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PERSPECTIVE ON BRAZIL : Suffer the Little Children . . . : A country that sees its homeless kids as vermin to be exterminated is a candidate for censure and economic sanctions.

August 01, 1993|S. GREGORY JONES | S. Gregory Jones is a research associate at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Three centuries ago, the satirist Jonathan Swift proposed that poor Irish children be fattened and served up as food to the rich. His masterwork of ironic logic, "A Modest Proposal, for preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country," comes to mind in light of last Friday's news that seven wretched homeless children, huddled together across the street from a church, had been shot dead by vigilantes in Rio de Janeiro.

This appalling act of misanthropy was not an aberration; paid assassins have been putting Swift's satirical notion to work for years in cities throughout Latin America; in Brazil alone, more than 4,600 street children have been killed in the last three years.

An estimated 40 million abandoned children live on the streets of urban Latin America. Nightly, tens of thousands of them are set upon by organized vigilantes and mercenary off-duty and retired policemen. In Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and elsewhere, this nightmarish nocturnal violence is paid for and broadly supported by the middle classes. In fact, there is a growing movement throughout the region that rancorously advocates the elimination of these troublesome urban waifs by any means necessary--whatever it takes to render the streets clean and "safe."

In Brazil, street children have been tortured and executed by mobs calling themselves "the judges." These death squads are financed by businessmen, rival drug mafias and, in a few cases, the managers of upscale tourist facilities, who privately acknowledge that they count fees paid to vigilantes as a legitimate business expense.

Last year, a business leader was quoted in the Jornal do Brasil: "When any of these children are killed, it is a favor to society." The army's war college has called for "the elimination pure and simple of these children." The Rio daily, O Dia, likened street children to rats. Even some mainstream media have embraced the script, with radio and television programs promoting the extermination of this urban "subspecies."

Forced to live by their wits because of the complete lack of supportive programs, street children resort to aggressive panhandling, theft and violence as they struggle to survive in society's filthy pockets. Frequently, they die at the hands of gangs for their involvement in small-scale drug-trafficking.

To relieve the pain of an empty stomach, street children frequently resort to the only drug available to the miserably poor in Brazil--shoemaker's glue, its fumes inhaled from plastic bags. Many sniff glue before they engage in crime, such as picking pockets or petty thievery. Glue-sniffing is one of the defining characteristics of Brazil's street children, a truly sad fact.

That these children are viewed as a problem is perhaps understandable; what is unfathomable is the readiness of powerful and sophisticated elements in Latin American society to explain away the children's lives as mere pestilence.

One famed protector of Rio's street children, Carlos Bezerra, of Brazil's Innovation Institute of Social Health Care, and himself the target of an attempted vigilante assassination because of the work that he does, offers this sad apologia for his charges: "There is a shell within them that covers the essence of their childhood, a protective cover manifested not only in their public image as wizened monsters, but in their own distorted sense of self. This is pathetically revealed when they find the body of one of their assassinated companions, and touch and play with the dead corpse, as if they were toying with a pet stuffed animal."

This "death in life" motif is characteristic of their entire existence. Many of the murdered children do not have birth certificates; to prove that they have died, their living identity must be established, often an impossible task, figuratively and literally.

What happened last week in Rio, and continues to happen daily, must be looked upon by the international community as the emergence of yet another ideology that seeks to demonize a despised layer of society in order to justify its extirpation. As each murdered child of the streets is buried, we inter not only a fragile and abused body, but also society's complicity in the child's destruction.

The plight of street children, though publicized intermittently, cries out for the sustained focus and judgment of people of goodwill everywhere. This can have an impact, for the infernal fate of these children is rooted largely in negligent government policies.

The successful response to Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano's coup attempt in June demonstrated that the threat of economic sanctions on developing nations with significant and established business sectors is an effective leverage where human rights and democratic procedures are flouted.

If Washington really wants to reverse this country's Cold War record of supporting rogue regimes in Latin America, then the White House might consider making good on Deputy Secretary of State Clifton Wharton's recent statement that human rights will be at the core of Clinton Administration foreign policy. A good start would be to advise Brazil and Wharton's other "Latin American tigers" that the economic incentives they hope for from the IMF, World Bank and free trade will depend on demonstrated improvements in this social pathology. A nation that tolerates the extermination of its children is not a good investment.

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