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The Longest War

4 September 2009

The Longest War

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s too early to say that there is a general revolt against the “war on drugs” that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening. European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalising personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimise harm to their own people, but it’s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.

Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The United States can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic US policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.

In mid-August, the Mexican government declared that it will no longer be a punishable offence to possess up to half a gramme of cocaine (about four lines), 5 grammes of marijuana (around four joints), 50 mg of heroin or 40 mg of methamphetamine.

At the end of August, Argentina’s supreme court did something even bolder: it ruled that, under the Argentine constitution, “Each adult is free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state, and dismissed a case against youths who had been arrested for possessing a few joints.

In an ideal world, this ruling would have a powerful resonance in the United States, whose constitution also restricts the right of the federal government to meddle in citizens’ private affairs. It took a constitutional amendment to enable the US Congress to prohibit alcohol in 1919 (and another amendment to end alcohol Prohibition in 1933), so who gave Congress the right to criminalise other recreational drugs nationwide by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970? Nobody – and the US Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue.

A million Americans a year go to jail for “crimes” that hurt nobody but themselves. A vast criminal empire has grown up to service the American demand for drugs. Over the decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the turf wars between the gangs, the police-dealer shoot-outs, and the daily thousands of muggings and burglaries committed by addicts trying to raise money to pay the hugely inflated prices that prohibition makes possible.

Most users of illegal drugs are not addicts, let alone dangerous criminals. Legalisation and regulation, on the pattern of alcohol and tobacco, would avoid thousands of violent deaths each month and millions of needlessly ruined lives each year, although psychoactive drug use would still take its toll from the vulnerable and the unlucky, just as alcohol and tobacco do.

But there is little chance that American voters will choose to end this longest of all American wars any time soon, even though its casualties far exceed those on any other American war since 1945. The “War on Drugs” will not end in the United States until a very different generation comes to power.

Elsewhere, however, it is coming to an end much sooner, and one can imagine a time when the job of the history books will be to explain how this berserk aberration ever came about. A large part of the explanation will then focus on the man who started the war, Richard Nixon so let us get ahead of the mob and focus on him now.

We can do that because of the famous Nixon tapes that recorded almost every word of his presidency. It turns out that he started the war on drugs because he believed that they were a Jewish plot. We know this because researcher Doug McVay from Common Sense on Drug Policy, a Washington-based NGO, went through the last batch of tapes when they became available in 2002 and found Nixon speaking to his aides as follows:

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them ? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Nixon had much more to say about this, but one should not conclude that he was a single-minded anti-Semite. He was an equal-opportunity paranoid who believed that homosexuals, Communists and Catholics were also plotting to undermine America by pushing drugs at it.

“Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags….You know what happened to the popes? It’s all right that popes were laying the nuns, that’s been going on for years, centuries. But when the popes, when the Catholic Church went to hell in, I don’t know, three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual….

“Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no….You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us.”

The reason for this 39-year war, in other words, is that President Richard Nixon believed that he was facing a “Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope” conspiracy, as Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten put it in a gloriously deadpan article in 2002. But that is just plain wrong. As subsequent developments have shown, it is actually a Jew-homo-doper-Commie-shrink-lefty-pope-LATINO conspiracy.

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To shorten to 20725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A million…tobacco do”)

Iran: The Irrelevance of Evidence

15 November 2007

Iran: The Irrelevance of Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, is not a fan of Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, he wants him fired. “The policies followed by ElBaradei endanger world peace. His irresponsible attitude of sticking his head in the sand over Iran’s nuclear programme should lead to his impeachment,” Mofaz said during a visit to Washington in early November.

Mofaz was getting his retaliation in first. As he foresaw, the IAEA director’s report on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, released on 14 November, said that Tehran was years away from an ability to make nuclear weapons.

Not only that, but he said that Iran is complying with a work plan agreed with the IAEA last August to clear up the remaining questions about a project that the Iranians insist was only ever about making fuel for civilian nuclear power stations. How can you bomb a country, or even impose serious sanctions on it, if the head of the IAEA won’t accuse it of seeking nuclear weapons?

