Latin America Needs the War on Drugs Like a Hole in the Head

In 1970, a 27-year-old English woman named Amanda Feilding used a dental drill to bore a hole in her own skull while under the gaze of her boyfriend’s camera. The footage of Ms. Feilding’s self-trepanation was later interspersed with images of her pet pigeon, Birdie, to become the film “Heartbeat in the Brain.” Supporters of trepanation, many considered part of the vanguard in the psychedelic drug movement of the 1960s (Paul McCartney recalled John Lennon asking him “You fancy getting the trepanning done?”), claim that the procedure aids one in reaching higher consciousness and relieves anxiety and mental illnesses. Ms. Feilding, British aristocracy herself who later married up to become the Countess of Wemyss and March, twice ran unsuccessfully for British Parliament with the slogan “Trepanation for the National Health.” She continues to fund research into the procedure and is the founder of the Trepanation Trust.

Rural beauty in Guatemala --Quetzaltenango

Rural beauty in Guatemala –Quetzaltenango

Covered in blood and with quite possibly the most extreme mullet ever caught on film, it is hard to imagine Countess Feilding today as a leader in international drug policy reform. But through the Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust she founded in 1989 to promote “health-oriented, cost-effective, harm-reductive drug policy reform,” Countess Fielding has gained the backing of some powerful people. In an open letter published in 2011 in the British newspapers the Times and the Guardian, the Foundation called for an end to the global war on drugs. The first step in the retreat, according to the letter, should be a re-examination of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which mandates signatory countries to prohibit production and supply of opiates, coca and cannabis. Among those who put their John Hancocks on the Foundation’s letter were Jimmy Carter, Fernando Cardoso, Vicente Fox, George Schultz and Noam Chomsky–not a group you’re likely to see dropping acid and drilling holes in each other’s skulls anytime soon.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that Dutchess Fielding has been bending the ear of the very popular Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina. The two have been buddy-buddy in the months following President Molina’s pronouncement last February, shortly  after taking office, that the war on drugs has failed and it was time to break the “taboo” on discussing decriminalization. President Molina ran on an “iron fist” platform–the term he used to describe how he would deal with organized crime. Since then, President Molina has taken a different tack in battling the soaring rates of murder and gang violence in his country, much of it fueled by the Mexican-based cartel, Los Zetas. At the Davos World Economic Forum last month, President Molina shared the stage with George Soros, another proponent of drug policy reform, and raised the prospect of “regulation” as opposed to “prohibition or legalization.” Prior to Davos, in a lengthy interview with the Guardian, President Molina lamented the “scars” left on his country by the international war on drugs while criticizing western countries for “fail[ing] to understand the reality that countries such as Guatemala and those of Central America have to live in.”

Fielding and Molina: Check out the body language

Fielding and Molina: Check out the body language

That reality has indeed been harsh. In the Central American transit countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (known as the “Northern Triangle”), in which narcotics are neither produced nor largely consumed, murder rates are three to four times higher than in Mexico. And killings are happening largely outside of urban centers, in rural provinces that have strategic value to rival drug traffickers. Facilitated by the instabilities already existing in these countries in the wake of recently-ended civil wars (Guatemala’s was the longest, lasting 36 years), the drug trade has resulted in high levels of corruption throughout the governments of the Northern Triangle.

President Molina’s drug policy initiatives may well gather further support in the coming months. In his Guardian interview, Molina spoke hopefully of President Obama’s “openness” on the regulation debate, as the latter had previously expressed willingness at the 2011 Summit of the Americas to enter into a dialogue on the topic. Any developments in this area would certainly be exciting, as it becomes increasingly clear to just about everyone (even Washington Post opinion writers) that the war on drugs should end. Like they say about organic food and hybrid cars: It’s not just for hippies anymore.

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Living the Dream

My knees hurt just thinking about it but I am green with envy at the same time: On Thursday, Paul Salopek, a journalist who has written about Africa as well as the Human Genome Project, took the first steps in what will become a 7-year journey along the path of man’s migration to settle the world. Salopek, under the auspices of a National Geographic fellowship (you can follow his progress here at the site dedicated to his journey), will walk from Herto Buri, a fossil site in north-eastern Ethiopia containing mammalian skeletons with apparent butchery marks (mammoth steak!), along the Red Sea  coast of the Middle East, through Central Asia, India, China, by boat across the Bering Strait, then down along the western coasts of North America, Central America and South America to Tierra del Fuego. Salopek will be traveling light, no more than 44 pounds of equipment strapped to his back, and will be accompanied by guides and fixers part of the way.

