The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America

By Eland, Ivan | Freeman, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America


Eland, Ivan, Freeman


The Politics of Cocaine: How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Created a Thriving Drug Industry in Central and South America by William L. Many Lawrence Hill Books * 2010 * 336 pages * $26.95

William L. Marcy has written an extensive and cogent historical critique of the U.S. war against the cocaine trade originating in Latin America. As the title indicates, he shows how this counterproductive war has led to a thriving drug industry in the Ame ricas.

Marcy criticizes U.S. policy for conflating the drug war and the Cold War, assuming that only leftist forces were benefiting from the drug trade, pressuring South American governments to suppress cocaine supplies using armed force, assisting those countries in eradication efforts by training and equipping their militaries, destroying coca crops by spraying dangerous herbicides without providing options for alternative crops, and ignoring the U.S. demand for cocaine as an important part of the problem.

Although Richard Nixon started the "war on drugs," Ronald Reagan militarized it and believed the drug trade to be a unique transgression among leftist groups during the Cold War, despite the heavy involvement of his beloved Nicaraguan Contras and many nonleftist government leaders. Contrary to counterinsurgency warfare doctrine, the forced eradication programs turned the coca farmers away from their governments and toward leftist guerillas. Sending the local military to eradicate farmers' crops only strengthened the bond between the farmers and leftists, and led to corruption in the region's militaries.

Bill Clinton weakly attempted to reduce U.S. drug demand, but he and George W Bush both continued the failed, militarized supply-suppression policy aimed at Latin America. Marcy concludes that except for a slight decline in the late 1990s, drug production in the Andes has remained constant or risen since the inception of the drug war in 1970. Between 2003 and 2006, for example, Colombia's coca production increased by almost 38 percent. In 2007 coca growers expanded land under cultivation and farmers were learning to adapt to eradication efforts.

Marcy's critique of U.S. policy seems spot on, but his solution leaves something to be desired. He acknowledges that some experts have urged drug legalization but concludes that this option is not yet politically possible in the United States and may actually cause more problems than it solves in northern Andean regions. He argues that rich landowners would benefit from legalization by seeing coca-growing land become more valuable, or multinationals would swoop in and snap up the drug profits - leaving most coca farmers poor in a semifeudal system.

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