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The headline reads "Central Americans to use Trickle-down Strategy in War on Poverty," capturing the basic thrust of the news story and the assumptions that frame it: aiding the poor is the highest priority of this new breed of populist conservatives, as it always has been for Washington and the political culture generally. What is newsworthy, and so promising, is the populism of the conservatives we support, and their ingenious and startlingly innovative approach to our traditional commitment to help the poor and suffering, a trickle-down strategy of enriching the wealthy -- a "preferential option for the rich," overcoming the errors of the Latin American Bishops.
One participant in the meeting is quoted as saying that "These past 10 years have been gruesome for poor people, they've taken a beating." Putting aside the conventions, one might observe that the political outcomes hailed as a triumph of democracy are in no small measure a tribute to the salutary efficacy of U.S. terror, and that the presidents who hold formal power, and their sponsors, might have had something other than a war on poverty in mind. There is also a history of trickle-down approaches to relieving poverty that might be explored. Such an inquiry might lead us to expect that the next 10 years will be no less gruesome for the poor. But that path is not pursued, here or elsewhere in the mainstream.
While the three-day conference of populist conservatives was taking place in Antigua, 33 tortured, bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in Guatemala. They did not disturb the celebration over the triumph of freedom and democracy, or even make the news. Nor did the rest of the 125 bodies, half with signs of torture, found throughout the country that month, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. The Commission identified 79 as victims of "extrajudicial execution" by the security forces. Another 29 were kidnapped and 49 injured in kidnap attempts. The report comes to us from Mexico, where the Commission is based, so that human rights workers can survive now that the U.S. has succeeded in establishing democracy in their homeland.3
The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) reports that the percentage of the Guatemalan population living in extreme poverty increased rapidly after the establishment of democracy in 1985, from 45% in that year to 76% in 1988. A study by the Nutritional Institute of Central America and Panama (INCAP) estimates that half the population live under conditions of extreme poverty, and that in rural areas, where the situation is worse, 13 out of every 100 children under five die of illnesses related to malnutrition. Other studies estimate that 20,000 Guatemalans die of hunger every year, that more than 1000 children died of measles alone in the first four months of 1990, and that "the majority of Guatemala's four million children receive no protection at all, not even for the most elemental rights." The Communiqué of the January 1990 Conference of Guatemalan Bishops reviews the steady deterioration of the critical situation of the mass of the population as "the economic crisis has degenerated into a social crisis" and human rights, even "the right to dignity," "do not exist."4
Throughout the region, the desperate situation of the poor majority has become still more grave with the grand triumph of our values. Three weeks before the Antigua conference, in his homily marking the completion of President Alfredo Cristiani's first year in office, Archbishop Rivera y Damas of San Salvador deplored the policies of his administration, which have worsened the already desperate plight of the poor; the new conservative populist so admired in Washington and New York "is working to maintain the system," the Archbishop said, "favoring a market economy which is making the poor yet poorer."5
In the neighboring countries, the situation is much the same. A few days after the encouraging Washington Post report on the Antigua meeting, an editorial in a leading Honduran journal appeared under the headline "Misery is increasing in Honduras because of the economic adjustment," referring to the new trickle-down strategy that the Post found so promising -- actually the traditional strategy, its lethal features now more firmly entrenched. The main victims are "the usual neglected groups: children, women, and the aged," according to the conclusions of an academic seminar on "Social Policy in the Context of Crisis," confirmed by "the Catholic Church, the unions, several political parties, and noted economists and statisticians of the country." Two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, over half of these below the level of "dire need." Unemployment, undernourishment, and severe malnutrition are increasing.6
The Pan American Health Organization estimates that of 850,000 children born every year in Central America, 100,000 will die before the age of five and two-thirds of those who survive will suffer from malnutrition, with attendant physical or mental development problems. The Inter-American Development Bank reports that per capita income has fallen to the level of 1971 in Guatemala, 1961 in El Salvador, 1973 in Honduras, 1960 in Nicaragua, 1974 in Costa Rica, and 1982 in Panama.7
Nicaragua was an exception to this trend of increasing misery, but the U.S. terrorist attack and economic warfare succeeded in reversing earlier gains. Nevertheless, infant mortality halved over the decade, from 128 to 62 deaths per thousand births; "Such a reduction is exceptional on the international level," a UNICEF official said, "especially when the country's war-ravaged economy is taken into account."8
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3 Mesoamerica (Costa Rica), July 1990. Detailed updates are circulated regularly from the Washington office of the Commission, 1359 Monroe St. NE, Washington DC 20017.
4 Central America Report (CAR), Guatemala, Nov. 10, 1989; July 27; April 6; March 2, 1990.
5 AP, Boston Globe, June 4, 1990, a 75-word item, which is more than elsewhere.
6 Editorial, Tiempo, July 2, 1990.
7 César Chelala, "Central America's Health Plight," Christian Science Monitor, March 22; CAR, March 2, 1990.
8 Latinamerica press (LP) (Peru), Nov. 16, 1989.