The Great-Great-Great Saunter: The Out of Eden Walk

The Great-Great-Great Saunter: The Out of Eden Walk

Salopek says that, while his journey follows the path of history (or at least one version of it–some scientists believe man crossed out of Africa via the Sinai Peninsula), his reporting will focus on the modern-day stories of the places and people he encounters along the way. Salopek dubs this experiment in deep-reporting “slow journalism,” or an attempt to “absorb stories at a human pace” of 3 miles-per-hour. He says his mission is to “swim against the tide of information” that threatens to drown the average person in “too much information, not enough meaning.” Indeed, Salopek will not be blogging along the way, but rather filing stories every 100 miles or so (although he will be tweeting and you can follow him at #outofedenwalk).

May Salopek’s journey be safe yet not too safe, or rather non-lethal but nevertheless exciting! I look forward to reading about it, so much so that I actually caved into years of resistance and created a Twitter account. For those of you in New York City who crave the experience of walking to the point of being hobbled, while seeing all kinds of humanity along the way, also at 3 mile-per-hour, I recommend the Great Saunter. Surprisingly painful (especially for those of us who fancy ourselves urban walkers), yet completely worth it to see life in the city at a snail’s pace.

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The Central African Republic Holds its Breath

Bangui. Said to have the best ice cream in Africa. Famous as the city where world health officials met in 1985 to differentiate HIV from AIDS, the latter marked by “prolonged fevers for a month or more, weight loss of over 10% and prolonged diarrhea” (this mouthful would come to be known as the “Bangui definition”). It is a tiny city on the banks of the Ubangi River, a tributary of the mighty Congo one. The best restaurant in town is La Tentation, serving “[l]a meilleure pizza en ville!” according to a single review on Trip Advisor. Its airport serves only similarly hard-to-pronounce cities, among them Douala, N’djamena and Lomé. If there ever was a ticket to nowhere, buy it here.

Bangui at rush hour

Bangui at rush hour

But for all of its sleepiness, something rare and beautiful happened in Bangui yesterday: A war stopped in its tracks.

Residents of the Central African Republic’s capital spent New Year’s stockpiling food and nailing up the windows as rebels marched toward the city. The U.S. Embassy closed its doors as Doctors Without Borders pulled up stakes and got the heck outta dodge. With good reason. The rebel advance had already sent thousands running into the border countries of Chad and South Sudan. The rebel coalition, known as Seleka, were doing like a motley crüe of strangely well-armed, disenfranchised, macho men do: marauding, robbing and razing their way to the capital. But as is the case in many conflicts in this corner of the world, the violence of the rebels is equally matched by that of government forces, who have cracked down on the Seleka since François Bozizé seized power in 2003, igniting what came to be known as the Central African Bush War. France, meddling post-colonial power that it is, backed Bozizé. A tenuous “peace” was brokered in 2007, but Prez Boizizé has apparently not heeded it, disappearing political opponents and systematically killing off suspected rebel supporters. Thus, we see once again that, in a central African conflict, there are no good guys.

As always, I am fascinated with flags.

As always, I am fascinated with flags.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the rebels skid to a stop just miles from Bangui yesterday to sit down and talk to the government. These talks could turn out like the ones that resulted in the accord of 2007, empty words memorialized on useless parchment, but still there is hope.

If the rebels and Bozizé can shake on it, perhaps they can turn their attentions to other evils lurking within CAR’s borders. Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (see my post about them from a year ago) is said to be hiding in the country’s eastern jungles, killing innocent villagers for sport. The deaths of thirteen gold miners, which were pinned in Kafkaesque-fashion on Englishman David Simpson (who had the bad luck of discovering the bodies while working for a hunting safari company), are said to be Kony’s handiwork.

Come what may, I hope that Bangui can return to the sleepy backwater it once was rather than the stage for a violent coup.

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Hello, 2013!

Aaaaand . . . we’re back!


New Year’s fireworks in the great state of Hawaii

As we ring in a new year in this corner of the world, I cannot help but be moved by what is taking place in others. It’s been a tumultuous 2012 all around, but a few places stick out more than others:

  • In India: The rape and murder of a young woman caused rioting in the streets of New Delhi, though the death penalty sought by prosecutors has hit a snag: one of the suspects claims he is a juvenile and therefore exempt from the death penalty, a move which has caused legislators to consider amending India’s Juvenile Justice Act.
  • In Mali: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (or AQIM, a rather jazzy short-hand for this branch of the Jihadist franchise) has been busy razing the UNESCO World Heritage mausoleums of Timbuktu, a move more than reminiscent of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban back in 2001.
  • In Myanmar: Despite the celebratory mood brought on by the election of Aung San Suu Kyi this year, Myanmar’s internal conflicts continue roiling. In whack-a-mole-like fashion, the 64-year conflict between Myanmar’s army and the Karen National Union, generally regarded as the world’s longest running civil war, has showed signs of abating just as fighting in the country’s northern Kachin state has intensified.

