With Juan Manuel Santos set to assume office, today is a good day to be looking towards the future. In many senses, the problems he is inheriting – particularly those concerning the drug trade – are far more complex than those faced by Uribe in 2006 and perhaps even 2002. I guess that’s why my own inclination is to look to the past, for a better sense of where Colombia’s drug trade will go from here. It’s the least I can do as a U.S. citizen, considering that U.S. policy towards narcotrafficking has long been marred by the worst kind of collective amnesia.
As everybody knows, and as reiterated by a monstrous 371-page report, released last week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), narcotrafficking will continue wracking havoc in supplier countries like Colombia, so long as the demand exists in European and U.S. markets. I really do wish Santos the best of luck. Unfortunately, many of the problems that he faces, especially concerning the United States’ skewed relationship with narcotics, haven’t been solved for the past hundred years.
Relatively speaking, the cocaine trade is only a recent development in Colombia, having only arrived in the mid-1970s. How did it arrive in Colombia? Because it was pushed out of Chile, following Pinochet’s coup in 1973. How did it arrive in Chile? Because it was pushed out of Peru, following a coup by a pro-U.S. military junta, which criminalized cocaine by 1950. In the late nineteenth century, Peru was the world’s biggest exporter of legalized coca and cocaine. Its biggest customer? The U.S.
Indeed, by 1950, to all appearances the U.S. had already won the “war on drugs.” Policy pressure successfully squashed a previously thriving, legal cocaine/coca trade in Peru and Bolivia. By this time, even the U.N. was moving towards creating aggressive treaties that persecuted not only cocaine but also coca producers. But winning this first “war on drugs” essentially trigged the horrendously violent, illicit, global cocaine economy which we must live with today. By 1950, U.S. victory in banning cocaine production in the hemisphere created the conditions needed for a massive (and massively profitable) illicit market.
Because it’s also worth remembering, on this day when many Colombians must welcome the future, that in the past, neither coca or cocaine were always seen as illicit goods by the U.S. I will not rehash the history of Coca Cola and its secret ingredient “No. 5” here. Before the drug was made illegal in the U.S. in 1905, cocaine was treated like the same kind of psychological cure-all, similarly to how some psychiatrists treat Adderall and Ritalin today. With the culmination of the Industrial Revolution, after all, legions of white collar workers and intellectuals suddenly needed tea, coffee, tobacco and, in some cases, opium to get them through their days at the office. Coca tonics and elixirs were just another stimulant for capitalism.
Cocaine was actually manufactured in the United States for quite some time, according to a few good history books. In 1900 it was too costly and impractical to import dried coca leaves in bulk from Peru’s Huanaco Valley (which, over a century later, is still exporting coca, much to the delight of Sendero Luminoso). So, Peruvians in the Amazonian lowlands processed coca plants into pasta de coca, using many of the same methods still used by cocaleros in Meta and Guavira’s jungle kitchens. This coca base was shipped to factories (many owned by German pharmaceutical firms) in places like New Jersey, Philadelphia and Detroit. Pre-prohibition in 1905, thousands of kilos of cocaine were churned out on U.S. soil, and was eagerly purchased by U.S. consumers, looking for an anaesthia or a cure for “nervousness” or “hysteria.”
Bringing up this long history of cocaine use is not to say the U.S. bears the brunt for all of the horrible violence and criminality rampaging in Colombia, Mexico and Central America today. These countries must take responsibility for their own failures in governance. Blaming the U.S. for the world’s ills is also a tiresome excuse. But I think it’s clear U.S. (and European) citizens also need to scrutinize their own patterns of consumption. Educated consumers have previously made a stand for free-trade coffee, cage-free eggs, organic and local produce. I should hope this kind of conscientious consumption could also be applied, on a similar widespread basis, to drug use.
But, in the end, I am supposed to be a 21st century U.S. journalist with the five-minute attention span of a Twitterer. Why bring up ancient history, like U.S. coke consumption in the nineteenth century? I guess that the day after an election is always a good opportunity to make grandiose, sweeping predictions about what lies ahead. And looking back, I am inclined to say that what lies ahead are more tired repetitions of the same old mistakes.
Market demand is what fuels the drug trade, and U.S. and European citizens have been demanding cocaine for a very, very long time. Regardless of whichever candidate had won on Sunday, I think I would still have this heavy feeling in my stomach.