Drug Czar Favors Treatment, not Prison
VP: Plan Colombia “a total failure”
By Ron Smith
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
November 13, 2002
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen quite a bit of activity in Venezuela, with the arrest of several suspected coup-plotters and an attempted work stoppage. At this time, Chavez retains power, although hamstrung by a lack of will to press forward with major reforms, especially in the face of continuing US pressure. At this time, the CTV is continuing its talks of a general work stoppage, and the Chavez government is accusing the Coordinadora Democratica of conspiring with rebellious military officers. It’s just life as usual in Venezuela under siege.
Venezuelan Drug Policies
As most readers of Narco News realize, most of the democracies of the Americas are held hostage by their US-influenced and imposed drug policies. In most Latin American nations, human rights takes a back seat to US Drug Policy interests, often with little impact on the drug cultivation and trafficking of the region (specifically skyrocketing acreage of coca plantations fumigated, and each year record acreage of coca planting in Colombia). While Venezuela is not a complete exception to the rule of the US imposed drug war, there are some specific differences in the Venezuelan take on the drug war.
I taped an interview with Mildred Camero, the head of CONACUID, the Venezuelan anti-drug office. CONACUID handles a lot of the prevention activities of the Venezuelan government, but also works with the armed forces in the eradication programs.
According to Ms. Camero, The Venezuelan drug eradication programs eliminated a whopping 400 hectares of drug crops in the past 3 years. When we asked how the crops were eliminated, she said the Venezuelan government uses manual eradication exclusively. 400 hectares is miniscule compared to neighboring Colombia, where the totals rise above 20,000 hectares sprayed with Glyphosate annually. Poppy production is the most prevalent in Venezuela, followed by Coca production and Marijuana cultivation, the latter mostly for domestic use. The Venezuelan government had a program of aerial fumigation, but it was discontinued in 1995 after a Central Venezuelan University report on the environmental impacts of glyphosate. With such a small amount of hectares being eradicated, it was easy to switch to manual eradication, and avoid continued damage to the environment. Most of the poppy and coca are grown in the states of Zulia and Apure, which border Colombia. Her testimony contrasted with that of human rights workers from the group PROVEA, who claimed that the low numbers the government cites are wishful thinking.
Ms. Camero believes that Colombians in Venezuela do a majority of the cultivation. “The Colombians have the sophisticated techniques, most Venezuelans in the area don’t have the sophistication to create the kitchens required to make latex from the poppies.” Ms. Camero stated that the Venezuelan drug problem is one of spill-over, and that as more anti-drug activity happens in Colombia, the Venezuelan problems will increase as well. She likened state repression of drug cultivation to spraying for cockroaches, “You spray in one location and the roaches scatter, that’s what happens with trafficking and production, you never really get rid of the roaches. Not that I would call traffickers roaches.”
Ms. Camero stressed that she is not for legalization of drugs in Venezuela, but she is interested in decriminalization of drug possession. She believes it is necessary to change the drug laws to require time in drug clinics for small offenders rather than jail time. While this analysis is manifest to many readers of Narco News, I found them odd coming from a drug czar. All of this conversation happened in the context of a room with photos of Ms. Camero seated next to Barry McCaffrey, the US drug czar under President Clinton, whose policies were marked by a lack of compassion and the criminalization of small subsistence growers. Ms. Camero’s aide expressed quite a bit of concern about water pollution coming from both the cultivation and fumigation of coca in Colombia. We can contrast this meeting with the encounter this reporter had with Francisco de Gonzalo, the Colombian architect of Plan Colombia. Mr. De Gonzalo, using a high-tech PowerPoint presentation, claimed that coca cultivators were “a cancer on the Colombian countryside, and while the effects of Glyphosate may damage the environment, one can liken Plan Colombia to chemotherapy; it hurts the patient in the short term, but can cure the cancer in the long term.” In the case of Colombia, one could easily argue that the cure was worse than the disease.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Jose Vicente Rangel, the vice-president of Venezuela, and I was able to ask a few questions about drug policy. Again, the recurring theme of the interview was the talk of spillover, and the reminders that drug eradication was the problem of the United States, not Venezuela. There is some tension between the armies of Colombia and Venezuela around the issues of border enforcement and smuggling. The most commonly smuggled commodity across the Venezuelan/Colombian border is not coca, however, but gasoline. Vice-President Rangel was quick to point out that Venezuela shares the longest border with Colombia and that the border was open. Rangel stated that the Colombian military complained about the lack of enforcement on the Venezuelan side, but did little themselves to patrol their side of the border.
Rangel also mentioned that he saw Plan Colombia as a failure, “un fracaso total”. In the same conversation, Rangel claimed that the Chavez administration and the Uribe administration in Colombia maintained a warm relationship. With policies so at odds with one another as the Colombian and Venezuelan drug programs, this seems unlikely.
