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Crisis as middle classes flee the crime of South America By Christina Lamb and Philip Jacobson
TENS of thousands of South America's intellectual and professional classes are fleeing the continent at a rate not seen since the military dictatorships of the 1970s because of spiralling violence and economic misery. Hardest hit is Argentina where the mood of despondency is so widespread that one in three people told a recent survey that they would leave the country if they could. More than half a million doctors, professors and writers have left Ecuador in the last two years. Large numbers of people are also abandoning Colombia and Venezuela.
Unlike the 1970s when the main destination was America, many are moving to Europe. The exodus is provoking considerable concern in Spain, which issued 20,000 passports last year to Argentinians claiming European ancestry and more than 6,000 visas to Ecuadoreans, far more than double the number issued in previous years.
The Spanish consul in Buenos Aires warned last week that it is unable to deal with daily queues of more than a thousand people, as well as a further hundred applications by internet. Carlos Vinuesa, the consul general, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, said: "We are besieged by people claiming their grandparents were Spanish. We are not just giving visas. We are giving hope."
The main motive for emigrating from Argentina is the country's continuing recession and high unemployment. Ten years of privatisation of bloated state enterprises has left more than 2.1 million unemployed - 16 per cent of the population.
Many of those leaving are professionals, worried about the future of their children. Enrique Lopez, a 48-year-old professor, queued every day for a week starting at 3am to get his Spanish passport to move his two sons to Spain.
Mr Lopez said: "I don't know if Argentina has a future. We have been through many bad situations that we have recovered from but I don't know if we will get through this one with the government we have."
Such comments are paradoxical in a country which at the beginning of the last century was seen as the Promised Land by hundreds of thousands of Spanish and Italians who left Europe to start a new life there. Now their descendants are trying to move back.
Language schools in Argentina are experiencing a huge demand for Italian classes. In Colombia, which is the world kidnap capital, where entire church congregations have been kidnapped by guerrillas, 600,000 people have fled the ongoing drugs war in the last three years. They include the country's top economists, newspaper editors, judges and scientists and 80,000 recent graduates.
The International Labour Organisation recently published a study warning that so many intellectuals were leaving that the country was losing competitiveness and facing economic collapse. The recent intervention by the Americans, who are spending £700 million on the controversial Plan Colombia, sending in military advisers and Blackhawk helicopters to try to end the drugs trade, has heightened tensions and led to more people leaving.
Ecuador is also undergoing the biggest exodus in its history with more than half a million of its 11 million population abandoning the Andean country because of an economic crisis which brought down the last government after thousands of peasants came down from the mountains and stormed the capital. The new government recently adopted the US dollar as its currency to improve confidence.
The latest country to be affected is Venezuela. Once considered among the safest places in Latin America, an unprecedented wave of violent crime brought about by an economy in freefall and rampant unemployment is sweeping the country, driving the murder rate to record levels.
According to official projections, violent crime rose by around 70 per cent last year. On an average weekend there are some 100 killings and over Christmas the body count was closer to 150.
As the mayhem spreads, police officers are routinely executing suspects, while growing public fury has seen an increase in lynchings of known offenders. Sales of guns for self-protection are soaring and the private security business is booming as prosperous suburbs in Caracas, the crime-plagued capital, are transformed into heavily patrolled fortresses.
For the city's less fortunate inhabitants, everyday life has become so dangerous that a senior local politician likens them to "animals for the slaughter". Cars are hijacked so often in broad daylight that police advise drivers not to halt at traffic lights.
Muggings are so common that funeral homes employ guards to protect mourners. Shop owners fed up with being robbed now pack a pistol to ward off marauders.
In the shantytowns of Caracas such as La Agricultura, frustrated residents are turning to vigilantism to protect themselves. In one incident on New Year's Day, a notorious rapist and thief, known as "The Pig", was beaten and stabbed to death after being caught in the act of stealing shoes. In the space of a week in the capital, an enraged crowd threw a suspected mugger off a motorway bridge and another robber was shot dead.
Most Venezuelans attribute the soaring violence - only a handful of Latin American cities like Medellin, the drug cartel capital of Colombia, record a higher murder rate per capita - to the dire state of an economy in which, despite the country receiving billions in oil revenue, four fifths of the population of 25 million live in dire poverty. A harsh recession last year sharply pushed up unemployment, worsening social inequalities. One senior official in the state prosecutor's department said: "The increase in crime was caused by such misery."
Although Venezuela's authoritarian leader, President Hugo Chavez, a swashbuckling former paratroop colonel who led a failed coup, was easily re-elected last July, his promised "social revolution" has not yet materialised. The country's chronic lawlessness has undoubtedly contributed to this, as worried foreign corporations shut down local plants and Venezuelans, who have had enough of living dangerously, try to emigrate.
-- meg davis (email@example.com), January 20, 2001
"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."
"The best lack all conviction, While the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Meg, what was the original newspaper/wire source for this article, and date of publication? I lack to keep track of such details.
-- Andre Weltman (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 22, 2001.