Could Biden Make His Country’s Global Drug War Even More Imperialist?

January 19, 2021

As President Joe Biden takes office, he has before him a proposed plan to reinvigorate the global war on people who use and sell drugs, with a bent towards enriching corporations and refining imperialist strategies.

A commission created by former President Barack Obama is recommending that the Biden-Harris administration consolidate transnational anti-drug trafficking politics into the agenda of one of the United States’ top-ranking diplomats, in contrast to their current scattering across agencies.

In December 2020, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission (WHDPC) delivered a report to lawmakers calling for the under secretary of state for political affairs to coordinate a “whole-of-government” operation targeting people involved in the global drug economy. The State Department already plays a key role in the global drug war, mostly through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), which authors the country’s international drug-war strategy. The change here, though, seems to be the elevation of coordination and strategy to the level of the department’s third-ranking official. 

Departing from the language of pursuing a “drug-free world” and the idea that a “war on drugs” can even be won, the plan recognizes that “[w]e may never end illegal drug trafficking, just as we cannot eliminate substance abuse,” instead favoring “better manage[ment]” and “smarter” policies. 

Some call that approach “endless war.”

The new responsibility would fall to Victoria Nuland, a seasoned State Department official involved in some of the 21st century’s most problematic US interventions.

At the report’s hearing, the lawmaker who penned the legislation creating WHDPC urged Biden to heed its recommendations. “The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s report is a breath of fresh air, and I hope it will serve as a blueprint for the Biden-Harris Administration and the next Congress as they work to set our counternarcotics policies on a far better path,” said former-Representative Eliot Engel, then-chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

If implemented by Biden, the new responsibility would fall to Victoria Nuland, his nominee for under secretary and a seasoned State Department official involved in some of the 21st century’s most problematic US interventions. Between 2003 and 2005, when the US illegally invaded Iraq, she served as a foreign policy advisor to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who played a key role in sparking a conflict rife with war crimes and human rights violations. 

Later, as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under Obama, Nuland supported the pro-US Ukrainian regime change. She’s spoken publicly about diplomatic work to install a president interested in bringing the country into the European Union, and a leaked phone call revealed the machinations of US diplomats’ role in destabilizing the country. The resulting war between Ukraine and Russia has endangered lives and health, including of people who use drugs, as Filter has reported.

Nuland’s militaristic worldview represents exactly the folly the U.S. has been pursuing since the 1990s under the influence of the neocons and ‘liberal interventionists,’ which has resulted in a systematic underinvestment in the American people while escalating tensions with Russia, China, Iran and other countries,” three anti-imperialist experts wrote in a January 14 op-ed.

A spokesperson for Nuland declined to respond to Filter’s request for comment, suggesting that the Biden transition team ought to do so instead. They did not immediately respond.

Since the turn of the 20th century, US drug policy has been imbricated with imperialism, from its colonial occupation of the Philippines, to its neoliberal coups in Latin America, to its racist War on Terror in West Asia. Today, US economic warfare against Venezuela, a socialist country, is interlocked with its drug policy in the region, and the WHDPC recommendations may empower the State Department to use the drug war as a tool for its campaign against Venezuelan sovereignty. 

It’s unclear whether Biden will follow the recommendations, but his brand as a drug warrior may suggest the odds are in WHPDC’s favor.

It’s also served the interests of corporations. As journalist Dawn Paley illustrated in her book, Drug War Capitalism, US foreign assistance to drug wars in Colombia and Mexico—for example through Plan Colombia  and the Mérida Initiative, respectively—have facilitated corporate grabs of communally held, resource-rich lands and the creation of new markets. In effect, she says, such programs “deepen neoliberalism,” an ideology and set of policies aiming to fold once-public or communal spheres of life into capitalist markets.

It’s unclear whether Biden will follow the recommendations, but his brand as a drug warrior may suggest the odds are in WHPDC’s favor. As a senator, he championed the 2000 law creating Plan Colombia, which has had devastating ecological and economic impacts. “”I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia,” Biden boasted to the Des Moines Register on the 2020 campaign trail. “Straightened that government out for a long while.”

While international drug policy expert Sanho Tree says there are “good nuggets” in the report—he approves of the alternative development proposals in Colombia—he also notes that, despite the restructuring, global prohibition would remain largely unchanged.

The WHPDC’s chair, Shannon O’Neil, did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.

 

Re-centering Capitalism in Drug-War Diplomacy

US-Americans familiar with the global drug war likely picture its day-to-day execution as DEA officers tramping through Colombia or apprehending cartel members in Mexico. 

But the State Department is the principal US agency for all-things-abroad, and that’s no different for the drug war. Diplomats wield significant influence. Take the former ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker: According to a glowing watchdog report from April 2019, he facilitated extraditions of alleged drug traffickers and donated aircraft for aerial coca eradication—in anticipation of the reboot of a program halted by Colombia in 2015 because of its use of likely-carcinogenic chemicals that have devastated marginalized communities and precarious ecosystems.

