DRUGS GREAT BURDEN ON FOREIGN POLICY : High Political Price Exacted for Any Potential Benefits : The current military approach to drug eradication is destabilizing and demeaning to our Latin American friends.

<i> Peter H. Smith is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and co</i> -<i> director of a research project on inter-American drug policy</i>

For decades, the United States waged the Cold War in Latin America, embracing anti-Communist crusades, giving aid to reformers and undermining leftist leaders through subversion or outright intervention.

With that war fading, there is a growing vacuum at the heart of American policy toward Latin America. Enter the Bush Administration’s war on drugs, which is being fought largely in other countries to cut supply at the source.

But as an anti-drug policy, Bush’s war skirts a key part of the problem: American demand for drugs.


Consumer taste in drugs is notoriously volatile. During the 1980s, the drug of choice shifted from marijuana and heroin to inhaleable cocaine, then to crack. Now, drug users are discovering “ice,” a synthetic.

The United States produces ever larger shares of its own marijuana and “designer drugs,” apparently including a synthetic version of cocaine. A flotilla permanently based off the Colombian coast is no antidote to that.

The “drug summit” in Cartagena, Colombia, called by the Andean presidents to discuss aspects of the drug trade, was conspicuous for its absences: Mexico, the Bahamas and the neighbors of the South American participants. What happens if the drug cartels set up shop in Ecuador, Brazil or Belize?

U.S. anti-drug policy, of course, gives priority to domestic law enforcement and border interdiction. Also included are modest efforts, which the President has pledged to enhance, to reduce demand at home. International cooperation is far down on the priority list. Almost as an afterthought, the Cartagena document calls for a “world summit” in 1991. But the thrust of U.S. international anti-drug policy points most directly at Latin America.

And therein lies another problem: Latin American initiatives should flow naturally from a coherent, clearly stated Latin American policy, not from one primarily designed to exploit domestic politics within the United States. Otherwise, the initiatives might backfire.

The Panama invasion has revived deep-seated suspicions among Latin Americans about U.S. motives and Washington’s appetite for military intervention. Alan Garcia, the president of Peru, came close to boycotting the Cartagena meeting. Vice President Dan Quayle, Bush’s choice to soothe ruffled Latin tempers after Panama, was welcomed only in Honduras and Panama, U.S. client states. Growing enthusiasm within the United States for greater use of American armed forces to combat drug traffickers heightens Latin apprehensions. (Bush’s anti-drug budget proposal includes $1.2 billion for the Pentagon.)

In the meantime, the Bush Administration wants its Latin counterparts to do the dirty work. The Colombian government’s use of its army and national police to wage war on that country’s drug lords is an example of what Washington has in mind. Bush has extravagantly praised the action. But Peru and Bolivia, where most of the world’s coca is grown, certainly aren’t eager to pay the social and economic costs, not to mention lost lives, that Colombia has paid. In any case, Colombia’s President Virgilio Barco Vargas did not undertake his anti-drug campaign out of deference to U.S. concerns. Rather, the Medellin cartel was threatening his country’s political stability, and he decided to act.

The results have been ambiguous. Since declaring all-out war last August, the government of Virgilio Barco Vargas has succeeded in reducing narco-terrorism as cartel leaders plead to negotiate with the government. But narco-trafficking continues unabated. The volume of illicit cocaine exports from Colombia actually increased in 1989, to an estimated 350 to 450 metric tons.

There is an additional risk associated with using the Latin American military to fight drug traffickers: How would the stability of new or fragile democracies be affected? In Peru, for example, army attacks on coca farmers have driven resentful campesinos into the ranks of Maoist guerrillas. The lesson holds for other countries: The more intense the war against drug cartels, the more intense the polarization--and the greater the immediate threat to political stability.

The United States is not helpful here. Our economic assistance to Latin America, even as envisioned at Cartagena, is pitifully small. Current allocations for the Andean countries amount to $260 million in “security assistance,” $125 million in economic aid. Urging impoverished peasants to stop cultivating coca leaves--because it is “immoral,” as the President said in Cartagena--without offering them an income substitute is unrealistic.

Legalizing or decriminalizing drug use in the United States does not offer easy answers. In theory, it would eliminate a major point of friction in U.S.-Latin American relations, reduce the magnitude of violence connected with drug trafficking and permit Latin American countries to better tailor their domestic policies to national needs. Presumably, the United States could use some of its law-enforcement savings for regional economic assistance. Finally, the legalized export of drugs would provide Latin America with the foreign currency it needs to service its debt and rebuild its economies. For these reasons, the idea of drug legalization should receive more serious attention than it has.

In practice, these potential benefits would come at a high political price. Latin Americans would resent a turnaround in U.S. policy that suggested their anti-drug sacrifices were all in vain, especially since so many were carried out at Washington’s behest. Drug legalization in the United States would force Latin American governments to re-examine their own drug laws and policies with an eye toward repealing or radically altering them. To the extent that amnesty for some criminals would be necessary, governmental authority probably would weaken, with grave consequences for stability. As one senior Latin American policy-maker said, legalization of drugs in the United States would be “Kafkaesque.”

The inadequacy of the Administration’s current approach is underlined by the rise, through mostly free and fair elections, of pragmatic and thoughtful leaders in Latin America. They are friendly toward the United States; they need our understanding and help in dealing with their enormous social and economic challenges. If we want their help in solving our drug problem, we need to redefine our relationship with them. Toward that end, we should drop our shortsighted insistence that they maintain the front line of our drug war.