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What Felipe Calderon wants from the U.S.

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Seeking to repair damaged relations, President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon agreed to deepen cooperation in combating drug violence and declared a breakthrough ending a long-standing dispute over cross-border trucking. (March 3)

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Mexican President Felipe Calderon spoke mostly in excellent English during a visit to The Post on Thursday, but for one particular word he looked to his interpreter for help.

Since what he was looking for was "coherence" or "consistency" in U.S. policy, it's no wonder he was momentarily stumped. An hour-long conversation with the president, as polite as he was, brought home how badly that quality is missing from U.S. policy on drugs, guns, trade and democracy promotion, when viewed from south of the border.

Calderon was passionate when talking about the de facto legalization of marijuana that seems to be taking place in some states, such as California and Colorado, under the guise of medical treatment, with no federal interference.

"For me, it's very difficult to prosecute a very poor farmer in Mexico growing marijuana," he said, when "industrial"-scale agriculture is flourishing north of the border. "How can I console our widows" - Mexico has lost more than 2,000 police and federal agents the past four years fighting the drug cartels - "and at the same time students in universities can smoke pot with no problems?"

Calderon marveled that American university students tell him that most of their classmates smoke marijuana, "but one cigarette is almost a capital crime." Medical marijuana, he said, "not only opened the door" but destroyed the "perception about how dangerous the drugs are."

Which, of course, is one goal of many backers of the "medical marijuana" movement. Few would object to seriously ill Americans having access to marijuana if it is the only way to lessen their pain, but stores that are selling untested, unregulated drugs, in "prescriptions" of no particular strength or duration, to pretty much anyone who wants it - that isn't medicine as the Food and Drug Administration normally understands it.

To which Calderon says: Either prosecute or "have the honesty" to legalize. "But what you cannot do is have this incoherent policy, because it causes terrible damage."

When I asked whether he would support legalization, Calderon was skeptical without taking an absolute stand. He said he worried about the increased consumption among young people that he believes would inevitably follow - we could lose "several generations," he said - and he isn't convinced that it would solve Mexico's crime problem. A lower price might even aggravate the level of violence among gangs, he said.

But, he said, U.S. experts would be better positioned to analyze whether the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages. "I'm not sure about that."

On the other hand, Calderon didn't lack for certainty on the subject of guns. He said his government has seized more than 100,000 weapons, many of them AK-47s and other assault guns, and that 85 percent of them come from the United States. The flow rose "exponentially," he said, after Congress allowed a ban on the sale of assault weapons to expire in 2004.

President Obama, who said during his campaign that he supported restoring the ban and closing the gun-show loophole, has done nothing about either. When his administration took one small step recently - requiring notification of multiple sales of long guns - the House voted to block it.

"I respect the Second Amendment," Calderon said. "But, we are requesting, don't sell weapons to Mexican criminals."

Calderon was also requesting that Washington let Mexican trucks cross the border and deliver goods inside the United States - as it promised 18 years ago to allow. He was hoping for delivery of some of the $1.4 billion in drug-fighting assistance that the United States promised four years ago to deliver within three years - of which $500 million so far has been received, he said.

When I asked what Egypt might learn from Mexico, which after 60 years of one-party rule has evolved peacefully into a multiparty democracy, Calderon stressed that establishing democracy is "a continuous process." When Mexico elected its first opposition candidate as president in 2000, he said, there was a sense that democracy had triumphed in all of Latin America but Cuba - that the story had come to its end.

But there can be a backlash, he said, and backsliding. Presidents can win elections and then shut down the press, suffocate the opposition and seek to become presidents for life - like (though Calderon didn't name them) Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The United States, under presidents George W. Bush and Obama, has been reticent and mostly disengaged as Chavez and his acolytes have attempted to spread their brand of autocracy through the continent.

"At the end of the last century, we thought, we are done, democracy has won," Calderon said. But there's a need to keep promoting democracy. "Where are the agencies pushing these values?" he asked. "That's a task we forgot."

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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