In light of all that 2012 has wrought, I’ve raised this blog from its slumber and look forward to keeping up with all of the changes that 2013 will undoubtedly bring. Also, as a counterpoint to the depressing themes that emerge from many of the world’s current events, I’ll be adding new, uplifting material on books and stories from around the world. Whether the stories on this blog be happy or sad, your feedback is, as always, greatly appreciated.

Here’s to a more peaceful but no less interesting 2013.

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Rebels without a cause

President Obama last month ordered the deployment of 100 Special Forces military advisors to central Africa.  Their stated purpose is to train troops from Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic to defeat Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  The name sounds something like the title of a horror movie and is true to the nature of the group, which has been raping, pillaging and recruiting child soldiers and sex slaves from villages in central Africa since the late 1980s.  But what began as a Ugandan ethnic conflict has taken on international proportions.  And, like most tales of African conflicts, the real story is in between the lines.

Map of LRA-affected region (this ole map doesn't show the new Republic of South Sudan)

Every shadowy insurgency begs the questions: Who are they? And what do they have to do with the rest of us?  The LRA began in 1986 in Uganda, in response to the overthrow of Tito Okello (who hailed from the Acholi people of northern Uganda) by current President Yoweri Museveni.  The LRA was known back then as the Holy Spirit Movement, led by a mystic named Alice Auma (listen to a fascinating 2005 NPR interview with her here).  Auma convinced her Acholi followers that they could overcome their history of marginalization by defeating Museveni’s National Resistance Army (which had come to power with the support of the continent’s then-puppet-master, Muammar al-Gaddafi).  Upon Auma’s orders, the Acholi battled Museveni’s well-armed troops with nothing but rocks that transformed into “grenades” when blessed by Auma’s spirits.  The Acholi soon discovered that the shea nut oil that Auma told them to smear on their bodies did not, in fact, make them bulletproof, and the movement lost its support base.  Auma spent the rest of her days in exile, where she lived in a gated compound attended to by servants in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (see how the other refugees lived here).  The movement was resuscitated a few years later by Joseph Kony, Auma’s cousin (or nephew, no one really knows).

Some blame Kony’s viciousness and others the Ugandan government’s ineptness, but the LRA soon began cannabilizing the very people it was intended to protect.  In 1991, the Ugandan government’s initial efforts to combat the LRA, resulted in the LRA turning on the Acholi people.  Called “Operation North”, the Ugandan government sought to encourage and arm the Acholi people to resist the LRA.  To this end, the government created “arrow groups,” arming the tip of the spear in their counterinsurgency with just that: bows and arrows.  This seems an absurd way to mount a counterinsurgency in a weaponized era and indeed the result was even more absurd: the LRA began attacking Acholi believed to be government supporters, cutting off their noses, lips and ears and sending them home to serve as examples to anyone else who might get the idea of trying to resist being conscripted into a band of mass murderers.  In this way, a homegrown Acholi insurgency became the scourge of the Acholi people.

Joseph Kony, we will smoke you out

The LRA soon went international.  Kony began currying favor with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which was battling a separtist movement in the south of that country.  As southern Sudan was largely Christian, the Ugandan government (and, very quietly, the United States) was supporting the rebels against the Muslim-run government in Khartoum.  By inviting in the LRA, Khartoum could battle rebels in the south without using their own troops as well as keep Uganda on its toes.  The acknowledgement of the LRA by another country also fed into Kony’s meglomania (he was said to have had an official residence in Juba and was treated with the same respect reserved for Sudanese military officers).  Following another bumbling attempt by the Ugandan government to resolve the conflict, this time through negotiations that ended with an ultimatum to Kony and his cronies to surrender within 7 days, the LRA established bases in what is now South Sudan.

To retaliate for the 7-day ultimatum, the LRA, backed by Khartoum, mounted a storm of child kidnappings, taking boys for soldiers and girls for sex slaves.  The LRA was not above anything, even sneaking into a boarding school under the cover of darkness to kidnap young girls.  The LRA’s tactics of brainwashing child soldiers were being honed at this time, including forcing boys to kill their families so that they had nowhere to return. LRA raids on Ugandan villages displaced thousands.  The conflict ebbed and flowed for another 15 years after this, with the Ugandan government launching failed (and U.S.-backed) campaigns to put out the insurgency with names that sound like heavy metal bands (“Operation Iron Fist,” “Operation Lightning Thunder”) and recycling child soldiers “saved” from the LRA into their own ranks.  Despite all of these efforts, Kony and his inner circle remained at large, even expanding their recruitment drives into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). 

