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Las drogas son drogas: Bolivia rejects the drug legalization debate

In many parts of the Andes, tourists can purchase t-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and all manner of other merchandise with the proud slogan “la hoja de coca no es droga,” a simple yet profound statement that means “the coca leaf is not a drug.”

The slogan itself is an indication of a deep tension between those who would use coca leaves for traditional religious and medicinal purposes, and those who would use coca to to profit from its narcotic derivative, cocaine.

No where is this coca-cocaine tension more prevalent than in Bolivia. For many Bolivians, it’s a matter of national identity.

Richard Craig provided some background on this in “Illicit Drug Traffic: Implications for South American Source Countries”, published in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 2 back in 1987:

In one way or another most Bolivians are involved in a cocacultura.  They grow the leaf, ceremonialize it, chew it, drink it, cook it, stomp it, refine it, smoke it, sell it, and seek to eradicate it. Predating the Inca period, coca’s impact on Bolivian culture is such as to render it a virtual national resource.

Domestic policy under President Evo Morales — the Coca Sí, Cocaína No program — is an attempt at striking a balance between supporting traditional uses of coca leaves while cracking down on illicit production and trafficking of cocaine.

In addition to this domestic policy, some refer to the foreign policy strategy of the Morales Administration as “coca diplomacy”.

Since his election in 2006, Morales has advocated global decriminalization of traditional uses for the coca leaf — but not decriminalization of cocaine — through amending the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 to remove all references to the coca leaf.

He raised some eyebrows at his first UN General Assembly in September 2006 by holding up a coca leaf as he made the following remarks:

I should like to take this opportunity to speak of another historical injustice: the criminalization of the coca leaf. This coca leaf is green, not white, like cocaine. … Conditionality-based policies implemented in the past focused on zero coca-leaf production. But zero coca-leaf production is equivalent to zero Quechuas, zero Aymarás, zero Mojeños, zero Chiquitanos. All of that ended with another Government. We are an underdeveloped country with economic problems resulting from the pillage of our natural resources. We are here today to begin to regain our dignity and the dignity of our country.

It turned out that the new head of state had technically smuggled the coca leaves past U.S. Customs officials by hiding them in the book he carried with him onto the plane in order to bring them to UN Headquarters in New York.

In 2008, Morales took a stronger stand for the national dignity of the Bolivian people by expelling U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials. After suspending DEA operations indefinitely in Bolivia, Morales explained that “We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people.”

Coca in the Constitution

The Bolivian Constitution was amended in several ways in 2009. Among other things, Bolivia is now officially defined as a  unitary plurinational state, or a country comprised of many different people groups, but with one sovereign central government.

But the Constitution also provides the following provision on coca in Part Four, Title II, Chapter Seven, Section II, Article 384:

The State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. Its revaluing, production, commercialization, and industrialization shall be regulated by law.

This particular amendment has served to formalize the tension between international convention and constitutional law in Bolivia.

More recently, Morales made a strong statement by formally withdrawing Bolivia from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in June 2011, effective Jan. 1, 2012, since diplomatic efforts had failed to lead to the Convention’s amendment.

The Morales Administration was careful to specify that the objection was only with the classification of the coca leaf, and that the Bolivian government would ensure continued compliance with the rest of the terms of the 1961 Single Convention and the Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1972.

Comparative Advantage

The coca-cocaine tension is further complicated by an economic theory known as comparative advantage.

This principle states that when it comes to trade relations, states should specialize in trading the goods that they can produce with the greatest relative efficiency at the lowest relative cost when compared to other states–giving them a comparative advantage in that particular good.

In other words, it’s more cost effective for everyone to export what they can produce more efficiently than anyone else while importing what they can’t.

Unfortunately for the Bolivian-law-abiding coca growers, the Andean Region has a clear comparative advantage in coca production. A recent report on cocaine in Stratfor’s Criminal Comodities Series explains it this way:

Coca can be grown in a number of geographic locales, including Mexico, but only the South American geography is ideally suited to naturally cultivate the plant in large enough quantities for mass production. … According to the 2011 U.N. World Drug Report, three countries — Colombia, Peru and Bolivia — harvested all known coca in the world.

Under previous presidential administrations, the official policy was to promote alternative development. While this is still part of the Coca Sí, Cocaína No program, alternative development is more voluntary now.

