From Argentina to Aruba, the Shifting Nature of Latin American Drug Politics

“Your Tan comes straight from the bottle, b*tch mine comes straight from Aruba” said the immortal words of Paris Hilton. However, what also comes from Aruba is Coke – and lots of it. A Times report in 2019 named Aruba the “drug playground” of the rich and famous, attracting those with money to burn to high end resorts, sandy beaches, and all the drugs they could want. Those who live here, among them a surprisingly (or not) high number of British Expats, have a keen knowledge of the situation. A Channel 4 documentary on “Brits Abroad” could barely conceal the abundant spoons, bongs and needles in every bar, nor the plantations conveniently shaded in netting.

This has formed a part of an unsurprising shift in the way drugs have been perceived in very recent years, augmented by the pandemic and the subsequent normalisation of drugs for the middle suburban classes, especially in America. A CNN report in April 2020 suggested that drug use was up around 45% amongst this group, merely a month into lockdown restrictions. This normalisation made the glamourous and wealthy flaunting their drug exploits less worthy of moral recompense, if we are “all in this together” then why shouldn’t they have their fun?

However, the shift in the drug hotspots in Latin America has been the process of a much longer trend, stemming from the divisive politics of the 1900s, continuing into much of the regimes today. For example, the renown of Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s for glamour and style, as captured in the acclaimed film Evita, masked the crushing poverty and inequality, and belied the beginnings of what would become a burgeoning upper and middle class drugs trade.

The election of Perón to a third term in 1973 only seemed to further this. A burgeoning wave of what can only be described as centrism or Justicialism following two military dictatorships, with an emphasis on political independence, fed into domestic and daily lives. The ushering in of ideas of personal liberty, not always achieved in practice, provided moral justification for a soon flourishing drugs trade.

This new “liberal” (though the author is aware of the limits of this statement) ideology can be seen to have also spread into other Latin American countries on its route to Aruba; it’s appearance in Chile under the dictatorship of Pinochet leading to a heroin trade that still endures to some extent in the capital. Yet the most influential spread of drug influence can be seen to have occurred with regards to Venezuela. Under the mismanagement of Maduro, declared illegitimate since 2019, and the abundance of economic sanctions preventing the utilisation of its oil reserves, inequality in Venezuela has worsened, with the rural urban divide being more prevalent than ever. The ease of the drugs trade to make some quick cash has never been more attractive and those in the rural north are more than happy to act as runners to supply the scarce but large pockets of wealth in Caracas, concentrated around the army.

Now I am by no means wishing to contribute to negative stereotyping around Latin America or the nature of its politics, simply to exploit the evident link between large scale politics and drugs – something not seen on quite the same scale elsewhere in the world. The shifting style of drug usage, combined with the potency of a multi-billion dollar and ever-growing industry prompts questions about the future of this facet of many Latin American economies; namely, where will the next shift occur to? Will it be influenced by the likely oncoming political changes in places like Venezuela? What can become of economies such as Aruba? Every drug baron would love such a crystal ball, and policy makers the world over will be keeping a watchful eye on Latin America in the coming months and years.

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