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Friday, April 29, 2011

Legalising marijuana: An exit strategy from the war on drugs

By Zoë Amerigian, COHA Research Associate

Few topics of debate are as stigmatizing and polarizing as the legalization of marijuana. For the majority of the U.S. population, the idea invokes one of two reactions: a firm guffaw at the ridiculousness of it, or a tenacious, almost blind, support of it. Regardless of their stance, most people derive their opinions from personal beliefs and unsubstantiated myth rather than unassailable fact. Disinformation on marijuana is rampant and several U.S. presidents have been stubbornly opposed to any serious discussion about marijuana legalization. National interest in the subject is evidenced by the myriad of legalization-related questions directed at the White House, yet President Obama cannot stifle his laughter every time the topic is brought up. Secretary of State Clinton brushes off the idea, vaguely dismissing the subject with “[T]here is just too much money in it,”—the implication of this statement is uncertain—while countless lawmakers simply cite “morality” in disregarding it. If the federal government is going to firmly oppose legalization, they must first establish that they have given significant consideration to the idea. Many Latin American nations, including Mexico and Colombia, the greatest victims of the drug trade, have already had serious debate about legalization. It is time for the U.S. to do the same.

There are a few “unknowns” when it comes to the marijuana industry—its effects on productivity and drug-related violence, for example. Experts need to examine these effects, and policymakers must open their ears to these experts. A government-sponsored marijuana commission is not a new idea; in fact, Nixon established one in 1972 when he formed the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. When the commission opposed Nixon by supporting decriminalization, he ignored their recommendations and instead intensified his efforts on the “War on Drugs” campaign. This tradition of adhering to popular and personal beliefs instead of scientific facts is still common today. With the U.S. federal debt sky-high and drug-related violence in Mexico mounting, legalization is more relevant than ever and the topic is ripe for debate. Here we explore the domestic costs and benefits that the legalization of marijuana would incur, how it might affect the marijuana industry in the Americas (particularly in Mexico), and aims to debunk the multitude of popular falsehoods that surround marijuana.

Why Current Policies Are Not Working

Despite assurances from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that the current drug policy is making headway, there are clear signs that prohibition has not succeeded in diminishing drug supply or demand. Lowering demand for illegal drugs is the most effective way to lower illegal drug production—while vendors may not respond to the threat of legal repercussions, they certainly respond to market forces. As the largest consumer of Mexican drugs, it is the responsibility of the U.S. to address its own demand for marijuana. But American demand and accessibility to marijuana are not decreasing. In fact, marijuana use is currently on the rise and, although usage has oscillated in the past decades, the proportion of use among 12th graders is only a few percentage points below what it was in 1974. Eighty-one percent of American 12th graders said marijuana was “fairly easy or very easy” to acquire in 2010. In a 2009 survey, 16.7 million Americans over 12 years of age had used marijuana in the past month—that’s 6.6 percent of the total population. While the U.S. may be unable to control its own demand for marijuana, it could stop its contribution to drug cartel revenues by allowing a domestic marijuana industry to thrive, shifting profits from cartels to U.S. growers.

While figures on marijuana smuggling into the U.S. fail to provide conclusive evidence of how much of the drug is entering the country, marijuana seizures have been steady throughout the Americas in the past decade. However, this says nothing certain about actual production numbers. Domestically, the task of restricting U.S. production is becoming more difficult. Indoor crops that use efficient hydroponic systems are becoming more popular in the U.S. but pose a challenge to law enforcement agencies for a number of reasons. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), indoor systems:

“[have] the benefit of having lower chances of detection, high yields with several harvests per year with high potency cannabis and elevated selling prices. The equipment, knowledge and seeds for indoor growing have become very accessible… [and] The costs of building an indoor growing site can be quickly recovered.”

Cultivating high-quality marijuana is becoming easier, less risky, and more profitable even for the casual grower. The rise of indoor crops will pose a new obstacle to drug enforcement agencies in stopping marijuana production in the U.S.

The UNODC outlines other negative “unintended consequences” that have resulted from the illegality of drugs. The first is obvious; when a good is forbidden, a black market inevitably rises. Black markets inherently lack safety regulations and often finance other criminal activities. A second consequence is that treatment programs are often underfunded when the bulk of any drug policy budget is spent on law enforcement. Two other consequences have been termed “geographical” and “substance” displacement. Both terms involve the idea of the “balloon effect”: when an activity is suppressed in one area, it simply reappears in another area. Geographical displacement can be illustrated by events in Colombia, the Caribbean, and Mexico: as the U.S. cracked down on Colombian drug trafficking, smuggling routes were shifted to Mexico and the Caribbean. Drug trafficking was not eliminated, but simply moved from one site to another. Substance displacement is an even more disturbing repercussion: as availability of one drug is mitigated through enforcement, consumers and suppliers flock to alternate drugs that are more accessible. While marijuana is not a harmless substance, most would agree that it is the least harmful of illicit drugs. Some drug users may be pushed toward more dangerous substances, or “hard” drugs, because marijuana is too difficult to or dangerous to obtain. Conversely, raising the accessibility of marijuana could pull users away from hard drugs. These ramifications of the current drug control system need to be taken into account in the debate over legalization.

A critical shortcoming of U.S. drug policy is that it treats drug addiction as a crime instead of a health matter. Almost 60 percent of the overall economic cost of drug abuse is due to expenditures spent on “drug crime”—the sale, manufacture, and possession of drugs. There seems to be a wide consensus that at the very least, drug policy must shift its focus to treatment. Tarnishing someone’s record for drug use makes no sense; it encourages criminal activity by obstructing job opportunities and it does nothing to address the factors that cause drug use. Additionally, treatment is not readily accessible to those seeking help despite its efficacy in preventing future drug use. In 2009, 20.9 million Americans (8.3 percent of the total population over age 12) who needed treatment for drug or alcohol abuse did not receive it in a specialty facility—a hospital, a rehab facility, or a mental health facility. This is an unacceptably high number. The U.S. overinvests in its prohibition strategy while severely underfunding treatment options. Marijuana legalization’s potential role in improving treatment options for all drugs will be discussed later in this article; for now, suffice it to say that the status quo is not producing the desired results and requires modification.

Legalization and The Mexican Drug War

The issue of legalization has been brought to the forefront in recent years because of numerous calls by Latin American leaders to discuss the matter as a viable policy option. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of Mexico, while not personally advocating legalization, have publicly called for serious discussion of the concept. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who previously took a hard line against drugs, has altered his public stance and now supports legalization of all drugs, especially marijuana. He argues that prohibition does not work, that drug production ends up funding criminals, and that it is the responsibility of citizens to decide whether to use drugs or not. Former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia all supported in a report by The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that the U.S. decriminalize marijuana use (Colombia and Mexico have already done so). The U.S. has ignored these requests to place drug legalization or decriminalization on the policy agenda. Drug trafficking is not a national problem; it transcends country borders and needs to be approached from a hemispheric perspective. Therefore, the United States needs to work with its southern neighbors to formulate a comprehensive drug policy. However, it is also telling that every Latin American leader who has formally supported legalization or decriminalization has done so only after leaving office, indicating that such policies are not politically “safe” stances.

The difference between decriminalization and legalization is in their degree of leniency towards drugs; decriminalization permits drug use while legalization permits both drug use and production. Those that favor decriminalization maintain that it would enable law enforcement agencies to shift resources from prosecuting drug users to prosecuting drug suppliers. Decriminalization would also free up resources for effective drug treatment programs. Those that favor legalization go one step further than decriminalization: in Vicente Fox’s words, “[W]e have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of producers—so there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it, and shops that sell it.” Legalization would include the benefits of decriminalization, while also depriving gangs and cartels of a lucrative product; if both the supply and demand sides are legitimate, a black market would become obsolete. Legalizing marijuana in the United States, the largest buyer of Mexican drugs, could potentially weaken drug cartels by limiting their sources of revenue. The UNODC has acknowledged that this is a plausible way of reducing gang and cartel profits.

Mexican and American Marijuana Markets

Eliminating the marijuana market share of Mexican cartels would hit them especially hard because it serves as a steady, reliable source of income and carries relatively little risk for them to produce. The percentage of total cartel drug revenues from marijuana is greatly debated—Mexican and American official figures range from 50-65 percent, but a study by the RAND Corporation suggests closer to 15-26 percent. Even the most conservative of these estimates—roughly a fifth of revenue—would strike a blow to cartel profits if eliminated. Marijuana is particularly valuable to cartels because they control the entire production line; they both grow and distribute it themselves, making it more reliable and less risky. Conversely, cocaine is imported to Mexico mostly from South America, heightening the risk of smuggling it. More troubling is that cartels are now even growing marijuana on U.S. public lands, mostly throughout national parks and forests, in order to avoid the task of smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border.

If Mexico were to reach the point of legalizing marijuana, the U.S. could continue to buy the drug legally from south of the border, like many other consumer goods. But even if Mexico did not implement its own legalization, recent data indicates that a domestic U.S. industry could fill the role of the supplier and eliminate the need for Mexican marijuana. The drug is increasingly grown domestically and U.S. growers are already posing a threat to Mexican market share. Exact numbers are impossible to assess, but figures of American domestic marijuana production range from 30-60 percent of the total consumed in the U.S. Additionally, a report by the RAND Corporation found that legalizing marijuana in California alone (and a subsequent rise in state-wide marijuana production) could lower Mexican cartel marijuana revenues by 65-85 percent. This could occur if Californian marijuana were smuggled to the rest of the U.S. where the drug would still be illegal. The marijuana’s projected high quality and low price would make it an extremely competitive product. It seems reasonable to assume that if the drug were legalized in all fifty states, the domestic market could easily overwhelm the Mexican market share.