The WHPDC, with a venture capitalist as its vice chair, recommended that US diplomats be encouraged to negotiate capitalist-oriented foreign assistance compacts—basically just aid grants—with foreign governments as tools for carrying out drug-war goals abroad. Foreign aid is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism, as the Washington Consensus makes abundantly clear. 

The drug-war foreign assistance compacts that WHDPC encourages are oriented towards creating new markets in Latin America.

What seems to be different here, though, is the model advised for fashioning such compacts. It’s that of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent federal foreign aid agency favored by conservatives. Founded in 2004, MCC only provides aid to countries that have made neoliberal reforms. Most recently, the model—which selects its recipients based off of data indexed, in part, by the far-right Heritage Foundation—was borrowed by the US International Development Finance Corporation, an independent federal agency created under President Donald Trump in 2018 and dedicated to giving “preferential consideration” to countries that “have demonstrated consistent support for economic policies that promote the development of private enterprise, both domestic and foreign.”

It “will use the free-market to stimulate long-term economic growth in the developing world that will create new markets for American businesses and advance U.S. interests for stability abroad,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker. 

The drug-war foreign assistance compacts that WHDPC encourages—and existing diplomatic agreementsare oriented towards creating new markets in Latin America. For example, the US and Colombia are looking to displace local drug economies, like coca cultivation, with “alternative development” projects, like farming crops such as coffee or fruit. 

For Tree, this is a sensible approach. “Taking the profits out of this economy is a huge part of the problem,” he told Filter. Policymakers have “managed to premise this entire thing on an economic system that accomplishes a thing alchemists in the middle ages never could accomplish,” that is, turning something that is relatively cheap to produce into a high-priced commodity.  

Overtly capitalist or not, INL foreign aid agreements have a history of being mired in dysfunction and a lack of oversight. In Liberia, for example, two INL contracts for police and judicial reforms, together valued at over $41 million, were never evaluated, according to a 2017 report

Problems have also arisen simply from the State Department’s technology. “The Department’s budgeting and accounting systems are not designed to manage foreign assistance,” reported the department’s watchdog in the most recent compliance review for INL in 2016. “As a direct consequence, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs staff is required to engage in time-consuming, inefficient, and parallel processes to track the bureau’s finances.” Failure to document project performance and review quarterly finances continued to plague INL up until at least September 2019, per an OIG assessment of INL assistance to the Philippines, a country conducting a bloody drug war in violation of human rights.

On a programmatic level, INL aviation operations, which sometimes include toxic aerial fumigation, have been conducted in violation of federal guidelines and State Department policy. Instead of seeking required approval for the operation’s initiation and closure from the Aviation Governing Board, INL directed the use of one of its Guatemala-based helicopters for “counter-narcotics interdiction missions” in Honduras with the DEA and the country’s government for three months. The watchdog found that INL skirted policy “largely on a perception that it needed to quickly put aviation assets in the field to meet a request from the Drug Enforcement Agency.” That same report observed that oversight of aircraft used in eradication in Peru lapsed, with INL simply “check[ing] in on them once in a while,” instead of following the Department-required review process.

Seemingly sensitive to these issues, WHDPC advises measures preventing such lapses. “The resulting agreements should be as transparent as possible and include robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, based on quantitative and qualitative indicators collected by both program implementers and independent experts,” the commission wrote.

 

Venezuela and Post-WHDPC US Imperialism

The WHDPC’s suggestion to bring the global drug war under the purview of the third-ranking State Department official suggests that its foreign policy function could take on a new life, particularly in destabilizing foreign governments that resist US hegemony.

The WHDPC notes that its recommendations are not speaking directly to US interventions in Venezuela, writing, “thorough evaluation of US and regional efforts to resolve the Venezuelan crisis is beyond the scope of this report.” Yet it notes that, “the United States and its partners cannot control the flow of illicit drugs from South America without halting the political and economic meltdown in Venezuela and encouraging an orderly transition to stable, accountable, democratic rule.”

Basically, it seems the WHDPC plan, if implemented, would give the global drug war a promotion. 

The suggestion to task the Under Secretary of Political Affairs with coordinating a “whole-of-government” global drug-war operation would seem to integrate drug war programs with the strategy and execution of US interventions in Venezuela. According to the website of the State Department’s historian, the under secretary assists the secretary and deputy secretary with “the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and assists the Deputy Secretary in giving overall direction to the substantive functioning of the Department, including coordination of relations with other departments and agencies and interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government overseas.”

Basically, it seems the WHDPC plan, if implemented, would give the global drug war a promotion. 

