Why you should care

Because the debate over drug legalization has real, bloody stakes. 

What do a Colombian anarcho-capitalist, disenchanted members of the left, rockers, metalheads, hard-core Catholics and a Bogotá inner-city mom all have in common? Their obsession with the 34-year-old historian and politician Daniel Raisbeck — and his plan to end the violence in Colombia by legalizing cocaine.

The self-described “classical liberal,” whose political identity bears more than a passing resemblance to that of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, is answering discontent among a young, urban political base in Colombia with his Movimiento Libertario (Libertarian Movement). Though he failed to win mayorship of Bogotá in 2015, Raisbeck has taken on an outsize role among the opinion class, while remaining on as a professor of political philosophy and history at the Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá, where he focuses on ancient and 20th-century Colombian history. He also serves as editor-in-chief of the libertarian online newspaper PanAm Post, which reaches 1.3 million unique monthly visitors. The small but influential publication puts out clickbait-friendly headlines designed to tickle the sore spots of anyone suffering from a sense of government overreach — e.g., “Colombia’s 7 Most Absurd Taxes” or “Why Colombia Should Legalize Drugs Unilaterally.”

In Colombia, the right has historically painted most leftists as “Marxist and Communist extremists,” while the left views the right as pure “neoliberal conservatives,” says Juan Carlos Segura, an anthropologist and professor of cultural studies at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana. Raisbeck and his 20,000 supporters are shifting that narrative. Yet Segura cautions that libertarianism — like any independent political movement — will have to deal with the issue of getting labeled as one of the two … likely the neoliberal tag.

[Raisbeck] thinks Juan Manuel Santos’ government is “sending a terrible message to society: Violence, in the end, pays politically.”

Raisbeck’s followers are furious with government corruption and wasteful spending, hell-bent on drug legalization and want to let the free market reign. All of this is coming as the government is implementing a re-brokered peace deal lauded by the international community with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel group that has had a heavy hand in Colombia’s decades of drug-fueled armed conflict. Raisbeck is unimpressed with the deal, however. He thinks Juan Manuel Santos’ government is “sending a terrible message to society: Violence, in the end, pays politically.” He compares it to the story “being sold in the media” when he was a child — that ridding the world of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar would mean peace. But not so. After him, he notes, came the Cali cartel, then FARC. What’s next?

The baseball card version of Raisbeck’s policy ideas: He wants the Latin American states most wracked by the war on drugs to legalize cocaine and other drugs. Even without other South Americans in tow, Raisbeck thinks Colombia should take unilateral steps to fully legalize drug production and consumption. (He’d be fine with just marijuana, too.) “It would be a very strong message to the international community to say, ‘Look, the drug war is causing most of the violence in Colombia, and we’re really going to take steps to end it,’” he says. “The peace negotiation with FARC was a perfect opportunity and completely wasted.” Raisbeck also wants to see a more competitive charter school model challenge a broken public school system.

Raisbeck ran for mayor of Bogotá in 2015 on a slim budget of 40 million pesos (approx. $13,300) and a load of grassroots social media. Though he came in sixth out of seven candidates, he did win more than 20,000 votes, far more than he expected. He was officially on the political map. Competing candidates, he says, asked if they could borrow his proposals. Now, he is taking that capital and turning himself into something of an opinion leader, a political thinker without the weight of political office.

Vanesa Vallejo, who works with Raisbeck at the paper, describes him as “a dreamer. He ran for office in a country that really didn’t know what it meant to be a libertarian … He put that word in the Colombian dictionary.” An educated, mostly urban class is increasingly ready for new politics, observes Segura; they are “upset with the system, and they want to see something different. So they take a risk with something absolutely different … Like with Trump’s voters; most don’t understand Trump. They just don’t want Hillary.”

The son of two lawyers, Raisbeck grew up in the capital of Bogotá, far from rural Colombia. His father’s family is of Scottish descent, with roots going back to the mercenaries who fought alongside Latin America’s independence leader, Simón Bolívar. Certain critics lambaste Raisbeck for being disconnected with Colombia’s farmers and therefore the rural roots of the conflict. But Raisbeck insists the car bombs around Bogotá during his childhood in the late 1980s showed him the stakes of drug violence.

Some question how effective Raisbeck’s proposals would be for Colombia. Segura thinks libertarianism in Colombia could work in the distant future, but Raisbeck’s proposals for the country’s current context strike him as “utopian” and “too romantic.” Plus, he asks, “how do you legalize cocaine without legalizing the business? In other words, the illegal groups who displace, murder and enslave farmers?” Raisbeck’s reply is that legalization is no panacea but a powerful tool: “If you take away their financing from drugs, you’ll really weaken them.”

Raisbeck’s city has surprised before, electing nontraditional, independent candidates to the mayor’s office. Take Antanas Mockus, Raisbeck muses, over dinner at a swanky restaurant in northern Bogotá: When the Universidad Nacional professor failed to get his lecture hall of students to pay attention to him, he turned around, dropped his pants and made his ass — and himself — a legend. The university fired him. Mockus then ran for mayor on an independent, experimental platform and won. In Raisbeck’s world, maybe it’s not too much to promise the moon.

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