In 2023, bilateral tensions will grow around the eternal questions of security and emigration, but especially around drug policy. How the new left-wing Latin American leaders approach these issues will shape their relationship with the United States. The erosion of democracy in the region, which is fueling the migration crisis on its southern border, is already an old problem for the United States.
A growing number of desperate people are fleeing the countries of the “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras), but also Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. More than 2 million migrants were intercepted at the border in the first nine months of 2022, 20% more than in 2021. Tectonic shifts in the South American political scene further complicate matters.
After Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (recently deposed) and Chilean Gabriel Boric, the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil clearly shows how the whole region is once again leaning to the left. Lula could strengthen South-South ties, especially with China. What to bristle the American Joe Biden. Jair Bolsonaro, the populist president of Brazil from 2018 to 2022, has often expressed anti-Chinese sentiments, contradicted by the facts (the value of Brazil-China trade reached a record $135 billion in 2021).
“Irrational” war on drugs
In Colombia, the election of Gustavo Petro, the first left-wing man to become president, will be another potential point of tension. He has expressed his hostility to what he calls the “irrational” war on drugs. His plans for drug policy include negotiating with gangs, stopping the prosecution of poor peasants who plant coca, and ensuring that the consumption of cocaine for medical use takes place in dedicated premises (individual consumption drugs has already been decriminalised). Some suggest going further.
Felipe Tascon, a member of Gustavo Petro’s campaign team, tipped to be his “drug czar”, raised the possibility of full legalization of cocaine. Nestor Ozuna, the justice minister, believes it should be regulated, but has ruled out legalizing it. Such ideas are unprecedented: it was only in 2020 that liberal senator Ivan Marulanda proposed a law that would allow the Colombian state to buy all the coca in the country at market price.
Washington has lost its ally
Even a limited experiment in decriminalizing cocaine production would have immense implications. Colombia produces 60% of the world’s cocaine supply. North America is the main consumer: according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2% of Americans used it in 2020.
This means that the “prohibition model” promoted by the United States has weakened, underlines Jeremy McDermott of the InSight Crime investigation office: “Not only has Washington lost in Colombia its most important ally in its fight against drugs , but he can no longer rely either on Mexico, Venezuela or Chile.” A US official remarks that the Mexican government has complicated the activities of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
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“Brazil is not really involved. Only Panama remains firmly in the camp of the United States”, indicates Jeremy McDermott. Fifty years after the launch of “War on Drugs” by Nixon, Latin America is increasingly turning a deaf ear.