To be clear, drug policy is already being instrumentalized in imperialism. “In Venezuela, the pursuit of a so-called war on drugs [has become] an instrument for regime change,” Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian of Venezuela and a prominent critic of the Trump administration’s hand in a failed 2019 coup by far-right leader Juan Guaidó, told Filter.

“Without providing any credible evidence, the Trump administration has tried to link Venezuelan government officials and high-ranking [United Socialist Party of Venezuela] party leaders with drug trafficking,” said Salas. 

A politically motivated double standard, Salas says, seems to be at play. “By contrast, in Honduras, where there is credible evidence that president Juan Orlando Hernandez is involved in drug trafficking (his brother has been tried and convicted) the US State Department remains silent.” 

Evidence also suggests that Venezuela is a marginal player in the drug trade. The United States’ own surveillance data show that the vast majority (93 percent) of northbound cocaine never moves through or out of Venezuela. Much more is moved through Guatemala and Colombia—six and eight times more, respectively, found a March 2020 report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), citing DEA data. Yet Colombia, helmed by a conservative president seeking to reboot toxic aerial coca eradication, was described by Trump in September 2020 as a “strong partner” of the United States. 

There’s even evidence that suggests the DEA has played a role in attempting to grow the drug trade in Venezuela. Publicly, the agency has labeled the country a narco-state and placed a bounty on the head of its president. Covertly, the DEA has allegedly helped to destabilize the country by recruiting Venezuelans into the drug trade and its attendant violence, a Venezuelan whistleblower revealed.

All that’s not to deny drug trade activity in the country. Nor should it foreclose recognition that President Nicolas Maduro’s government is implicated in human rights abuses and political repression. Rather it highlights the excessive nature of the drug-war tactics applied to a country that’s a sworn enemy of the United States, yet is by no means driving the drug supply.

“Historically, [the designations are] humiliating, and politically driven,” said Tree.

Sanho Tree also believes that drug war punishments against foreign countries and officials are politically motivated. Two instruments include designating countries as being “Major” drug movers or producers, and sanctioning individuals as “Kingpins” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Venezuela is listed as a Major, and some of its citizens have been sanctioned as Kingpins. 

“Historically, [the designations are] humiliating, and politically driven,” said Tree. “With Bolivia, if it’s a left wing government, [the US will] highlight all sorts of things.” The bias against Venezuela is just as apparent. In a September 2020 memorandum to the State Department, Trump announced the 22 countries listed as a “Major,” yet he only found Venezuela and Bolivia—two of the few countries on the list with recent histories of leftist governments—to have “failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” 

WHDPC is calling for the replacement of the Majors List. But it does not appear to be in response to political bias. Instead, the WHDPC asserts it “offends our partners”—presumably countries like Colombia—“and does little to deter corrupt practices in unfriendly nations,” like Venezuela. 

Trump described Maduro as the “most complicit kingpin in this Hemisphere.” Just a few months prior, in March 2020, the State Department offered $15 million, through INL’s Narcotics Rewards Program, for assistance in capturing Maduro, who had just been charged by former-Attorney General William Barr with narcoterrorism and cocaine trafficking.

Trump also used the memorandum to call US support of the coup-attempting opposition movement—or what he describes as the “legitimate interim government”—to be “vital to the national interests of the United States.”

“Given her track record in Ukraine, and her record elsewhere, her nomination does not bode well for Latin America, much less Venezuela.”

Biden has indicated he will continue Trump’s aggression towards Venezuela, all while one-third of Venezuelans are starving amid hardline sanctions. At a virtual rally, Biden’s campaign indicated it would maintain this type of economic warfare.

Biden’s appointment of career diplomat Victoria Nuland to the under secretary position spells trouble for Venezuela, in Salas’s opinion. “Given her track record in Ukraine, and her record elsewhere, her nomination does not bode well for Latin America, much less Venezuela.”

A WHDPC-style restructuring under Biden is not a given. According to Tree, it’s “too early to say.” But with or without it, though, the WHDPC plan will not deliver an end to global prohibition, a fundamental policy that must be questioned, Tree believes. 

“We need generational change,” he said. And Biden’s State Department picks are “not going to be that.”

 


January 19, 2021 Updates: Sanho Tree said that the Majors List targets left-wing governments like that of Bolivia, not Mexico, as was misprinted. Peru is mismanaging the aircraft used for eradication, but not aerial eradication, which is banned in the country.

Photograph of Joe Biden in 2019 by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

Sessi is a writer and organizer interested in cultural criticism, transnational politics and the ways that controlled substances are traded, policed and consumed. Having graduated from Vassar College with a degree in philosophy and women’s studies, she kick-started her writing career with work appearing in publications like Broadlyi-DPitchfork and them., among others. Sessi was previously a staff writer at Filter.

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