It’s a great idea to train and equip farmers to grow coffee and chocolate instead of coca — an initiative that has found great success in some regions — but coca is still easier to cultivate than chocolate and less fickle than coffee.

The Legalization Debate

Given the historical context, it comes as little surprise that the Morales Administration was quick to clarify a statement by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Following the recent bilateral meetings between the two presidents, El País reported (en español) that Santos explained a plan for a Colombian-Bolivian tag team during the upcoming Summit on the Americas:

Bolivia –with its knowledge and experience in the traditional use of the coca leaf and the processes of alternative development–, and Colombia –with our experience in combating drug cartels– have a lot to contribute to this discussion, which should be open and without prejudice.

He went on to use the phrase “we” several times as he explained plans to propose a “comprehensive and wide” discussion about the results of “the so-called ‘War on Drugs'” and the “diverse strategies that we can take on together to end this scourge.”

According to the El País article, Morales was standing next to Santos when he made these remarks.

However, the next day, Los Tiempos reported (en español) that the Bolivian government rejects the debate on regional drug legalization.

Bolivian Government Minister Carlos Romero, who accompanied Morales on the trip to Colombia, explained that they had discussed many topics, one of which had been the fight against narcotrafficking. However, drug legalization “is not the appropriate way.” The Minister went on to say:

We have said many times that if there is no joint work between all of the countries we cannot face up to this scourge, so our proposal is to work together. Migration control, databases, international police operatives, in technology.

Several countries in Latin America came under sharp criticism from the UN in 2010 for the trend of decriminalization that swept through some countries in 2009. The report stated that Latin America was undermining the war on drugs.

This was before Santos began the process of decriminalizing personal drug possession in Colombia (a 180° turn from the policy views of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe) and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina — whose presidential campaign was based on the promise of crushing crime “with an iron fist” — initiated the drug legalization discussion at the regional level.

President Morales is in a tight spot, facing pressure at home and abroad. As former head of the Bolivian national coca growers union, he has to show his electoral base that he will uphold the 2009 Constitution.

At the same time, he has to prove to the international community — especially the international drug control system — that he’s serious about upholding the rest of the Single Convention, even though Bolivia has officially withdrawn from it.


Mapping Results to Track Progress: IDB releases MapAmericas

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently launched a new online resource: MapAmericas. This interactive tool can be used to track progress on the development projects funded by the IDB in Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Uruguay.

Established in 1959, the IDB promotes sustainable economic development and financial inclusion throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, based on a strong commitment to achieving measurable results while demanding a high level of integrity, transparency, and accountability.

To this end, the IDB has established the following priorities and areas of action:

 • Reducing poverty and social inequalities;

 • Addressing the needs of small and vulnerable countries;

 • Fostering development through the private sector;

 • Addressing climate change, renewable energy and environmental sustainability; and

 • Promoting regional cooperation and integration.

The IDB’s goals, discussed more in-depth in the Bank’s Results Framework 2012-2015, are ambitious. By tying each goal to clear (often numerical) criteria, the IDB ensures that these goals are measurable.

MapAmericas provides a quick reference guide to what the IDB-funded projects have accomplished in nine sectors across six countries, with 12 specific results areas. Let’s use the Small Community Water Program in Bolivia as a case study.

For context, the CIA World Factbook reports the following on access to potable water and sanitation facilities in Bolivia:

The full MapAmericas project report, “Small communities take charge of water and sanitation systems”, translates the statistics into English:

According to Bolivia’s Ministry of Water, approximately 1.7 million of the country’s rural people lack an improved water supply. Most of these people live in very small, isolated communities or on the margins of rural towns with populations of up to 10,000 inhabitants.

Here’s a screenshot of MapAmericas Bolivia, showing exactly where IDB-sponsored projects have been completed to improve irrigation systems and provide access to potable water as part of the Small Community Water Program:

The report goes on to specify that 27 water projects have been completed or expanded and improved; 23 sanitation projects have been completed or improved; and 43 community water operators have been established.

For the sake of accountability, MapAmericas also states the dollar amount and source of funding for these projects:

The Small Community Water Program is being financed by a $14.7 million loan from the Bank’s Ordinary Capital and $6.3 million from the Fund for Special Operations.

