Brazil's Balloting And Human Rights

Presidential race highlights need to deal with poverty, injustice

ONE year ago, eight street children - sleeping in the shadow of the Candelaria Cathedral in downtown Rio de Janeiro - were murdered execution style by off-duty policemen.

The Candelaria massacre was not merely another case of child murders in a country with a history of such criminality, but was symbolic of Brazil's most interminable crises: justice and poverty. Justice is fleeting in Brazil, poverty is mounting, and the connection between the two is inescapable.

Although three Rio state troopers were charged in the Candelaria killings, they have yet to be tried; most human rights observers do not expect them to serve any significant time if eventually convicted.

The odds weigh against achieving justice. In June, two prominent members of a city commission investigating the massacre and subsequent police murders of 21 residents of Rio's Vigario Geral slum last August were found shot to death in what was described as a politically motivated crime.

Surviving commission members have correctly interpreted the assassinations as a clear signal that the gunmen are determined to maintain the status quo. Both uniformed and plain-clothes child killers have carried out their grisly tasks knowing that Brazil's criminal-justice system rarely punishes officers for excessive violence.

A report released this spring by Human Rights Watch/Americas detailed the murders of 5,644 children between 1988 and 1991; 80 percent of the victims were of African descent. The report concluded: ``due largely to the lack of political will, very few of these cases are investigated.''

Only a major demonstration of political resoluteness, exemplified by the wholesale dismissal, conviction, and jailing of senior and subordinate police officials implicated in ``death squad'' activities in Sao Paulo, Rio, and other cities, will likely stop the killings.

Rhetoric and the creation in 1991 of a special parliamentary commission to halt the ``extermination'' of children have failed to stop the violence. Although unprecedented worldwide news coverage influenced President Itamar Franco to launch an official investigation of the Candelaria killings, death-squad activity continues in the twilight of his term.

Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva, the leading candidate in this year's presidential election, represents Brazil's best high-level opportunity to act affirmatively on behalf of its youngest and poorest citizens.

Mr. Da Silva, the Workers' Party nominee, must walk a fine line between advocating for the poor and appeasing powerful business and security interests. But the country's international image, and concomitantly, millions in business and tourism dollars, are at risk in the long run unless he moves decisively to punish human rights violations and eliminate their causes.

Some Brazilian merchants - direct beneficiaries of international tourism - openly approve of and subsidize these assassinations. Many shopkeepers along the beaches of Ipanema and the fashionable avenues of Sao Paulo do not view street children as victims, but as criminals and the reason for sharp fluctuations in tourism.

This malevolence was reflected in a poll conducted after the July 1993 massacre. The survey found that 16 percent of the respondents applauded the killings.

During a visit several years ago to the Candelaria Cathedral I spoke with some meninos de rua about their dreams and ambitions, like 11 year Djalma's dream of a family and a house to live in, or 16 year old Luis's hope of becoming a doctor or football player. With dreams left unfulfilled and opportunities for employment and education denied, many poor families simply disintegrate, leaving children to fend for themselves.

The number of displaced children in Brazil has grown exponentially since the mid-1980s. Ivanir Dos Santos, a children's advocate in Brazil, estimates that 7 million adolescents either work full time in extremely low-paying jobs or live on the streets or both. Stella Richardson, a spokeswoman for Street Kids International in Toronto, determined that 500,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 17 work as prostitutes.

Given this dismal picture, it is not surprising that street crime has spiraled out of control. Although killings and other serious offenses are the almost exclusive province of feuding drug lords, armed robbers, and the police, homeless children are blamed for most transgressions and thus are targeted for extermination by death squads.

In some districts of Rio, including Duque de Caxias and Votal Redonda, scores of children have disappeared.

The government and wealthy elite have turned a blind eye to worsening poverty that is the result of lopsided distribution of wealth and resources. Sixty million Brazilians out of a population of 150 million live well below the poverty line in the world's eighth-largest economy. Fifty percent are young people living in utter destitution. By their inaction, Brazil's leaders have condemned thousands of children to the streets to face extrajudicial executions.

In September, if Brazil's voters do what most political experts predict they will do by electing Da Silva as president, he should consider imposing a major tax hike on the wealthy beneficiaries of international tourism who are suspected of bankrolling death-squad activities against street children.

Without a major shift in official attitudes toward adolescent murders in Brazil, some foreigners, contemplating warm weather during the height of winter, may eventually begin to wonder aloud why they should travel thousands of miles to play at the gravesides of children. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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