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CENTRAL AMERICA: Poverty and Violence in Times of Peace

Inés Benítez*

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 7 2007 (IPS) - Twenty years after the signing of the agreement that laid the foundations for peace in Central America, the economic and social causes of the civil wars that shook the region are still in place, and represent latent threats of new conflicts, analysts warn.

In the mid-1980s, three armed conflicts were raging in this region.

The oldest broke out in 1960 in Guatemala against a historical backdrop of foreign interventions, the struggle for the right to land by the country’s indigenous majority, and authoritarian governments.

In Nicaragua, the U.S.-financed “contra” fighters were combating the government of the leftwing Sandinistas, who toppled the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979.

And in El Salvador, guerrilla forces that were active since the 1970s and formed a united front in 1980 were fighting an authoritarian regime that was becoming more and more violent.

In May 1986, the Guatemalan city of Esquipulas hosted a summit meeting of the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which came to be known as “Esquipulas I”.

Costa Rican President Óscar Arias later submitted a peace plan that evolved from the meeting, which was aimed at bringing about democratisation, cessation of internal hostilities, full respect for human rights, national reconciliation, regional security and economic cooperation in the region. It also laid the groundwork for international verification procedures and provided a timetable for implementation.

The “Esquipulas II” accord was signed by the five governments on Aug. 7, 1987, forming the basis for the national treaties that eventually brought the armed conflicts to an end.

The document stated that in freedom and democracy, the countries of Central America will adopt agreements aimed at accelerating development, in order to achieve more egalitarian societies, free of extreme poverty.

When Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict finally came to an end in 1996, the country experienced a new political openness and democratisation of its institutions. But in 2007, the basic aim of breaking the cycle of marginalisation and poverty is still pending, say experts.

Twenty percent of the Guatemalan population was living in extreme poverty (on an income of less than a dollar a day) in 1990, a proportion that was reduced to 16 percent in 2000 but rose again to 21.5 percent in 2004. And 48 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

“Hunger in times of peace. That is a contradiction,” Karin Slowing, coordinator of the latest United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on Guatemala, remarked to IPS. She pointed out that there have been virtually no changes in the distribution of land, ownership of which is heavily concentrated, since 1979.

Economist Miguel Arturo Gutiérrez told IPS that with respect to poverty and social inequality, “little has changed” since Esquipulas II, and since the signing of the 1996 peace accord.

The 1996 agreement formally ended the conflict between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), which claimed the lives of 200,000 people, mainly Mayan Indians. According to the U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, the army was responsible for more than 90 percent of the atrocities committed during the war.

“The army today plays a marginal role in society, but wealth is still heavily concentrated, and income has not been redistributed,” said Gutiérrez, who took part in drafting Guatemala’s second follow-up report on compliance with the Millennium Development Goals, published by the UNDP in March 2006.

(The MDGs were adopted by the international community in 2000.)

The report said that social spending rose from 3.2 percent to five percent between 1995 and 2004, but remains below the Latin American and even Central American averages.

“There is peace, but there is also more poverty. The wealth remains concentrated in just a few hands,” former president Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990), one of the signatories of Esquipulas II, told IPS.

Economic and social marginalisation and the need for regional integration are the most pressing development-related problems today, said Cerezo.

Nor have the two decades that have passed since Esquipulas II brought solutions for such problems in El Salvador, said economist Alfonso Goitia.

After the country’s 12-year armed conflict was brought to an end by a peace deal in 1992, hopes were raised for better distribution of wealth in the country and for a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, “but the policies implemented” by the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) governments since 1989 “have led to greater inequality and concentration of wealth,” said Goitia.

A report on El Salvador’s compliance with the MDGs published by the UNDP in June says that 31.5 percent of households were poor in 1991, compared to 22.8 percent in 2005.

But the report’s author, Carlos Acevedo, questioned the government’s figures and told IPS that the Consumer Price Index used to establish the poverty line included products listed at costs that were lower than the real prices.

“What is suspicious about this national poverty line is that it reflects a gradual decline in the cost of the basic food basket, so that today it is supposedly much cheaper than 10 years ago, which is something that people don’t believe,” said Acevedo.

Besides, El Salvador is still among the 20 percent of countries with the highest levels of inequality in the world, adds the report.

According to the UNDP, the richest 20 percent of households had 54.5 percent of the national income in 1992 and the poorest 20 percent had just 3.2 percent. Ten years later, the proportions were 58.3 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.

The January 1992 peace agreement signed by the government of Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) brought to an end a war in which some 80,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed, and 50,000 were left disabled.

“Today, furthermore, we are once again facing the problem of authoritarianism, repression and persecution, under legal or pseudo-legal mechanisms; we are returning to a situation that could trigger a new social conflict,” said Goitia, referring to threats and attacks on social and human rights activists.

Like Guatemala and El Salvador, Nicaragua has seen the last 20 years pass without becoming a “viable country” for the majority of its 5.6 million people, despite the climate of peace, economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca told IPS.

“The survey on living quality by the Nicaraguan Statistics and Census Institute found that 70.3 percent of the rural population still lived in poverty in 2005,” Martínez Cuenca said in a forum held in Managua by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation to analyse progress made since Esquipulas II.

Civil war in Nicaragua finally came to an end in 1990. Eighteen years of armed struggle against the Somoza regime were followed by 11 years of fighting by the Contras in their attempt to overthrow the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) governments.

The stagnation of the civil war, the plunge in living standards that it caused, and the U.S. trade embargo against Nicaragua led the Sandinistas and Contras to end the conflict, writer Sergio Ramírez, who was a member of the Sandinista governing junta from 1979 and vice president between 1985 and 1990, told IPS.

But beyond the economic damages, what ended the war was the official count of more than half a million refugees and around 43,000 victims (other sources put the total at 30,000), said Ramírez, who has distanced himself from the FSLN and has retired from politics.

In his view, “the greatest achievement, apart from peace itself, is that no one believes anymore that problems can be solved with weapons. People have understood that killing each other for ideological reasons is a crime in and of itself.”

Nicaragua is now at peace. But it is the second-poorest country in the Americas after Haiti.

The last U.N. report on Nicaragua, published last year, says the country has made little progress in terms of development, with extreme poverty shrinking only slightly, from 19.4 percent of the population in 1990 to 14.9 percent in 2006, still far from the target of 9.7 percent that it must reach in order to meet the MDG poverty reduction goal by 2015.

* With additional reporting by Raúl Gutiérrez (El Salvador) and José Adán Silva (Nicaragua).

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