Well, you can if you really want to. It was the same Mohammed ElBaradei who reported to the United Nations Security Council on 14 February, 2003 that “We have, to date, found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” The United States and Britain insisted that their intelligence said otherwise, Iraq was duly invaded, and nobody even apologised when no “prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities” were found.

ElBaradei must feel a strong sense of deja vu as his reports on Iran four years later get the same treatment in the major Western countries. French Defence Minister Herve Morin responded that “Our information, which is backed up by other countries, is contrary [to Mr ElBaradei’s comments]” — as if Western intelligence agencies had a strong record in this field.

For the simple-minded, White House spokesperson Dana Perino offered an even clearer proof of Iran’s wickedness. Iran, she said, is “enriching and reprocessing uranium, and the reason that one does that is to lead towards a nuclear weapon.” Case closed.

Apart from the eight nuclear weapons powers (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel), four other countries already have plants on their territory for “enriching and reprocessing uranium” under IAEA safeguards: Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil. Argentina, Australia and South Africa are also building or actively considering uranium enrichment facilities, again under IAEA safeguards. So there was some rapid back-pedalling at the White House when a journalist inquired if all these countries are also seeking nuclear weapons.

US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe was wheeled out to “clarify” Dana Perino’s statement. “Each country is different, but obviously Dana was asked and was talking about Iran.” he explained. In other words, the real proof that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons lies in the fact that we know in our hearts that it is evil.

It really is as simple as that. Iran’s goal by its own account is precisely the same as that of Argentina, Australia or South Africa: to acquire the ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation under full IAEA safeguards. This is perfectly legal, and indeed is the “inalienable right” of every signatory under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has signed).

The problem is that this same ability to enrich uranium for nuclear power generation also confers the ability to enrich it much more for use in nuclear weapons. So long as the IAEA safeguards are in place that won’t happen, but if a country later quits the NPT and expels the IAEA (as North Korea did in 2003), it doesn’t take long to start making bombs. It’s really a question of trust. Nobody thinks Argentina will do that; lots of people fear that Iran would.

Suspicions of Iran are even greater because much of its early work on uranium enrichment was done secretly with equipment bought on the black market. There is a plausible explanation for this — ever since the revolution of 1979, a US-led boycott has made it almost impossible for Iran to buy nuclear technology legally — but it doesn’t help Tehran’s credibility now.

All ElBaradei can do is to assess whether Iran is obeying international law, but that is of little interest to Israel and the Western governments that are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Iran’s ultimate goal is nuclear weapons.

That is why the issue was taken away from the IAEA two years ago and transferred to the UN Security Council, where the Western great powers can simply declare that Iran is a threat to the peace and impose sanctions on it — if they can get the Russians and the Chinese to go along with them.

Moscow and Beijing have complied on two occasions, but they seem unlikely to assent to the harsher sanctions that the US is now seeking. In which case the next step for the United States — “all the options are on the table” — may be a unilateral attack on Iran. Most Iranians don’t believe that even the Bush administration could be that foolish, but recent history is not on their side.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Suspicions…weapons”)

Peru’s Bad Boy

29 May 2006

Peru’s Bad Boy

By Gwynne Dyer

Ollanta Humala is plotting “a coup d’etat with a democratic face,” warned the president of Peru’s Congress, Marcial Ayaipoma. “Maintain democracy or go to dictatorship: that is what is at stake in these elections,” declared Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous writer and a former presidential candidate. “[Humala] is going to govern with the military, close Congress, have a confrontation with Washington, permit free cultivation of coca, and he won’t sign the free trade pact. He’ll persecute the press….It’ll be a dictatorship, there’s no doubt about it,” predicted former Foreign Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

How fortunate, then, that Ollanta Humala is not going to win the run-off vote for the Peruvian presidency on 4 June. Humala came in ahead of everybody else in the first round of voting in April, but the most recent large opinion poll, conducted on 24-26 May by Apoyo, showed former president Alan Garcia leading Humala by 55 percent of decided voters to 45 percent. So that’s all right, then. Only….

