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Kerry begins first Latin America trip

05 June 2013, 09:30

Antigua - US Secretary of State John Kerry began his first trip to Latin America on Tuesday to participate in top-level talks with his regional counterparts expected to focus on drugs and security.

Kerry will likely say that there has been no change in the US anti-drug policy, even as the Organisation of American States weighs whether to begin legalising marijuana.

"The historical nature of this assembly is such that we will start a debate on something that was a taboo for many decades," OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said at the session's opening ceremony on the outskirts of the historic Guatemalan city of Antigua.

"Today we legitimise this debate in a transparent way with conviction it can open a path towards actions that will reduce the levels of crime and violence that plague many of our countries."

A recent OAS report suggested that the issue should be given a closer look. Some regional politicians, desperate for measures to control the bloodshed, are now open to legalisation.

But while a few US states have decriminalised possession of pot for recreational use within state borders, it is far from being federal law.

Testy relations

"Of course counter-narcotics is going to be part of the discussion," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters ahead of Kerry's trip, adding that concerns remained about drug trafficking and its impact.

Kerry, who took up his post on 1 February, will spend two days in Guatemala, and was expected to speak with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on the sidelines of the meeting, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said.

Washington and the leftist Venezuelan government have had testy relations for years. Ties have been especially touchy since mid-April, when Maduro was elected to office by a razor-thin margin in a controversial election.

The US side was more circumspect about the meeting.

Kerry "will probably speak briefly with the Venezuelan foreign minister", a US official said earlier, speaking on condition of anonymity. It would be the first such encounter since the death of Maduro's predecessor, fiery leftist leader Hugo Chavez.

Kerry's visit follows a regional trip by US Vice President Joe Biden, who pressed for increased trade and investment between the United States and its neighbours to the south.

US strategy 'misrepresented'

"Our goal going into Antigua is to ensure that we can convey as clearly as possible what this administration's position on drugs has been both at home and abroad," said Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

"I think one of the things we found, on occasions, is that the US strategy, we think, quite honestly, is misrepresented," she told reporters on Monday.

"It is not solely about law enforcement; that's why this administration spent $10bn a year during the first term on prevention treatment."

Kerry's talks with the OAS leaders will not be without a certain irony, as in 2010 he shepherded a joint bi-partisan bill through Senate to strengthen the regional bloc, having accused it of being ineffectual and lacking transparency.



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