Beyond the summit scandal

Obama learns he’s out of synch with Latin American leaders

Americans will be forgiven if they know nothing about what actually happened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The major media seemed interested only in the prostitution scandal involving members of the Secret Service.

As it turned out, President Obama found himself defending two positions that are becoming increasingly unpopular in Latin America and, to a great extent, in his own country: the Cuba embargo and the so-called war on drugs.

None of Obama’s Latin American counterparts support the embargo of Cuba, and polls show a strong majority of the American people and businesses also would like to see it end. Still, the United States was able to ban Cuba from the summit, prompting Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, to boycott the meeting this year.

And on drugs, Obama had to confront a growing realization on the part of Latin American leaders that the militarist approach, which has left tens of thousands dead and threatens to destabilize the region, is not working. Consumption of illicit drugs in the United States is as great as ever.

This is an election year, and the president was not about to begin touting the legalization of drugs, but he did acknowledge the possibility that U.S. drug policies are doing more harm than good in some parts of the world. Latin American leaders—notably those in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico—want to continue talking about alternative approaches designed to lessen drug trafficking, including decriminalization, and they increasingly insist that the U.S. do something about the demand side of the supply-and-demand equation.

Obviously, with major Latin American leaders pushing for a full and open discussion of the issue, the U.S. will need to become engaged. There has to be a better way. The alternative is to continue down a deadly, dangerous path that for more than 40 years has failed to accomplish its aims while costing U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.