Only the voters may be lying to the opinion pollsters. When Apoyo let the people it interviewed fill in their voting preferences on a secret ballot, the numbers changed, and Garcia led Humala by only 52 percent to 48 percent. Then there’s the one-fifth of all voters who say they’re “undecided”: are they all truly undecided, or are a lot of them just embarrassed to say that they’re going to vote for Humala? This race is not over yet.

But why would anybody in their right mind vote for Ollanta Humala? He is a 42-year-old ex-army officer, suspected of human rights abuses when he commanded counter-insurgency forces in the highlands in the 1990s, whose only claim to fame is that he and his brother led a failed military coup in 2000. At least that coup attempt was against former president Alberto Fujimori, not a man noted for his love of democracy, but Humala’s younger brother Antauro is now in jail for having led a bloody uprising against the democratically elected government of President Alejandro Toledo last year.

The whole Humala family is noted mainly for its extremism. Although the family is both white and very well off, Humala’s father Isaac founded an ultra-nationalist, authoritarian movement called “etnocacerismo” that proclaimed the ethnic superiority of Peru’s Indian and mixed-race majority over the white descendants of Spanish immigrants who still dominate both business and politics. Ollanta Humala’s pitch is basically the same, appealing to the economic and ethnic resentments of Peru’s mostly Indian and mixed-race poor.

Peru’s economy has grown at a strong 4.5 percent during the past five years under President Toledo’s administration, and last year it reached 7 percent. So why is Toledo the least popular leader in the Americas, with less than 10 percent popular support, and why is an untried, unstable, eccentric dark horse like Ollanta Humala within a few percentage points of winning the Peruvian presidency?

Because “trickle-down” doesn’t work in Peru: all that economic growth raises the living standards of the rich and middle-class minority, and almost none of it gets to the half of the population who live on less than $1.25 a day. A majority of Peruvians feel that the democratic system has failed them utterly: a poll conducted by the University of Lima found that 92.2 percent of people do not trust political parties, 89.4 percent do not trust Congress, and 83.1 percent don’t trust the judiciary.

The popular belief is that everything is corrupt, the game is always fixed, and the poor never win. The popular belief is not all that far wrong, either, so voters are willing to take a leap in the dark and choose someone from outside “the system”, whether it’s Alberto Fujimori in 1990 or, perhaps, Ollanta Humala this month. Will he be authoritarian? Who cares? According to a recent United Nations study, more than 70 percent of Peruvians favour a more authoritarian government.

Could an Humala presidency actually do some good for Peru’s poor? Probably not, because he doesn’t have a political programme at all, not even a real political party behind him. Like presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, he prefers populism to the hard slog of traditional left-wing politics. Both men warmly back him, of course, in Chavez’s case going so far as to say that he will break diplomatic relations with Peru if Humala doesn’t win, but they are not serious left-wingers themselves either.

There is much loose talk these days about how South America has “slid to the left” while the US government, preoccupied with the Middle East, took its eye off its own “back yard,” but it’s more complicated than that. Politically sophisticated countries with fairly developed economies like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have elected genuine left-wing governments (or, in Argentina’s case, a Peronist government that shares many of their concerns), and serious changes are occurring. Their economies are growing, and some of the changes are clearly positive.

In Venezuela and Bolivia the process is crudely populist and “long-term” means next year. Alan Garcia hold little attraction for most Peruvians — the last time he was president, in 1985-90, inflation hit 7,000 percent — but if he doesn’t make it, Peru will join the “awkward squad.”

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To reduce to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The whole…poor”; and “The popular…government”)

Chavez and Venezuela

8 August 2004

The Nicer Peron: Chavez and Venezuela

By Gwynne Dyer

It is Hugo Chavez’s own fault that he faces a referendum on his rule next Sunday (15 August), because he wrote the clause about a recall vote into the Venezuelan constitution himself. His enemies, who include practically everybody with money in Venezuela, are hoping to use it to eject him from the presidency two years early. The opinion polls differ wildly, but here’s a prediction. Chavez will be in power for a long time — and as time passes, he will become as great a curse for Venezuela as Juan Peron was for Argentina.