Acholi people at ease

So that brings us to today, where President Obama’s decision to send military advisors to central Africa has been met with criticism from the voice of our generation: Rush Limbaugh.  Limbaugh claims that the LRA is a cuddly, Christian bible-study group that merely wants to ensure multi-party democracy for Uganda and that Obama is targeting them in a not-so-subtle attempt to wipe out Christian influence in east Africa.  But really, what has prompted the U.S. to send military advisors to the region now?  Behind  the acts passed by Congress and public relations carried out by the State Department, there may be an even simpler reason: payback time.  The Ugandans have been a great friend to the United States as it seeks to hold onto eastern Africa by the scruff of the neck. Along with Burundi and Kenya, Uganda has been a puppet in the proxy war currently being waged in southern Somalia (see my post about Somalia here), contributing troops to an African Union effort in a country with which it does not share a border.  Also, Uganda is a predominantly Christian country and become the new stomping ground for American evangelicals looking to whoop-up some homophobic vitriol on their way back from safari.  In short, we owe Uganda a helping hand, having used her as a pawn to shore up our east African political desires and old-fashioned values.  Let’s hope we do the job right this time, and actually put an end to Kony and his rebel marauders.

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Somalia at low tide

You may have heard that the Marley family lended one of their patriarch’s songs, “High Tide or Low Tide,” to Save the Children’s campaign for drought victims in East Africa (see it here).  While some may call this poverty porn, the campaign is at least drawing attention to the worst food-security crisis in 20 years, and one that has been woefully under-publicized in the American media.  The drought, which follows two consecutive poor rainy seasons, was declared a famine by the U.N. back in July.  There is an argument, however, that the economic indicators of a famine (i.e., pastoralists selling their livestock at rock bottom prices while cereal prices soar) have been present for months and should have sounded the alarm bells earlier.  In fact, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, run by USAID, predicted “high and extreme levels of food insecurity” in the run-up to the 2010-11 rainy season (which was predicted to be poor due to the cooling effects of La Niña).

Flag of Somalia

But this is not a case of better late than never, as the “famine” label has been rejected by Al-Shabaab, the militant group that rules the southern Somali region hardest hit by the two-year drought.  In retaliation for the U.N.’s declaration, Al-Shabaab went back on its promise to lift embargoes on the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) and other major aid agencies.  WFP and others have been barred from entering southern Somalia since 2010, while the aid groups that are allowed into Al-Shabaab controlled territory are subject to thousands of dollars in “taxes” payable directly to the militants.  Al-Shabaab is a splinter group of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a conglomeration of Sharia courts that emerged from the clan-based infighting of the 1990’s to provide a modicum of stability to Somalia.  Today, Al-Shabaab fights against the former leader of the ICU, President Sharif Ahmed, who now heads the only officially-recognized government in Somalia, the Transitional Federal Government.  Al-Shabaab has also aligned itself against the African Union (AU), claiming responsibility for a 2009 car bombing of an AU military base in Mogadishu and a 2010 bombing in Uganda that killed 76 people gathered to watch the World Cup (in retaliation for Uganda’s participation in AU peacekeeping missions in Somalia).  Most recently, it has conducted cross-border raids into Kenya, kidnapping two Spanish aid workers, and is allegedly responsible for the murder and kidnapping of tourists from resorts on the Kenyan island of Lamu.

Somali holding what appears to be a baby deer

Al-Shabaab claims it is fighting against foreign interference in Somalia.  Indeed, prior to the drought, Al-Shabaab’s aversion to foreign aid was yielding some positive results.  Refusing large food aid deliveries, the group had succeeded in increasing domestic crop yields in southern Somalia (see the Al-Jazeera video here).  This route (i.e., development in the absence of foreign aid) has worked for Somaliland, a fully functioning autonomous state in northern Somalia.  And Al-Shabaab’s claim that western aid groups may pass on information that would enable U.S. airstrikes in its territory is not entirely without basis. In addition to its own drone strikes, the U.S. has been waging a proxy war in East Africa for the past decade.  Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, funded by millions of dollars in United States military aid.  The United States also maintains close relationships with Uganda  and Burundi, the two countries whose troops make up the AU peacekeeping force that has been stationed in Mogadishu since 2007 (and that suffered casualties in fighting with Al-Shabaab last week).  And Kenya, which last week began attacks across the Somali border in retaliation for Al-Shabaab’s incursions into Kenyan territory, is also a close ally of the United States.  Whether America’s involvement in Somalia serves U.S. national security interests is a complex question for another blog.  However, it appears that this foreign interference is what caused Al-Shabab to renege on its promise to lift the foreign aid embargo in July.

