Latin American News for the Week of October 21, 2002


COSTA RICA -- Life in Costa Rica has changed for Alcira Herrera Beita since she received a small loan from Opportunity International. The Christian organization provides the means for poor people in developing countries to work their way out of poverty.

For Herrera Beita, 29, the loan of $100 US allowed her to leave a life of poverty three years ago. She used the loan to start buying and selling goods at a local market. "It changed my life," said Herrera Beita, who is in Calgary this week to thank business leaders who fund "micro-loans" to help poor entrepreneurs in developing countries such as hers.

Herrera Beita's determination led to a job as a loans officer for the organization. She now recruits, trains and supports more than 300 women in so-called "trust bank" groups. The groups are made up of 15 to 40 borrowers, mainly women, who co-guarantee each other's loans. "If you make something good, you make it good for the group," Herrera Beita said Monday through a Spanish translator.

The average loan is $239, with a repayment rate of 98 per cent. Wayne Johnson, executive director of Opportunity International Canada, said the organization helps people who wouldn't normally qualify for a loan. "You can't use your mangoes or clothes or dirt floor as collateral," he said. "The only alternative is a loan shark."

Opportunity International provides loans through the trust banks and on an individual basis at the same interest rates as the banks. Repayment, which includes a savings component, is required within a year. Johnson said 88 per cent of the loans are given to women. Herrera Beita said the loan helped her move into a better home, with cement floors and wooden walls instead of dirt and cardboard. It also gave her the opportunity to send her daughter to school. "My dreams have come true," she said.

In the past 32 years, Opportunity International has lent more than $60 million to help hundreds of thousands of people start businesses and revive their local economies. The programs operate in 25 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. It is supported by partners in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada. (Calgary Herald October 15, 2002 )

MEXICO -- Cranking into first gear, 49-year-old Juana de la Fuente jerks the steering wheel and swoops around an over-laden passenger bus that has just halted in front of her. Her taxi, an old Volkswagen Beetle turned shrine, is adorned with a white beaded rosary and figure of Mexican patron saint - the Virgin of Guadalupe - who she prays to for protection each time she begins a new journey through the sprawling urban jungle.

De la Fuente, a single mother of two, is a member of the Taxi Guild "Proem" in Mexico City, an organization that loans cars to some 50 female taxi drivers and has another 250 women on its waiting list. Mexican daily Reforma interviewed some of these women to discover the ins and outs of earning a living as one of the few female taxi drivers in Mexico City.

Maribel Mendoza is the youngest Proem member. At 22, she is a single mother and has worked as a taxi driver for just a year and a half. Nevertheless, she has a large clientele and can earn up to 80 dollars for a hard day's work, a relatively good salary in a country where the minimum wage averages around four dollars a day.

Mendoza understands mechanics and knows how to tune up her car. On more than one occasion she has been offered money to pick up illegal drug supplies, but she prefers to stay above the law. Just a year older than Mendoza, Beatriz Guzman funds her accounting studies with money she earns taxi driving. "(In this job) we see everything," says Guzman. "Any writer hearing the stories told by women at the guild would have hit a gold mine, for example, indecent proposals.

The (amount of) sexual harassment we encounter on the job is incredible - not just from men, but also from women. This can be flattering, but on the whole it's shows a lack of respect for our work." As for 37-year-old driver Leticia Bravo, driving a taxi is her third job. Bravo works as a machinist and a housewife, as well as sharing a taxi with her husband.

"In the morning I house-keep and work at my business making metal parts," explains Bravo. "In the afternoon my husband leaves me the taxi to work in while he looks after the children." But Proem director, Susan Sanchez, has had to suffer the worst aspects of the job. At 39, she has survived an armed assault on her car and a kidnapping.

"My kidnappers were disappointed because they thought, being the director, I'd have money. But that wasn't the case. Once they realized this, they abandoned me in the middle of nowhere," Sanchez recalled. "It was a difficult experience but it didn't crush my strength or my will to carry on working in this field."

While driving a taxi may not be the safest profession for anyone in this notoriously risky city, these women are prepared to confront danger on a daily basis because they love the freedom their jobs give them - the chance to be their own boss, choose their own time-table and explore the most unpredictable facets of the city and its people Their passengers come to them because they feel safer riding with a woman, and many even get off the metro a few stops earlier or later to reach the women's taxi base in the city's north. (The News October 14, 2002)

MEXICO -- The Mexican Association of Women's Networks (AMMOR) marked International Rural Women's Day by calling on the federal government to make equal rights for women a reality and not just a discussion point, the press reported Wednesday. "Women in the countryside produce 80 percent of food consumed and do 60 percent of harvest and trading work," said AMMOR's national director, Valeria Vidales Martinez, at a press conference in Mexico City.

