Tag: El Salvador

New Study on Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Global War on Drugs

Yesterday, Juan Carlos Hidalgo pointed out that Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos became the latest world leader to recognize the need to rethink the prohibitionist policies that allow powerful drug traffickers to flourish. Santos called for a new approach to “take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking” and that governments around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, need to debate legalizing select drugs, such as cocaine.

From Colombia to Mexico, the drug war rages on. Despite two decades of U.S.-aided efforts to eradicate drug-related violence in Colombia, the problem persists. Indeed, the trickle-down effects from Mexico southward now threaten to engulf Guatemala. Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador are all experiencing alarming homicide rates at least partially related to drug trafficking. To address these spikes in violence and stem the flow of drugs, the United States has spent billions of dollars in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Sadly, there is little evidence that this policy has been successful, and the evidence mounts that it has been an outright failure.

A new policy is needed to stem the violence and consequences of the Mexican drug cartels pervasive power. In a new study released today, Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow, argues that the only lasting, effective strategy for dealing with Mexico’s drug violence is to defund the Mexican drug cartels. “The United States could substantially defund these cartels,” says Carpenter, “through the full legalization (including manufacture and sale) of currently illegal drugs.”

The new study, “Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels,” is available here.

El Salvador’s Unfortunate Lesson

Two years ago in a Cato study I documented El Salvador’s remarkable liberalization process and the significant progress in economic and social indicators that resulted from those free market reforms. I also warned then about how those achievements were threatened by the likely victory of the former Marxist guerrilla group, FMLN, in the presidential election of 2009.

Even though Mauricio Funes, the then FMLN candidate now turned president, has proven to be a relatively moderate figure when compared to his radical left-wing party, El Salvador is reversing many of the gains of the past decade. Mary O’Grady’s column in the Wall Street Journal today, which describes how “the wheels came off” of the “once thriving Salvadoran economy,” is a reminder to all countries not to take progress for granted.

Obama’s Trip to Latin America

As Ted Carpenter notes below, President Obama is departing on an important trip to Latin America. The countries that he will visit exemplify the macroeconomic stability and advancement of democratic institutions now found in much of the region.

Brazil, by far the largest Latin American economy, has enjoyed almost a decade of sound growth and poverty reduction. Chile is the most developed country in the region thanks to decades of economic liberalization, a process that has also made it Latin America’s most mature democracy. And El Salvador is undergoing a delicate period in its transition to becoming a full-fledged democracy with its first left-of-center president since the end of the civil war in 1992.

In an era when most Latin American nations are moving in the right direction—albeit at different speeds, with some setbacks, and with notable exceptions—the United States can serve as a catalyst of change by contributing to more economic integration and the consolidation of the rule of law in the region.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s assurances that he’s interested in strengthening economic ties with Latin America, his administration is still delaying the ratification of two important free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. President Obama also continues to support a failed war on drugs that significantly exacerbates violence and institutional frailty in the region, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

It’s good that President Obama’s trip will highlight significant progress in Latin America, but his administration’s policy actions still don’t match the U.S. goals of encouraging economic growth and sound institutional development in the region.

Obama’s Latin America Trip

President Obama’s trip to Latin America is likely to focus on economic topics, but two security issues deserve scrutiny during his stops in Brazil and El Salvador. 

Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Brazil has become somewhat frosty, especially over the past year.  U.S. leaders did not appreciate Brazil’s joint effort with Turkey to craft a compromise policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.  The Obama administration regarded that diplomatic initiative as unhelpful freelancing.  And when Brazil joined Turkey in voting against a UN Security Council resolution imposing stronger sanctions on Tehran, the administration’s resentment deepened.  Obama should not only try to soothe tensions, he should shift Washington’s policy, express appreciation for Brazil’s innovative efforts to end the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue, and consider whether the milder approach that the Turkish and Brazilian governments advocate has merit.

In El Salvador, worries about Mexico’s spreading drug-related violence into Central America are likely to come up.  El Salvador and other Central American countries are seeking a bigger slice of Washington’s anti-drug aid in the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear Merida Initiative.  President Obama should not only resist such blandishments, he should use the visit to announce a policy shift away from a strict prohibitionist strategy that has filled the coffers of the Mexican drug cartels and sowed so much violence in Mexico, and now increasingly in Central America as well.  Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working any better with currently illegal drugs.

Question Regarding Obama’s Signals Toward Latin America

How come President Obama can find time to call and congratulate Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on his reelection (someone who has said that he prefers “a thousand times” to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than to be an ally of the United States) but can’t find time to meet with, or at least issue a statement supporting, Cuban dissidents at the White House as his predecessors did?