Hugo Chavez is a much nicer man than Juan Peron. He has all of Peron’s skill in the art of populist rabble-rousing, but he is a sincere social democrat where Peron was a cynical fascist. Unfortunately, Chavez has also polarised Venezuela as Peron polarised Argentina — maybe even more so, for his obvious Amerindian and African ancestry adds a racial dimension to the class conflict in Venezuela (where most of the rich are white and many of the poor are mixed-race) that was largely absent in Argentina.

He has an uncompromising line in rhetoric, too: “The real rivals we are facing (in this referendum) are the imperialist forces….They will not take our oil!” Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, and most of its exports go to the United States, so it is no secret that the Bush administration would like to see Chavez gone. But the real problem is that he has divided Venezuelan society so deeply that almost any extreme outcome — even a military coup or a civil war — has become imaginable.

Venezuelan society was already divided before Chavez. The country preserved the forms of democracy through the 60s, 70s and 80s, when most South American countries fell to right-wing military coups, but in practice power just passed back and forth between two deeply corrupt traditional parties that might as well have been called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The oil wealth circulated among a few million privileged Venezuelans while the excluded majority lived in poverty, and the political system was rigged to keep it that way.

Chavez’s parents were teachers who got one foot on the ladder through education, and he climbed higher through becoming an army officer, but he always burned with resentment at how Venezuela was run. As a young colonel in 1992 he launched a military coup that ended in bloody defeat, but made his name among the poor. When he emerged from jail, he founded the Movement for the Fifth Republic, and began his campaign for the presidency. He won it in 1998, and after re-writing the constitution won it again in 2000.

Unfortunately, his reckless rhetoric terrified the rich: he talked of the senior executives of the national oil company “living in luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whisky,” and declared that the Catholic bishops of Venezuela “do not walk in the path of Christ.” He alienated the US government with high-profile visits to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He imported 10,000 Cuban doctors to extend free medical service to the poor in urban slums and the countryside. And so the attempts to unseat him began.

The first was a military coup in April, 2002, reversed after 24 hours when masses of Chavez’s supporters flooded the streets of Caracas. (The Bush administration officially denied involvement, but it recognised the ‘new government’ with unseemly speed, and then had to accept Chavez’s return.) In December, 2002 the pampered employees of the state oil company walked out in an attempt to cut the flow of oil revenues and bring Chavez down, but he won the confrontation, fired many of the strikers, and started diverting much of the oil income into ‘missions’ to combat illiteracy, provide employment and distribute cheap food to the poor.

That was when the opposition parties (which control most of the mass media) began to demand a recall referendum. After a year-long legal struggle over whether they had gathered enough valid signatures, the electoral authorities declared in May that the requisite 20 percent of registered voters had signed the petition, and the referendum was scheduled for 15 August. If Chavez loses, a new presidential election will be held next month.

But he almost certainly won’t lose. Only 2.4 million signatures were needed for the referendum, but at least 3.7 million people (more than voted for Chavez in 2000) must now vote against him for the recall to succeed. Besides, he would just run for president again next month — the constitution does not explicitly forbid it — and he would probably win again. And again. He is still young enough to blight Venezuelan politics for decades to come.

Chavez is a man of passionate conviction who is loved and hated to extremes. Emphasising the gulf between the privileged and the poor in Venezuela is no crime if it is a step on the road to closing it, but his impulsiveness and poor follow-through offer little hope that he will achieve that goal. Instead, he has become the intensely romantic incarnation of the class war in Venezuela.

The parallel with Juan Peron is not perfect: Chavez is neither a cynic nor a scoundrel. But like Peron, his charismatic presence prevents the emergence of a more practical and moderate reform movement and drives establishment conservatives into furious resistance. The result, as in Argentina from the mid-forties to the mid-seventies, may be a prolonged period of political paralysis punctuated by outbreaks of violence.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“He has…imaginable”;and “Chavez…Venezuela”)