Nevertheless, the majority of Mexico's rural women live in poverty, according to AMMOR, whose members amount to almost 10,000 women from around the nation. In Mexico, women "are the administrators of misery and protagonists in the feminization of poverty," said Vidales. She expressed her disappointment that the day was ignored by the government and even first lady Marta Sahagun, who declared her strong support for women's and children's rights at the First Ladies of the Americas Conference in Mexico City last month.

"Our work isn't recognized, we're almost invisible," lamented Vidales, a Mixtec Indian. "It seems (Marta Sahagun) didn't even know about the day for indigenous women and poor women who, as well as working in the field, have to bring up their children while the fathers are absent." The migration of men to the United States and major cities in Mexico in search of work has created many fatherless families in rural communities.

The situation of women in the countryside has worsened over the past decade due to a constitutional land reform allowing for privatization of communal land, and the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. These initiatives, together with a lack of investment in the countryside, have obliged families to sell or rent their land, said Vidales.
While acknowledging that government programs have managed to reduce poverty in some areas, Vidales emphasized the continuing needs of many rural women, including health care, financial assistance to form cooperative organizations and protection from domestic violence.

She added that women should also be given land ownership rights: "We only own about 20 percent of property (in Mexico)." According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, three quarters of the world's population suffering from hunger live in rural areas of which 70 percent are women and children. (The News October 17, 2002)


BRAZIL -- Women won 10 seats in the Senate and 43 in the Chamber of Deputies in Sunday's elections in Brazil -- a big stride forward, even though women's political representation remains limited. But another group, indigenous people, did not fare so well. Not one of the 21 Indian candidates to the national and state legislatures was elected.

The number of women doubled in the upper house, where they now hold 12..3 percent of 81 seats. In the lower house, female deputies now represent 8.4 percent of a total of 513 seats -- all of which were up for renewal, compared to two-thirds of the Senate. The figures could shift slightly, because the vote-count that ended Wednesday remains subject to review at the request of political parties, sociologist Almira Rodrigues, one of the directors of the Feminist Centre of Studies and Advice (CFEMEA), told IPS.

She also noted that the gender of some of the winning candidates could not be identified with 100 percent certainty just by their names. CFEMEA, a non-governmental organization based in Brasilia, the capital, monitors political questions of interest to women, including the progress and fate of draft laws in Congress.

Female candidates made a better showing Sunday than in the last elections. In 1998, only 29 women were elected to the Chamber of Deputies, compared to 43 this time around -- a 48.3 percent increase. But over the past four years, the number of women in the lower house of Congress had already grown to 33, as female alternates replaced male lawmakers who moved on to elected posts like mayorships or were appointed as government ministers.

The political force that contributed the most to the advance of women in parliament was the Workers' Party (PT), which tripled its number of women deputies thanks to the election of 15 female PT candidates. The leap in the PT's representation of women formed part of the unexpectedly strong electoral performance of the country's leading leftist party, largely due to the charisma and leadership of its presidential candidate, former metalworker and trade unionist Luiz In cio Lula da Silva.

Lula, who garnered by far the largest number of votes -- 48.4 percent -- will dispute the Oct 27 run-off with his closest rival, social democratic candidate Jos Serra, a former health minister, who took 23.2 percent. The growth in women's share of seats in the national legislature was seen almost exclusively in the parties that have been in the opposition under the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. That means a majority of the female lawmakers to assume their posts in the Chamber of Deputies in February are on the left, Rodrigues pointed out.

Another noteworthy outcome was that in eight of the country's 27 districts -- 26 states and a federal district -- the most-voted candidate to the Chamber of Deputies was a woman. In addition, 11 parties saw their female candidates to the lower house of Congress elected, compared to just seven in 1998. Thus, advances were seen in the total number of female parliamentarians; the large number of votes obtained by several women candidates; and the expansion of female representation in terms of both party affiliation and geographic spread, as the number of parties and states with female deputies and senators increased, Rodrigues noted.

Nevertheless, the CFEMEA activist said that while the results were excellent, Brazil is still far from the agreed target of at least 30 percent female representation in Congress.

