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10 August 2000 Edition

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Guatemala's missing children

Guatemala's military stands accused of kidnapping and even trading in hundreds of indigenous Mayan children during that country's 36-year civil war, which finally came to an end in 1996.

Following a seven-month probe into 86 cases of children who disappeared during the war, the Catholic Church in Guatemala has released a report that squarely indicts the armed forces. ``What we have in our hands is the confirmation that children were used as war booty, that forced disappearance was used as an instrument of war against those most vulnerable, the children,'' said Neri Rodenas, director of the archdiocesan human rights office in Guatemala city.

The report found that 74 of the children were abducted, the vast majority by the army but some also by right wing death squads or left wing guerillas. Up to 400 cases remain to be investigated. Most of those abducted were Mayans taken during a military campaign of repression against indigenous communities in the 1980s. The investigators believe the children were specifically targeted, either to prevent them joining left-wing guerillas or to sell them into adoption. Only three of the children have to date been found and reunited with their parents.


Chavez victory sends positive signal



BY SOLEDAD GALIANA

A new era is beginning in Latin America. The massive support for former coup leader Hugo Chavez and his re-election for a new presidential term in Venezuala signals the changing mood of Latin American voters, who are now look for an alternative to the corrupt political parties who have run their countries for the last century.

     
This election was considered the closing of the first chapter of President Chavez's ``peaceful revolution''. His success rewrites Venezuela's political map, obliterating the traditional parties that governed unchallenged for 40 years
But it also hints at important changes in the military in some of these countries, with lower and middle rank officers siding with the silenced majorities - the poor, indigenous peoples and the landless. This marks a radical departure from the Latin American armies' stance in the 1970s and 1980s, when senior officers, trained in the infamous US-based School of the Americas, ruthlessly imposed the interests of the dominant political and economic elites.

Participative democracy took the place of representative democracy as former army officer Hugo Chavez was re-elected president of Venezuela with a significant victory in the 30 July presidential elections. Chavez and his revolutionary project - which allows for the dismissal of any elected public representatives by popular demand - won 59% of the vote against 38% of his closest rival, Francisco Arias Cárdenas.

The election, which some political analysts considered as pitting the country's poverty stricken pro-Chavez majority against the middle class and the rich, covered almost every elected position in the country.

Nearly 12 million registered voters began to cast their ballots from 6am. They went to the polls to fill 774 public positions from the president down to mayors; only local council seats were not contested. Electoral authorities extended the vote by two hours to 6pm after large queues formed at many of the 8,400 polling stations due to high voter turnout and the complexity of the voting process, with many voters taking up to five minutes to complete their voting forms.

These were the biggest elections in Venezuelan history and their aim was to re-legitimise all main public posts under a new constitution approved in December 1999 by referendum. This election was considered the closing of the first chapter of president Chavez's ``peaceful revolution''.

His success rewrites Venezuela's political map, obliterating the traditional parties that governed unchallenged for 40 years. He was elected by a landslide in December 1989 on an anti-establishment platform and immediately embarked on a radical political programme. His election left those parties that alternated in power for 40 years (the moderate Democratic Action party and the centre-right Christian Democrats) with just 9% of votes between them.

Chavez, who led a coup attempt seven years ago on behalf of Venezuela's destitute majority, sent a clear message after his 1998 election to the presidency of the country. ``The victory of the patriots has been pulverising,'' he told his supporters. ``We are building a true democracy in a way that those who destroyed the country didn't know how to.''

After the 1998 elections, Chavez announced that the new constitutional assembly would convene in August 1999 and allowed six months to write a new constitution, which became the main instrument for radical change in the country. It introduced mechanisms aimed at making democracy work and putting new emphasis on social justice when it was approved in December last year.

Venezuela's new constitution only allows President Hugo Chavez to stay in office for two six-year terms, while making every elected officeholder, from the president down to the head of a neighbourhood committee, liable to dismissal by popular demand.

But the real worry for the middle and upper class Venezuelans is Chavez's economic policy. Chavez has pledged to take the country's vast oil profits out of the hands of the 5% of the population living in wealth to benefit the 80% of the 24 million Venezuelans who live in poverty.

The economy shrank by 7% last year and grew by a mere 0.3% in the first quarter of this year, and economists say the country is now headed for disaster. For the first time in Venezuela's history, an oil price boom has coincided with a steep recession. Chavez blames these ills on corruption, which in the past three decades has seen per capita wealth drop by 25%, a fall only superceded in the Americas by impoverished Haiti.

The economic problems have been aggravated by capital flight, mostly to the United States, which is estimated at $8 billion since Chavez took office. The well off, alarmed by Chavez's declarations, such as his threat to expropriate idle property from landowners, have been voting with their wallets.

Chavez's only serious contender in the presidential race was retired military officer, ex-ally and fellow coup leader Francisco Arias Cárdenas, who was governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia from 1995 until this year. Although favoured by most of the middle and upper classes and the country's business community for his moderate stance, as well as for having the backing of some powerful elements in the US, Arias lacked sufficient charisma and common touch to pose a serious threat to Chavez.

Chavez also won a clear majority of the newly created National Assembly -a single-house legislative chamber that replaces the previous bicameral system, and about half of the state governorships.

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