Cuba and Drugs to Dominate Summit of the Americas

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. President Obama left Washington today on his way to Cartagena, Columbia. He'll be there this weekend for the Summit of the Americas, it's a gathering of all the heads of state in the western hemisphere. Well, almost all. Cuba doesn't go to these summits and that's actually one of the big topics at this year's gathering. Reporter John Otis joins us from Bogota, Columbia. John, it seems earlier that Cuba might go to this meeting in Cartagena, but in the end it's not happening. What did happen?

John Otis: Well, Marco, what did happen is that some of the left leaning governments in Latin America said they were going to boycott this Summit of the Americas because Cuba had not been invited. Cuba hasn't attended any of the Summit of the Americas which started back in 1994, back in Miami, because Cuba is not a democracy. However, Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, these presidents all wanted Cuba to come and said they wouldn't attend unless Cuba was invited. That would've been a huge embarrassment for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, so he's traveled to Cuba, spoke with President Raul Castro, convinced him not to press his desire to attend. In exchange Santos said he'd push to see if Cuba could be invited to future summits.

Werman: Now, Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president, was just in Cuba and he spoke out against the US embargo against the communist government there. Is this all going to come up at the summit as well, and if so, what is the US response going to be?

Otis: This will probably be more of a back hallways debate and the US response is probably going to be more of the same, that we're going to keep the embargo going. It's an election year and President Obama doesn't wanna take too many risks.

Werman: Hm, so if Colombian president Santos' trip to Havana was aimed at diffusing the Cuba issue it didn't really seem to work because now it is at least a minor deal, but there's another big topic at the summit and that's the fight again drug trafficking. Some people in Latin America are calling for a different approach. What is that?

Otis: That's correct, Marco. Latin American leaders more and more are seeing the drug war as being a huge failure and a very violent failure. There have been 40,000 drug related deaths in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took over in 2006. Guatemala's new president interestingly, who is a former military general, President Otto Perez has come out and said no, we need an alternative to the just say no, the hardline drug war of policies because all of these countries are really you know, paying in blood for what's going on, and Central America is slowly being taken over by drug gangs, so they're really at their wits end and they wanna try to come up with a new policy or at least kickoff a debate.

Werman: What kind of drug actually is the Guatemalan president proposing to legalize?

Otis: Well, he's not proposing that we're going to legalize. He's saying that we need to open the debate about criminalization. And decriminalization is more along the lines of not throwing everyone in jail for smoking marijuana, that sort of thing. It's starting to take these initial steps because just like with free trade accords, you need and international consensus on how to deal with drug policy.

Werman: John, do you think there will be a lot of discussion about this at the summit or is it another kind of back room deal?

Otis: It's getting a lot of attention in the press, but it's going to be more of a back hallways sort of a discussion. However, the press attention is very important because that's helping to drive the issue in the media and among pundits and so forth, and there really is a big debate opening up across Latin America. And I think in future summits we're going to see much more debate about this and this issue is not going to go away. It's just getting bigger.

Werman: Reporter John Otis in Bogota, Columbia telling us about the Summit of the Americas. Thank you very much, John.

Otis: Thanks a lot, Marco.