By law, the political parties must reserve 30 percent of their parliamentary candidacies for women. But no party has ever complied with the quota, which was adopted in 1996. In addition, female candidates receive less funding for their campaigns than men, which Rodrigues likened to "beginning a race from far behind the starting-line."

She said "more affirmative action" would be needed to meet the 30 percent target, as well as special treatment, training courses, and greater investment by parties in their female candidates.
Brazil's indigenous people, meanwhile, performed far worse than women in the elections, as not a single one of the 21 Indian candidates running for the national or state legislatures was elected.

But Jos Adalberto da Silva, a candidate in the northern Amazon jungle state of Roraima, fell just a few votes shy of being elected to the Chamber of Deputies. Just when he appeared to be the second indigenous person ever elected to the national Congress, the tallying of the votes from the last three ballot boxes showed he was just 74 votes short.

Da Silva, a leader of the Macuxi indigenous community who ran for the Communist Party of Brazil, backed by a broader leftist coalition, told IPS that he still had a faint hope of securing the necessary votes once the recount of ballot boxes that face legal challenges is completed, a process that should take around two weeks.

In Congress, da Silva planned to advocate agricultural development programs, more education, and support for indigenous groups in both rural and urban areas. But "The fight is not over. There will be new elections in the future," he said.

Da Silva is now the first alternate to a woman deputy for Roraima who was also backed by the leftist coalition. Another indigenous man, Antonio Ferreira da Silva, of the Apurinam ethnic group, is the second alternate to Senator Marina Silva, representing another Amazon jungle state, Acre. But it is unlikely that either of the two Indian candidates will have a chance to sit in Congress. Only one indigenous representative has ever been elected to Brazil's national legislature: Mario Juruna, a Xavante Indian, who was elected in 1982 for the state of Rio de Janeiro. However, he failed his bid for reelection. He died early this year in Brasilia.
Brazil, a country of 170 million, is home to around 350,000 Indians, compared to an estimated five million when the Portuguese first arrived in 1500. (Inter Press Service October 10, 2002)

CHILE -- US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised Tuesday to smooth the way for a 600 million dollar sale of 10 F-16 fighters to Chile, Chilean Defense Minister Michelle Bachelet said.

They would be the first US high performance fighter aircraft sold to the region in two decades. Agreed to in January and approved by the US Congress, the sale has been hung up on negotiations over "offset" arrangements that would require that the proceeds be reinvested in Chile. Rumsfeld indicated that he would look into the matter and would work to make "the whole offset issue come out swiftly," Bachelet told reporters after the meeting. In a 45-minute meeting, she encouraged Rumsfeld to attend a meeting of defense ministers from the Americas on November 18 in Santiago, said Lieutenant Commander Barbara Burfeind, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

They discussed regional security; terrorism in the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay; the International Criminal Court; peacekeeping and demining, Burfeind said.
"Rumsfeld asked about her challenges in reorganizing her ministry," Burfeind said.

Bachelet, a socialist and Latin America's first female defense minister, is the daughter of a leftist Chilean military officer who was tortured and killed under the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. Bachelet told Rumsfeld about her efforts to establish confidence building measures, normalize relations between the military and civilian authorities and integrate women in the military, Burfeind said. (Agence France Presse October 9, 2002)

MEXICO -- The governor of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo has apologized to citizens for the controversy surrounding his recent trip to Europe and asked his wife to return to the public post from which he dismissed her last week.

State first lady Maria Rubio Eulogio set off a scandal when she accused Gov. Joaquin Hendricks of traveling to Europe accompanied by "other women" at public expense while Hurricane Isidore was pounding Quintana Roo, which lies at the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Hendricks' initial response was to say that the purpose of the trip was to attract foreign investment and to dismiss his wife as president of the Comprehensive Family Development Program (DIF), citing health reasons for her removal. But he took a dramatically different tack in remarks Sunday night during a meeting of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

"I wish to ask for everyone's understanding and ask you all to forgive this embarrassing incident, however it may have occurred," Hendricks said. "I also wish to express my respect and admiration for all the women of Quintana Roo, especially - for obvious reasons - my wife Maria, who, I hope, will soon be back on the job at the DIF, which is where she belongs, and back home with her family, who loves her dearly and eagerly awaits her return," the governor said. "I want Quintana Roo and the nation to know that I am extremely ashamed of this incident, the more so for its having been aired through the media," Hendricks said. (EFE News Service October 15, 2002)

PERU -- Duty-free access to United States markets under a U.S.-Andean trade pact may be denied to Peru if it is unable to demonstrate action taken against widespread and pernicious forms of child labor. Combatting child labor is one of 10 conditions that Peru must fulfill to meet the requirements for duty-free access to the United States market for its exports. Experts, however, say the country is unlikely to live up to that demand.

