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Latin American elites face spiralling violence unless inequality is tackled

April 24 2012 - The gap between the rich and extremely poor is fuelling crime and political instability in Latin America, as wealthy elites resist structural changes that would raise the living standards of the poorest, warns a new report from Christian Aid.

http://www.christianaid.org.uk/images/scandal-of-inequality-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean.pdf

Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, editor-in-chief of online independent Guatemalan newspaper Plaza Pública, explains: 'What causes most violence is inequality, but most of the elite are not willing to address this… Conservative? No, ultra conservative. They have always believed that you have to clench your fist and turn increasingly to repressive measures in order to deal with inequality.

'As a result, the violence witnessed in Honduras and El Salvador is worsening and in Guatemala the situation is not improving as fast as it should and will not change for good until the structural causes of inequality, such as the low tax burdens, access to power and education for all are addressed.'

Claire Kumar, one of the authors of The Scandal of Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, says: 'The huge inequalities that exist in the region are clearly linked to the rise in crime, violence and political and social instability.

'Policy changes such as increasing the minimum wage to appropriate levels and progressive tax reforms can lift millions of people out of extreme poverty, and yet entrenched resistance to such measures by Latin American elites have prevented governments from implementing many of the policy levers at their disposal.'

Many analysts believe that the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras was sparked in part by former President Manuel Zelaya’s efforts to bring about constitutional reforms supported by social movements, including an increase the minimum wage that would affect the elite’s traditional access to cheap labour. In their eyes he was no longer ‘playing by the unwritten rules’ and protecting their interests. Since the coup, at least 42 people linked to peasant organisations have been killed in the ongoing land conflicts, and the climate of political insecurity means that few perpetrators have been brought to justice.

However, journalist Pellecer has not completely lost faith in the elite: 'It would be a huge generalisation to say that all the elite in Central America is self-interested, indeed there is a part of the elite that is ill at ease with how their governments distribute the countries’ wealth.'  These voices must be encouraged and harnessed in the ongoing struggle for change.

It is not just the gap between rich and poor that should concern us, but also the inequality between the genders. One of the biggest tasks for the region to confront is the level of violence against women. Almost half of the women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have been victims of at least one act of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Haiti, Colombia and Central America all have particularly high rates of violence against women. Haiti’s earthquake and on-going emergency situation, Colombia’s armed conflict, and the rise of gangs and organised crime in Central America have increased the prevalence and effects of this.

Social attitudes blame women and the climate of impunity means few perpetrators are brought to justice. The international community seems far from recognising this wave of violence and there are few signs of serious efforts to address it. 

Finally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that climate change is likely to lead to deepening inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

This report highlights Peru and the case of glacial melt. This phenomenon will directly threaten the livelihoods of thousands of small-scale farmers, as well as threatening Lima’s water supply and the current functioning of the heavily water-dependant agro-export model. It is the poorest, living without early warning systems, emergency plans, infrastructure or financial support to cope with disasters, who will disproportionately suffer from glacial melt in Peru.

Overall, the report presents an overview of regional trends in relation to poverty and inequality, looking particularly closely at fiscal policies. It highlights the region’s particular Achilles heel – the extent of income concentration in the top 10% of the population that is the highest in the world – and the particularly regressive and weak tax systems which do little to address this. The report also gives special attention to the situation of indigenous and afro-descendant groups, given they are disproportionately affected by poverty and social exclusion, as well as highlighting gender inequalities. Peru is also singled out for attention, given its striking macroeconomic achievements but extremely poor progress in tackling inequality in all its facets.

While the region’s ability to make some progress reducing poverty in the last decade is heartening, behind the national averages there still lies a worrying picture of entrenched economic, social and environmental inequalities. There are little signs of any serious political will to put inequality at the centre of the public policy agenda where it clearly belongs.

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Photographs available

If you would like further information or to organize an interview with the report’s author, please contact Sarah Wilson on 0207 523 2277 or swilson@christian-aid.org or 24 hour press duty phone – 07850 242950 


Notes to Editors:

1. Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in nearly 50 countries. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people build the lives they deserve.

2. Christian Aid has a vision, an end to global poverty, and we believe that vision can become a reality. Our report, Poverty Over, explains what we believe needs to be done – and can be done – to end poverty.  Details at http://www.christianaid.org.uk/Images/poverty-over-report.pdf

3. Christian Aid is a member of the ACT Alliance, a global coalition of 100 churches and church-related organisations that work together inhumanitarian assistance and development.  Further details at http://www.actalliance.org

4. Follow Christian Aid's newswire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/caid_newswire

5. For more information about the work of Christian Aid visit www.christianaid.org.uk