In terms of tangible effects on Mexican drug violence, the RAND Corporation and UNODC agree that removing U.S. demand for illegal marijuana would increase violence in the short run because Mexican cartels would be fighting for dominance in a shrinking market. But in the long run, once U.S. demand is met by domestic supply, cartels would be financially debilitated and, most likely, some of the violence quelled. The U.S. population is by far the largest drug market for Mexico, making our action necessary for any transnational legalization to be effective. While cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin are still funding cartels, drug violence will not be completely eliminated; but any move to starve their resources is a step forward in weakening them and, ultimately, saving lives.

The Health Effects of Marijuana

UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa has said that drug legalization, “may reduce the profits to criminals, but it will certainly increase the damage to the health of individuals and society.” The executive director was referring to the damage of legalizing all drugs, but the argument still stands—what are the health effects of marijuana and are they severe enough that prohibition is imperative? While legalization may seem like an attractive option to subdue Mexican drug violence, marijuana is still a drug and can have harmful effects.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of marijuana are mild when compared to other drugs. These effects can last anywhere from an hour to several hours after consuming the drug, and can include increased passivity, fatigue, loss of motor skills, memory impairment, increased heart rate, an altered sense of time, delayed reaction time, loss of motivation and, more commonly found in inexperienced users, paranoia. A marijuana overdose has never been recorded in humans, even at extremely high doses. Additionally, the concept of “second-hand smoke” does not apply to marijuana; the density of marijuana smoke required to affect a bystander is so great that discussion of it is irrelevant.

Based on these effects, one of the societal dangers of marijuana could be outright laziness; however, reliable data to support whether marijuana actually lowers productivity is not currently available. The greatest danger posed by short-term marijuana effects is the risk of injury from an accident. The Drug Abuse Warning Network reported 308,547 emergency room visits due to marijuana in 2009 (by comparison, bicycles accounted for roughly 500,000 visits). The true risk of accident lies in operating a vehicle, because reaction time and motor skills are both impaired. A French survey showed that drivers who tested positive for marijuana were three times more likely to cause a fatal accident, with the likelihood increasing with blood concentration of marijuana. (The study also found that marijuana was responsible for 2.5 percent of fatal accidents, while alcohol was responsible for 28.6 percent; these results may cannot be generalized to the U.S. but are nonetheless interesting to note). Unlike alcohol breathalyzers, a highly accurate and instantaneous method of testing whether a person is “high” has yet to be developed. Some law enforcement officers have been trained to recognize signs of drug use in drivers with high rates of accuracy, but blood tests are still the most precise tool for detecting the presence and potency of marijuana in the blood stream. However, even if a driver has drugs in their system (marijuana can stay in the bloodstream for up to a month), such individuals are not necessarily impaired. A practical procedure for detecting impairment due to marijuana would be necessary to prevent driving under the influence, as well as a formalized threshold level determining at what blood content level of marijuana a driver becomes impaired.

Long-Term Effects and Questionable Experimental Methods

There are also studies linking marijuana to a myriad of long-term health disorders, including schizophrenia, reduced cognitive function, behavioral issues, lung cancer, bronchitis, brain shrinkage, infertility, memory loss, increased susceptibility to other drugs (the “gateway” effect), and addiction. This array of medical studies is probably the largest source of disinformation and myths about marijuana. They often interpret results presumptively and derive data from experiments that do not represent real life situations. Moreover, popular belief about marijuana is often based on sensational experimental results that have not been replicated—a problem that pertains especially to marijuana because, as an illegal substance, it is tricky to conduct experimental research on. In 1999, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to assess scientific studies that examined the effects of marijuana. The study has been cited as “[t]he most rigorous review of studies of smoked marijuana” by the DEA. The IOM report shed light on many of the holes in marijuana research and what conclusions could be made based on the data available at the time.

The most common mistake made in marijuana studies was the assumption of causality when only a relationship of correlation was apparent. The IOM report identifies several cases where this has occurred. One allegation is that marijuana leads to “conduct disorders” or behavioral problems. The report nullified this in pointing out that conduct disorders were usually the cause of marijuana use, noting that they were present before drug use began. Another case of assumed causality is the claim that marijuana causes psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia; again, the report nullified this by concluding that marijuana did not cause psychiatric disorders, but had the potential to induce premature psychotic episodes in people already susceptible to such disorders. More recent evidence has shown that marijuana users develop these types of disorders roughly three years earlier than non-marijuana users. A third case of false causality, and possibly the most egregious and widespread in relation to marijuana, is the “gateway drug” theory; that, upon using marijuana, a person becomes more at risk to use other drugs. The IOM report concluded that, while correlative data supports the theory, “the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug.” This statement supports the findings in the 1972 report commissioned by Nixon, which concluded that marijuana could lead to other drugs because “[the user] may eventually view himself as a drug user and be willing to experiment with other drugs which are approved by his peer group.” Marijuana has been stigmatized as an illicit drug like any other, creating the impression that its use is a small step away from, say, cocaine use. The image that marijuana is the same as hard drugs is not only false but potentially harmful. The IOM report further exonerated marijuana as the gateway drug by saying, “because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, ‘gateway’ to illicit drug use.” These cases do not illustrate the full extent to which causality is misused to vilify marijuana.* Many people point to correlations between marijuana and, for example, heroin use or education levels, as “proof” of its degenerative effects. But correlation does not signify causality; there may be a third factor causing both marijuana and heroin use, or education levels may in fact be causing drug use. A causality mechanism must be established before making conclusions about the effects of marijuana based on correlative data.

Another error that is commonly committed in marijuana studies is relying on experimental designs that do not mimic actual drug use. Specifically, experimental subjects commonly use amounts of marijuana that are extremely high and not at all representative of typical marijuana usage. For example, one experiment linking marijuana to adverse mood and paranoia was based on subjects smoking 10-22 marijuana cigarettes, or “joints”, every day. In another experiment studying withdrawal effects of marijuana, subjects smoked 9-10 joints a day as a “high dosage.” These results were then compared to other “low dosage” results where subjects smoked 6-7 joints a day. These quantities are extremely large and would indicate that typical marijuana users are “stoned” all day every day (for readers unfamiliar with marijuana, one joint is enough to make the user high for 1-3 hours). Using huge doses in experiments appears to be a routine practice with little attention being given to moderate or casual use, possibly because in smaller doses these effects are not observable. The result is that these studies may be hugely exaggerating the effects of marijuana.

Another concern about marijuana use is its potential for addiction. Abstaining marijuana users do experience some withdrawal symptoms including restlessness, irritability, insomnia, nausea and cramping but, according to the IOM report, they are “mild and subtle compared with the profound physical syndrome of alcohol or heroin withdrawal.” Marijuana (including hashish, a more potent form of marijuana) also has, at 9 percent, a relatively low percentage of users who have ever become dependent. The comparative rates of other drugs are: 32 percent for tobacco, 15 percent for alcohol, 9 percent for anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs), 17 percent for cocaine, and 23 percent for heroin. While there is risk of marijuana addiction, the risk is lower and the withdrawal effects less severe than those of almost all other drugs.

The only proven long-term effect of marijuana, having been extensively observed, is an increased risk of bronchitis and other pulmonary disorders. One study found that in marijuana users who smoked three to four joints a day (again, a very high dosage), symptoms of chronic bronchitis were present in roughly a fifth. These symptoms are equivalent to those of tobacco users who smoke twenty cigarettes a day. Studies linking marijuana to lung cancer have been inconclusive, and some have even shown that marijuana usage has been effective in diminishing cancerous tumors.

Marijuana is Distinct from Hard Drugs

Next to other drugs, the short-term effects of marijuana are comparatively tame. Stimulants such as cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines can all induce erratic behavior. Far more dangerous is alcohol, which lowers inhibitions, impairs judgment, impairs motor skills, and can induce violent tendencies in many users. More importantly, it is possible to overdose on almost any other drug besides marijuana. The long-term effects of marijuana are even more starkly different from other drugs. Long-term use of hard drugs can cause severe brain damage, cancer, and various types of organ failure; most hard drugs are also more addictive than marijuana, making it more likely that effects associated with long-term use will occur. Placing marijuana in the same category as hard drugs is a grossly inaccurate characterization.

The most important implication to draw from the IOM report is that most current studies on marijuana have used exaggerative methods and liberally interpreted conclusions. This must be given due significance when discussing legalization. The possible negative effects of marijuana that are strongly supported by science include: an increased likelihood of an accident when operating a vehicle, a premature triggering of psychosis, bronchial damage, and dependence. U.S. authorities must ask themselves if these effects are substantial enough that individual freedom should be impeded and citizens stripped of the right to use marijuana—especially while far more dangerous substances are condoned and legal.

The Economics of Legalization

The biggest fault of U.S. drug policy is that the government has spent considerable sums of money on the “War on Drugs” without getting the desired results. Proponents of legalization argue that it is not only a logical but also a highly economical policy; marijuana could be a valuable source of tax revenue if legalized and the government would save billions in law enforcement costs. But the cost of any possible repercussions must be acknowledged as well. The following calculation of legalization costs and benefits is based on government expenditures in enforcing marijuana prohibition, the societal costs of marijuana use, and the projected economic returns of legalizing marijuana.