There is a scent in the air of changes in Venezuelan drug policy, and it ain’t pleasant. Ms. Camero said that Chavez was showing interest in moving away from his stance against drug over-flights by the United States. In May of 1999, the Chavez government “irreversibly” refused the request by the United States to perform anti-drug over-flights in Venezuelan airspace. This was hailed by many as an act to protect the independence of sovereign nations against the 1000-pound gorilla of US drug policy. While the Chavez government refused to allow over-flights, they did offer services of their own to combat drug flights. Now, in the months after the coup, both sides are trying to be slightly more accommodating. The Chavez government is considering allowing the over-flights as well as allowing the construction of radar stations in the south of the country, where most of the drug trafficking takes place. Ms. Camero believes that the construction of these radar stations is an act of futility, as most drug trafficking planes fly below radar, rendering the stations useless even before they are built. While the changes in Venezuelan policy may seem insignificant, they indicate a major change in policy in order to soothe the tempers of the US power players, and could be an omen of future Chavez policy.
Venezuela and Paramilitaries
In June of this year, a videotape was released by a group calling itself the Autodefensas Unidas de Venezuela (Self-defense forces of Venezuela). While most observers were quite skeptical of the existence of an independent Venezuelan paramilitary organization, evidence has slowly appeared that there may be some truth to the existence of such a group. This year, several campesinos have been killed in separate incidents in Venezuela. These peasants were beneficiaries of the Ley De Tierras, the tame land reform law passed by the Chavez administration. The law states that any lands over 5000 hectares in size that remain fallow shall be seized by the national government to be distributed to landless farmers. The campesinos would then have a couple of years to get on their feet, and then repay the government for the land.
While the most reactionary elements of Venezuelan society have been very vocal in their opposition to the law, it is very mild as land reform programs go. The law allows for wealthy Venezuelans to retain any amount of acreage as long as the land is cultivated , thereby removing the danger of the law actually impacting the gap of wealth between the rich and the poor in Venezuela. Additionally, enforcement of the law has been proceeding at a snail’s pace with many campesinos angered at the lack of progress. Nonetheless, the law has infuriated several large landowners, so apparently they have turned to the time-honored tradition of hiring thugs to use violence to deter peasants from taking plot of land. At this time, there have been 16 deaths that are attributed to death squads suspected of working for large landholders. The Venezuelan government’s human rights ombudsman and several human rights NGO’s are investigating the murders, most of which occurred in the area surrounding Lago Maracaibo, spitting distance from Colombia. Whether or not these murders are connected to the AUV’s appearance and vitriolic drivel against the Chavez government is, at this point, anyone’s guess. But the precedent is disconcerting.
The Role of Independent Media
I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with members of what is called in these pages, “authentic media.” During my time in Caracas, I had the pleasure of watching five separate documentaries on the Coup of April of this year. I was told that several were released by May 1st, less than a month after the coup. As in the US, with mainstream media held hostage by reactionary forces, many Venezuelans have committed themselves to creating their own media. I was impressed by the quality and diversity of these productions and producers. One group, Panafilms, has created an interactive CD-ROM with over 50 minutes of video and 600 photos of the events of the coup. They have also produced a website with discussion forums and essays on the current state of Venezuelan politics, www.anti-escualidos.com.
The production values of many of the independent producers are very high, and there are even some outlets for broadcast of these pieces. As a part of the Venezuelan constitution, the telecommunications law legalized pirate radio and television. As a result, several community television stations have popped up throughout the country, including Catia TVe and Teletambores. As I walked into the studios of Catia TVe, I was impressed by the quality of the facilities; as an independent videographer in the United States, I have a hard time getting access to the quality of equipment this small community station had on hand. The telecommunications law states that the government must support independent television, radio, and print news outlets. The law even provides for computers and technicians to train groups that want to put out newspapers in the rural areas.
While there is some monetary support from the national government, there is a struggle going on with the community stations, as the national government offers support to these organizations but the local municipality is doing everything in its power to shut them down. Catia TVe is located in the municipal library and a municipal hospital, so the local government is limiting access and trying to evict the station.
I left the country impressed by the state and honesty of independent producers, and I was left with a comment by the producer Angel Palacios from Panafilms. I asked Angel about the importance of objectivity to community producers in Venezuela. His heartfelt answer was, “Objectivity? I don’t understand. I know the word, but I don’t see how it applies to our work. To me, as long as there is one child suffering from hunger, that is the most important thing to cover. I won’t give equal time on a mic to a torturer and a victim of torture. In this way, I’m not objective at all. I think what’s important is impartiality, the ability to cover events truthfully as they occur. This is what the major media in our country have lost.”
To read Part I, click here
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