As for how this money is allocated:

Under Bolivian law, municipal governments receive transfers from the central government to co-finance infrastructure projects, including rural water and sanitation projects. The municipal governments assign resources to each community based on population, with the poorest communities receiving the most funding in relation to the contribution they are required to make.

This is just one example of the results-oriented data that can be tracked using MapAmericas. There are 24 other projects listed for Bolivia alone, while similar information can be accessed for 13 projects in Guyana; 29 projects in Haiti; 25 in Honduras; 21 in Nicaragua; and 12 projects in Uruguay.

It’s important to note that no institution involving human beings and money can completely avoid allegations of corruption. That said, the IDB has a very strong record when compared to similar groups.

The process of securing a loan from the IDB is very rigorous, but the results speak for themselves: Not only is the IDB a profitable regional bank, but there has only been one incident of default on an IDB loan since its founding in 1959.

Click here to access MapAmericas in English.

Haga clic aquí para acceder a MapAmericas en español.

U.S. Foreign Policy in Latin America’s Decade


“But the real story of Latin America today … is a story of political transition and a broad commitment to democratic development, a story of pragmatic leaders who helped turn a once-troubled region into an area of dynamic 21st century economies and societies, a story of active new players on the global stage.”

~ Secretary Clinton


As scholars debate the rise or fall of the American empire, some analysts have declared the 2010’s to be Latin America’s Decade. In addition to strengthening regional integration, the economies of Latin America seem to just keep growing despite the global economic downturn.

But the rise of Latin American influence goes beyond that. As the countries of Latin America assert themselves in the global arena, policymakers in the U.S. need to come to terms with what Russell Crandall calls the Post-American Hemisphere.

In a recent piece for International Policy Digest, Juan Gabriel Tokatlian described a hemispheric political context marked by frustrated superpower syndrome:

In reality, the frustrated superpower syndrome is the logical consequence of two different but intertwined factors: the objective disparity of power and the subjective sense of superiority.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America has reflected both. While many of the ideas advocated by the Washington Consensus were sound in principle — if not always in practice — the phrase “Washington” Consensus itself says a lot.

In her confirmation hearing, Secretary Clinton described a foreign policy based on Smart Power, or seeking to strike the perfect balance between Hard Power (coercion) and Soft Power (attraction).

Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. sought to clarify this concept in “Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power”. According to Dr. Nye, contextual intelligence is the bedrock of Smart Power:

Contextual intelligence must start with an understanding of not just the strengths but also the limits of U.S. power. The United States is the only superpower, but preponderance does not constitute empire or hegemony. The United States can influence, but not control, other parts of the world.

Similarly, in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the AS/COA, provided a call to action for policymakers and academics alike:

The first step should be acknowledging that in a diversifying global economy, the role of the United States in the Western Hemisphere has shifted from dominance to preeminence.

Even hard core skeptics of the idea of a 21st century decline of the West would be hard pressed to deny the regional implications of what Fareed Zakaria has termed the Rise of the Rest.

Moving forward, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “A New Theory for the Frontier: Collaborative Power” bears consideration. In this article, Dr. Slaughter explores a theoretical and pragmatic shift from Smart Power to Collaborative Power.

Where Smart Power is based on standard transactions within the established world order, Collaborative Power is based on multilateral teamwork. In other words:

• if Hard Power is based on coercion;

• and Soft Power is based on attraction;

• then Collaborative Power is based on consensus.

Dr. Slaughter’s article seems to have drawn more criticism than praise within the blogosphere, although the criticism seems to have more to do with the examples she used than for the theory itself as she explained it.

Still, this concept of Collaborative Power — further described as “power with” versus “power over” — might provide some direction for public diplomacy in an age marked by the democratization of information.

President Obama said it well in his speech from Santiago, Chile during his March 2011 state visit to Latin America:

So this is the Latin America that I see today — a region on the move, proud of its progress, and ready to assume a greater role in world affairs.

While some questions remain as to whether these emerging powers will be able to successfully translate economic growth and integration into geopolitical influence, policymakers in the U.S. need to be cognizant of how the power structure is changing within the hemisphere.

The Syrian Litmus Test

In a very real sense, injustice is a litmus test.

When we become witnesses to the injustice of others, we have a choice: become part of the solution, or part of the problem. There is no middle ground; choosing to do nothing is a very real action with very real consequences.

