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Nine things to watch as Canada’s next Trudeau era begins


Defying expectations in August that pitted the Liberal Party in third place at the beginning of the election campaign in August, Justin Trudeau has now won a clear majority government and a mandate for change in Canada’s 42nd federal election.Canada Flag Icon

So what does that mean for Canada, for US-Canadian relations and for Canada’s role in the world in the weeks and months ahead?

Here are nine policy areas to keep an eye on as Trudeau begins the rapid transition to 24 Sussex Drive, appoints a cabinet and tackles a full agenda of issues that could dominate what will likely be a full four-year term with the kind of parliamentary mandate that should make it much more easier than Trudeau ever expected to enact his policy preferences.

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Climate change. As the Paris summit on climate change approaches in November, Canada’s government will go from being one of the most skeptical participants at the conference to one of the most enthusiastic supporters of action to reduce carbon emissions. Keep an eye on Stéphane Dion, the former Liberal leader from 2006 and 2008 and a former environmental minister, to play a vocal and supportive role. Nevertheless, global climate change policy is mostly set by the G-2 — i.e., the United States and China. So Trudeau’s role at the summit, while productive, will be more about style than any actual substance. Joyce Murray, a popular left-wing MP and British Columbia’s former environmental minister, who was the runner-up to Trudeau in the 2013 Liberal contest, is also a rising star to watch on environmental matters.

Economic policy. At the start of the campaign, the traditionally more centrist Liberals advanced a tax policy to the left of the New Democratic Party (NDP) by promising a middle-class tax cut to be paid for by slightly higher taxes on those who earn roughly more $200,000 annually. During the campaign, as Canada officially slipped into a shallow recession, Trudeau doubled-down by pledging to engage in deficit spending over the next three years to stabilize Canada’s economy, protect jobs and boost infrastructure. It was this move, again outflanking the NDP (whose leader Thomas Mulcair promised to maintain the Conservative Party’s devotion to balanced budgets), that may have convinced voters that Trudeau, and not Mulcair, represented the most striking contrast with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Ralph Goodale, a former finance minister under Paul Martin; Bill Morneau, a 52-year-old newcomer first elected last night from the Toronto’s business world and Scott Brison, a former Progressive Conservative MP who defected to the Liberals over a decade ago, could all be leading contenders for finance minister. Continue reading Nine things to watch as Canada’s next Trudeau era begins

Why a Liberal-NDP coalition in Canada feels inevitable

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau partipicate in a March 2014 forum. (Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen)
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau partipicate in a March 2014 forum. (Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen)

Roughly speaking, there are three plausible outcomes from tonight’s Canadian federal election.Canada Flag Icon

The first, increasingly likely (with a final Globe and Mail poll giving the center-left Liberal Party a lead of 39.1% to just 30.5 for the Conservative Party), is an outright Liberal majority government. It’s a prospect that no one would have expected a few days ago and certainly not when the campaign began with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau stuck in third place. But as the Liberals have pulled support from the New Democratic Party (NDP) and possibly even from the Conservatives in the final days of the campaign, they just might make it to the 170 seats they’ll need to form a government without external support.

The second, increasingly unlikely, is a Conservative win. No one expects prime minister Stephen Harper to win a majority government again nor anything close to the 166 seats he won in the 2011 election (when the number of House of Commons seats was just 308 and not yet the expanded 388). Under this scenario, Harper would boast the largest bloc of MPs, even though an anti-Harper majority of NDP and Liberal legislators would be ready to bring down Harper’s shaky minority government on any given issue. Despite a growing Liberal lead, there’s some uncertainty about the actual result. That’s because Canada’s election is really 338 separate contests all determined on a first-past-the-post basis. In suburban Ontario, throughout British Columbia and in much of Québec, where the NDP is most competitive, left-leaning voters could split between the NDP and the Liberals, giving the Conservatives a path to victory with a much smaller plurality of the vote. (In the waning days of the campaign, several groups have tried to urge strategic voting to make sure the anti-Harper forces coalesce on a riding-by-riding basis).