NPR and El Salvador: Setting the Record Straight

NPR had a story this morning on “social inequalities and growing discontent in El Salvador.” Relying exclusively on anecdotal evidence, the story was full of mischaracterizations about the economic and social reality of that country.

Let’s see: Regarding the upcoming presidential election this Sunday, NPR says,

…whichever candidate wins, he faces a faltering economy, entrenched poverty, rampant crime and a population that’s still recovering from a civil war.

Granted, rampant crime is a major problem—unfortunately El Salvador is the most violent country in the world—but a faltering economy? NPR didn’t provide any evidence aside from anecdotes.

Actually, El Salvador has made enormous progress thanks to an aggressive agenda of market reforms. Once you account for revised population data due to a new census, El Salvador’s per capita GDP has grown by 3.3 percent since 1992—the third highest rate in Latin America during this period, after the Dominican Republic (3.8) and Chile (3.6). And as I point out in my new paper on El Salvador, there is ample evidence that official figures significantly underestimate the performance of the economy, mostly because the service sector—an area in which El Salvador leads the region—is grossly undervalued in the country’s estimation of GDP. The economy is probably more than 30 percent larger than indicated by the official data. Thus the average per capita growth rate since 1992 has been approximately 5.2 percent per year.

Entrenched poverty? Since the end of the civil war in 1992, the number of households below the poverty line has diminished by more than 25 percentage points. Extreme poverty has also declined by almost 18 percentage points. During the first decade of the market reforms, net enrollment in primary education increased by close to 10 percentage points, infant mortality declined by 40 percent, and the population without access to safe water was halved. Yes, almost 35 percent of Salvadoran households still live in poverty, but by any indicator, poverty is in retreat.

One of the most telling facts about how tough life is in El Salvador right now is that a quarter of its population chooses not to live here. An estimated 2 million Salvadorans out of a population of less than 7 million live and work in the United States.

It is true that approximately 2 million live outside, but the bulk of Salvadorans who immigrated to the U.S. left during the period of civil conflict. Immigration has certainly continued, but presenting it in its entirety as a sign of economic hardship, as NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien does, is misleading.

El Salvador has moved aggressively under the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA party, to align its economy with the U.S. In 2001, it adopted the U.S. dollar as its sole currency, and in 2006, it ratified a free-trade deal with the United States. The trade agreement led to a modest boost in exports, but in the market, shoppers and shopkeepers say it hasn’t helped them.

How does adopting free market reforms constitute an effort to “align” the economy to the U.S.? By liberalizing their economy, Salvadorans authorities are protecting the cash value of pensions and salaries, lowering interest rates, have incentivized savings,  and provided modern and affordable public services, etc. Their goal was to make the Salvadoran economy more dynamic and competitive, not to “align” it to the U.S.

Also, the increase in exports since CAFTA was implemented three years ago has been anything but “modest.” Exports were 34 percent higher last year than in 2005, the year before CAFTA went into effect. From 1991 to 2007 El Salvador had the highest export growth rate in all Latin America.

This is not to say that there aren’t serious challenges facing El Salvador. As I said earlier, crime is the most serious of all, and the main source of popular discontent in the country. The country is feeling the consequences of the global economic downturn, as are most developing countries. But the way that NPR presents life in El Salvador demands a serious reality check.

New Podcast: ‘El Salvador’s Choice’

El Salvador is becoming an economic success story in Central America, says Cato scholar Juan Carlos Hidalgo.

Since 1992, the country has undertaken an aggressive program of liberalization that has transformed its economy and yielded major improvements in various socioeconomic areas. In a new study, Hidalgo explains how El Salvador “is showing the rest of the region how economic freedom can pave the way for development and how globalization offers great opportunities for developing countries that are willing to implement a coherent set of mutually supportive market reforms.”

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Hidalgo explains how despite recent economic reforms, next week’s election in El Salvador could end with a  government that has great admiration for the policies of Hugo Chavez that would turn El Salvador away from market-based reforms.

A third of the [voting] population is under thirty. So that means many young voters don’t remember El Salvador as it was during the early 1990’s… Young people have trouble paying for their cell phone bills, have trouble paying their gas bills and have trouble paying for tuition in colleges. What they don’t remember is fifteen years ago they didn’t have cars, their parents didn’t have cars, their parents didn’t have any cell phones and their parents lived in shanty towns….

…Even though they talk about emulating the socialist revolution in Venezuela, they haven’t been explicit about dismantling democratic institutions in El Salvador.