During a Feb. 5th meeting, the heads of state of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) issued a Special Communiqué on Syria. This Special Communiqué included three declarations, among them a rejection of “…the systematic intervention and destabilization policy in the sister nation of the Arab Republic of Syria aimed at forcefully imposing a change of regime to the Syrian people.”

Given this precedent, it should come as no surprise that when the UN General Assembly voted on the Syrian resolution on Feb. 16th, the ALBA stood with Assad.

In fact, of the UN member nations that opposed the resolution, all five from the Western Hemisphere–Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua–are also ALBA member states.

Digital boards inside the General Assembly display the votes cast by Member States on a draft resolution on Syria. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

The Department of Public Information of the UN News and Media Division provided a public record of the proceedings, in which several member states publicly explain the reasoning behind their votes for or against the resolution. The public record also provides a summary of the main tenets of the resolution:

The Assembly called on Syria to abide by its obligations under international law, and demanded that the Government, in line with the 2 November 2011 Action Plan of the League of Arab States, and its decisions of 22 January and 12 February 2012, without delay, stop all violence and protect its people, release all those detained during the unrest, withdraw all armed forces from cities and towns, guarantee peaceful demonstrations and allow unhindered access for Arab League monitors and international media.

It’s important to note that the UN resolution, which was almost identical to the Security Council resolution vetoed by China and Russia on Feb. 4th, was really just a public statement by the UN in support of the Arab League plan. This resolution laid no groundwork for use of force as in the case of Libya.

Several member nations from the Western Hemisphere explained their votes. Each explanation provides insight into regional priorities when it comes to freedom and human rights (emphasis mine):

The representative of Venezuela, affirming the fundamental importance of sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, denounced the attempt by imperial powers and their allies to trigger regime change in Syria, even at the cost of further bloodshed, reproducing the dire consequences of the Libyan situation.  Those Powers sought to occupy Syria, to foment a coup against its legitimate authorities and to turn the country into a protectorate.  The draft resolution, with its mentoring and monitoring mechanisms, represented an intervention in the internal affairs of an independent State, he said.  The text also attacked the Government for human rights abuses while hiding the heinous crimes committed by terrorist groups against civilians, as well as attacks with varied weaponry against public officials and facilities.

He went on to note that the draft ignored the Government’s initiatives to promote inclusive political dialogue and its call for a referendum on a new Constitution, which were the best options for moving forward.  The draft denied the Syrian State’s right to protect its population and ensure internal peace and security, he said, adding that it did not call for opposition groups to dissociate themselves from groups engaged in violence.  Commending the Russian Federation’s efforts for a more balanced text, he supported that country’s peace initiatives in Damascus as well its efforts, with China, to prevent the Security Council from being used to violate Syria’s sovereignty.  “It is not desirable that the logic of war, which imperialists intend to impose on Syria and the world, prevails,” he said.  Instead, the Assembly should be concerned about recognition of a Palestinian State, the end of Israeli rights violations and ending the blockade on Cuba.


The representative of Grenada offered condolences to the families of all those who had lost loved ones in Syria and stressed that the United Nations must act — and be seen to act — in line with the tenets of its founding Charter.  Grenada was proceeding with the understanding that the draft resolution would “do only what the text says” — provide diplomatic support to Syria, the Arab League and the Secretary-General in order to help the Government and people of Syria to end all bloodshed, while finding an agreed solution.  It also understood that the Assembly was not voting on or for a text that could in any way be interpreted as a basis for the removal of the Government, military intervention or any act against the spirit and letter of the Charter, she said.  With that understanding, Grenada would vote in favour of the draft resolution, she added.


The representative of Bolivia, stating that he had voted against the resolution, asked the Assembly to consider exactly what was happening in Syria.  With the many possibilities and few answers, it was clear that no one really knew exactly what the real situation was.  All that was known was that there was a recognized opposition and a Government that was prepared to undertake meaningful reforms.  Indeed, Syria’s representative had twice informed the Assembly that such reforms, including constitutional changes, had been agreed and were under way.  Saying he understood that such reforms were a work in progress, he added that Bolivia knew the dangers of a political vacuum, which could lead to destabilization of the entire region.

