BEYOND 'DRUGS AND THUGS'

A newly appointed U.S. diplomat to an Andean country was asked recently how he viewed his assignment. His response: "Ah, you know, it's all about drugs and thugs." That, says a new report issued by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), America's leading foreign-policy think tank, is precisely the problem with U.S. policy in the Andean region. Over the past two decades, the United States has contributed roughly $25 billion in aid to the area. But most of the money has been used to fight coca growers and cocaine traffickers--not the pressing social and economic ills plaguing the 120 million residents of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. "Sustainable, peaceful democracies in the Andean region depend as much on political, legal and socioeconomic reform... as on 'hard' counter-narcotics and counter-terror initiatives," warns the report, which is titled "Andes 2020: A New Strategy for the Challenges of Colombia and the Region."

As recently as three years ago, Colombia and its neighbors ranked at or near the top of U.S. foreign-policy priorities. The reason: about 80 percent of all the cocaine consumed by Americans comes from that country. In what has been a typical approach, the U.S. Congress in the summer of 2000 allocated $1.3 billion to jump-start Plan Colombia--a five-year antinarcotics initiative aimed at cutting drug production in half. Almost overnight Colombia became the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East. Tens of thousands of coca farmers have been put out of business by an aggressive aerial fumigation program.

But eradication campaigns have done little to slow drug trafficking, and they do nothing to stimulate economic growth or create jobs in an impoverished region. In fact, they typically have the opposite effect. Coca production in Bolivia has fallen dramatically over the past decade, but the net gain for Bolivians has been increased poverty even as cocaine consumption in the United States continues to rise. GDP growth in the Andes averaged less than 1 percent annually between 1998 and 2002. "The average [Andean citizen] my age has seen no economic progress in his lifetime," says Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, 40, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense who attended three CFR discussion groups on the issue. The authors of the CFR report foresee a bleak future for the region's fragile democracies unless Washington quickly conceives a broad strategy to foster development. Without it, warns the report, "simmering conflicts could escalate... and directly threaten the stability of the western hemisphere."

The report points to a fundamental economic problem. "The nuts and bolts of functioning market economics--including credit for small- and medium-sized businesses, access to property titles... and progressive, equitable tax reform--are, for the most part, absent." In Colombia, for example, only 740,000 of the country's 44 million people pay income taxes. The country has also suffered from the wholesale seizure of land by right-wing militias and leftist guerrillas who have evicted nearly 2 million unarmed civilians from their farms and homes. "These land grabs are at the heart of what is happening right now in Colombia," says Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the CFR who directed the research project. "Land issues have to be at the front and center of any U.S. policy in the region."

The "Andes 2020" report contains no radical prescriptions for future U.S. policy. It advocates a crackdown on corruption and more land reform, but Washington has been pushing those ideas since the 1960s. There is no mention of the United States' or foreign banks' writing off any portion of the region's foreign debt, even though many experts regard such a step as indispensable. Half of Ecuador's annual government budget is devoted to foreign-debt service, while Bolivia spends as much paying down debt every year as it does on social programs. "A big reason for the backlash against neoliberal reforms is the lack of resources available for social, health, education and other programs," says Adrian Bonilla, an Ecuadoran political scientist. Adds Francisco Rojas, director of the Santiago office of the Latin America Faculty of Social Sciences, a think tank: "When you boil it all down, the main problem for the Andean countries is governability. The U.S. needs to look at how it can relieve the huge debt burdens these countries face."

Might the United States alter its policies? It's too soon to say. The Pentagon's Pardo-Maurer anticipates a shift toward "a regional approach couched more in terms of democracy, development and security." But with the United States itself facing massive budget deficits, experts say any real boost in aid for social programs is unlikely. The longer Washington waits, though, the more likely the war on drugs will become the least of its Andean problems.

Copyright 2004 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.

BEYOND 'DRUGS AND THUGS' | News