Latin America and the Caribbean

Financial Times (London)
17 November 2000

Summit turns spotlight on plight of street children

Andrew Bounds in Panama reports on an Ibero-American meeting taking aim at the official blind eye turned to child abuse

Eleazar Munoz, a 10-year-old beggar on the streets of Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, thought he was in luck when an expensive car stopped at a traffic light rolled down its window.

But instead of a coin in his hand the boy received a burning cigarette in his eye.

Two police officers who saw the attack arrested Rodrigo Valladares Pineda, son of the country's human rights commissioner.

The incident, which happened two months ago, sums up the challenge facing the 10th Ibero-American summit - the annual get-together of Spain, Portugal and their former colonies - which has taken children as its theme.

Until recently the military authorities who ran many Latin American countries had a simple approach to solving the problem of street children. Death squads and police officers combed the streets of cities from Tegucigalpa to Sao Paulo to carry out a brutal "social cleansing".

This weekend 21 heads of state, including those from Spain and Portugal, are meeting to discuss a new approach to dealing with street children and all the continent's 200m under-18s, at the request of President Mireya Moscoso of Panama, the host and only female at the gathering.

"All the other summits had economic themes and we wanted to give this one a more humanitarian agenda," said Alonso Fernandez, the summit's co-ordinator.

"It is 10 years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and there is still much to be done. We have 19th-century conditions in the 21st."

Just how much is shown by the work of Casa Alianza, a charity that works with street children in Mexico and Central America. Last month it became the fifth winner of the world's largest humanitarian award, the Dollars 1m Conrad N. Hilton prize, which it is using to build a child care centre in Managua, Nicaragua.

Bruce Harris, its director, said child prostitution, forced labour and abuse was rife in the region. He said many governments turned a blind eye to abuses. He condemned Honduras, which has ratified the UN convention, for solving just one quarter of the 300 cases of child killings in the 1980s and 1990s.

"The Honduran authorities have the information on these murders yet have not been capable - through lack of will or capacity - of prosecuting those responsible," he said. In 36 cases police or security forces were found culpable.

In the Ibero-American countries 18m-20m under-15s work full time and almost 60 per cent live in poverty. Six million aged 18 and under are subject to severe physical attacks and 85,000 a year die after family violence or social exclusion.

A children's opinion poll commissioned by UNICEF, the UN children's fund, found a quarter of Latin American children and one in six in the Iberian peninsula were victims of family violence. One-third of Latin Americans thought their country was getting worse.

"The poll shows Latin Americans have little confidence in their leaders, feel depressed about the situation of their country and dream of a better life," said Jose Miguel Aleman, Panama's foreign minister.

Luis Gonzalez, Peru's foreign minister, said part of Latin America's Dollars 27bn annual military spending should be redirected to helping children.

Per Engebak, regional director of UNICEF, says things have improved. "Democracy has helped a lot. Almost all the countries have revised all their laws with reference to the UN convention and have enacted children's codes."

Mr Engebak admits he faces an uphill struggle in his battle to move children from work to school. Mexicans reacted with indifference to the revelation that Vicente Fox, their president-elect, used child labour, because he was paying above the minimum wage.

"It is extremely short-sighted to say that exploiting children in the workplace improves the economy. It may do so in the short term, but it is poor economics to perpetuate a cycle of inter-generational poverty. We know that anyone with a primary education can expect to earn 50 per cent more than those without."

Many countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, pay poor families to send children to school. The cost of universal free primary education would be just three percent of Latin America's annual debt payment, Mr Engebak said.

In September Unicef staged a pop concert, entitled "I have a dream", in Panama to raise awareness. Performers included Argentines Ali Lerner and Mercedes Sosa, a UNICEF ambassador, and Ruben Blades, the local salsa legend.

The artists read out five hopes, including universal education, a home for every child and ending deaths from preventable or easily treated diseases.

As Bono of the pop group U2 has shown with debt relief, where cultural icons lead, politicians sometimes follow.

Meeting united against Cuba bar

The US will find itself bereft of western hemisphere support for its Cuba policy at the Ibero-American summit, writes Andrew Bounds. All 19 Latin American states, Spain and Portugal will call on the US to repeal the Helms-Burton act, governing the Cuba trade embargo. In 1999, five Latin American leaders boycotted the Havana summit.

The draft Declaration of Panama, to be signed tomorrow, says the countries "reject the extra-territorial application of national laws or measures that contravene international law".

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2000

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