He said there were two possible ways in which the Syrian situation could end, the first being “the way of Libya”, in which the United Nations had facilitated a “recipe for intervention” to justify regime change through a Security Council resolution.  That text had actually promoted further destabilization and civil unrest, he pointed out, warning: “I fear we have not learned our lessons from that situation.”  He added: “Last year, it was the Security Council and this year it appears to be the General Assembly.”  Bolivia seriously hoped that that was not the case, but had voted against the resolution just the same.  The other possible ending was through a peaceful resolution, as had occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, he said.  In those cases, efforts had been channelled towards democracy and changes of Government borne by the will of the people, not foreign intervention.  Hopefully, the winds of the “Arab Spring” would blow in Syria’s direction and stir peaceful change, he said, adding that, had the amendments put forward by the Russian Federation been integrated into the resolution, it would have been adopted by consensus.


The representative of Argentina said he had voted in favour of the resolution and emphasized the utmost importance of ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights in Syria.  It was necessary to preserve the fundamental rights of free association and expression, he said, adding that the crisis in Syria should be resolved through dialogue and democratic negotiations involving all sectors of society.


The representative of Chile said he had voted in favour of the text, adding that the Assembly had raised its voice to “energetically” condemn the “grave and massive” violations of human rights under way in Syria.  Serious acts, such as torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention, including those highlighted by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her briefing earlier in the week, must be denounced and those responsible brought to justice, he emphasized.  All parties in Syria must open a true dialogue, and the authorities must allow access to those in need, he added.

By the time the General Assembly vote rolled around, everyone already knew the official position of the United States. A more in-depth look at the impressively bold statement of Costa Rica is available here.

The litmus test of Syria has drawn a clear dividing line between the priorities–or, perhaps, the loyalties–of some of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. Everyone regrets the situation in Syria; it’s really only a matter of which part they regret.

Here’s the defining question: Who are the victims in Syria?

Is it the Syrian people, massacred and tortured by the very government officials who should be serving them?

Or is it the Syrian government, doing its best to quell internal conflict, with nearly the entire international community ganging up against it?

To the leaders of the ALBA, the answer is clear.

Many of them have faced sharp criticism for actions they themselves have taken against the freedom within their own countries, especially in regards to the opposition. Fierce supporters of the principle of non-interventionism for their own sake, they can identify with the plight of President Al-Assad.

It’s important to note that not all ALBA member states voted against the resolution outright. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (full member) and Suriname (recently added as a special guest member) both chose to abstain.

While abstaining still gives implicit support to the Al-Assad regime, it seems to indicate that the loyalties of these smaller ALBA nations are torn. They couldn’t contradict what the ALBA had already agreed to, but they also weren’t ready to stand in the minority voting against the resolution–even for the sake of ALBA solidarity.

Whether for loyalty to President Assad, insecurity that they could be next, or simply supporting an ALBA guest country no matter what, the ALBA has clearly drawn a line in supporting Assad’s cause in Syria.

The results of the litmus test of Syria indicate that the ALBA member nations stands together resolutely against freedom and human rights.

Pura Vida takes on the UN Security Council

Photo: C. Christophersen/UNU

I’m working on a longer analysis of the Western Hemisphere’s response to the Syrian situation, but the public statement made by the Ambassador of Costa Rica was so notable that I thought it deserved its own blog post.

After speaking out boldly against the on-going human rights violations being perpetrated by the al-Assad regime against the people of Syria, the Ambassador went on to question the Security Council itself:

The representative of Costa Rica expressed his delegation’s deepest concern about the gruesome human rights violations being carried out in Syria.  The international community could not remain silent, he stressed, calling on the Syrian authorities to definitively end attacks against civilians and other human rights violations.  Condemning reports of sexual violence, including that perpetrated against girls and boys, he said all international stakeholders should work towards a swift and peaceful solution to the crisis, in line with the Arab League’s Plan of Action.  The Human Rights Council had been playing its role of promoting a peaceful solution and, with the appropriate tools already at its disposal, it should move to create the position of Special Rapporteur on the situation in Syria, he said, calling attention to that Council’s report on the very serious acts — pointing to possible crimes against humanity — being carried out in Syria.

Expressing concern that the Security Council had been unable to act on the matter, he said it had been prevented from acting by the use of a veto.  The Council required deep reform, chiefly so that such measures could not be used to stymie action in the face of the worst international crimes, he emphasized.  Stakeholders might disagree on certain matters, but the international community must speak resoundingly when human rights violations and acts of violence against civilians were committed.  The international community should explore all avenues to reach a solution and ensure that those who had committed grave crimes were held responsible, including through referring the Syrian issue to the International Criminal Court.  Finally, he said the “voices of change cannot be silenced with violence”, and called for a solution that met the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.