The safest prediction is still a Liberal minority. For a party that currently holds just 34 seats in the House of Commons after former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s 2011 disaster, a plausible increase of 100 seats would be a massive improvement, validating the Liberals’ decision to coronate Trudeau as the party’s last saving grace. Despite the NDP’s loss of support, it is still expected to have some resiliency in British Columbia and Québec. Getting to 170 from 34 might just be a step too far, but it’s certainly no failure if Trudeau falls short in just one election cycle.

What seems clear from the trajectory of Canada’s 42nd election campaign is that Canada’s two parties of the center-left easily attract in aggregate over 50% of the vote in national polling surveys. Together, their lead over the Conservatives isn’t even close. Over the past month, as the Liberals have gained support, it’s chiefly come at the expense of the NDP, which was winning many more of those centrist and left-leaning voters at the beginning of the campaign:


As the Liberals gained, the NDP correspondingly lost support, indicating that the fluidity in the election has come from anti-Harper voters shopping for the most attractive alternative. Continue reading Why a Liberal-NDP coalition in Canada feels inevitable

As US drug policy loosens, Dutch laws tighten


Increasingly over the past three decades, The Netherlands has become a haven for controversial policies on social issues — prostitution, physician-assisted euthanasia and, of course, drug legalization.Netherlands Flag Icon

Just this week, the Dutch made global headlines by firing an employee of its central bank who failed to report that she was moonlighting as a sex worker.

But even as states like Washington and Colorado experiment with legal marijuana regimes, and as the US justice department falls back from the aggressive prosecution of a ‘war on drugs’ that for decades swelled the US prison population with non-violent drug offenders, it’s the Dutch who are now second-thinking the permissive regulatory approach that transformed Amsterdam into a pleasure capital, where locals and tourists alike could indulge in vices prohibited elsewhere in the world. The bold steps toward full legalization in Washington and Colorado, however, are bringing marijuana into the mainstream. Seattle, Denver and Boulder are now the laboratories for the world’s most progressive drug reforms, not Amsterdam.

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RELATED: Jamaican government targets legalizing ganja by September [June 2014]

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Dutch liberalization, which dates back to the 1970s when officials embraced a policy of gedoogbeleid (tolerance) for soft drug use, was always an experiment in half-steps. Selling small quantities at Dutch ‘coffee shops’ or growing cannabis for personal use were decriminalized, but the wholesale trade in marijuana remained illegal. That kept the weed trade firmly in the ‘gray market’ — neither fully prohibited nor fully welcomed.

Though Amsterdam’s tourism industry resisted attempts to restrict marijuana use to Dutch citizens alone, it hasn’t stopped Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s government from introducing new restrictions that make it more difficult for non-nationals to smoke weed in The Netherlands. Since 2011, new laws give municipalities a wide berth to establish just how permissive they’d like to be. That means that while Amsterdam has largely resisted the crackdown, other cities, especially border towns like Maastricht, have embraced the tighter restrictions with enthusiasm. New police powers took effect last month allowing officials to prosecute those who facilitate the widespread cultivation of marijuana, such as ‘grow shops’ that sell the the equipment necessary to grow marijuana plants.

The result? A greater role for organized crime in the marijuana trade:

The result: Coffee shops are increasingly buying buds from criminal organizations willing to absorb the risk of prosecution by growing large amounts of cannabis in shipping containers buried underground, with little regard for quality or mold abatement. “It’s amazing how bad the quality has become,” says Bergman. “And the price is up. It’s what we’ve all predicted.”

It’s an ironic result for a party like Rutte’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), one of the most successful economic liberal parties in all of Europe. Rutte’s predecessor, the Christian democratic Jan Peter Balkenende, was even more hostile to marijuana, and he pushed for legislation that would require all coffee shop visitors to acquire a ‘weed pass.’ Though that didn’t happen, subsequent Dutch governments have chipped away at drug liberalization, and the number of coffee shops in Amsterdam alone fell in the last decade by about one-third.

Nevertheless, the Dutch lessons were palpable. The most enduring lesson for US policymakers was the distinction between soft drugs and hard drugs. By taking a more permissive attitude to soft drugs like marijuana, Dutch officials could devote more resources to reducing the trade in harder drugs like heroin. While the United States took a tougher approach to hard-core drug users in the 1990s, The Netherlands treated heroin use, for example, as a public health issue instead of a crime problem. Twenty years later, with heroin use once again on the rise globally, it’s the United States that is taking the Dutch approach to addiction at every level of government — from US attorney general Eric Holder, who has pushed to end long, mandatory sentences for drug offenses, to Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who’s made heroin treatment a pillar of his state government.

