Not So Fast on Reform Legislation in Brazil

It was reported last week that the Brazilian legislature had passed and President Fernando Cardoso was ready to sign a bill that would keep small-time drug offenders out of prison (see this article.). But Cardoso, who had given the green light for the legislature to pass the 10-year-old reform bill in December, has now vetoed the bill's provisions that would have eased penalties, citing constitutional reasons. Cardoso did, however, sign provisions of the bill enhancing penalties for drug traffickers.

Under current Brazilian law, possession of a joint can get the same six-month to two-year sentence as possession of a pound of cocaine. The new law would have allowed for alternatives, including treatment, community service, fines, or license suspensions. It was widely hailed in South America's largest and most populous nation, where marijuana smoking occurs openly on its fabled beaches and in the nightclubs of Rio and Sao Paulo.

At a January 11 news conference, Gen. Alberto Cardoso, the president's top security adviser, told reporters President Cardoso vetoed some of the articles because they failed to specify the length of alternative sentences, according to a Reuters account. Another vetoed article would have permitted jailed traffickers to move out of maximum security facilities after having served a third of their sentence.

According to Gen. Cardoso, President Cardoso would send substitute legislation to congress that would retain the essence of the original bill's commitment to alternative sentences for minor drug crimes. He will do so in time for congress to approve the substitute proposal before the rest of the law goes into effect in 45 days, said Cardoso.

"The Brazilian government's philosophy... is a reduction in demand and a reduction in supply, heavily repressing traffickers while treating users as people with an illness who need to be attended to, not as criminals," Cardoso said.

The shift in Brazilian drug policy comes under the glowering gaze of the United States. Brazil has been the object of US diplomatic pressure to support American efforts to use fighting the drug trade as a means of extending its political and military influence in Latin America. But while the US has broad regional pretensions, it has been most directly concerned with gathering support for its intervention in Colombia.

As the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit Washington watchdog, noted in a special investigative report last July (, the war on drugs has provided a convenient rationale for a rapprochement between the Brazilian and US militaries, with the US providing assistance for Brazil's Plan Cobra (Colombia-Brazil), which has increased the Brazilian military presence along the border with Colombia. As Brazil has reluctantly and partially gone along with US policy in Colombia, the US aid spigot is opening wider. US drug war aid to Brazil increased from $1.2 million in 1999 to $5 million in 2000 and rises dramatically to $15 million this year.

"The significant increase in resources requested for Brazil," the State Department noted, "is needed to support programs designed to combat the growing problem of cross-border narcotrafficking, such as Operation Cobra, and in response to measures needed to support the administration's overall Andean Regional Initiative for Colombia and the bordering countries."

The Brazilian military seems well aware it is making a potentially faustian bargain with the US, but is plunging ahead regardless. "During the Cold War, communism served as a frame for the US to exercise their influence in the American continent," Gen. Cardoso told CPI's Independent Center for Investigative Journalism. "As the conjuncture of communism ended, it [narcotics trafficking] appeared naturally as a new cause to justify the same geopolitical and geostrategic interests. In that case, the war on drugs justifies for the US their external military operations."

If the Brazilian state is willing to kowtow to the Americans for the sake of closer military cooperation and the opportunity for boodle, Brazil's body politic is at least prepared to move forward on sentencing, at least if President Cardoso holds to his word.

Philip Smith is the editor of DRCNet's Week Online.

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