Costa Rica has been a key player in the development of the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Although in practice the concept of R2P can be somewhat complex, in theory, it’s based on three pillars:

1. State sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility of its leaders is to protect the people from things like internal conflict, insurgency, repression, and state failure.

2. The international community has the responsibility to assist a state if it is unable to live up to its own responsibility to protect.

3. When in conflict, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international community’s responsibility to protect.

Beyond that, the concept of R2P is defined by three primary responsibilities: to prevent, to react, and to rebuild.

Understandably, the primary argument against R2P is that it is, almost by very definition, a challenge to national sovereignty.

Proponents of R2P, to include UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, assert that sovereignty is a privilege, not a right. If a nation’s leaders fail to uphold their own responsibility to protect, it is the responsibility of the world community to intervene, because the national leaders have proven themselves unable or unwilling to accomplish their primary responsibility as leaders.

Costa Rica has a special type of moral authority to speak on these issues. After being torn by civil war, the military was abolished in 1948. While the Land of Pura Vida maintains small forces for law enforcement and foreign peacekeeping missions, a 1949 constitutional amendment made it literally unconstitutional to establish permanent standing armed forces in Costa Rica. Money that would go toward training and equipping the military has been invested in education and social services.

While Costa Rica has not been without its challenges post-military abolition, Alex Sanchez noted in a June 2011 analysis for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:

It is important to consider that a state that has no military is by nature nonviolent. Simply put, it is hard to regard the country as aggressive, given its lack of traditional arsenal or weaponry and trained personnel.

But it’s also in the national interest of Costa Rica to support the Responsibility to Protect and other international cooperation initiatives. As President Laura Chinchilla noted in her September 2010 remarks before the UN General Assembly, Costa Rica is completely dependent on universal respect for International Law and multilateral organizations for its national security.

Given that the UN resolution on Syria did not call for use of force (neither arming the rebels nor attacking the al-Assad regime directly), but rather supported the Arab League’s plan for a peaceful transition, it makes sense that Costa Rica would support the resolution so boldly.

It’s also worth noting that Costa Rica is a member of the Small Five (S5) group, working together with Singapore, Jordan, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland to develop ideas for UN Security Council reform. Singapore was the only other Small Five country to explain its vote for the Syria resolution.

The most recent S5 draft proposal, released in June 2011, included a provision that would prevent “a negative vote” from having the power of veto over a Security Council resolution “in situations of serious allegations of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

In light of the passionate remarks provided by the Ambassador of Costa Rica, we can probably guess which of the S5 countries proposed this particular reform.

EDIT: The promised broader analysis of Latin American responses can be found here.

The Internet just became a little bit freer.

In May 2011, the blogosphere exploded with commentary on the implications of a report released by the UN Human Rights Council. The report (full text) indicated, among other things, that Internet access is a basic human right.

While the debate continues about the underlying implications for State privileges and responsibilities, some private enterprises are taking it upon themselves to promote social inclusion through Internet access.

On Feb. 7th, Mozilla Perú announced plans to launch a project designed to provide a version of Firefox in Quechua, an indigenous language spoken by about three million people in the Andes of Perú, Bolivia, and Ecuador. This will be a joint project between the makers of Firefox and Runasimipi Qespisqa Software, a group dedicated to creating free software in Quechua.

The Runasimipi Qespisqa explains: “Our dream is that any Andean child who goes to a public cabina [cyber café] in the future will have the option of seeing everything in his native language.”

In announcing the partnership with Runasimipi Qespisqa, Mozilla reiterates the importance of this project:

“Quechua is a fundamental part of the Peruvian culture and the language of expression of more than three million Peruvians [whose input we need] in the development of the Internet. With content, but above all with perspective.”

The Mozilla Perú blog post includes an embedded slideshow that explains the reasoning, the goals, and the plan. This ambitious translation project will take place in a series of three phases:

1. Produce a basic language pack for Firefox that includes the most frequently used aspects of the user interface.

2. Produce a more comprehensive language pack for Firefox with the complete user interface, with the help of more than 80 official Firefox testers.

