Peru's Hostage Drama -- Insurgencies Spreading In Indian-Dominated Latin America

The unfolding hostage drama in Peru is only one symptom of a disorder now spreading through large portions of Latin America. From Mexico to Colombia to Peru, insurgencies are gaining strength. Behind this instability is a widening gap between rich and poor -- particularly between Native Americans and the descendants of European and Asian immigrants.Though Africa has the world's poorest countries, Latin American countries show the most glaring inequalities. In the developing world as a whole, the poorest 20 percent of the population receives seven percent of total income. In Latin America, the poorest 20 percent gets only three percent of total income, according to the United Nations Development Program.There is a reason for this. Like the United States and Canada, Latin American countries were formed by conquests of the native peoples. In Canada, the U.S., Costa Rica and the southern cone of South America, native populations were relatively sparse, and easily overwhelmed. Where native peoples were more numerous, however, as in the regions dominated by the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations, the eventual outcome was a highly stratified and polarized society.Thus poverty in Latin America is strongly linked to ethnicity, particularly to Native Americans. It is no coincidence that new or revived insurgencies arise in Mexico and Peru, the homelands of the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Nor that much of southern Colombia -- the mountainous home of "Juan Valdez" -- is in the hands of rebel groups.In part, the widening gaps can be attributed to the much-heralded political and economic reforms in the region. These modernizing measures are working spectacularly well in Chile and even in Argentina, precisely because these are countries with fairly homogenous, Euro-American populations. But they are failing miserably in densely-populated rural Peru, southern Mexico, and southern Colombia, because they undermine traditional means of subsistence, without offering alternatives in modernizing sectors of the economy.Tens of millions of peasants, many of whom do not speak Spanish, are losing their livelihood either to cheap foreign agricultural imports or to increased competition for exports such as coffee from other developing countries. Juan Valdez is getting shafted, and he's no longer taking it with a submissive shrug and a grin. He's now growing coca, and happy to accept the protection of guerrilla organizations like the Tupac Amaru -- named for a 17th century Inca who rose in rebellion against the Spanish overlords, and was drawn and quartered.The crisis in Peru is not about terrorism; it's about a social structure held over from the Spanish conquest. The Peruvian military and police use terror, and on a far larger scale, holding Tupac Amaru prisoners -- U.S. citizen Lori Berenson among them -- in mountaintop prison cells designed to wear down, or kill, their occupants through constant exposure to the cold.Like many other Latin American armies, the Peruvian military is in fact a militarized domestic police force -- a recent skirmish with tiny neighboring Ecuador, showed the army is not prepared to defend the country's borders. Its mission is to maintain domestic order in a country whose minority European and Asian populations are prospering, but whose native majority -- descended from the Incas -- continues to be subjected to poverty, racial and cultural discrimination, and official violence.The only way out is suggested by the peace process now underway in Guatemala. Like Peru, Guatemala has a majority indigenous (Maya) population, that has been subjected to the same pattern of discrimination. Yet a protracted insurgency is ending, thanks to a different attitude on the part of President Alvaro Arzu. In contrast to the intransigent stance of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, Arzu met with the rebels, then engaged in serious negotiations. The outcome has been a series of agreements to demilitarize the country, revise the Constitution to recognize the rights of the native majority, and redirect government spending to education and other social expenditures essential to creating a modern workforce that can begin to benefit from market reforms.It is too early to tell how well this ambitious experiment will succeed, but at least for now the guns have gone silent -- for the first time in half a century.

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