Government Expenditures

Marijuana offenses constitute a significant portion of law enforcement activities in the United States. While it is not true that marijuana-related offenders are filling the nation’s prisons (most marijuana arrests do not result in incarceration), the court system and law enforcement agencies are hugely burdened with marijuana offenses. In 2009, 6.3 percent (858,408) of all arrests in the U.S. were because of marijuana charges; they constituted the third most common source for arrest after driving under the influence and theft. Marijuana arrests number vastly more than all violent crimes combined. Of all drug arrests, over half were for marijuana; 45.6 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession alone. This is an overwhelming proportion of law enforcement and legal resources being allocated to a relatively benign crime. Exact figures of how much the government spends on marijuana prohibition do not exist, but one assessment from Harvard University, the Miron report, estimates annual government expenditures related to marijuana in law enforcement, the courts, and incarceration to be around USD 7.7 billion. Over five hundred American economists, including the late Milton Friedman, have publicly endorsed the findings of the Miron report.

Economic Costs to Society

The second part of the cost-benefit analysis is to calculate the economic costs to society of marijuana use. While society is already incurring the costs of marijuana use, there is the possibility that legalization would increase consumption43 and thus exacerbate these costs. Multiple studies have shown that decriminalization does not result in increased consumption (the commonly cited example of Alaska in the 1970s has been effectively debunked), but legalization is notably different. In addition to removing penalties for marijuana use, legalization would make the drug highly accessible and would likely decrease the price, ultimately resulting in an increase in consumption. A RAND Corporation study found that marijuana prices would be markedly lower even with substantial taxation, but that projected consumption increases varied significantly and were therefore impossible to calculate. However, the study did find with certainty that consumption would increase by some amount, so it is important to understand what societal ills might increase as well.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published a study in 2004 determining that the overall economic costs of all illicit drug abuse in 2002 totaled to about USD 180.9 billion, the third most costly health problem in the U.S. While the report did not delineate which costs are attributable to which drug, a deconstruction of the report roughly reveals which of those costs can be traced to marijuana use. The ONDCP report divides all drug abuse costs into three categories: health costs, productivity losses, and “other” costs.

ONDCP Report: Productivity Losses

Productivity losses due to drug abuse constitute the largest chunk of economic costs, coming in at 71 percent. The four primary sources of productivity losses are incarceration for drug-related charges (23 percent), drug-abuse related illness (18 percent), “crime careers” (25 percent), and premature death (29 percent).

Two of these areas, premature death and “crime careers”, hardly apply to marijuana. Premature deaths are attributable to overdose or poisoning, homicide, HIV/AIDs, and hepatitis B or C; marijuana overdose is essentially impossible and the latter diseases are attributable to injected drugs. “Crime career” is the term for when a user turns to crime to pay for their drug addiction, but these careers are usually motivated by very expensive drug habits like heroin and cocaine. The third part of productivity losses, incarceration, includes both direct drug charges and crimes committed because of drug use or addiction. Incarceration costs are largely irrelevant because legalization would eliminate marijuana arrests and because “crime careers” generally do not correlate with marijuana. Marijuana contributes little to these three areas, which make up 77 percent of all productivity losses.

The fourth major source of productivity losses is drug abuse-related illness, which is the only area that may pertain to marijuana use. However, in the “medical consequences” area of the report, the medical conditions “drug-exposed infants”, HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis B and C, and effects of violent crime are the primary cost-inducing items listed, with HIV/AIDs being the largest contributor by far. Neonatal care for drug-exposed infants is largely associated with maternal cocaine use, violent crime pertains to users addicted to expensive drugs, and, again, HIV/AIDs and hepatitis are both caused by injected drugs. Health costs caused by marijuana use would probably involve, for example, cases of bronchitis, but this was not significant enough to appear in the report. Thus, while some drug abuse-related illnesses, and productivity losses in general, could be nominally caused by marijuana use, they are overwhelmingly due to other drugs.

ONDCP Report: “Other” Costs and Health Costs

“Other” costs constitute the second-largest portion of overall economic drug abuse costs at 20 percent of the total. This category overwhelmingly consists of law enforcement and corrections expenses and thus warrants little discussion when imagining a hypothetical situation where marijuana is legal. The costs would simply disappear if marijuana were legalized. The last section, health costs, comprises only 9 percent of the total costs. This section of the report only speaks in general terms about treatment costs, so there is little information indicating how much of it comes from marijuana use. However, recalling that marijuana has much lower rates of dependence and less severe overall health effects, it could be concluded that treatment costs are moderate at most.

This analysis of the report provides evidences that, although drug abuse is an extremely costly health problem, marijuana is not a significant contributor to total drug abuse costs. There is nothing in the report that unquestionably incriminates marijuana use; the same cannot be said for other drugs, which can be blamed for drug-related illnesses, drug deaths, drug crime, and drug violence. A more marijuana-specific assessment of the economic costs would be a useful reference in the debate about legalizing marijuana (such a report, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is currently in the works). However, based on the available information, marijuana appears to be responsible for a small part of the economic costs of all drug abuse, a fraction that would likely grow if consumption increased with legalization.

Economic Benefits

The most commonly proponed benefit of legalization is the tax revenue that would be generated if marijuana were treated like any other commodity. The Miron report estimates that legalizing marijuana could generate USD 2.4 billion in annual tax revenue if taxed like other consumer goods, and USD 6.2 billion if taxed like alcohol and cigarettes. Combined with the money saved in government expenditures, that makes USD 10.1-13.9 billion in funds likely to be generated. While this is highly relevant to the dire fiscal situation in which the U.S. finds itself, it also has implications for drug policy overall. The funds from marijuana could be concentrated on drug treatment programs and lower overall drug consumption, especially of more harmful narcotic drugs that have drastic health consequences (consider that all drug abuse health costs totaled USD 16 billion in 2002). It is unknown how much treatment programs would decrease consumption. The example of Portugal, the country with the most liberal drug laws in the developed world, sets an optimistic example. After just five years of decriminalizing all drug use and putting more funding into treatment programs, the country saw astoundingly less drug use, higher treatment rates, and lowered HIV/AIDs rates. These results all point to lower overall societal costs of drug abuse. Better treatment options will certainly bring these results and legalization could be used to fund these programs.

This analysis does not exhaust every cost and benefit of marijuana legalization. There are two economic factors that have not been considered: the cost of control, regulation, and distribution of marijuana, and the economic gains of a legitimate marijuana industry. Discussion of these factors is far beyond the scope of this article, but there is one tantalizing fact to reflect on in relation to the marijuana industry: merely USD 100 of investment in equipment and seeds can produce roughly USD 9,000 of marijuana. It is an extremely lucrative product and the jobs and businesses generated by the marijuana industry could make a huge contribution to the formal economy.

There are positives and negatives to legalizing marijuana from an economic standpoint. Marijuana misdemeanors continue to place a disproportionate burden on the justice system, ensuring wasteful use of money and resources. Marijuana would bring in substantial revenues that could be diverted to treatment programs for more harmful substances. While marijuana consumption would almost certainly increase with legalization, it appears that marijuana is not responsible for most of the economic drug abuse costs of the United States. This is the haziest aspect of the cost-benefit analysis that has been tabulated; hopefully the pending marijuana report funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse will clarify these numbers.


The example of Portugal’s success reminds us that counterintuitive policies might be the most effective. The federal government cannot allow myths and personal feelings to obscure what might be the right policy for the United States. Marijuana is unique from other substances in that the effects are not as severe and it remains highly popular despite the “War on Drugs.” Nation-wide use makes its prohibition expensive and possible tax revenues huge. But the discussion on legalization does not simply revolve around a cost-benefit calculation. Freedom is at issue here as well: U.S. citizens are being deprived the right to use a substance that is less harmful and has higher potential for responsible use than its legal counterparts. All of these factors need to be balanced to make a rational policy, keeping in mind that this particular issue has far-reaching implications for Latin America as well. It would be wise for U.S. policymakers to discuss legalization with Latin American leaders and to truly listen, instead of discounting their proposals. Most importantly, empirical evidence needs to be an integral part of U.S. drug policy; personal beliefs should not keep experts and data from being heard.

*One example of mistaken causality is the commonly cited statistic that 6-8% of drivers in motor accidents test positive for marijuana. Testing positive does not mean that the driver is “high”, only that they have used marijuana in the past weeks or month, depending on the user. Since roughly 7% of the population uses marijuana on a monthly basis, the 6-8% statistic, far from proving anything about the effects of marijuana, simply affirms what would already be expected.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, visit or email

April 28, 2011


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bahamas: What makes Hubert Ingraham, Hubert Ingraham?

Portrait of Caesar

By Ian Strachan
Nassau, Bahamas

The 2012 election approaches. And Hubert Alexander Ingraham approaches what will in all likelihood be his last general election. Hopefully, win or lose, he will give the nation an opportunity to honor him for his contributions. He does not strike me as a man who cares much for ceremony, so I imagine it will be a struggle getting him to play along. (He has, thus far, refused the knighthood, for instance).

Ingraham appears more indispensable to the party than ever. I know he isn’t really indispensable, but many FNMs seem to think he is. The question is, who will lead the Free National Movement when Hubert Ingraham rides off into the sunset on his fishing boat? The contenders easily come to mind: Brent Symonette, Tommy Turnquest, Dion Foulkes, Carl Bethel, Zhivargo Laing, Hubert Minnis, Duane Sands.

What doesn’t come easily to mind is how any of them will win over the Bahamian voting public. The aforementioned gentlemen may not win in 2017 but, they won’t run the party into the ground either. However, can any of those aforementioned gentlemen re-fashion themselves in such a way that they can gain the confidence and more importantly, the affection of the public? Because say what you will, the people must not only trust your competence, they must identify with you, they must “feel” you.

What makes Ingraham, Ingraham? Well, let’s break it down.

