From Mon May 29 15:16:22 2000
Date: Wed, 3 May 2000 22:58:02 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: CENTRAL AMERICA: Social Unrest on the Rise as Poverty Soars
Article: 95240
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Social Unrest on the Rise as Poverty Soars

Commentary by Maricel Sequeira, IPS, 2 May 2000

SAN JOSE, May 2 (IPS)—Central America appears to be approaching dangerous levels of social unrest due to soaring poverty and corruption and the prevailing free market economic policies, say analysts.

Poverty stands at 90 percent in Nicaragua, 80 percent in Guatemala and Honduras, 40 percent in Panama and 20 percent in Costa Rica, according to official and unofficial data.

>From Guatemala to Costa Rica, an almost total lack of credibility among the political classes and opposition to measures aimed at privatising state enterprises and modernising and downsizing the state apparatus have fuelled growing discontent and protest movements.

In Guatemala, just four days after rioting over a rise in the cost of public transportation and the resultant police crackdown left five dead and over 20 wounded, trade unions took to the streets on International Workers Day Monday to protest the high levels of unemployment and the persecution of trade unionists.

According to unofficial statistics, 46 percent of the economically active population of Guatemala is unemployed.

This May 1st found a working class and the majority of the people of Guatemala sunk in the fiercest poverty, destitution, and social exclusion, Guatemala's central trade union, the 'Central General de Trabajadores', stated in a communique.

The disturbances forced the Guatemalan government to overrule the rise in the cost of bus tickets. The police, meanwhile, blamed the violence on youth gangs that supposedly infiltrated peaceful demonstrations.

Widespread protests also occurred in Costa Rica in March when parliament approved a law to modernise the state-run power company, triggering a week-long nationwide wave of demonstrations and roadblocks and forcing the government to send the bill back to a legislative commission for review.

In both cases, the protests may have looked disproportionate at first. But political analysts say a new wave of social discontent is building up in Central America.

Costa Rican analyst Rodolfo Cerdas said the March crisis was foreseeable but was ignored due to the callousness of politicians.

Warning signals, he said, were the declining turnout for elections—just over 70 percent in 1998—and opinion polls that showed the public was fast losing confidence and trust in local political parties, parliament and the government.

For leftist lawmaker Alvaro Montero, the crisis in Costa Rica is not over, and a new flare-up could occur at any time over land disputes and the opening of the economy in agriculture, a touchy issue throughout Central America.

According to trade unions in the region, the liberalisation of agriculture, privatisations and neo-liberal economic policies are the reasons why most of Central America's 35 million inhabitants are living below the poverty line, and why the social gap between the rich and poor is widening.

Large sectors of the Catholic Church in the region agree with the trade unions that the free market model has failed to improve the standards of living of the majorities in Central America.

In Honduras, for example, an editorial in the Catholic weekly paper Fides this week outlined a panorama of fast-growing poverty fuelled by the phenomenon of globalisation.

The widespread impoverishment is compounded by problems deeply embedded in Honduran culture, like corruption in the public and private spheres, a deficient productive structure, and a political culture with scarce content of ethical values, the editorial added.

One of the aspects criticised in Honduras is the politicisation of the judiciary, which becomes a prize for whichever party is voted into power, when the politicians and officials of the moment divvy up the judgeships.

Fides called for in-depth reforms of the judiciary that would guarantee timely, impartial justice for all. Honduras tops the list in Central America in terms of the proportion of prison inmates awaiting trial, who account for nearly 90 percent of the penitentiary population in that country.

The Honduran trade union confederation, the 'Federaci¢n Unitaria de Trabajadores', meanwhile, says 80 percent of the country's six million people have fallen into poverty, largely because of free market policies.

In El Salvador, the Coordinator of Social Organisations Against Privatisation, an umbrella linking some 50 groups of civil society, organised a May 1st protest against sales of public assets.

Poverty is especially high in Nicaragua, the poorest country in Latin America.

According to a survey by the Institute of Nicaraguan Studies (INE) released over the weekend, 90 percent of Nicaragua's four million people are poor, with 71 percent living in extreme poverty.

With respect to unemployment, 52 percent of those surveyed said they had no stable job and 14 percent reported having no work at all. In urban areas, 52.6 percent declared themselves unemployed.

According to Nicaragua's Central Bank, unemployment in the country stands at just nine percent.

While Nicaraguans struggle to scrape by any way they can, politicians and government officials remain the focus of an endless chain of corruption scandals, which have reached all the way to the top.

Last year, conservative President Arnoldo Alem n was accused by then-treasury inspector Edmundo Jarqu¡n of increasing his net worth by 900 percent since taking office in 1997.

Roberto Gonz lez, a leader of the left-wing trade union federation 'Central Sandinista de Trabajadores' in Nicaragua, issued a call to workers Monday to use all the mechanisms at hand until this corrupt government falls.

Francisco Ram¡rez, the vice-president of Nicaragua's office of the treasury inspector, told IPS that his country was in the grip of an appalling level of social corruption, and that murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, domestic violence, graft and other kinds of administrative and political corruption had become routine.

Ram¡rez warned that corruption was the biggest hurdle to development in Nicaragua.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned Monday that the culture of corruption, which stands in the way of addressing poverty and the inefficiency and inefficacy of governments, could bring setbacks to democracy in Latin America.