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5 August 2008

More popular than Enver Hoxha

The worldwide prices of cocaine have not fluctuated much, nor, I am told, has product quality varied

By Kenzie Eliasen

One has to be fair to everyone, I feel. Even to statisticians.

Take, for instance, the old saying “lies, damned lies – and statistics” – in my view it’s much too sweeping and condemnatory. I suggest it be modified from now on to “lies, damned lies – and Colombian statistics”. That would point the finger in the right direction, without besmirching the reputations of non-Colombian practitioners of that art who have been suffering unjustly for the crimes of their confreres in Bogota.

Let me explain.

On Friday, President Álvaro Uribe called a meeting of some of his fellow heads of state from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama to discuss drugs.

Not the major drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Just the minor ones such as cocaine of which his country is such a bountiful producer.

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Using all his well-renowned guile, the president convened his meeting in Cartagena, one of the world’s most beautiful cities and the port from whence Spanish galleons for centuries took the gold and precious stones of America to Spain. (Readers who haven’t yet visited it should go immediately, having decided whether to lodge in one of those lovely Caribbean beach hotels or share my preference and stay inside the walls of one of the world’s most impressive 17th century fortresses.)

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Those who continue to believe, against all the evidence, in the worth and validity of the idea of a war against minor drugs will see nothing wrong in President Uribe’s action. And I wouldn’t challenge their right to believe that or indeed anything else. After all there is no crime in believing the earth is flat.

For me trouble came into view as General Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s chief of police, announced baldly in Cartagena that over the past six years Colombia’s share of the world’s production of cocaine had fallen from 90 per cent to only 54 per cent today.

Now that’s a big claim you have been making, General, and I realise you are making for the sake of protecting and, if possible, enhancing the reputation of your president and your country. After all, it is one of your jobs.

Yet you must know that your and Colombia’s small store of credibility is hit very hard indeed by statements which fly totally against easily verifiable facts.

A month ago, for instance, we got a report from the picturesquely-named United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (how interesting that the UN gives precedence to the pursuit of minor drugs over the big issue of crime!). About Colombia it said: “In 2007, the total area under coca cultivation in Colombia was estimated at 99,000 hectares. This estimate represented a 27 per cent increase in area under the illicit crop compared to 2006 (78,000 ha).

“This is the first significant increase in coca cultivation after four years of relatively stable cultivation.”

It would have been extremely stupid to try and pretend that Colombia drastically reduced its share of the world market for cocaine at a time when the country’s output remained steady.

It is an act of unadulterated lunacy to put that idea forward when there is a steep RISE in Colombia’s cocaine output. The worldwide prices of cocaine have not fluctuated much, nor, I am told, has product quality varied, nor has any of the agencies which spend good taxpayers’ money searching and trying to measure new plantations of coca bushes which provide the raw material for cocaine found any new plantings.

But then statistics are not well handled in Colombia. A month or two back there were reports that a public opinion survey had thrown up the astonishing statistic that President Uribe’s popularity had reached heights that have seldom been claimed by a politician since the death of Enver Hoxha, the Leninist dictator of Albania, or since the last simulacrum of elections staged by Hosni Mubarak, the Western-backed Tyrant of the Nile – sorry, I meant to say the Noble Guardian of Western and Israeli interests in a turbulent Middle East.

The Colombian survey would have had us believe – and, sadly, some of the more naive New Statesmen readers did believe – that Don Ãlvaro had chalked up a score of 82 per cent popularity in March which slipped just a couple of points the following month. Apparently with a straight face, the polling company told us that their confection was based on telephone calls to 1,000 people in four cities between 24 and 28 April.

It needs to be pointed out to those who don’t know Colombia that millions of poor Colombians haven’t got telephones; that millions more live in comprehensive isolation in the countryside and wouldn’t have the time, the courage or the inclination to answer questions from a stranger if they had a phone, and that the terrorism of the army and the guerrillas over the decades has produced a situation where three million Colombians are refugees in their own country.

Colombian statistics? Don’t make me laugh!