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Editorial: Latin American Indian hunger

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Confrontation with Iraq dominates U.S. foreign policy agenda. This is Washington's singular preoccupation and of course the media focus is on this international issue almost exclusively. As a result of this American policy and media myopia, for long periods of time, goings on and trends in other parts of the world are largely ignored. This is a mistake - and a troublesome media lapse - because even a titanic super-power is limited in the full global context.

Just before September 11, 2001 Congressman Gary Condit and his missing intern were the media frenzy. It was like nothing else was happening in the whole world. Who would have thought of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan? Well, there's a big world of change happening - burgeoning populations, diminishing resources and increasing disparities between rich and poor. The opportunity to make a decent living is rare now in many countries, even for the well educated.

This is certainly true for Latin America. Almost out of public view, the Southern nations of the Western Hemisphere are experiencing a political sea change, based on a decade of very bleak economics, with massively growing poverty. The poorest of the poor, of course, are the indigenous peoples. As other, more numerous populations suffer from destitution, they tend to move farther into the Indian regions, taking over and often destroying Indian habitats. The economic situation is dismal all over.

Argentina is in disarray. Prices, even for bread, have doubled in the past year and unemployment is rampant. Well-dressed, middle-class citizens are seen looting stores, as hunger of children and adults drives even the most law-abiding to extreme measures.

Throughout Latin America, the much-touted open-market policies of globalization are universally regarded as failures. A severe and sustained drop in income throughout South America and Central America place the whole region at risk of following the pattern in Africa, where disease and famine are becoming commonplace. As columnist Nicholas D. Kristof noted in a recent New York Times column, "South and Central America are quietly falling apart." Per capita income in Argentina, for example, is less than it was a century ago, its economy shrinking by ten percent a year.

Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia, as Kristoff points out, are all considering default on their international debt. Brazil, which just elected a socialist president, is not far behind in considering default on its $260 billion foreign debt, a move that could trigger international economic upheaval. Colombia is mired in a 40-year-old war, into which the U.S. is stepping deeper and deeper, while neighboring Venezuela is experiencing political turmoil that could easily lead to open conflict. In Peru and Ecuador, alliances of Indians and labor unions are growing, while the economics of both countries worsen. The most radical elements of both are becoming dominant.

In Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador are experiencing massive hunger and starvation is increasingly in evidence. Political upheaval threatens Mexico as well, where early hopes for resolving immigration issues have faded in the wake of the September attacks and the U.S. fixation on international terrorism. The destruction of the Indian ejido or common-lands farming communities is leading to mass migration.

A U.S. policy that vacillates between negative interference and neglect is largely to blame for Latin America's neither here nor there economic process. The interference has been in the form of military and war-driven aid; while drastic reductions in economic aid reflect a growing neglect of social and political problems. The direction has been to move countries away from their own agricultural production for local-regional consumption. Mass-marketing of specialty mono-crops for international consumption leave local people without locally priced foods.

As always, the indigenous people of the region are suffering most, while the strong Native cultural sense of community offers some relief and potential hope. In this the stress is on local and regional solutions to specific problems. Indigeneity - that is, the opportunity to coalesce around indigenous bases of identity, territory and other commonalties - is one important response. This has its national manifestations, where ethnic group rights are defended and debated, and, even more importantly, express local and eco-regional reflections.

Village and barrio community is still very much alive in Latin America. The state is distrusted, disdained and, when possible, avoided. Families are still big, and crucial in the maintenance of community. For many, the productivity of local community is the avenue to possible solutions. However, this is a prescription that is assailed by the technocratic planners of global markets and by the economics-by-conglomerate crowd, but it is the oldest and safest approach to survival. To damage local agriculture is to destroy people's ability to stay in their aboriginal areas. The result is to force poverty upon the people and to stimulate mass migration. The huge potential then is for political instability, with inevitable and increasing violence. These self-serving U.S. policies threaten to haunt North America for years to come.