Cuba takes a zero-tolerance stance on illicit drugs, vowing even to “fight drugs with blood and fire.” The drug policy appears to have been successful. Cuba has one of the lowest homicide rates in the western hemisphere, along with some of the lowest reported rates of illicit drug use, production, and transit. These accomplishments are unique in a region greatly affected by drug-related violence. They are also confusing.

Evidence increasingly shows that zero-tolerance approaches towards drugs like prohibition and punitive sanctions have contributed significantly to insecurity, violence, corruption, displacement, and a host of public health issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. Why hasn’t Cuba’s hard-line on illicit drugs yielded the same results? Will Cuba remain insulated from the costs of prohibition as it continues to open its doors to the international community?

Isabella Bellezza-Smull, the new Latin America & World Reality Tours Coordinator at Global Exchange, previously lived in Rio de Janeiro where she worked with the Igarapé Institute on drug policy reform. Her report Will Cuba update its drug policy for the twenty-first century? traces the country’s policy towards illicit drugs from the 1959 revolution to present. It discusses emerging challenges the island faces as it undergoes domestic reforms that allow for increased access to illicit substances. Isabella notes that Cuba has a unique opportunity to avoid the mistakes other countries have made in past decades by preventatively exploring alternative, proven approaches to drugs like harm-reduction, the decriminalization of use and possession, alternatives to arrest for low-level dealers and producers, and even the legal regulation of certain drugs like marijuana.

Her work was picked up by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. Here is the transcribed interview:

Can we say that Cuba has been spared from the drug war and its harmful effects that we see in several countries around the world? How reliable are the Cuban government’s claims that the country does not have a drug problem?

In general term, yes, Cuba has been spared from the drug war. From the metrics available, we see that Cuba has one of the lowest homicide rates in the region, as well as very low rates of drug use, production and trafficking. These indicators have been corroborated by the US State Department over the past decades in INCSR reports [International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports]. And State has not easily bestowed praise onto Cuba given the historically fraught relationship, which helps confirm the reliability of these figures.

What has made Cuba such a unique case in the region, perhaps in the world? What have been the factors protecting the country from the plague of drugs, and how can Cuba’s progressive political and economic openings make them a problem?

Cuba has a very unique national context. State-sponsored universal access to education and health services are rightly considered to be crown jewels of the revolution. They’ve produced enviable results. Achievements like universal literacy, the dramatic reduction of certain diseases like HIV/AIDS, universal access to safe drinking water and basic public sanitation. Cuba also has one of the region’s lowest infant mortality rates and longest life expectancies. So Cuba has very successfully built a culture of health.

But the country has also been very isolated in economic terms — it has had limited engagement in international markets, which has hindered the entry of drugs and recreational drug cultures. And domestically, the conditions for drug sales have been poor given very low disposable incomes, largely due to the US economic embargo, but also because of the virtual absence of a private sector. But these conditions are gradually changing. Cuba has opened to the world slowly but surely since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And we see that with every opening, the Cuban government has been increasingly concerned about drugs. The drug issue is still relatively benign in Cuba, especially in comparison to neighboring countries, but it’s important to see how the situation develops.

Given Cuba’s current drug situation and the recent move towards more progressive approaches elsewhere that move beyond simple prohibition and repression, could Cuba become a laboratory of what might have happened — or can still happen — in other countries if they had adopted policies such as decriminalization, legalization or regulation of the drug market and harm reduction?

Certainly Cuba has the opportunity to get it right by moving away from prohibition and punitive sanctions, towards proven public-health-driven alternatives. So, the question is how the country will deal with the expected increased consumption, production, and drug trafficking. As is common, the Cuban government has publicly adopted a hard-line. The Cuban National Drug Commission in June of this year reaffirmed its commitment to fighting illicit drugs, but there is an important debate within the public health sector about how to approach increasing illicit drug use. And this is very encouraging because they’re questioning the traditional model of abstinence and “just-say-no” (to drugs). They are realizing that there are people who do not, or cannot, stop using drugs outright and that demanding abstinence should not be a precondition for treating or consulting them. This is in line with a harm reduction approach to drug use — focusing on the prevention of harm, rather than on the prevention of drug use, itself.

