Interview with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos (transcript)


President Juan Manuel Santos reviews troops during a military ceremony in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia. (Fernando Vergara/AP)
April 10, 2012

On April 3, The Washington Post’s Juan Forero spoke to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota about the drug problem facing Latin America and what is on the table for discussion during the Summit of the Americas. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are you proposing at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena?

“[The drug issue] has a very high political sensitivity, and people like to play with people’s sensitivity, and so many times the discussion is not rational. It’s irrational. But if we discuss this in a rational way,with experts and say: ‘Well, okay, what we are doing? Is that the best thing that we can do? Or should we maybe explore other alternatives to see if we find a better one, where the cost to humanity and to thousands of victims of this drug problem could be less, and the cost for the countries could be less?’ And this is the discussion that I want to open.”

Is there an alternative, a specific alternative, you are proposing?

“I am not coming into this discussion with a preempted or a definite proposal, because I have to confess that I don’t know the answer. It might be that after this discussion we conclude that what we are doing is the best we can do, so we have to continue.”

What is the ultimate goal?

“If we find that there is a better alternative that will take away the profits from the criminal organizations and that maybe you can address the problem of consumption in a more effective way, then everybody will win. And this is what I want, a discussion without a specific proposal.”

What do you think of some proposals by leaders such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez, who talks about legalizing?

“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion. The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization because we think the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization.’ But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, [whether] the cost is lower or not.”

It would be difficult politically to make a big shift, no?

“The polls will be very negative. So politically it’s very difficult to take a decision in that direction. But if you find out that maybe for a country or for humanity, legalization is the way to find a least costly path, then it is your responsibility as a leader to then sell this alternative to your people.”

Some would argue the established anti-drug strategies are working in Colombia.

“When I was minister of defense, we were very successful. We took down all the members [on] the list of high-value targets in the drug trafficking, all of them. They are either in jail or dead. We confiscated unprecedented amounts of cocaine. We eradicated unprecedented amounts of hectares of coca, and the DEA director came here and congratulated me and congratulated our people, saying we are doing very well. And you know how success was defined? By the price of cocaine in Los Angeles or in New York or in Washington. And so, because the price went up, we were being successful. But at the same time, if the price goes up, the incentive goes up. So there is a structured sort of contradiction in the whole setup.”

Some of the people proposing new alternatives may have surprised you.

“I was surprised that Pat Robertson went down and said, I think, he said he was pro-legalization of marijuana. He said this is something that we should discuss. More and more, and very conservative people in the U.S. have taken this stand. I hope that the U.S. engages in constructive discussion because the U.S. is the number one consumer and is co-responsible for what is happening in Central America, here in Colombia.”

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