The Cable

Obama won’t budge on drug policy in Colombia

U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Colombia this weekend, but they won't give any ground on the demand by several regional leaders to move toward a different approach in the war on drugs.

The issue of decriminalizing and perhaps even legalizing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana after decades of fighting a bitter and bloody war on drug cartels in the region will be the "gorilla in the room" when regional leaders meet April 14 and 15 in Cartagena, Colombia for the first Summit of the Americas since 2009, according to regional experts. The issue is not on the official agenda, but several regional leaders plan to raise it, much to the chagrin of the Obama administration.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina demanded a more public debate over Latin American drug policy in January, calling for a regional strategy for decriminalization "as soon as possible." In an April 7 editorial, Perez said, "Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls."

Several other regional leaders have followed suit, seeking to adjust what they see as a failed policy and shift more responsibility toward the world's number one drug consuming country, the United States. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, agrees that a having a new drug strategy must be on the agenda.

"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," he said in a speech last month.

But a White House official said Wednesday that the Obama administration is only willing to discuss law enforcement and drug education, not a wholesale reform of the current approach to drugs.

"U.S. policy on this is very clear. The president doesn't support decriminalization, but he does consider this is a legitimate debate. And it's a legitimate debate because it helps to demystify this as an option," said Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council's senior director for Latin America, on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.

Restrepo referred back to last month's comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Mexico and Honduras and said that a drug policy debate was "legitimate" but not likely to change the U.S. position. He also said drug consumption is not just a U.S. problem.

"As the consumption of drugs spreads throughout the Americas, the responsibility to address this challenge needs to spread," he said. "This is a shared responsibility... Brazil is the second largest cocaine consuming country in the world."

According to the 2011 World Drug Report, prepared by the U.N. office of drugs and crime, Brazil has about 900,000 cocaine users, roughly 0.7 percent of adults aged 15-64. In the United States, about 2.4 percent of adults in that age range use cocaine, a total of 5 million people.

Restrepo said the United States would be willing to discuss how to reduce crime and violence surrounding drugs, but not decriminalization or legalization. He also said there was no consensus on the issue in the region one way or the other.

"This is not a debate where one country is standing in a very different place than all the other countries," he said. "The United States is among the countries who does not see this as a solution and does not see this as a viable option because of the problems that come with it and because it won't end transnational crimes."

(The website InSight Crime has put together a map of the drug decriminalization and legalization positions of all the countries in the region.)

On the call, Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes tried to dispel the notion widely held around the region that the president has neglected Latin America and failed to live up to promises he made early in his presidency, such as progress in relations with Cuba and Venezuela.

"Over the course of the last three years, President Obama has significantly bolstered the image of the United States in the region and U.S. leadership, in survey after survey, is far more welcome and respected throughout the Americas," he said. "And we believe that has opened the door to greater economic and security cooperation with the countries of the region."

Cuba's Fidel Castro won't be at the Colombia Summit; Cuba is banned from participating. Venezuelan ailing President Hugo Chávez will be there, but don't expect Obama to shake his hand, as he did at the last summit in 2009. The only U.S. senator confirmed to attend is Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).

On the way to the summit, Obama will give a speech at the port of Tampa, FL, to talk about trade and export opportunities between the United States and Latin America. He arrives in Cartagena the evening of the 13th and will have dinner with the other regional leaders. On Saturday, Obama will attend a "CEO Summit of the Americas" with Santos and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

The summit plenary sessions will run through the afternoon of the 14th. On the morning of the 15th, there will be a leaders' retreat, but not before the official photo is taken. Many are watching to see if Obama dons one of the signature "guayaberas" that are being tailored specifically for him to wear on his visit.

Before heading home, Obama will meet with Caribbean leaders and then have a bilateral meeting with Santos, a press conference, and one final event at a local church.

Clinton will stay on in the region, traveling to Brasilia April 16 and 17. On April 16, she will lead the U.S. delegation for the third U.S.-Brazil Global Partnership Dialogue. On April 17, Clinton will join with Rousseff at the first annual high-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is an effort to share technology that reduces government corruption.

Clinton will then go directly to Brussels April 18 and 19 to participate in a joint meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers and to hold a bilateral meeting with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders. She will also participate in a foreign ministers' meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on April 19.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Human rights groups press Obama on Bahrain

Several NGOs have written to U.S. President Barack Obama demanding he weigh in on the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the jailed Bahraini human rights activist who they say may die soon due to an ongoing hunger strike.

"We write to urge you to publicly call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release from prison Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights defender and democracy activist who may soon die, as he has been on a hunger strike for more than two months," reads an April 9 letter signed by Amnesty International, 3P Human Security, Physicians for Human Rights, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Just Foreign Policy, the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, Citizens for Global Solutions, and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

Khawaja has been a human rights and democracy activist in Bahrain for decades, having been exiled to Denmark during most of the 1980s and allowed to return to Bahrain with his family in 1991. His daughter Maryam, who lives in Bahrain, is one of the leaders of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has actively spoken out against the Bahrain government's actions against peaceful protesters since the current bout of unrest began in February 2011.

He was arrested in April 2011 and two months later sentenced to life in prison in a group trial with 20 other activists before a military court. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) later stated that the trials did not meet international standards of due process.

The human rights groups allege that Khawaja was tortured in prison and was subsequently admitted to a military hospital, where he has undergone multiple surgeries due to a broken jaw and a cracked skull. He began his hunger strike in February.

"The evidence is clear that Al-Khawaja and others were sentenced in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, which are protected under international law," they wrote. "We are deeply concerned about the health of human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and respectfully request that the United States urge the Government of Bahrain to release Al-Khawaja immediately, and allow him to travel abroad, including for medical treatment, if he wishes to do so."

On April 10, Amnesty International issued a press release stating that Khawaja's health is rapidly deteriorating. They said that a planned review of his verdict on April 23 by Bahrain's Court of Cassation might come too late.

"In the case of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, this delay will have potentially disastrous consequences for his health, which continues to deteriorate as a result of his hunger strike. We hold the Bahraini authorities responsible for his situation," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy Middle East and North Africa program director.

At the April 9 State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and U.S. Embassy officials in Manama had raised the issue with the Bahrain government, but that no U.S. officials had visited the prison or hospital.

"We are very concerned about the case of Mr. al-Khawaja particularly with regard to his health. We are in touch with the Bahrainis and with our international partners, and we are urging a humanitarian solution," she said.

The Bahrain Defense Forces began hosting multinational military exercises April 8 that included participation from 10 countries, including the United States.

UPDATE: Late Wednesday afternoon, the White House issued the following statement:

The United States continues to be deeply concerned about the situation in Bahrain, and we urge all parties to reject violence in all its forms.  We condemn the violence directed against police and government institutions, including recent incidents that have resulted in serious injuries to police officers.  We also call on the police to exercise maximum restraint, and condemn the use of excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas against protestors, which has resulted in civilian casualties.

We continue to underscore, both to the government and citizens of Bahrain, the importance of working together to address the underlying causes of mistrust and to promote reconciliation.  In this respect, we note our continued concern for the well-being of jailed activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and call on the Government of Bahrain to consider urgently all available options to resolve his case.  More broadly, we urge the government to redouble its ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and renew our call for the government, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to engage in a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.