Could this reiterated conservative view of the Cuban government on drugs lead the country to lose this opportunity to deal with the problem more effectively?

Yes, this is a risk and it is something to be seen.

Although some protective factors against the drug problem in the last decades are changing, such as disposable income and access to substances, others will probably continue the same, such as the high level of education of the population and a solid system of public health. Can this also help “guide” the country toward more progressive and efficient drug policies?

Definitely, but again it will be a question of how the Cuban government goes about educating a new generation of Cubans about drug use. Education and prevention campaign discourse continues to be rooted more in “say-no” and abstinence than on complete, honest information about the effects and impacts of the use of certain drugs, particularly currently illegal ones like marijuana. If this continues, a new generation of Cubans experimenting with drugs could find that they can be used recreationally, because not all drug use is problematic. And this would create a discrepancy between what the Ministry of Education is teaching and what Cubans are experiencing, undermining the abstinence prevention discourse.

Will we then see a kind of denial, a discourse that drugs and their consumption are counter revolutionary things, a problem of bourgeois capitalist societies?

Yes, there may be a continuity of the rhetoric that there are no illicit drugs in Cuba, which is not entirely true, and that drug use is antithetical to revolutionary consciousness building. If the government is realistic about the existence of drugs in open societies, it will preventatively adopt new approaches tested elsewhere as it opens its doors. These could include decriminalizing the possession of all drugs for personal use, adopting harm reduction strategies, and elaborating alternative sentencing procedures for nonviolent drug offenders, including low-level traffickers and producers.

Note: This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post

Last June, I traveled to Honduras to confer with civil society leaders about organizing a five-nation, “end the drug war” caravan — all the way from Central America to New York City.

The “caravan” aims to stir debate in places profoundly damaged by the drug war and to bring people and their stories from those regions along the route to New York City just prior to the convening of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drug Policy (UNGASS) next April.

We knew this trip was guaranteed to be challenging. Honduras has been hit very hard by the drug war. The dramatic profits available to those who traffic in prohibited drugs have fueled the growth of criminal organizations, spurred violence, underwritten pervasive corruption, and bolstered the institutionalized impunity that enables all of it.

But there was a big, hopeful surprise awaiting us in Honduras: the stunning emergence of a powerful civil revolt against government corruption that took to the streets while we were there, and that has been calling for the President’s resignation ever since.

As I was preparing to travel I had read of allegations that funds were pilfered from the country’s social security and health system. This seemed really bad, but I was so focused on travel details and our safety that I failed to understand the depth of discontent that this would unleash.

We were, after all, mapping out an itinerary that included San Pedro Sula — currently one of the world’s most violent cities. From there we’d head to a community meeting with Garifuna leaders, seven hours (and hundreds of kilometers east of my comfort zone) in the sweltering, mafia-dominated lowlands near the Caribbean coast.


On reflection, it’s not really surprising that discontent has boiled over in Honduras. Extreme poverty is widespread and just a few oligarchs control most of the country’s lands and wealth.

Decades of a heavy U.S. military footprint in the country — and more recently, Hillary Clinton’s back-channel support of a 2009 military coup — have encouraged the enemies of democracy in Honduras.

Since the 2009 coup, gang violence has surged — adding to the economic pressures that prompt thousands of desperate families to emigrate, or sometimes even send their kids north alone, despite the terrible risks involved.

But the trigger for this summer’s peaceful uprising was the revelation that hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen from the national health system, much of it channeled directly to ruling party political campaigns. Thousands of Hondurans died needlessly due to shortages of medical personnel and medicines. These are the facts behind the outrage that has propelled multitudes of discontented, torch-carrying citizens into the streets.


As we traveled and spoke with organizations and leaders across Honduras we encountered deep opposition to the militarization and corruption of public life that have accompanied the drug war.

We were especially interested in speaking with Garifuna and other indigenous leaderswho have been among the most outspoken critics of the drug war — even as they have confronted smugglers encroaching on their ancestral lands.

The Garifuna are descendants of escaped African slaves and indigenous peoples who intermarried and settled along Central America’s Atlantic Coast in the 1700’s. They were once isolated, but in recent years have come under intense pressure from unscrupulous tourist development and sprawling African Palm plantations.

Last year, Garifuna in the tiny settlement of Vallecito found a drug-smuggling airstrip built and being operated on their territory.