Uruguay election results: Vazquez easily wins runoff


It wasn’t unexpected, but former president Tabaré Vázquez easily won Uruguay’s presidential runoff late Sunday, extending control by the the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) for at least another five years.uruguay

Vázquez, who made national history by leading his party to victory in the 2004 election, was succeeded by José Mujica (pictured above, right, with Vázquez, left), who has become in five years one the world’s most beloved presidents — for his extremely simple, austere personal style, for his honesty and folksiness, and sometimes even for his policies, which have included social reforms like liberalizing Uruguay’s abortion laws, enacting same-sex marriage equality and legalizing marijuana use.


Those reforms, in addition to a plan to host a handful of prisoners from the US prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, will be secure under Vázquez’s second term.

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RELATEDVázquez charges into second round of Uruguayan vote

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Both Vázquez and Mujica have benefited from an incredibly strong economy, which has propelled Uruguayan GDP per capita higher than in any other South American country, and that was an obvious factor in Vázquez’s victory against Luis Lacalle Pou, the attractive, young candidate of the more conservative Partido Nacional (National Party), or the ‘blancos,’ one of the two traditional Uruguayan parties.

So what to expect from the next five years? Vázquez, now firmly in legacy-moulding terrain, will hope to consolidate the gains of the past decade, including the economic and social reforms of both his prior administration and the Mujica government.

That also entails working to keep the Uruguayan economy strong, notwithstanding a Brazilian slowdown and increasing economic chaos in neighboring Argentina, which will choose a successor to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner later in 2015. It also means keeping the Frente Amplio brand strong for the inevitable day when it will lose an election, which means maintaining Uruguay’s relatively corruption-free reputation. Also expect Vázquez to move slightly more to the center than Mujica, who was always more popular personally than many of his signature policies, including the marijuana reform.

Mujica, after all, will still play an important role in Uruguayan politics as one of his party’s senators in the Cámara de Senadores (Chamber of Senators).

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RELATED: Meet José Mujica, the Uruguayan president who’s on the path to legalizing marijuana

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But there was always a sense that while Mujica’s charisma far outshone Vázquez’s charms, it was Vázquez who was the better executive, and in his first term, he expanding spending on health care and poverty and restructured the tax code, balancing the social welfare concerns of his leftist base and the interests of the country’s business community. Continue reading Uruguay election results: Vazquez easily wins runoff

Vázquez charges into second round of Uruguayan vote

tabarevazquezPhoto credit to República.

One of the most salient facts that’s been repeated over the course of this year’s presidential elections in Latin America — first Colombia, then Bolivia and, of course, Brazil last weekend — is that just two incumbents have lost reelection bids in more than three decades of growing regional democracy.uruguay

That’s true, of course.*

But many countries in Latin America limit presidents to a single lifetime term or, at least, prohibit reelection.

That’s the case in Uruguay, where presidents are not eligible for reelection, though they are eligible to run for a second non-consecutive term. That’s why Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay’s former president, is the nominee of the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and why he nearly won the first round of the Uruguayan presidential election outright on Sunday.


Vázquez is vying to win a third consecutive term for Frente Amplio, following the administration of his former agricultural minister, José Mujica, who has pursued a more socially progressive agenda since 2010 than Vázquez implemented between 2005 and 2010. Vázquez, back in 2009, actually preferred that his finance minister to Mujica. But Mujica’s wide following on the Uruguayan left powered him to the coalition’s presidential nomination.

As president, Mujica (who was elected as a senator on Sunday) signed into law a bill legalizing abortion that Vázquez once vetoed. He has also, famously, introduced the most comprehensive marijuana legalization reforms within Latin America, while espousing an aura of almost extreme humility.