Hubert Ingraham is either loved or hated. It’s hard for people to be lukewarm where he’s concerned. And though some may find it hard to believe, more people love him than hate him. And here’s the other thing about Ingraham: Most of the people who hate him, or think they hate him, respect the heck out of him. Ingraham did not come from Nassau middle class respectability; he did not attend “the old Government High”; he did not travel to the UK for law school and therefore doesn’t have that confusing pseudo-English accent so many barristers have been flaunting. What he does have is the confidence of a rhinoceros and the political instincts of a shark, a tiger or a jackal (take your pick).

Apparently he wasn’t Cecil Wallace Whitfield’s first choice to lead the FNM, but he was smart enough to take the job when Christie turned it down. It takes a special kind of man to stand up to Pindling and beat him twice. It takes a special combination of knowing where all the PLP bodies are buried (in a manner of speaking); speaking to the masses in a plain and unvarnished enough manner to gain their complete trust; and having the spine, the will, the toughness, the guts to face the thousands upon thousands who will rake your name in the muck forever for disrespecting and “betraying” the father of the nation.

Ingraham has maintained his spot atop the FNM because he has fashioned the party to his liking. He has dispatched his legitimate rivals (Dupuch, Turnquest, Allen, Bostwick) and surrounded himself with men ready and willing to kiss his ring. He has been able to keep the FNM’s diverse constituencies engaged, rewarded and fairly happy; he has managed to keep East Bay Street and East Street South satisfied. He has never lost his working class sensibility despite being the smartest man in almost any room he enters. He lacks humility, but he has simplicity, which is just as powerful in the world of fakes, opportunists, narcissists and thieves that politics can sometimes be. Most of all Ingraham knows what he has done for the FNM; he has made them winners. And he knows what every man sitting around his table wants. And once a man like Ingraham knows what you want, he knows what he needs to do and say to keep you motivated, keep you engaged and keep you in line.

I’ll tell you what Ingraham respects: Hard work and discipline. I’ll tell you what he cherishes: People who are prepared to work hard for this country, but have no desire for glory; no warping hunger for power. If you know anything about politics, you know it is a rare breed of man who is willing to serve and not be served. I believe Ingraham is searching diligently, tirelessly, for a successor. I believe he knows who he wants to succeed him. He wants someone who embodies what he thinks is best about himself: A capacity to think analytically and strategically, a capacity for hard work and discipline, a simple and unvarnished style, little interest in foolish pomp and puffery.

What plagues him, what haunts him, is perhaps the fact that those qualities, so vital and admirable in a man, are not enough to hold on to power. You see, Ingraham’s other traits: Obstinacy, pride, rage, misdirection, wit, and ruthlessness are also vital in this Machiavellian “game”. You cannot choose a successor and hope he learns ruthlessness; he reveals that quality naturally, and more than likely, is prepared to direct that ruthlessness at you at the very first opportunity. You cannot make a political leader; he reveals himself.

That means Ingraham’s real successor (not his handpicked head of the party), is not in his cabinet. And if he is, that man must be prepared to desecrate the very image of his mentor to carve out his space as leader of the FNM. The FNM today is Ingraham’s party. It cannot remain so and live.

Does that strike you as ingratitude? Don’t be naïve. What do you think Ingraham himself did? He watched, he learned, and when his moment came, he stuck a knife in Caesar’s back. Any man who would succeed him must do the same.

Ian Strachan is associate professor of English at The College of The Bahamas. You can write to him at



Saturday, April 23, 2011

The growing risks posed by obesity in The Bahamas... [70 percent of the Bahamian population is overweight]

Chronic illnesses up demand on health care

Guardia News Editor

Nassau, Bahamas

In The Bahamas, an estimated 500 people die annually from either heart disease or diabetes, which are both driven by obesity, according to health officials.

Diabetes, heart disease and strokes account for an estimated 1,700 admissions annually, notes Dr. Patrick Whitfield, a consultant in family medicine at the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), who recently completed a paper on the growing risks posed by obesity in The Bahamas. worsen as time goes by in the absence of any significant change in lifestyles and our increasing prevalence of obesity which is largely driven by poor diets and lack of exercise.

“But it is far more complicated than that,” Dr. Whitfield said in an interview with The Nassau Guardian yesterday.

“I think universally people have been focusing on advising people to lose weight, exercise regularly, eat healthier meals but it is far more complex than that because that does not equate to behavioral change. What we need is behavioral change. “And there seems to be no correlation
between passing information on to members of the public — not just here but universally — and that actually leading to change in behavior.”

Dr. Whitfield notes in his paper — “Breaking the culture of obesity requires an intersectoral approach” — that in 2005, the Ministry of Health conducted a Chronic Non-Communicable Disease Prevalence and Risk Factor Survey which revealed that obesity is a significant risk factor in the population.

That study found that approximately 70 percent of the population is overweight. “What we see is the back end of the problem,” Dr. Whitfield told The Guardian. “We’re seeing more and more people getting heart attacks, more and more people are going into renal failure requiring dialysis, that comes from increasing incidence of high blood pressure, increasing incidence of diabetes which is driven by obesity, which is in turn driven by lifestyle.

“And so what we’re seeing is a number of issues that are now arising. We’re seeing people getting sicker, staying in hospital for longer periods of time. “We’re seeing people sustaining far more complications of these diseases, which has proven to be very, very costly to us.”

Officials at the Princess Margaret Hospital said recently that violence and other trauma cases are placing increasing pressure on their resources. The high crime rate is helping fuel the problem, they reported.

Dr. Whitfield said, “In spite of the fact that we have such a high degree of trauma in our society — motor vehicles, homicides and assaults — you will probably find the leading costing item in our Intensive Care Unit is as a result of strokes and heart attacks and so we’re seeing a lot of that.

“We’re also seeing families who are being decimated in terms of financial security where the leading breadwinner will become disabled or heaven forbid have a premature death which leaves the family vulnerable of course to all these financial issues.

“We’re seeing increasing costs in the private sector of insurance premiums. We’re seeing employers having to look at their bottom line and trying to devise schemes whereby they can continue their employee benefits, that is insurance premiums, with the risk of affecting their profit margins.”

Dr. Whitfield estimated that about 80 percent of the 1,700 admissions at PMH is as a result of chronic non-communicable diseases.

He said about $200 to $250 is spent per day, per patient. “We’re having more and more patients who are undergoing dialysis which ballpark costs anywhere between $70,000 and $80,000 per year, per patient and we have in excess of 100 patients now on dialysis,” Dr. Whitfield added.

Dr. Duane Sands, consultant surgeon at PMH, pointed out that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) predicts that the impact of these diseases on this economy and all the economies in the Caribbean region will be phenomenal.

“More so than any single other concern, chronic non-communicable diseases will impact our economy negatively by not only a 300 percent increase in deaths (over the next 20 years) but loss of productivity, illness, disability etc.,” Dr. Sands said.

“We’re looking for innovative ways to reduce the bottom line charge to the taxpayers. But if you say you want to have good health and you also want to have education, national security, immigration controls etc. then the money has to come from somewhere.”



Friday, April 22, 2011

Can rational dialogue transform Caribbean education?

By Oliver Mills

A Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Tasos Kazepides, has published an essay entitled “Education as Dialogue,” which summarises one of the central arguments of his recent book, Education as Dialogue: Its Prerequisites and Its Enemies.

The professor argues that the quality of our thinking is influenced by the quality of thinking in our social world. He characterises education as dialogue, and says that, unlike conversation, it is caring, engaging, and inseparable from reason.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaFor him, dialogue is the pursuit of truth and understanding, which give it direction and purpose. It also has to do with interpersonal communication, governed by the rules of reasoning, and having certain standards, with no predetermined destination.

Dialogue also has a serious, challenging and demanding character, and requires respect, trust, open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen, and to risk one’s own fixed beliefs, biases and prejudices in the pursuit of truth.

With dialogue, he argues, the aim is not to win an argument, but to advance human understanding and well being. Agreement is the result of conviction, and is not imposed.

Again, the professor states that some of the prerequisites of a genuine dialogue are the virtues of justice, honesty, respect for others, caring, and fair-mindedness. For him, dialogue is influenced by the cultural, political and economic conditions of society, and the education within it.

In relating dialogue to education, the professor states that the prerequisites of dialogue are also those of education, and that the principles of dialogue are at the foundations of a genuine educational curriculum.

Expanding on the idea of education as dialogue, he sees education as a form of free, open, informed dialogue among members of society and the education system, and as a planned dialogue between the generations about the human condition, and places it at the centre of all education, as the most effective means of teaching the young.

Education through dialogue is about character development, and the virtues of interpersonal relationships. The appropriate questions to be asked about education are therefore, what it means, its values, its place in society, and not what it aims at or for.

For the professor, education policy and practice are determined by the political and economic needs of society, rather than as an ideal of human development, and the vision of a good society. He further says that the public schools aim not at educating the young, but preparing them to serve the productive and reproductive needs of a competitive world.

Dialogue and education therefore emphasise the importance of understanding our world and each other, and the centrality of the intellectual standards, and moral virtues for individual and collective well being. He adds that nothing else will improve our educational institutions, and the character of our civilisation, so much as our efforts to cultivate genuine, rational dialogue within our schools, and within our world.

This essay by Professor Kazepides provides the missing link to what has avoided educators and educational systems, particularly within the Caribbean, which is the rational use of dialogue as an antidote to previous and current failures in our educational systems, and the achievement of transformation of those systems through the cultivation of certain virtues, which permeate the individual and societal consciousness through dialogue.

The writer is right when he says the quality of our thinking is influenced by the quality of thinking in the society. For, if a society is at a particular stage of development, then what moves it forward is the quality of ideas, experiences, and the reflection on these.