Miriam Miranda, leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) stepped in to document and protest the intrusion. OFRANEH pressured the government to shut down the airfield. The army eventually complied, dynamiting large holes to disable the dirt runway.

But that was not the end of the story. The smugglers returned and started filling the hole with logs and dirt.

When OFRANEH leaders began to document the refurbishing of the airfield, they were seized at gunpoint by sicarios on motorcycles. They were released long hours later, but only because other members of their party had eluded the gunmen, alerted media, and triggered an international campaign for their freedom.

Now, a year later, OFRANEH boldly maintains a permanent encampment on the site to keep traffickers away.

This year, as protests were mounting across the country, OFRANEH held their national leadership meeting at the remote encampment. They invited us to come there to talk with them about working together to end the drug war.

We agreed about a lot of things: The drug war is a disaster and it is past time to break the taboo on speaking honestly about its impact on people, families, communities, countries, and entire regions.

They explained how parasitic criminal organizations that grew from the hyper-profits of the prohibited drug trade now run other enterprises, like extortion rackets and human trafficking. They launder ill-gotten funds through investments in mining, hotels, agriculture and other superficially legitimate industries.

The OFRANEH leaders are interested in promoting an international discussion of how we could starve the beasts of the drug war through realistic regulation of drugs that aims to dramatically reduce the illegal trade.

We talked about how human rights, public health, and harm reduction practices should be the guideposts of any new, reformed drug policies. But to be clear, no one thought ending the drug war or dismantling the powerful criminal organizations whose money and influence derives from it would be easy. Nor will it be easy for Hondurans to restore democracy and curb the power of the oligarchy.

Open public debate and scrutiny is needed to reveal the truth about the drug war: it is a deadly, decades-long international mistake that cannot be solved by any country on its own. Pragmatic drug policy reforms require concerted international cooperation.

Such reforms will not resolve all the deep tensions roiling Honduras and other countries, but freezing the drug war profit machine via incremental regulation of today’s illicit markets is a critical step toward reducing violence and weakening the networks of corruption and impunity that undermine democracy and deny justice.

The morning I left Honduras I took a taxi from my hotel in San Pedro Sula to the airport. I was in the mood to chat and asked the taxi driver if he ever felt scared doing his job in this most violent of cities. He told me that, “Yes,” he was often afraid and that (pointing to a police car), “the worst part is that you can’t rely on the authorities for help because many of them were working with the criminals. Do you know about the war tax (impuestos de guerra)?” he asked.

“Every business in this city”, he explained, “has to pay a tax to the gangs.”

“Everybody pays”, he emphasized.

“Whether you run a sandwich stand, a dry cleaning shop, a hotel, or a travel agency, you have to pay–or die. In our case, we have about 150 members in our taxi collective and we have to pay 10,000 Lempira [about 500 dollars] a week.”

“What terrifies me,” he continued, “is that the authorities are involved.”

“Let me explain,” he said.

“Every week we take our ‘contribution’ to the local jail. I am not joking,” he insisted.

“But it is even worse than that.” he told me. “One week we had trouble getting our payment together and we arrived late to the jail. The guards told us visiting hours were over and we could not enter. We started freaking out because a missed payment can mean sudden death. So, we called the cell phone of our contact inside the jail. A few minutes later the guards came back out and invited us in to deliver the ‘tax’ payment.”

“So,” he said, “You can see who is really running the show.”

As he dropped me off to catch my flight I was still thinking over the nightmarish implications of what he’d told me. For people trapped in this criminal maelstrom there is really no way out.

The enduring lesson of the 13 years of alcohol prohibition in the United States in the early 20th century is that, whether we approve or not, people will seek out mood-altering substances. We can regulate alcohol, but trying to eliminate it simply incentivized crime and fueled the growth of domestic mafias.

In the early 1930s the U.S. ratified an amendment to the Constitution to rectify the mistake.

Today, there is a growing consensus that the international war on drugs is a similar fool’s errand.

The United Nations Special Session next year is a good forum to push this conversation ahead, but it will take a longer, concerted effort to democratically change minds, hearts, and policies.

That’s why we will travel from Honduras to NYC next year. We invite you to join us, in-person, on-line, and around the world.

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