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Inequality still haunts Latin America

Posted on Thursday, 06.07.12


Inequality still haunts Latin America



To talk of Latin America as if it were a meaningful unit has always been

forced, if not artificial. But now, as a recently released social

inclusion index reveals, the region is becoming even more divided

between countries — while remaining so within many.

Measuring the performance of 11 countries in the hemisphere by

race/ethnicity and gender in access to public and private goods as well

by political and civil rights, Americas Quarterly's social inclusion

index reveals huge differences between countries in the region. At the

top, with a score of 71.9, stands Chile, with Uruguay just behind at

71.2. Contrast that with the lowest performers, Guatemala at 7.5 and

Nicaragua at 10.3. Brazil is third, but a distant third.

Looking closely you realize that contrasts are stark, not just in the

tremendous gaps between the countries, but within them, explaining their

wildly divergent scores. For all the genuine gains of a rising middle

class in the region, some countries and populations are clearly being

left behind. To give a few examples, in Guatemala while 58 percent of

school-aged children of European descent are enrolled in school, only 35

percent of those of indigenous or African descent are. In Bolivia those

same numbers are 86 percent and 72 percent.

Not surprising, then, that the differences in those countries between

the poor and those approaching middle class are also stark?.?.?.?and

based on race and ethnicity. In Guatemala, while 62 percent of

Guatemalans of European descent live on more than $4 per day (slightly

above the poverty line) only 23 percent of their fellow Guatemalans of

indigenous/African descent do — a whopping difference of 39 percent. In

Bolivia the difference between the groups just out of poverty is 17

percent ?.?.?.?and, of course, in favor of the whiter Bolivians.

As you would expect, countries such as Chile and Uruguay that lack large

indigenous populations and the ugly legacies of massive exclusion and

racism, do not exhibit the same gross distortions in access to public

goods, the market and riches. And that explains, in part, their high

ranking regionally.

Here the scores of two other countries in the index are illuminating.

First is the region's darling of the moment, Brazil. While the country

that put the B in the BRIC countries (in addition to Russia, India and

China) places third in the index, Brazil scores only 51.4. But here's

the good news: With the highest percent of its economy spent on social

programs and its ranking as the third country in the region in civil and

political rights, we see the reasons for Brazil's recent successes in

poverty alleviation, why it scores so well on the lack of differences by

race and its potential.

Peru tells another story. While it ranks third from the bottom (after

Guatemala and Ecuador) in terms of percent of its economy spent on

social programs, it ranks number four in the region in economic growth

and in both political and civil rights. Peru's challenge is to leverage

its economic and fiscal boom and its positive political and economic

environment for broader social inclusion.

There were also three countries that Americas Quarterly could not

include in its index. Unfortunately, despite their professed commitments

to social justice and inclusion, the data collected by the governments'

surveys in Cuba, Argentina and Venezuela were not considered reliable

enough to include in the index.

Ironic, no?

Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior

director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.


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