3. Produce a language pack for Firefox Mobile.

While some people question the growing movement to provide computer programs and internet access in Quechua on the grounds that the most quechuahablantes, or Quechua speakers, are also literate in Spanish, this initiative is significant.

First, there’s just something special about meeting the needs of a people group (literally and figuratively) in a language they can understand. While the vast majority could just as easily surf the ‘net in Spanish, the spirit of the concept of internet access as a human right is to provide 21st Century conduits for the freedoms of information and expression. This will be a lot easier for the Quechua people to do in their native language.

Second, it will give the rest of the world the opportunity to share with and learn from one of the more resilient people groups in world history. Some experts believe that Quechua as a language predates the Incas, which predate the Spanish Conquistadors. While Quechua is not alone in this feat, it’s still pretty amazing that it has lasted this long in common, every day use. The rest of the world could benefit from the wisdom and traditions of the Quechua.

Third, it will both directly and indirectly affect economic growth. It will directly affect the economy in that it will open up a new market to the people who own and run cyber cafes. It will indirectly affect the economy by allowing the Quechua people easier access to information, which will give them easier access to knowledge, which will better equip them to contribute to the economy.

Finally, it will provide a mechanism to help keep the Quechua alive. While there’s no shortage of quechuahablantes today–Quechua is an official language in both Bolivia and Perú, where 21.2% and 13% (respectively) of the population speak it–there is growing concern about the assimilation of Quechua youth within mainstream Peruvian culture. The Runasimipi Qespiqa Software Manifesto notes that it just isn’t “cool” to speak Quechua with your friends–especially when all the new tech toys are in Spanish. This project will help ensure that both the Quechua culture and the mainstream Peruvian culture remain relevant together.

Mozilla is also actively working on projects to provide Firefox in Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay and parts of Bolivia, as well as Firefox Maya, Firefox Tarahumara, Firefox Tseltal, and Firefox Zapoteco for the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

When the Firefox translation project is complete, Mozilla will join Google and Microsoft in seeking to serve the Quechua people. Both companies have already been providing products in Quechua since at least 2006.

For more information on Internet resources for quechuahablantes and digital inclusion, click here and here.

A Modest Proposal: Venezuela suggests a sabbatical as OAS considers new strategic vision

In December, I posed what I believe to be an important question: Is the OAS dead?

I began questioning the future of the OAS as a direct result of two regional trends: first, the prevalence of anti-OAS rhetoric at the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin and Caribbean States (CELAC), and second, the relatively recent movement in the US Congress to at least partially de-fund the OAS.

Based on the most recent meeting of the Permanent Council, the question seems even more relevant today.

Hall of the Americas at the OAS Main Building. Washington, DC. (Courtesy of OAS Media Center.)

The OAS uses a four-pronged approach to serving the needs of member nations, based on its four main pillars: democracy, human rights, security, and development. These four pillars serve as guiding principles for the OAS.

On Feb. 1, during a regular meeting of the OAS Permanent Council, Secretary General José Miguel Insulza presented a new proposal.

A Strategic Vision

While the document itself is called “A Strategic Vision of the OAS”, it’s really more of a call for a strategic vision. It states that “currently there is consensus on our activities and basic documents”, referring back to the four pillars.

However, the document also admits that the OAS is overextended and current efforts underfunded. With this in mind, the Secretary General is making a general call for the OAS to evaluate current projects–measuring them based on the four pillars–and to reprioritize, as needed:

“If we return to giving strict priority to the core OAS missions, that would lead us to concrete measures that we could carry out efficiently and achieve the objectives that the member states have set. Today we have clear budgetary restrictions, many of them diagnosed in recent months. The assumption is that by concentrating on fundamentals, not only can we overcome the short-term situation, but also dispel many doubts about what role the OAS is destined to play in the hemispheric context.”

The document does provide some policy recommendations, but the Secretary General went to great lengths to emphasize that everything should be open for discussion. This is based on the idea that the effectiveness of the OAS depends on “a concerted effort […] between the member states and the General Secretariat”.

While the Secretary General presented several proposals, these seem most pertinent:

• Decentralization of programs. Local OAS offices in member states would take on more responsibility for OAS plans and programs, even to the point of relocating program functions from the OAS Headquarters in Washington, DC to OAS offices in the host countries themselves. This would be determined by, among other things, regional or national priority and strategic outlook.