If the thinking quality leaves much to be desired, there will be little qualitative progress, and the result would be a somewhat stagnant civilisation. Education systems will remain underdeveloped, the status quo would continue, and the quality of life would deteriorate.

On the other hand, with quality thinking, there is quality progress that has an overall benefit to the individual and the collective as a whole. Society moves rapidly forward, and progress and development become the new norm. With low level thinking, there is stagnation, and the social and political system, along with education, will atrophy.

It is important then that, through dialogue, ideas, positions and beliefs are constantly challenged, and there is intellectual experimentation and innovation. This lifts the quality of our being, results in a creative society, and therefore a sustainable human system.

I agree with the professor that dialogue involves caring, engaging and is connected to reason, with the quest for truth and understanding as well as improving interpersonal communications as critical goals.

With societal dialogue, one becomes empathetic towards the other, and there is a linkage of minds and hearts. Abuse and emotionalism are non-existent, since a greater essence is being sought which is truth, even if tentatively held, since new developments in knowledge and understanding could present greater evidence of something different. Here, respect and trust become paramount, and the collective search for an education system which transforms, and which is being continuously improved is fostered.

With this rational approach, devoid of privileging any particular position, avenues are fostered for greater and newer experiences and innovations.

Connected to this is the ability to listen and be open-minded. This means that when educational officials meet to dialogue about the issues, it is beyond the level of just being simply a conversation. There is free, open and informed dialogue, with no interest in having a winner.

The winners are the education system and a more qualitative and informed understanding by the individual. Consensus is by conscious choice, based on the quality of the dialogue, and is not imposed by an authority. It is willing and non-coerced consent. Through dialogue as education, a quality character is formed, based on values and agreed standards.

Too often in the Caribbean, authoritarianism and diktat usurp truth and reason. It is almost sacrilege to disagree with the principal, for fear of incurring his anger, and possible sanctions.

Also at the ministry of education level, education as dialogue, and the values embedded in it, should result in positive interest by those involved, a commitment to give each person a fair hearing, and dialogue about the issues based on the arguments presented and not the personalities concerned.

In practice, this is often not the case. Responses are often tepid in meetings. There is the feeling that it is impolitic to challenge certain views, although if we allow them to go forward they could be detrimental to the system. Promotion and being a member of the inner circle could also be compromised. With this, the truth becomes a casualty, and the unworkable, inefficient system persists.

Even where the curriculum is concerned, there is hardly any serious dialogue about the meaning of education, its values, and its place in society. It is not about what it aims at, or what it is for. This is a very important observation. In order to have an education system that works, we have to know what it all means and the values we are endeavouring to promote. Also, considerations about its place in the society need to be dialogued about.

This lays the groundwork for considerations of how this new approach to education could be used to transform character, introduce values such as kindness, being considerate, exercising care and compassion, and being fair and just. These values are embedded in the curriculum, through dialogue, and result in a transformed educational system through the curriculum.

In this sense, education is not preparation to serve the productive needs of society. It is about the promotion of understanding and effectively communicating to promote civilised interaction. The intellectual standards and moral virtues are integral to this new perspective on education, which promotes our collective well being. The productivity and other connecting elements of what materially moves a society at another dimension will come from this new and different emphasis on the meaning of education, and the values accompanying it.

This new intellectual and moral focus concerning what education means, rather than what it aims at, or is for, reconstitute the whole psychology of educators, schools, and the society as a whole.

This means that all of the previous inefficiencies and failures the Caribbean education system has been experiencing become a thing of the past. In its place is a new system with new values and a different orientation brought about by education as dialogue, and the moral and ethical dispositions that emerge and result from it.

Education therefore becomes a moral enterprise, and not an instrument serving the productive and reproductive needs of society, but rather fosters the kind of individual with the right understanding and moral virtues. We therefore have a better society, and a more civilised world.

Professor Kazepides therefore provides a rational paradigm and blueprint for the use of dialogue as an important and critical plank in transforming an educational system and the individuals that operate it. His arguments are straightforward, logical, and incisive. Most importantly they make sense.

This use of rational dialogue by the Caribbean educational establishment, could therefore introduce a new transformative element into the educational system and society, based on values, moral dispositions, logical analysis, trust, respectful listening, and fair-mindedness.

Education therefore becomes dialogue in action, which fashions a new human person, who in turn creates a new educational order and society.

April 21, 2011


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Bahamas has acknowledged that its criminal justice system needs help

Adopting laws against organized crime

thenassauguardian editorial

The annual drug report prepared by the United States government usually provides interesting commentary on the state of drug trafficking to and through The Bahamas.

In the 2011 report, the U.S. government again made suggestions to the Bahamian government to reform the criminal justice system in this country.

“However, a need still exists to reduce the long delays in resolving extradition requests and other criminal cases as an existing trend of law enforcement successes have been undermined by an overburdened Bahamian legal system,” said the U.S. State Department in the report.

“As mentioned in previous annual reports, we continue to encourage The Bahamas to increase the resources and manpower available to prosecutors, judges, and magistrates.”

The Bahamas has acknowledged that its criminal justice system needs help.

The government has set in motion a series of reforms aimed at reducing the backlog of cases before the court and speeding up the rate of prosecution in the country.

The U.S. made another suggestion in the report that should be considered.

The State Department noted that the country lacks legislation criminalizing participation in an organized criminal group.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act) is a U.S. federal law that provides for long criminal sentences and civil penalties for actions performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.

Simply put, those proven to be involved with an organized crime group are jailed for long terms.

The U.S. government has used these laws effectively against the mafia. In The Bahamas, no such law exists.

According to the drug report, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos estimate that there are 12 to 15 major drug trafficking organizations operating in The Bahamas.

A RICO law in The Bahamas would provide another tool to local law enforcement to take down some of these drug gangs.

However, local police and prosecutors would need to learn to conduct more comprehensive investigations for such a law to work.

Rather than arresting one criminal for one offense, investigators and prosecutors would need to build a case against entire organizations. Evidence would need to be marshaled chronicling the various crimes it commits. The actors in the criminal activity would then need to be defined and linked to the criminal organization.

Comprehensive indictments would follow and large numbers of criminals would be brought to court at the same time.

These investigations could take years. But when done well, they cripple or dismantle entire criminal organizations.

For such a thing to work, The Bahamas would also need to change its overall prosecutorial response to drug trafficking. Traffickers are currently prosecuted in Magistrates Court where the maximum sentence is five years in jail.

Some smugglers have been found in possession of millions of dollars work of cocaine and they have only faced that five-year sentence, or less if they pleaded guilty.

The law needs to prosecute based on weight. Those found in possession of large quantities of drugs should face trial in the Supreme Court where serious penalties can be issued. RICO prosecutions, if adopted, would also take place in the Supreme Court.

Organized crime is a threat to democracy. Those who do not believe this need only look at Mexico. The cartels there are at war with the state. And in some jurisdictions in that country, the cartels are winning the war.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his war on the cartels in 2006, more than 30,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

The Bahamas must consider legislative tools such as the RICO law in the U.S. to assist in the local fight against narco-trafficking.

We cannot just continue to hope that the U.S. requests the extradition of our major drug dealers. We must develop the capacity to lock them up for long periods of time in this country.


thenassauguardian editorial

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

While reparation is good for Garifunas, we must do it as Garinagu people collectively

By Wellington C. Ramos

As a Garifuna person from Dangriga Town, Belize, who is a descendant of the people who lived in the country of Saint Vincent under the leadership of our great King Joseph Chatoyer, I applaud this bold move that the prime minister of Saint Vincent, Ralph Gonsalves is about to embark on, with some recommendations.

Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and HistoryFirst, the prime minister of Saint Vincent must have his House of Representative pass legislation that any person who is a Garifuna will be eligible for citizenship status in the country of Saint Vincent, no matter where in the world he or she resides.

Secondly, the government of Saint Vincent should sponsor a bill to allow their citizens to engage in a cultural awareness program so that they can learn all the aspects of the Garifuna culture that they were not allowed to practice during British colonial rule and even up to today.

Thirdly, the government of Saint Vincent should formulate a cultural exchange program with all the countries where the Garifuna people are currently residing, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, the United States of America and any other country in the world where it has been confirmed that a legitimate number of Garifuna people are residing. In studying the history of the deportation from the island of Saint Vincent, there is a strong possibility that some of our people were left off at other islands and countries on their forced journey to Roatan, Honduras.

Fourthly, that the prime minister of Saint Vincent and his government should utilize the office of the attorney general on behalf of all the Garinagu people in Saint Vincent and the Diaspora until a just settlement is rendered by the International Court of Justice on behalf of all the Garifuna people.

Prior to the British takeover of the island of Saint Vincent, most historical evidence suggests that the Garinagu people lived as autonomous communities with their separate chiefs, as a confederacy under the leadership of King Joseph Chatoyer. Even up to today, this is a trait that can still be seen as a pattern of behavior among them, despite the fact that they come from the same race.

A good example is in Dangriga Town where there are Loubana and Whyhima people from the north and south side of the same town. As the town is expanding there will be more communities added to this list. I have spoken to other Garifuna people in the country of Belize and in the towns and villages where they reside, similar patterns of behavior were observed by them.

The Garifuna people have the tendency to resist any decision that is not made through consultation and consensus. This is one of the main reasons why many leaders of our current Garifuna associations are having problems getting the Garifuna people to join their associations or supporting their causes. Until the current leaders of these Garifuna associations return to the masses and seek consultation, nothing much will be accomplished by these associations and our people will continue to live in poverty, be manipulated and our culture will be at risk.