The U.S. Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which recently replaced the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA) and will be in effect for five years, affects Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. On Oct. 1, the first exports under the ATPDEA set out from the port of El Callao, near Lima. The clause on child labor is "utopian," sociologist Vilma Barcelli, a social worker in a private company, told IPS. Over the next five years, the practice will only "increase, as can be predicted based on the statistics of the Ministry of Women and the Family," she said.

In 2000, the Peruvian government signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits child labor for minors under 14 in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and under 15 in the rest of the world. Although all of the political parties in this South American country of 26 million are in favor of compliance with the U.N. convention, there are those who say immediate enforcement is impossible, and could even be counterproductive. Some argue that "keeping children from working will push their families further into poverty, until the socioeconomic conditions in this country change," said Barcelli.

That objection was raised by parents, youth groups and non-governmental organizations in January 2001, during the parliamentary debate of a draft law to ban work for children under 14. "They should ask us, to find out whether we agree with a prohibition for us to work," Lisandro C ceres, a 13-year-old who was at the forefront of a march by the National Movement of Child and Adolescent Workers (MNNAT), said at the time.

"I believe they want to pass the law to bring themselves into line with other countries. But if they want to pass it, they should first work out the problem of poverty faced by our parents, and make sure that our families will have everything they need," he argued. After the new law was enacted, members of MNNAT requested exemption from the ban, and a source with the Labor Ministry said permits would be granted in 242 cases, but that respect for the rights of the children concerned would be guaranteed.

Nearly one in four Peruvians between the ages of 8 and 14 work. Child labor is more common in rural areas, in family tasks like the harvest, planting time, irrigation and animal husbandry, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Official statistics, meanwhile, indicate that nearly 42 percent of Peruvians aged 13 to 16 work, while one out of three do not attend school.

"One of the most serious negative impacts of child labor is seen in education," said the head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) unit for the Andean area, Eduardo Araujo.

"Only 50 percent of Latin American children who work complete primary school, and less than 20 percent graduate from secondary school," he added. Given the magnitude of the problem, authorities in Peru have decided to focus first on eliminating risky jobs "that endanger the physical, mental and moral welfare of the child, whether due to the nature of the activity or the conditions in which it is carried out."

In Lima, child labor was eliminated, with ILO support, in the artisan manufacture of bricks, in exchange for steady jobs for the young workers' parents. A similar plan is now being implemented among stone-cutters who work in quarries on the northside of the capital. But the worst forms of child labor in Peru are seen in informal mines and gold-panning operations, due to the number of children involved, and the extremely dangerous and insalubrious conditions in which they work.

Although there is no official data on the number of children working in informal mines along the Pacific shoreline and in the highlands, and in the gold-mining operations in the highlands and the southeastern jungle region, Doris Portocarrero, with the Rights of the Child Initiative Group, puts the number at more than 50,000.

The artisanal mines are sites that have been abandoned by the companies that worked them, once the profit margin dropped due to a decline in the quality or quantity of the minerals extracted. They are now run informally by former employees and their families. The small children working in the mines are popularly known as "mole children", as they are sent into the narrowest galleries, where they work with hammer and chisel. Youngsters from indigenous peasant families from the highlands work in the gold-mining outfits in the jungles of the Madre de Dios region in near slavery conditions, held in debt-bondage for the meager food and clothing they are given. Very few are ever able to pay off their debts.

"The child miners do not attend school. How will they grow up without any education? They will have to inherit the family occupation, which they in turn will hand down to their offspring, and thus their appalling living conditions will be perpetuated," said Portocarrero. Many of the miners' children suffer chronic malnutrition, anemia and tuberculosis, noted ILO researcher Mar a del Carmen Piazza, who coordinated a study on the plight of child workers in the southern departments or states of Puno, Madre de Dios, Ayacucho and Ica, and in La Libertad in the northwest. "Their life expectancy is below 50 years," she pointed out. "In the cold areas of the Andean highlands, they suffer acute respiratory disease, rheumatism and arthritis, and in the hot jungle regions, where the gold-panning operations are located, there is a high incidence of dysentery." Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Peruvian girls work 12 to 16-hour days as domestics, with virtually no protection for their rights. (Inter Press Service October 8, 2002)