By Clay Boggs and Geoff Thale
U.S. priorities in Latin America have remained relatively constant over the last couple of decades. Reducing the flow of drugs coming from the region into the United States has continued to be a priority; supporting the Colombian government in its efforts to control drug trafficking and in its fight against the FARC insurgency has been a related interest. Most major U.S. aid initiatives—from Plan Colombia, to the Central American Regional Security Initiative, to the Merida Initiative, to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative—focus heavily on drug control. The U.S. partnership with Colombia is particularly important: in 2011, Colombia received over $300 million in military and police aid—more than three times what the United States gave to Mexico.
WOLA has been a critic of these priorities, believing that our efforts to block supplies have not only failed to check illegal drug production and trafficking, but have contributed to the wider spread of the drug trade (see John Walsh’s op-ed in El Tiempo, in English here). There have also been serious human rights abuses connected to our Colombia policy. Nonetheless, it’s striking how our hostility to Cuba—another long-standing element of U.S. policy in the region—contradicts and undercuts these other priorities. Two recent events highlight this contradiction:
On September 4, it was publicly announced that Colombia had been talking with FARC rebels in Havana, Cuba for six months (see Adam Isacson’s commentary here). These dialogues led to a framework for more formal talks. The United States has spent billions of dollars aiding Colombia, but it is Norway and Cuba, not the United States, that are the international mediators. To its credit, the White House issued a statement endorsing the talks. But the lack of normal diplomatic relations with Cuba complicates the United States’ ability to play the supportive role that the process deserves. (And the fact that we keep Cuba on a list of “state sponsors of terrorism” at a time when they are mediating a peace process that could dismantle a terrorist group hurts our credibility in the hemisphere).
On September 13, the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control released a report titled Preventing a Security Crisis in the Caribbean. The report argues that increased enforcement in Mexico and Central America will likely cause trafficking routes to shift back to the Caribbean. In an addendum to the report, Senator Dianne Feinstein notes that the current de facto U.S. collaboration with Cuba, through the Coast Guard, is effective at interdicting drugs. The Senator makes a series of constructive recommendations for advancing law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Cuba. WOLA advocates such strategic cooperation with Cuba as a way to advance mutual interests and has led multiple delegations to Cuba to explore these issues (see George Withers’ commentary here). Without exaggerating the benefits of drug interdiction operations per se, the minimal cooperation permitted by current U.S. policy is a textbook example of how short-sighted domestic politics undercut pragmatic partnership.
U.S. aid towards Colombia should focus less on strengthening the military and more on protecting human rights, and WOLA has joined the call of current and former Latin American presidents for a real debate about drug policies in the region. But it is absurd that the influence of an ever-shrinking bloc of hardline Cuban-American voters might trump the United States’ commitment to peace in Colombia or frustrate pragmatic law enforcement cooperation.
Clay Boggs is WOLA's Program Officer for Cuba and for Rights and Development.
Geoff Thale is WOLA’s Program Director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and members of Congress.