I now call on every Garifuna person to take over all these current associations that are not doing anything constructive to promote our overall welfare and preserve this culture. If we fail to act, then when we start to experience our culture declining and our people losing their autonomy then we will have nobody to blame but ourselves. It is for these reasons, why I am recommending that, while the idea of reparation is good, we must approach it by consulting all the other Garifuna people and that the decisions are made through consensus rather than by a few individuals.

The atrocities that the British committed against our people cannot be settled with any monetary award, because the long term effects of those atrocities are still affecting our people up to this day. When the Garifuna people were dropped off on the island of Roatan in Honduras, they were slaughtered in Honduras, causing them to leave to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

Even up to this day, the repressive governments of Honduras continue to commit serious violations of human rights against our people as was recently done to Miriam Miranda of Triumfo De La Cruz, when she was shot by Honduran troops for demonstrating against government injustices.

In Livingston, Guatemala, there have been several incidents where the government has encroached upon their lands and sold them to foreigners without their consent. In Nicaragua, the Garifuna culture is becoming extinct because in the past they were not allowed to practice their culture openly.

In Belize, when the Garifuna people first landed in Belize, they were told that they could only live in the southern part of the country in the Toledo and Stann Creek Districts. If they were seen anywhere else in the country they would be arrested for violating their curfews. Today, due to the mass migration of Maya Indians from Guatemala, El Salvador and the other neighboring countries, they are forcefully occupying lands at will and some of the lands that they are occupying were designated as Carib Reserves in the Toledo and Stann Creek Districts.

I believe that if we approach reparation without taking these recommendations into consideration, we will fail to build a united front and the British will take full advantage to divide our people and try to seek settlements with some factions of our people. Some of our Garifuna people in our midst today do not have our Garifuna culture at heart but are only using the Garifuna culture to promote their own self interest and their personal political agendas.

These people can be indentified easily because they will never use their personal resources for the preservation of the Garifuna culture. Only funds received through their engagements as representatives in Garifuna associations.

We as a people should demand that these people be removed from the current offices they hold and to discontinue any further activities on behalf of our culture. We must not be afraid to remove them because this culture does not belong to them and their families but to all the Garinagu people. Some of them have even described themselves as experts on the Garifuna culture without any academic credentials to support their false claims.

The time for foolishness to end is now, before we seek reparation for the atrocities committed against our people and the financial rewards we might gain from this settlement vanish like melting ice.

April 20, 2011


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bahamas: This upcoming general election, like all others before it, will be a race of Leadership

Election will be a race of leadership

Tribune242 Chief Reporter
Nassau, Bahamas

WE BAHAMIANS are a people of shifting anxieties. We will rend our garments because of the drought on Monday but tear out our hair because of the rain on Tuesday.

This is such a persistent state of our nature that it is strange to hear people debate which ideological issue will damn or elevate the PLP or FNM to the next government of the Bahamas.

Let's be honest, Bahamians don't choose governments based on ideology nor do they reject a government based on controversies that might plague a particular administration.

This upcoming election, like all others before it, will be a race of leadership. The public when all is said and done will decide which man, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, Opposition Leader Perry Christie or DNA leader Branville McCartney, they want to lead the country.

Many seem to believe that the sale of BTC will be the nail in the coffin for the FNM. I strongly doubt it.

The prime minister announced in March that he will close the current voters' register in June or July of this year, which is more than enough time for emotions surrounding the issue to cool or even be forgotten.

There are three rules when it comes to controversy in Bahamian politics.

The first two are:

* It is the totality of the "scandals" in an administration, not one individual issue that may cause a party to lose an election.

* If a leader appears unwilling or unable to face the challenges these "scandals" brings to his administration the bad taste will linger longer in the mouths of the public.


After the 2002 general elections there were a plethora of issues which people thought would sink the PLP. Early on it was the allegations of Mohammed Harajchi and later on it was the Korean boat scandal etceteras, etceteras.

By the time the 2007 election rolled around, however, these issues were forgotten and it still came down to who the electorate could stomach more, Perry Christie or Hubert Ingraham.

Because even if voters took into account these scandals and added the embarrassment of Anna Nicole, the money in the closet issue and the Cabinet fight and considered the PLP unpalatable, it still boiled down to how well Mr Christie handled, or didn't handle, these issues.

People wondered WWID (What Would Ingraham Do) if two of his Cabinet ministers nearly killed each other with furniture in the Churchill Building. WWID if one of the MPs of his party facilitated the commercial activities of foreigners in our fishing industry and so on and so forth.

Now, after the FNM's win in 2007 a number of issues have arisen which persons feel will work against the governing party when persons go to the ballot box.

There was the issue of Saunders Beach, the relocation of the port, the inconveniences of the New Providence Road Improvement Project, the Bell Island issue, the number of Chinese workers needed for Baha Mar and now most recently the sale of BTC.

The final truth about political controversy in the Bahamas is that if a scandal happens long enough before an election it won't be remembered and this is the main reason why issues like the BTC sale will not directly factor in a win or loss for the FNM.


By the time an election is called there will be too much happening in personal lives of the citizenry for them to expend the emotional effort to be upset about BTC.

As stated before the Prime Minister said that he will close the register in either June or July. In the end, like Mr Ingraham likes to say, only one man knows the actual day when these things are to happen, but if one were to take bets I think any date after July 11th would be safer than a date before.

Between now and July 11 there are five public holidays, and six Family Island regattas and 30 home comings and festivals on all of the major islands, including New Providence.

By that time Bahamians will already be used to the idea of being a customer of Cable and Wireless. I mean if you really think about it people were upset but not upset enough to put down their cell phones or blackberries to boycott the company.

Even after the voters' register is closed it stands to reason that there will be at least another 11 to 10 months before elections are called and thus far there is no reason which is readily apparent for the prime minister not to wait until May 2 of 2012 for the election to be called.

All this considered I am not fully convinced that the majority of Bahamians, particularly the tech-sensitive younger generation who were either used to the telecom services they enjoyed while away in school or hearing their friends abroad boasting the benefits of their 4G networks, cared that the company was being sold.

Even one of the union leaders involved in the protests against the sale of BTC, NCTUB President, Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson admitted that the movement lacked sideswiping national support.

"I don't think we really rallied behind the unions and BTC and all of the committees that came forward to lead that change. I still think that Bahamians are still very selfish and that Bahamians will have to realize that one day it's BTC and the next day it could be you, but we always pass the buck and say it's not happening to me," she told The Nassau Guardian.

There is always the temptation of believing that just because we and our friends are outraged about something that the whole world is up in arms. For better or for worse this is only the case some of the time.

To think that the upcoming election will be more about a fight is terribly naive at best and at worst shows a woeful or wilful lack of understanding of our culture.

In 1992 the country wanted less corrupt leadership so they chose a man who billed himself as a no-nonsense, liar-hating, mean what I say, say what I mean "delivery boy."

In 2002 when the country felt that the FNM was more concerned about infrastructure than the "poor man" they chose the son of a taxi driver and nurse who promised "help and hope."

In 2007 when the country felt that things were getting out of control and the nation was returning to the days of lecherous and corrupt public officials they wanted the return of a leader who would kick butt and take names later.

Now as 2012 approaches the desire of the FNM to frame the next election debate around leadership is obvious. As a matter of fact if it boils down to that, I believe it is a fight the FNM can win.

For all his faults Mr Ingraham and his team have done well to drill it in the public's mind that Mr Christie may have started the construction of the Straw Market, the Baha Mar deal, the New Providence Road Improvement Programme and the new airport, but he was not strong or decisive enough to finish it.

The PLP would do well to avoid a toe-to-toe battle on these issues.

However, they seem to be on the edge of a strategy that may work, but they are simply just standing on the edge. They are beginning to tell the public that Mr Ingraham lacks compassion, that the FNM is really the Foreign National Movement, but this talk will only amount to sloganeering if Mr Christie isn't a factor in their strategy.

They seem to forget that the last impression Mr Christie left the public with when he left office wasn't that he was kind and caring, but that he was indecisive and permissive.

What they should do is have Mr Christie explain what he would have done differently if he were in office. From Mona Vie right down to BTC explain Mr Ingraham's missteps and say what he would have done differently if he were in office.


The former Prime Minister missed a golden opportunity to do this during debate on the sale of BTC. Instead of focusing on what he saw as odious in the sale of BTC to CWC and explaining what he would have done differently he was out-manoeuvred by the FNM and spent most of his contribution explaining why Bluewater was the choice of his administration and answering criticism that his weak leadership almost caused BTC to be put in the hands of a less than desirable company.

Mr Christie's latest pronouncements of having the government backtrack on the port and BTC deal if he returns to office will please Mr Christie's base, but it makes swing and more moderate voters uneasy.

While my cynicism won't permit me to believe that Mr McCartney's DNA will stand a chance in the next election, the former FNM MP is obviously leaning on his greatest appeal as a prospective leader -- he is not Mr Christie nor is he Mr Ingraham.

There is a segment of the population that says they are weary of the Ingraham vs Christie battle, but that's what they say.

Mr McCartney has a Herculean task of trying to convert this type of public sentiment into actual ballots in the box. His victory depends too much on this for a reasonable person to think that his victory is assured.

He has to attract enough disaffected PLPs, enough disaffected FNMs and enough swing voters not only to win his seat, but to get the other members of his prospective party in the House of Assembly.

In his latest press release Mr McCartney compared the likelihood of his victory to the victory of Barack Obama in that many did not believe that Mr Obama - being black - could win the race against John McCain because America could not get beyond its historical racism enough to elect an African American president.

Of course Mr Obama won and now Mr McCartney uses this example to explain how it might be possible that he could become the next Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.