While Kenya and the AU do battle with Al-Shabaab, 3.7 million Somalis wait for food.  Allowing the famine to continue may be just one more credit to Al-Shabaab’s long list of human rights abuses.  Undoubtedly, Al-Shabaab’s ties to Al-Qaeda and the possibility of oil exploration in Somalia will make it a place of interest to the United States long after the current drought subsides.  However, with future droughts expected to occur, stability to this region is vital to avoid another famine.

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The Arab Spring comes to . . . Angola?

Taking a cue from the social-media-driven revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, a series of protests in the Angolan capital of Luanda against long-time president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, have caused a nervous ripple across the vast, oil-rich country.  The protests, which started in March and have grown steadily since, are driven by young people using Facebook and YouTube to spread the message of dissatisfaction with dos Santos’ 32-year rule.  Dos Santos holds the dubious distinction of being Africa’s second-longest serving president, right behind Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (whose $3 million Unesco-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences will likely be returned to him for investment in his own country).  Dos Santos leads the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (or MPLA, Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola) and was president throughout Angola’s vicious 27-year civil war, which resulted in the death of 500,000 people and the complete destruction of Angola’s infrastructure.  Dos Santos’ regime has been marked by disappearing government funds of close to $1 billion, state-sponsored censorship of the press, and arbitrary killings and disappearances.  Dos Santos’ latest notable act was spearheading changes to the Angolan Constitution that did away with direct presidential elections and would allow him to stay in power until 2022.

Map of Angola

Despite his dictatorial tendencies, not everyone wants dos Santos out.  Some older Angolans feel a loyalty to him and the MPLA because of the party’s role in Angola’s fight for independence against Portugal from 1961-1974.  And dos Santos’ strong hand has been credited with Angola’s double-digit economic growth over the past decade.  In fact, Angola beat out China as the fastest growing economy in the past decade, expanding 11.1% percent from 2001-2010.  Angola is now the continent’s second-biggest oil producer, behind Nigeria.  And with Nigeria’s recurring political violence and power struggle in the oil-rich delta region, investors have been turning more and more to Angola and its relative stability.  Angola has been flooded with foreigners doing business in Luanda, which has resulted in the capital making headlines as the most expensive city in the world for expatriates, topping out even Tokyo.

But what effect has all this growth had on the ground?  Despite taking in close to $50 billion in oil revenue last year, Angola ranks 166 out 0f 177 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.  Two-thirds of Angolans live below the poverty line, a majority of people lack basic healthcare, three in five do not have access to clean water and one in four children die before their fifth birthdays.  Based on these numbers, Angola receives significant amounts of foreign aid.   In 2009 it took in more than $56 million in U.S. foreign aid alone. It is this disparity between economic growth markers and life for the average Angolan that has ignited the current wave of protests.

Eduardo dos Santos: ready for his close-up

Where all of Angola’s money  goes is a question easier asked than answered.  Separate reports released last year by Global Witness and the Open Society Initiative and Human Rights Watch, reveal gaps worth billions of dollars in the accounting records of Angola’s Ministries of Finance and Petroleum and Sonangol, the state-owned oil company.  In the import context, some $6 billion flowed out of Angola in 2009, according to the advocacy group Global Financial Integrity, by way of  “trade mispricing” (or where an importer overpays an exporter and the latter deposits the difference in the former’s offshore bank account).  Unsurprisingly, Dos Santos and his friends have seen it fit to tap into just about every revenue stream in the country.  Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais (his website is here), has been reporting on corruption within the Angolan government for years.  Mr. de Morais’ report, “The Angolan Presidency: The Epicenter of Corruption”, offers a fascinating breakdown of the privatization of one of the country’s two biggest cell phone providers and the benefits of the transaction reaped by President dos Santos, two of his ministers and the chairman and CEO of Sonangal.

Rafael Marques de Morais: Recipient of the 2006 Civil Courage Prize

It remains to be seen what effect the protests will have on the Angolan government.  Unfortunately, it will be difficult to dispel the darling image of the dos Santos regime created by Angola’s astounding economic growth.  And stability in the government will certainly be favored by Angola’s biggest investors: the United States and China.  China in particular has created a symbiotic relationship with Angola, winning contracts to rebuild much of Angola’s infrastructure, complete with Chinese laborers undertaking the construction.  Whether the winds of change blow in Angola will require reassurances to these interested parties that their investments will be protected.

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