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RELATED: Meet José Mujica, the Uruguayan president who’s on the path to legalizing marijuana

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Though a Vázquez restoration would hew Uruguayan policy slightly more to the center, the fate of Mujica’s efforts to legalize marijuana use and other policy matters, including a pledge to take in prisoners from the US facility on Guantánamo Bay, hinge on Vázquez’s victory in the November 30 runoff.  Continue reading Vázquez charges into second round of Uruguayan vote

Jamaican government targets legalizing ganja by September

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It may seem natural that Jamaica should have relatively lax rules on marijuana use, given the association among the country, Rastafarians and smoking ganja.jamaica

Nevertheless, cannabis has been illegal on the island since 1913, when it was still a British colony, and under the Dangerous Drugs Act, possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis is illegal.

That may change soon, with the government of prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller preparing to loosen Jamaica’s drug laws.

Last week, the Jamaican government introduced a proposal that would, to a significant degree, decriminalize cannabis use on the island. Notably, the reforms would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of cannabis (though users would still be subject to ticketing and a fine if caught) and use for all religious, medical and scientific purposes. Though just between 1% and 10% of Jamaica’s 2.9 million people are Rastafarians, they believe the use of ganja in religious ceremonies is sacred.

The Rastafari movement arose in the 1930s, and it worships the late emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, as a central sacred figure (before he became emperor, he was born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, hence the reference to Ras ‘prince’ Tafari). It was popularized in the late 20th century largely through the influence of reggae music, most particularly by Jamaican songwriter Bob Marley, an adherent of Rastafarianism.

Simpson-Miller’s center-left People’s National Party (PNP) controls a two-thirds majority (42 out of 63 seats) in the Jamaican House of Representatives, and a nearly two-thirds majority (13 of 20 seats) in the Jamaican Senate, so the proposals are very likely to be enacted as law in a vote that the government hopes will take place in September.

As in many Latin American countries, Jamaica has resisted liberalizing its drug laws out of fear of US retribution, including the withdrawal of aid and other support. A former Jamaican commission on ganja recommended decriminalization years ago, but no Jamaican government wanted to risk the wrath of the United States.

Today, however, two US states — Washington and Colorado — have decriminalized the personal use of marijuana after ballot initiatives in November 2012 and the US justice department under president Barack Obama and US attorney general Eric Holder are largely allowing, and even encouraging, the state-level experimentation.

Like many Caribbean countries since the 2008-09 financial crisis, Jamaica is suffering from lower tourist revenues and stagnant economic growth, as well as extremely high debt loads — in Jamaica’s case, public debt of nearly 140%. Jamaica also suffers fromextremely high crime level, with the sixth-highest homicide rate in the world, and the highest of any Caribbean island country, according to a new UN report.  Continue reading Jamaican government targets legalizing ganja by September

Meet José Mujica, the Uruguayan president who’s on the path to legalizing marijuana


Although Uruguay’s austere president José Mujica grows chrysanthemums with his wife in his humble home outside Montevideo in his spare time, that’s not the kind of flower power that’s catapulted him to global headlines this week.uruguay

Instead, he’s moved forward, surpassing a key hurdle in making Uruguay, the Southern Cone nation of 3.3 million, the first country in the world to decriminalize and regulate the sale and purchase of marijuana when the lower house of Uruguay’s parliament, the Cámara de Representantes (Chamber of Representatives) passed a legalization bill by a narrow 50-46 margin late Wednesday, which will allow the bill to sail smoothly through the upper house and to enactment.

Far from transforming Uruguay into a drug haven, however, Simon Romero, writing for The New York Times, explains the highly regulated nature of what will become the Uruguayan marijuana market, which would place strict limits on the growth, use and sale of the drug:

Under the bill, which could become law as early as this month, people would be allowed to grow marijuana in their homes, limited to six plants per household. They would also be permitted to form cooperatives allowed to cultivate 99 plants. In addition, private companies could grow marijuana under the bill, though their harvests could be bought only by the government, which would market the drug in licensed pharmacies.

To buy marijuana in pharmacies, Uruguayans would be required to enter their names into a federal registry, which is intended to remain confidential, and would be limited to buying 40 grams per month. And in a move to prevent foreign tourists from flocking to Uruguay to smoke marijuana, the legislation would restrict legal purchases to Uruguayans. Marijuana use is already largely tolerated by the Uruguayan authorities.