Mr McCartney's idea that there is so much thirst for change that his DNA will be able to tap into the zeitgeist and disrupt the two-party system in the Bahamas is a non-starter.

The circumstances that gave the people of Egypt enough courage and determination to remove President Hosni Muhammad Mubarak - which he also mentions in the press release - does not exist here.

And while it was an amazing achievement for the United States to elect Mr Obama, the US President did not go into the election without base support.

He is a black man, yes, but he is also the leader of one of the two major political parties in the country which he serves.

Nevertheless, Mr McCartney is doing what is smartest. He is using leadership as his platform. He is the only candidate who can truly boast that he is in fact new leadership.

There are many who decry the fact that politics in the Bahamas generally boils down to a cult of personality and does not depend enough on the issues.

But the Bahamas is not unique in this. In the United States business man and reality TV show star Donald Trump heads the field of potential Republican contenders while more sober choices like Mitt Romney are further down in the polls.

Like Sara Palin before him, Mr Trump's greatest attraction is his larger than life persona - it's hard to see what else qualifies him to be the leader of the free world.

As time goes on you can expect that the political campaigns will get increasingly personal with candidates attacking the various leaders and highlighting the inability of the leader opposite to rescue the economy, reign in rogue MPs and put a handle on crime.

This is because most politicians recognize what is apparent, that Bahamian elections are not ideological battles but are arguments over who will make the best king.

April 18, 2011


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Political parties: Gangs in disguise?

By Oliver Mills

Over the years, political parties in the Caribbean have been much criticised for lack of focus and action on the pressing issues of society, for not being sensitive to the wider needs of the most vulnerable in Caribbean society, not taking bold and aggressive measures to deal with the inequalities in Caribbean society, and for not seriously attempting to transform the structure and function of the various institutions of government to enable them to deliver on the many promises they make.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaFurthermore, political parties in the Caribbean have been seen as elite organisations, which continuously co-opt aspiring and promising individuals into their ranks, exposing them to the benefits of office, and the opportunities connected with it, and so perpetuate the status quo.

In a recent article published in one of the leading Caribbean papers, the writer gives a new twist to the description of political parties, categorising them as gangs, in reference to the way these parties conduct politics in his country. He speaks of the exploitation of his country by the two major political parties for their own benefit, and says that most of the 40,000 or so fatalities since 1970 were because of the criminality attached to, and fomented by these parties. The writer further describes these political parties as having a gangster character.

The question is, are political parties really gangs in disguise? But what really is a gang? A gang usually comprises a leader, and committed followers, with a goal or mission. Their activities are usually geared to meeting their own needs at the expense of the wider society. Gangs prey on the wider society, and compete with each other for turf. Many of them also have symbols which identify their members.

Gangs also have a code of conduct, and if there are any infractions, severe punishment could be meted out to the guilty. They also seek to recruit others to their cause, particularly among the young, and disaffected, looking for an identity, and to be associated with something bigger than themselves. Members of gangs often say that the reason they join is because they feel appreciated and wanted, as well as protected. In many instances as well, before a person becomes a gang member, he or she has to undertake certain acts, testifying to their commitment.

But do political parties fit into this paradigm, or scenario? Indeed, political parties have a leader with committed followers, who are often fanatical to the point of seeing anyone who does not share their political views as the enemy, and assaults, sometimes fatal, are perpetrated against opponents, which is also what a gang does. Parties also have goals and a mission just as gangs do, and their activities are directed at meeting their own needs and, as they often state, those of the country as well. Gangs have no consideration for the needs of the wider society. But many people say that the personal needs of the political party are often disguised as the needs of the country. However, it is often said that gangs also have a constituency, which they look after economically.

Like gangs, political parties also compete for turf and, in some Caribbean countries, one section of a village, or even a street is controlled by one or the other party, and neither party’s supporters can cross this line. Some political parties, like gangs have also set up garrisons, in which their staunch supporters live, and the supporters of the opposite party dare not enter the zone controlled by one or the other party.

Like gangs, political parties also have symbols that represent their particular stances or beliefs. In one Caribbean country, the symbol for one party is the bell, which for them suggests freedom, while the other party has the shell, which represents the most important industry, or element of the economy. The shell also portrays strength and endurance. Other parties in other Caribbean countries use a particular colour, while in a particular country, the three fingers on the left hand, going left from the middle finger, are its symbol. So both political parties and gangs have the same kind of representative icons, which depict who, and what they are.

Political parties, like gangs, also have a code of conduct that governs membership, and the conduct of its members and supporters. We have seen party members, and even ministers of government being expelled for conduct unbecoming of the party, but they are often shuffled off to another post that is not conspicuous, only to reappear in politics later. Gangs could be somewhat more ruthless though. This is why we have gang warfare in cases where one, or some members of a particular gang are suspected of having alliances with the other, or even more extreme, some gang members become fatalities, particularly if they are suspected of being police agents.

In a wider perspective, can it be said that political parties are gangs in disguise? I have just pointed out their similarities. But in a formal sense are gangs and political parties the same? One Caribbean scholar recently described his country and its political system as a gangster state. However, if we look at the origins, philosophy, and reasons why political parties have been formed, we will see that their objectives were noble. They aimed at organising the people into a cohesive force to promote progress, mobilising public opinion around the issues, seeking to create growth and development in the country, and organising the resources of the country, so that the majority receives some benefit.

Political parties also help to maintain a balance of power, and prevent dictatorship in government. If we do not like the policies of a government, they can be changed through the use of the ballot. Despite this, though, political trickery, gerrymandering and deception are often employed to maintain a particular party in office over long periods in some countries. Gang leaders are often eliminated either through internal rivalry, in street battles with other gangs, or by the forces of the state.

It could be said in one sense, then, that the activities of some political parties resemble those of a gang, while others stick to the noble purpose and philosophy from which they originated, and continue to sustain themselves.

April 16, 2011


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bahamas: ...the challenges facing children and adults who have been diagnosed with autism

Early diagnosis and treatment is key to addressing autism


APRIL is National Autism Awareness Month, which provides a special opportunity for individuals across the Bahamas to raise awareness in their neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools and local communities about the challenges facing children and adults who have been diagnosed with autism.

Autism affects one in every 110 children and one in every 70 boys, yet the cause remains unknown.

Signs and symptoms typically appear during the first three years of life and relate to language, social behavior, and behaviors concerning objects and routines.

Last August, I invited actress, author, and international autism activist Holly Robinson-Peete, and her husband former NFL quarterback, Rodney Peete, to an event at my residence to share their personal experiences raising their autistic son RJ, and the impact of his diagnosis on the entire family. The US Embassy partnered with the Resources and Education for Autism and Related Challenges (REACH) organization on the event that brought together Bahamian families with Autistic children and leading Bahamian autism experts and specialists for a discussion on this critical issue.

Holly and Rodney spoke candidly about raising an autistic child and their search for reliable information and the best treatments.

Although this was the Peete family's first autism outreach event outside of the United States, their message to Bahamian parents remained the same: "Get out of denial quickly, arm yourself with information, keep an open mind and stay proactive, hopeful, and prayerful. Above all, focus on your child's gifts, not on their limitations."

Through the Peete family's experience it became clear that early diagnosis and intensive intervention can have a profound impact on the lives of children and adults who have been diagnosed with autism.

Treatments have been developed in recent years that make it possible for nearly half the children who are diagnosed early with autism to eliminate the need for special education.

If children receive intervention treatment before the age of four, many of them go on to live productive lives comparable to those without a developmental disability.

Therefore, it is critically important to identify those children who are at-risk in order to reduce the time between symptom appearance and formal diagnosis and treatment.

I applaud REACH for providing a support system for parents with children affected by autism, for their efforts in April as well as throughout the year to raise awareness about autism and for arming parents with critical information on innovative treatment opportunities in the Bahamas and the United States.

As autism awareness increases throughout the Bahamas, parents, caregivers and educators are more likely to identify the early signs of autism and seek available treatment.

Raising awareness about autism will also encourage educators in the Bahamas to identify new approaches to ensure that students with developmental challenges have the opportunity to excel in an inclusive classroom, particularly on the Family Islands where special therapies and treatments may be out of reach.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Friday, April 15, 2011

Losing Latin America

By Steve Ellner - In These Times:

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama pressed for quick passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, and since then has followed up on the proposal. In doing so he has delighted Republicans who had been accusing him of failing to prioritize the issue. In his January speech, Obama made no reference to his unequivocal concern over human rights violations which he had raised in his third presidential debate with McCain.

Since 2008, little has improved to justify Obama’s reversal. Human Rights Watch has reported a 41 percent increase in the number of victims in 2010 over the previous year, including the murder of 44 trade unionists. In the first six weeks of 2011, death squads assassinated three more labor activists.

In an attempt to assure members of U.S. Congress that progress is being made, on April 7 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Obama announced from the White House the approval of an “Action Plan,” whereby the Colombian government pledged to take stringent measures to curb abuses. Many Colombian trade union leaders, however, refused to buy into the arrangement and expressed skepticism about their government’s resolve. Tarsicio Mora, president of the Unitary Workers Confederation (CUT), objected by saying, “It just can’t be that respect for a basic right established in the constitution, such as the right to life, has to be required by a commercial transaction.”

Obama’s new stand has also failed to win over U.S. trade unionists. In January, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen argued against the agreement by pointing out that 15 million Colombians representing 82 percent of the working population are not recognized as workers and thus under the law “have no rights.”

Obama’s change—from opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia, to lukewarm endorsement of it, to vigorous support—is just one example of his turnabout on Latin American policy. His modified stands distance Washington from an important bloc of Latin American governments and contribute to the decline of the U.S. leadership position in the hemisphere.

