Canada’s Epic Fail in Latin America

From The Mark, April 17, 2012.

Think of the biggest policy failures you can imagine. Policies that make worse the very problems they’re designed to solve. Policies so perverse that they actually give people a stake in the failure of those policies. Policies that last for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failure.

Such a policy would be what my pre-teen son would call an “epic fail!”

There are two such fails in the Americas today. The first is the pathetically lame U.S. embargo on Cuba. After 50 years, the Cuban gerontocracy remains firmly entrenched in power.

The embargo has not just failed to end the dictatorship in Cuba – it has actually propped it up. It provides the regime with the best possible argument for refusing to liberalize: Its leaders warn that as soon as they open up the country, Miami Cubans will flood back to reclaim their property and privileges. A Cuban official once told me that Cuba has no need for opposition parties – the Miami Cubans fill that role.

So, why does this failed policy continue? The answer lies in U.S. electoral politics: No president is prepared to defy the Miami Cuban voters in the crucial electoral battleground state of Florida.

The second epic fail in the Americas today is the war on drugs. Decades of prohibition have failed because they have attacked the drug scourge on the supply side while utterly failing to reduce demand. The entire burden is on enforcement, while prohibition policies ensure that the price of drugs remains high. The result is that thousands of Latin Americans are dying in a hopeless “war on drugs” with no end in sight.

Yet, the policies continue. Billions of dollars have created vested interests in the continuation of the so-called “war,” and politicians are reluctant to consider alternatives for fear of seeming to be weak.

These are monumental policy failures.

But consider this. Canada has never supported the U.S. embargo. Our country has maintained normal diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1959. Nor has it ever been a major advocate of the war on drugs. In fact, the Insight program in Vancouver, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, offers a health-based approach to drug addiction.

Yet there we were, at the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia, standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S., refusing to include Cuba in future summits. Instead of supporting alternatives to the failed drug war, there we were backing U.S. prohibitionist policies. Indeed, Canada has been quietly ramping up co-operation with the U.S. military to fight drug gangs in Mexico and Central America.

This is precisely why Canada is finding itself out of step with the hemisphere, and why we’re increasingly excluded from diplomatic fora in the region. We may look back on the summit in Colombia and see it as one of the biggest miscalculations Canada and the U.S. have made in the Americas. We have underestimated the willingness of Latin American nations to say that the emperor has no clothes. We’re standing beside a naked giant and insisting that he is beautifully attired. What a fail!

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