Inequality threatens stability in Latin America

Violence and political instability in Latin America will only increase unless inequality is addressed, Christian Aid has warned.

A new report from the development agency says that the gap between the rich and the extremely poor is fuelling crime and political instability.

It accuses the region's wealthy elites of resisting the structural change that would allow living standards among the poorest to improve.

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.”

The report points to the 2009 coup d'etat in the Honduras, linked by many analysts to the attempts of former President Manuel Zelaya to introduce constitutional reforms and increase the minimum wage, a move that would have hurt the interests of the elite by making it more difficult to access cheap labour.

Christian Aid reports that at least 42 people linked to peasant organisations have been killed in the ongoing land conflicts since the coup, while the climate of political insecurity means that few perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Claire Kumar, one of the authors of The Scandal of Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that the "huge" inequalities were "clearly linked" to growing crime, violence and political and social instability across the region.

“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," she said.

Pellecer added, however, that 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,” he said.

The Christian Aid report says these voices must be encouraged and harnessed in the ongoing struggle for change.

It voices additional concern over gender inequality. Almost half of the women living in Latin America and Caribbean have experienced at least one instance of sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Christian Aid said that violence against women remained one of the biggest tasks facing the region, particularly Haiti, Colombia and Central America.

Violence against women has increased in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, it reports Armed conflict in Colombia and the rise of gangs and organised crime in Central America have increased the prevalence in these regions.

The aid agency said there was a tendency to put the blame on women, while a climate of impunity means that perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.

“Gender-based violence is prevalent in the region, including rape and femicide, which is often carried out with impunity.

“In Brazil, 52 per cent of judges and policemen do not think such violence is an issue.”

It continues: “A multi-faceted approach is needed to protect women from violence, provide adequate support and treatment, improve enforcement of the law, dedicate more resources to preventing these crimes and end impunity.

“Challenging the prevailing social attitudes that have allowed this level of violence against women to become normalised is key to solving the problem.”

The report raises concern over the additional impact of climate change, which it says is likely to deepen inequality between the haves and have-nots.

It highlights Peru and the case of glacial melt, which will directly threaten the livelihoods of thousands of small-scale farmers, as well as threaten 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, Christian Aid warns.

A "particular Achilles heel" across the region, it says however, is the concentration of income in the top 10 per cent of the population - the highest in the world.

The "regressive" and "weak" tax systems "do little to address this".

Overall, it is the indigenous and afro-descendant groups who are "disproportionately affected" by poverty and social exclusion.

Christian Aid added that it could see few signs of serious political will to address inequality.

“Even with progress, it is clear that inequality – and not only income inequality, but also social exclusion and political marginalisation – is firmly entrenching poverty in the region," the report concludes.

“There is ample evidence that stark inequality levels are holding back further progress, making the eradication of poverty much more difficulty, and denying citizens full enjoyment of their rights and citizenship.”