Up until his early months in office, Obama appeared to be following the path of liberal Democrats dating back to the 1930s. The liberal tradition on foreign policy toward Latin America was in many ways attractive. Key features included respect for the plurality of ideas – shown by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s acceptance of Mexican nationalism and its nationalization of oil in 1938; the Kennedy administration’s call to “complete the revolution of the Americas” through taxing the wealthy and land reform; and the suspension of aid by the Carter administration to several Latin American governments to protest human rights violation even though they were on the U.S. side in the Cold War.

During the presidential campaign, Obama not only stepped into this liberal tradition but defied the Democratic Party mainstream with positions different from those of his then-rival Hillary Clinton. Obama boldly proposed to meet with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and other Washington adversaries. At the same time he declared “I think our foreign policy is all messed up” and promised a “new direction” in Latin American relations.

Under the Obama administration, the United States finds its historically unrivaled position in the continent challenged on a number of fronts. This July, a summit in Caracas will formally inaugurate the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to group the 32 nations south of the Rio Grande and serve as a parallel organization to the traditionally U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Furthermore, in recent years of modest economic growth, Latin American nations have broadened commercial ties with nations outside of traditional spheres of U.S. influence, such as Russia, Iran and especially China. In 2010, China’s direct non-financial investments abroad increased 36 percent, most of which went to Asia and Latin America, while the Asian powerhouse displaced Europe as Latin America’s second largest trading partner (after the United States).

Obama, however, has failed to take bold moves to face the challenge. During his largely uneventful five-day tour of Latin America in March he did little to reverse the unfavorable trends. A statement of condemnation, or at least recognition, of the United States’ long and sorry record of intervention would have represented a good first step in treating Latin American nations as “equal partners” – a pledge made by the president that created great expectations.

Instead, when asked by a Chilean journalist about Washington’s role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Obama evaded the question. Furthermore, in Brazil, Obama failed to put forward concrete proposals to deal with the issue consistently raised by the Brazilians, namely U.S. agricultural subsidies and other practices that close the world’s largest market for Latin American goods.

Capitulation to the Right on Honduras
Obama’s abandonment of the liberal tradition in his stance on Latin America has been driven by the perceived need to placate rightist critics. Events following the overthrow of Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 put in evidence both the right’s clout and Obama’s failure to check the loss of U.S. influence. The Obama administration caved into pressure from Tea Partier Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who justified the coup on grounds that Zelaya — along with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega — were “would-be tyrants and dictators.”

In response to DeMint’s threat to block ratification by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of two key State Department appointments for Latin America, the Obama administration did another about-face. In late 2009, it went from condemnation of the overthrow of Zelaya and support for his return to power to endorsement of the elections sponsored by the coup leaders. Council of the Americas Policy Director Christopher Sabatini gave the South Carolina senator major credit for the change of policy, adding “DeMint’s role has been disproportionate to his interest in Latin America.”

The Obama administration had other options. It could have bypassed the senate committee by attempting to muster 60 votes on the senate floor, or else make the appointments when Congress was out of session, as Bush had done with his selection of John Bolton as UN ambassador. But either move would have meant giving up Obama’s much preferred style of “consensus politics.”

Since then the United States has been locked in an impasse over the issue of the democratic credentials of the Honduran government. In spite of Secretary of State Clinton’s active diplomacy, she has made little headway in convincing a group of Latin American governments to accept Honduras into the community of nations. The latest slap in the face to Honduran President Porfirio Lobo occurred in January when he was the only Latin American head of state to be excluded from the inauguration of Brazil President Dilma Rousseff.

The current battleground is the Organization of American States, which had suspended Honduras following the coup. A bloc of moderate South American governments including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have joined the more leftist ones of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in opposing Honduras’s re-admission. The moderates have conditioned their affirmative vote on allowing Zelaya to return to the country, restoring his political rights and lifting charges against him.

The State Department has pressured Honduran political players behind the scenes to meet these conditions, but the rightists in Honduras (although not Lobo himself) insist on Zelaya’s prosecution on charges of abuse of power. In attempting to break the impasse, the State Department is working at cross purposes with Republican hardliners. Florida Congressman David Rivera, for instance, stated in January: “The United States should be encouraging Honduras to embrace their democratic system, and not to absolve former President Manuel Zelaya of criminal charges or allow him to return to Honduras.”

U.S. efforts on behalf of Lobo ignore the evidence that violation of human rights has gone unabated under his rule (see “Campesinos Rising in Honduras” in In These Times’ March 2011 issue). In December, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of abuses in 2010, including the assassination of 18 journalists and human rights activists and called on the government to “finalize the impunity.” To date, nobody has been held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed since the coup.

Venezuelan rapprochement torpedoed
Another incident that demonstrated the ability of Republicans to set the agenda in Washington, as well as the vacillations of the Obama administration, was the appointment of Larry Palmer as ambassador to Venezuela. In August 2010, the nomination of Palmer appeared to be a routine matter until, upon the request of Republican Senator Richard Lugar, he agreed to answer questions from members of the Foreign Relations Committee in writing.

In his responses, Palmer affirmed that the morale of the Venezuelan armed forces was “considerably low” and that the Chávez government had “clear ties” with Colombian guerrillas. Palmer’s statements were then posted on Lugar’s website even though the questioning was presumed to be for internal use only.

Predictably, Chávez considered the remarks unacceptable and vetoed the appointment, as most governments would have undoubtedly done. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research commented that Washington insiders considered the incident a “set up from the right.”

On January 1, Secretary of State Clinton had a brief amicable encounter with Chávez at Rousseff’s inauguration in Brasilia. Two days later, then-Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley announced that given the importance of relations with Venezuela, Washington would “have to renominate an ambassador candidate.” The hardliners reacted immediately, including the Washington Post, which wrote that the appointment of another ambassador would “hand the caudillo [Chávez] a considerable propaganda victory.” The same day, Crowley changed course again by making clear that the government would stand by Palmer. Chávez blamed the latest reversal on pressure from Republicans.

Washington hardliners with a Cold War mindset place the blame for the face-off entirely on the Venezuelan government. Jose R. Cardenas, a State Department veteran known for his hard-line positions, stated “No matter how hard the Obama Administration tries to ‘reset’ U.S. relations with Latin America, Hugo Chávez is there to spoil the fun.” Yet Chávez’s decision was predictable and consistent with his nationalist stance all along. The Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to attempt to convince Caracas that Palmer’s statement came from a low-level State Department official was at best naïve.

A new stage in hemispheric relations
In spite of convergences, Obama’s style and policies on Latin America are hardly indistinguishable from Republicans to his right. Obama’s all-smile encounter with Chávez in 2009 and Clinton’s in January of this year reinforced the president’s notion of engagement with enemies, quite different from George W. Bush’s “you’re with me or against me” approach. Furthermore, in January, Obama broke with hardliners by easing restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.

Nevertheless, Obama stopped short of lifting the 50-year embargo, a proposition which he himself had supported prior to running for president and which Latin American governments unanimously endorse.

The new political environment in Latin America demands more than moderate measures and a change in style. Latin America has never been so united and independent of U.S. influence. In recent years, Latin American governments, without input from Washington, have acted collectively to help resolve major conflicts involving Bolivia’s nationalization of Brazilian oil and gas interests, a coup attempt in Ecuador and Colombia’s incursion on Ecuadorian territory.

CELAC, which will facilitate collective action on an ongoing basis, is not solely the initiative of countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. Even countries with centrist leadership such as Mexico, Chile and Colombia have wholeheartedly endorsed the plan. Chile, along with Venezuela, is currently drafting CELAC’s statutes and will host the organization in 2012.

“With CELAC, the OAS will be put to the test,” Venezuelan ambassador Jorge Valero told me. Whether or not it survives will depend on how much it really defends Latin American interests.”

But the biggest challenge to U.S. influence in Latin America is Brazil, an economic powerhouse. Over the recent past, the Brazilian government has pursued bold independent positions on foreign policy which it hopes will boost third-world support for its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Brazil went over the United States’ head in attempting to broker an agreement with Iran on nuclear energy and has criticized U.S. plans to install facilities at seven military bases in Colombia. In December it recognized the Palestinian state with its pre-1967 boundaries. Brazil’s increased political influence and its economic expansion go hand in hand. At the same time that President Lula defended the Palestinian cause on a trip to the West Bank, he pointed to a four-fold increase in Brazilian trade with the Middle East since 2002.

For U.S. hardliners, Lula strayed too far from acceptable diplomacy. During his last stretch in office, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, Lula pursued “an increasingly anti-American foreign policy.”

The time period following President Obama’s Latin American tour in March is an ideal moment for the administration to rethink its strategy for the continent. To check the loss of U.S. influence and prestige, the Obama administration needs to distance itself from Republican hardliners and reconnect with the best of the liberal tradition. Washington, for instance, should refrain from championing the cause of the Lobo government as long as it does little to break out of the banana republic mold. Furthermore, executive measures designed to eventually lift the trade embargo against Cuba would tear down one longstanding wall separating the United States from the rest of the continent — and the world.

Finally, Washington needs to cease equating the open-market economic policies it advocates with democracy. This line of thinking privileges nations like Colombia, Chile and Mexico as special allies simply because they accept International Monetary Fund-approved formulas and free trade with the United States. Such preferences divide the continent in half and distance America from countries like Argentina and Brazil, whose assertions of nationalism are not always to Washington’s liking. The hardliners will rant and rave about any type of renovation of U.S. foreign policy along these lines, but it may represent an important first step in regaining the respect and good will of what used to be called our backyard.

April 14th 2011