay out of Eurocentric thinking and out of the Middle East in general. The quicker the South Americans divest themselves of US domination the sooner the tide will turn. They do not use more than they can produce and therefore we need them more than they need us.
+20 # noitall 2012-05-12 12:36
AND, imagine how life would be in this country if we nationalized critical resources such as oil, and other energy sources for the common good and not for rediculous profit by the few. Why should a person be able to ruin the air, view, life, etc. for HIS own profit? If things such as that are necessary (and we should have a say in it) for the common good, we should all benefit equally.
+5 # humanmancalvin 2012-05-12 12:24
While it is true that the people of Cuba are oppressed by the Castro regime, and make no mistake of it, they are. The US has got to stop being the voice & conscience of the rest of the world. Perhaps if the American government opened up communication with the Cuban government, positive changes could occur. The Cuban missile crisis was a very long time ago & Cuba's chief backer, the USSR no longer exists. Except in the minds of low information radical right insurgents AKA the Republican party. Cuba is hardly a threat to this country & has the possibility of becoming a good friend & neighbor. A large group of influential & wealthy Cuban expats bristle at any mention of normalized relations, & they probably have good right to abhor all things Castro. But for the good of the Cuban people an effort should be made to bridge our countries instead of keeping Cuba on the pariah list.
Any chance of this being possible would absolutely have to be under a Democratic administration of course. Put a radical right insurgent in the White House & America may very well consider a hostile regime change war ala the illegal, ill sought Bush invasion of Iraq.
By the way, thank you RSN for offering me, many like me as well as the radical right insurgency ( my newly coined phrase obviously)troll s a place to be heard & great articles to comment on.
+18 # cordleycoit 2012-05-12 15:21
Latin Americans are not stupid people. They will move forward minus the United States. They know a rotting corpse when they see one and the U S failing to acknowledge that it's drug policies are over will be left under the bubble of stupidity.
It is interesting to see the North Americans isolated in their pusher role. The Bush crime family became rich beyond it's wildest dreams and no doubt the Obama Administration is cutting a fat hog n the ass for it's narco bankers.
+12 # Rita Walpole Ague 2012-05-12 16:51
Truthtelling time: In the 1990's, my ex and I were warned by doctor friends and others with great amounts of experience that, when needing medical help in Mexico or Central America, search for and find we must, doctors trained in Cuba. Cuban docs were and are the best.

Then, in early 2000, we purchased an ocean going trawler, and made plans to take part in a terrific exchange program, and visit Cuba and its oldest city by boat, as folks from Cuba came to visit Florida's oldest city.

Then came the 2000 non-election election, and with "W" and his frontal lobes in power and the 1%ers about to fulfill their wish ("What we need is another Pearl Harbour.") for another war for oil, oil, oil and $$$ into the pockets of the Bushwhacking/Ko chsucking villainaires, with their 9/11 scam, the Bushwhackers shut the door again on Cuba. Our exchange trip to Cuba by boat got cancelled, under the warning that the boat could be impounded, and cost us over $10,000 to reclaim.

And then came the lied into war in Iraq, that I had foreseen was coming when "W" was non-elected.

No big suprise, Noam Chomskey is right, per usual, as he hopefully states: "Latin Americans yet again may inspire progress in human rights in the United States." God knows, we here in the U.S. of (greed and power) A.(ddiction) are in desperate need of all the inspiration, courage and determination we can get, in order to...

+12 # telebob 2012-05-12 17:13
What do you mean the 'US drug war' doesn't 'work'? It's obvious it is working for someone, else it would be changed. Ask yourself, for whom does it 'work' and you will know why it isn't phased out.
-8 # Noni77 2012-05-12 21:22
And how many here have caused this problem by their own recreational drug use?
+6 # waywuwei 2012-05-12 22:32
The fundament cause and driver of this problem is three words: Military Industrial Complex. When you turn over the problem to the military you get a militarized solution. There is big money here that goes not to the Latin american countries but to the arms and military equipment manufacturers which sell the equipment to the US government which delivers it to the Latin American military which foments coups and military takeovers of democratically elected governments.
+5 # Don Thomann 2012-05-13 16:29
There is no greater threat to the planet than the U.S. Empire. That, folks, is a fact!
+4 # Tedriii 2012-05-13 17:29

Nearly four decades ago, in January 1961, President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address about the influence of what he famously called the "military-indus trial complex."

What we're witnessing now is something new. It's the emergence of a narco-industria l complex: a proliferation of U.S. companies lining up, with congressional support, to obtain public money for anti-drug campaigns overseas.

Foreign aid isn't exactly aid if it has to be spent on U.S. military equipment and weapons. They'd do better to feed and clothe the poor, and that would help to eliminate a lot of the need for such weapons.

Ted Rudow III,MA
+3 # wfalco 2012-05-13 18:04
The term "War" is thrown around historically to define big, unnecessary costs to the American taxpayer. It is an extremely important term for the profiteers because it easily dupes the public into thinking we are part of something that must be defeated.

War against communism (Cold War), War against drugs, War on crime, and War on terrorism. Take your pick-it all means big bucks to fuel the monopoly the criminal military/indust rial/prison complex has over all of us.

Part of my optimistic self says we can "take our country back"-example being the "occupy" movement may be doing just that. However, my pessimistic self says we never had "our country" to begin with. How do you "take something back" that you never had in the first place?
+4 # jayjay 2012-05-13 22:05
Methinks the good olde days (more like 100+ years) of the U.S. treating Latin America and the Caribbean like its colonies, or worse, is over. Just look at the leadership in countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even Venezuela and you'll see a new paradigm emerging.

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