As remarkable as it seems, and despite international criticism of the Uruguayan measure, it was only a matter of time before a Latin American country takes the step to legalize the drug.  Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, neither of whom are exactly left-wing ideologues have both made strident calls for marijuana legalization, and other Latin American leaders, such as former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, have called into question the longstanding U.S. anti-drug policy that’s launched a 40-year ‘War on Drugs’ that turned out to become more a war on Latin America, wreaking havoc and escalating violence from México to Perú.  Even within the United States, public opinion is turning away from criminalization — California’s ‘medical’ marijuana industry is booming and voters in Washington and Colorado elected in November 2012 to legalize marijuana in those states.


What’s even more remarkable is the rise of the Uruguayan president who’s likely to be the first to make it happen.  In a region with sometimes eccentric leaders, the 78-year old Mujica — or as he’s affectionately known among Uruguayos, ‘Pepe’ — stands out.

A former leftist guerrilla in the Tupamaros movement, Mujica spent much of Uruguay’s military government that spanned the 1970s and early 1980s in prison.  As Romero writes in a profile of Mujica for The Times earlier this year, prison life was about as grim as imaginable for the one-time rebel fighter:

He spent 14 years in prison, including more than a decade in solitary confinement, often in a hole in the ground. During that time, he would go more than a year without bathing, and his companions, he said, were a tiny frog and rats with whom he shared crumbs of bread.

The sometimes violent tactics of the Tupamaros, which drew its inspiration from Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrilla effort, weren’t without controversy.  But though he rarely discusses those days, his wife, Lucía Topolansky, is also a former Tupamaro, and while he has long since eschewed the more radical elements of his past, he has retained a strikingly humble approach to material wealth.  Mujica, who drives himself in a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, has been labeled by the BBC to label him as ‘the world’s poorest president’:

President Mujica has shunned the luxurious house that the Uruguayan state provides for its leaders and opted to stay at his wife’s farmhouse, off a dirt road outside the capital, Montevideo.  The president and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers.  This austere lifestyle – and the fact that Mujica donates about 90% of his monthly salary, equivalent to $12,000 (£7,500), to charity – has led him to be labelled the poorest president in the world.

As president, he has presided over a strong economy, though the GDP growth rate has fallen from 8.9% in 2010 to 5.7% in 2011 and an estimated 3.5% in 2012 — a slowing growth rate, yes, but one that’s consistently overperformed Brazil’s GDP growth in the past three years, one that is now overperforming the increasingly troubled Argentine economy, and one that would make the United States or the European Union feel like it’s experiencing an economic boom.  Mujica has been an aggressive champion of freer trade, and for expanding Mercosur, the South American free trade bloc.  He’s also a proponent of wind and other forms of renewable energy, and he’s a tireless booster of Uruguay exports, half of which are agricultural products, notably beef and grain products.

But his real legacy, even before the push for marijuana legalization, has been on social policy.  Yesterday, for example, Uruguay’s same-sex marriage act took effect after the Chamber of Deputies passed the law on an 81-6 vote last December.  He’s also signed legislation legalizing abortion restrictions.  But while those measures had broad popular appeals, polls have shown that up to two-thirds of Uruguayan voters are wary of legalizing marijuana.

As Uruguayan presidents cannot run for consecutive terms in office, much of Mujica’s devil-may-care approach to controversial issues, especially drug legalization, lies in the fact that he’s not running for reelection.  But it’s also in keeping with his honest, everyman persona, which has afforded him broad popularity, even among his critics. That popularity has made it easier for Mujica to champion unpopular issues, just as it has made it easier to deflect the loquacious president’s gaffes, such as when he was caught on tape disparaging both Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner: ‘esta vieja es peor que el tuerto,‘ which roughly translates to ‘the old woman is worse than the cross-eyed one.’

But unlike the Kirchners, who have hewn a relatively populist neo-Peronista course for Argentina, which remains shut out of global capital markets, and unlike other leftists like the late Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Mujica has been firmly on the lulista left, and like former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, he’s spent his political career moving from leftist roots — even more radical than Lula’s trade union roots in Brazil — to the political center.  Continue reading Meet José Mujica, the Uruguayan president who’s on the path to legalizing marijuana