Sunday, January 07, 2007

Putting things in perspective 

While Chavez’s government has huge accomplishments, it also has had shortcomings and failures. This leads to well deserved criticisms. That is all well and good.

But sometimes it causes people to lose perspective. That Venezuela doesn’t have the prosperity of Germany, the social welfare system of Sweden, or the social peace of Switzerland should come as no surprise – yet it leads some to think Chavez’s government has come up short, that it hasn’t accomplished what it should have.

This line of thinking though is clearly misguided. Venezuela, which is very much an under-developed country cannot be fairly compared to European countries which have been developed for a century or more. More reasonable comparisons are to be made with countries with circumstances comparable to Venezuela’s.

When this is done even some countries touted as role models for the rest of the world. India, for example, has recently become a model for development in the third world. Yet the reality is that country remains desperately poor, and while a tiny minority has benefited, most people remain stuck in a deeply unjust society that shows no signs of changing. Take this article from today’s New York Times:

NEW DELHI, Jan. 6 — When Vandana Sarkar, an impoverished migrant worker, went to the police in October to report that her 20-year-old daughter was missing, she recalled Friday, officers laughed and said, “Why do you people have so many children if you can’t look after them?”

Their casual response should not have come as a surprise. At least 30 other sets of parents had reported children missing from the same slum area in Noida, an affluent suburb of Delhi, over recent months. Some say they were dismissed as “drunken trouble-makers.” Others claim officers refused even to register their complaints.

It was only when 17 chopped-up bodies, most of them belonging to children, were found in the sewers behind the home of a wealthy local resident on Dec. 29 that the Noida police were finally stirred into action.

What seems clearly a case of serial killing on the fringes of the capital has become a national scandal, with public horror at the brutal details interwoven with outrage at the police department’s failure to investigate.

That India has a two-tier justice system is nothing new. Only widespread protest drove the courts to order a retrial for a rich young man acquitted in February of fatally shooting a model at a party in 1999. In December, the accused, Manu Sharma, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And when the 3-year-old son of an Indian executive disappeared near his Noida home in November, it was instantly national news. The police immediately began a huge hunt, found the abductors and returned the child to his distraught parents.

But the case of the dead and missing slum children has provided a brutally stark example of how the law does not work for the marginalized, shocking even the most jaundiced observers of the nation’s legal processes.

The sluggish police response to the disappearance of dozens of children has horrified the nation as much as the crime itself. Residents said as many as 38 children have been reported missing over the last two years from the slum, Nithari, but that the police recorded only 19 cases, according to Indian news media. Many parents, the reports said, were told their children must have run away.

Groups like India’s National Commission for Women were disturbed by reports of women disappearing from the Noida slums as early as August 2005. Nirmala Venkatesh, a commission member, was working with six families missing daughters, none of whom had managed to persuade the police to investigate.

“The police system failed,” she said. “They were ignorant, they were careless.”
A woman named Dayawati, also from a nearby slum, came holding a black-and-white passport photo of her son, Vipin, 16, who has been missing for four months. “When I told the police he had disappeared, they told me to look for him myself,” she said. “Things would have been different if I’d been rich. Then I could have bribed them to make them investigate.”

And India is hardly the only country where the government has historically had other priorities than helping the poor. Take Chile for example. From today’s New York Times:

The situation has been further complicated by a law that guarantees the armed forces 10 percent of government revenues from copper. The statute has been on the books for decades, but it was made more generous during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and has not been amended since democracy was restored in 1990.

Since the start of the decade, the Chilean military has gone on a buying spree, spending $2.8 billion for weapons, ostensibly to modernize old equipment. The purchases, which have led to expressions of alarm in neighboring Peru and Bolivia, include 10 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter planes acquired from the United States, eight frigates, two submarines and, most recently, 118 Leopard IIA4 tanks from Germany.

Two years ago, a study done by three international economic research bodies concluded that Chile spent more per capita on the military than any other country in Latin America: $90.88 per inhabitant. According to recent estimates here, the copper law will result in the armed forces receiving nearly an additional $1 billion in 2007, which must be used for “military acquisitions.”

In contrast, General Pinochet did not build a single hospital during the 17 years he was in power, María Soledad Barría, the minister of health, said.

Venezuela is no Sweden or Switzerland. But it can’t fairly be expected to be. And it certainly has problems and injustices. Fortunately, it has the resources to made significant headway in addressing those injustices. But more importantly, it has had a government that has cared. As just these two examples from today’s paper should remind us – most poor people living throughout the world don’t have such good fortune.


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