• Financial Quotas. Under this proposal, a rule would be introduced “whereby no country pays more than 49% of the contributions to the Regular Fund.” This would reduce OAS financial dependency on any one member state (which is probably fiscally sound, given the precariousness of US funding for the OAS), while requiring other member states to step up.

The report concludes by reiterating the importance of cooperation between member states and the General Secretariat:

“In sum, the fate of the Organization is in the hands of its masters, as is only proper, which is why I propose that this dialogue be held as a matter of urgency, and that no time be wasted in tackling our current predicament and reaching decisions that will offer the OAS a future of greater dynamism and presence in the region’s affairs.”

El Nacional, a Caracas-based newspaper, reports on the response (en español) to Secretary General Insulza’s proposal.

A working vacation?

Ambassador Carmen Velásquez, the representative of Venezuela, recommended that the OAS take a one-year break after the 2012 General Assembly–currently scheduled for June in Cochabamba, Bolivia–in order “to concentrate on discussing the strategic vision of the organization.”

While Ambassador Velásquez did not specify whether she was advocating a complete break in action or merely a cancellation of the 2013 General Assembly, the suggestion came about two months after the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin and Caribbean States (CELAC), which some Latin American leaders hope will replace the OAS.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made crystal clear his feelings about the OAS–which is still considered by some Latin American countries to be the unofficial regional mouthpiece of the US–when he addressed the CELAC assembly:

“The CELAC is being born with a new spirit […] As the years pass, the CELAC will leave behind the old and worn out OAS.”

Ambassador Velásquez’s suggestion that the OAS take a year off found support in both Nicaragua and Uruguay.

Her colleague from Nicaragua, Ambassador Denis Ronaldo Moncada, emphasized that currently “there is no shared concept [between member states] on the priorities” of the Organization.

This cynicism is not terribly surprising given the recent statement by the U.S. Department of State, expressing concern about “Democratic Conditions in Nicaragua”. In this statement, Secretary Clinton references the Final Report (published on Jan. 25, 2012) of the OAS Mission of Electoral Accompaniment for the Nov. 6, 2011 general elections in Nicaragua.

The Nicaragua Dispatch provides insight into the apparent self-contradictions that could help explain Nicaragua’s frustration with the OAS.

Ambassador Jorge Collazo of Uruguay also supported the Venezuelan proposal: “It doesn’t seem bad to us that the OAS provide time [to consider the strategic vision] after Cochabamba, as Venezuela said.”

Uruguay’s support of this proposal is a little less intuitive than that of Nicaragua.

New and improved?

When asked in early December by the AFB news agency whether or not the CELAC would displace the OAS, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue (as quoted by the BBC) indicated that he was not concerned:

“[The OAS] has clearly defined purposes and principles to guide it. Its procedures are in place. And it has a budget – most of which comes from the US and Canada.”

Mr. Hakim brings up an important point about institutional differences between the OAS and the CELAC. It seems unlikely that the CELAC will replace the OAS completely for several reasons, not least of which being a question of organizational substance vs. style.

As the oldest international organization in the world, the OAS has a long history of surviving economic downturns, navigating leadership changes, and adapting to shifts in popular political thought.

So far, the two IO’s seem to be coexisting well enough. While they aren’t exactly working together, they don’t seem to be systematically working against each other, either–despite the rhetoric.

We’ll know more about the future of working relations between the two regional organizations after the OAS General Assembly in June 2012 and the CELAC Summit in January 2013.

The way ahead

Secretary General Insulza is right: The OAS is in need of a new strategic vision, to include a reevaluation of priorities and reallocation of resources, as needed. Establishing this strategic vision needs to be a priority for the Organization, but this will only be possible through collaboration and consensus.

It’s possible that a year-long sabbatical would be helpful to summit-fatigued regional leaders who are trying to take inventory and reconsider organizational priorities for the rest of the 21st Century. Sometimes you need to take a break from a project in order to see everything more clearly.

But it’s easy to get distracted.

While the proposed break should not necessarily be dismissed outright, it does seem more probable that such a break in collaborative work would actually serve to undermine cooperation between member states and the General Secretariat.

Given the importance of the strategic vision for the future of the OAS, the modest proposal of an organizational sabbatical seems like a pretty big risk.

The full text of “A Strategic Vision of the OAS” is available through the OAS Media Center in both English and español.

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