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On the streets of Bogota: when a Barbie doll is worth more than a child, people die.

A while ago, I attended the funeral of Lino, an indigent, the brother of a friend of mine. Lino was murdered several blocks from his family home in a lower-middle-class area of Bogota, Colombia, shot in the head and chest several times as he tried to ran from his killer.

A buddy also died in the attack. The man who pulled the trigger, it's been said, belongs to a loose association called the "good neighbor," sort of a vigilante group that privately conducts "cleanup" campaigns, murdering drug addicts, street people, paper and bottle collectors, thieves - people whom Bogotanos have begun to label the desechables - throwaway human beings.

A seemingly emotionless priest celebrated a 20-minute funeral Mass. He never mentioned the structural violence that pushes people like Lino to the margins of existence here.

In Latin America, the category of throwaway human beings? grotesquely embraces a growing majority of the population.

Some 140 people, many like Lino, were killed by firearms in Colombia last Christmas Eve. Most were poor; nearly an were killed by other poor people. The guns they used most often were made in far wealthier countries.

The poor die; the wealthy appear not to care. Indeed, some argue the slaughter benefits the rich. This was the startling point made recently by theologian Jose Comblin during a scathing attack he made of neoliberal economics. He spoke last October in Santo Domingo at the gathering of the Latin American bishops.

Comblin sarcastically stated, "It would be better if 80 percent of Latin Americans did not exist, because they are simply an obstacle. They bother people. Their very presence is an obstacle. They eat, or try to eat, and they produce nothing. They pretend to subsist, and they are useless.

"The system, you see, would work much better if the world only bad 20 percent of the people it has today. So much crime would not exist; there wouldn't be so many useless youths lying around in the streets! Useless!"

And which Latin Americans are included in the "useful" 20 percent of the population?

It is said the "useful" are those who can afford to purchase consumer goods produced elsewhere, Barbie dolls and Hush Puppies, for example. Not the poor who purchase far less expensive goods made in local cottage industries. The "useful" Latin Americans are those who participate in the world's market economy, not the millions excluded.

The economics that U.S. interests promote in Latin America, called neoliberal economics by Latin Americans, appear to be only worsening this trend toward exclusion and violence. The Latin American bishops warned as much during their conference in Santo Domingo.

"Statistics eloquently show that, during the last decade, poverty in Latin America) has grown in both relative and absolute terms," they wrote. ". . . The growing poverty, the extreme and intolerable misery to which millions of (sisters and) brothers are subjugated, is the most devastating and humiliating scourge affecting Latin America and the Caribbean today."

The words are taken from the bishops' final document. "Neoliberal economic policies that predominate today in Latin America and the Caribbean are only deepening the negative consequences of these mechanisms (of impoverishment)," they stated.

The strategy of flushing imported consumer goods into countries like Colombia, which has a relatively strong domestic industry, are not, contrary to what we are told, improving the plight of the poor by creating jobs or by making local prices come down because of competition.

Meanwhile, unemployment and underemployment are higher than ever throughout this continent. More than half the Latin American people do not have formal jobs with salaries. They work in the informal sector as street vendors or maids. They are shoved further and further to the margins each year as their buying power progressively declines.

Profit rates in Latin America for manufacturing currently run at 53 percent, while the average rate of profit in "industrialized countries" runs 25 percent, according to figures from the Brazilian Intercongregation Justice and Peace Group.

That means, for example, that Kmart, which is planning to move a good part of company operations to the Colombian city of Barranquilla, could soon be substantially increasing profits as jobs are eliminated at home.

Overhead, salaries and U.S. taxes paid by companies in Barranquilla, meanwhile, are dirt cheap compared with similar costs in the United States. And local efforts at collective bargaining have led to assassinations in recent years in Colombia.

"For the poor, the misery will continue, and it will get worse." Comblin said. "In 10 years, even worse. There is no other predictable horizon at the moment." He reminds us that the task of making a "preferential option" for the poor gets more arduous each year, even as it gets more urgent.

Comblin writes, "Nowadays, those who take sides with the poor will reap few benefits. Twenty years ago, one could win a Nobel Prize. I would go to Europe and speak on television. But that won't happen anymore. No one is interested in the Third World anymore."

If that is the case, I expect to be attending more funerals for the likes of Lino and his friends.
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Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 29, 1993
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