Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hard-pressed middle class dwindles; Latin America's rich-poor gap is not closing

Helio Santos de Barbosa da Souza glances at the new apartment building rising in front of his wood and corrugated-tin shanty. "The view of the Lagoa [de Freitas] is gone," he complains, looking in the apartment-studded direction of the opal-shaped tidal basin that separates some of Rio de Janeiro's southern suburbs from the city itself.

"But worse still," he laments, "the breezes will soon be gone."

About these ads

Helio's fellow residents in the shantytown favela (Portuguese for slum) that edges up the sides of the hill at the end of Rio's dazzling Copacabana agree. They've seen the builders come in and push up huge apartment and condominium complexes that tower over the hillsides. These new buildings block out the view and snuff out the air on the hillsides.

But those apartments, especially the ones high up, have an atmosphere that is breezy and cool, a sharp contrast to the languid tropical air that hangs over the streets and hillsides below. The high-rises are the world of Rio de Janeiro's affluent minority like Paulo Goncalves de Prado, who has rented an apartment in the tall building under construction in front of Helio's favela.

There are two worlds here -- that of Paulo and the high-rise dwellers and that of Helio and his fellow slum dwellers, the "haves" and the "have-nots."

As Latin America enters the decades of the 1980s, the contrast between the Helios and the Paulos grows. It is the basic social fact of Latin America today.

Nothing tells the story of the southern neighbors of the United States better than the vast gulf that separates the Paulos and the Helios. It allows only a handful of the Helios to break into the world of the Paulos.

Behind this dilemma lie the twin issues of staggering population growth and the surge of urbanization throughout Latin America. They are changing the face of the hemisphere annually.

The population of the region surges ahead by some 20 million people each year with the area's baby boom and with health and sanitation measures which cut infant mortality. As a result, the population is increasingly youthful. In Mexico, haft the population is under the age of 15. Here in Brazil, half is under the age of 17. The basic problems of the hemisphere are those of feeding, clothing, housing, educating, and then finding jobs for this growing legion of young people.

About these ads

Accompanying this demographic dilemma has been a major movement away from the countryside to the cities in most Latin American countries. Each year, for example, Mexico City, now 17 million, increases its population by 400,000; Rio de Janeiro, now 7.5 million, surges another 250,000 yearly. The same pattern exists just about everywhere --Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Guatemala City, Lima, Quito, Santiago, Sao Paulo, and in at least three dozen other cities where the population has approached or passed the million mark.

Here in Rio de Janeiro, the situation would be worse if it were not for the transfer of Brazil's capital from Rio to the ultramodern interior city of Brasilia.

Rio de Janeiro, with its breathtaking mountain-girt landscape and amiable tropical climate, has an urban sprawl much like other Latin American cities. The urban landscape stretches through valleys and over hills that cover the region, and on out onto some of the low-lying plains of the countryside. More and more of the countryside is gobbled up annually adding to the slum sprawl for the most part.

The rich seem to build up and the poor spread out --and with more poor than rich, the sprawl grows yearly.

There is a third group between the well-to-do and the poor -- a middle class -- that was once seen as the hope of Latin America. As more and more people began in the 1960s to climb the ladder out of poverty, moving into middle-income situations, economists forecast a gradual elimination of the vast pockets of poverty that were evident in most Latin American countries.

But the population surge in the past generation has left that theory in the dust. There are more poor people in Latin America today than there were a generation ago.

Still, an urban middle class has developed and does exist just about everywhere. It is hard pressed, often more affected by the problems of inflation, unemployment, and other economic ills than either the rich, who are cushioned against such problems, or the poor, who seldom feel the effects of inflation. In many instances, middle class people have begun to slip back down the ladder of success, and feel unhappy and uneasy about the present and the future.

Such is the case with the middle class in Brazil.

They are a distinct minority here -- a situation parallel to that in most other Latin lands except for Argentina, Uruguay, and perhaps Chile, whose middle classes are more like those of the United States or Western Europe.

Here in Rio the middle class comprises civil servants, office workers, bank employees, and some skilled factory workers.

Helio would lump them all with the upper classes for they live better and have more resources than he does. They may ride the same buses he takes to his janitor's job in a Rio de Janeiro factory. They may shop at the same small stalls he does in the several large markets of Copacabana. But in his view they are much better off. After all, they do not live in the slum dwellings he has known all his life.

Helio has lived on the hillside for 10 years -- most of his adult life. Born in the impoverished northern state of Alagoas and spending the first 18 years of life in a mud hut in the tiny village of Mata Grande, he migrated south with his parents in the late 1960s, along with an estimated 20 million other people from Brazil's impoverished northeast looking for a better life.

"It was 1969 when we reached Rio. We were going to Sao Paulo, but we were running out of the little money we had saved for this trip and my parents and my two sisters and three brothers and I stopped here. My father found a small wood-frame shack on the side of a hill over there that no longer exists and he exchanged his remaining cruzeiros for it. We stayed there until the hill was torn down for a highway.

"There were heavy rains in the area and the shack leaked all the time. We kids went out and brought scraps of newspapers home to plug the leaks. At first it was a little like a lark. But the hard relaity of it all began to hit us when we had nothing to eat.

"We had no money. We begged in the streets. We stole off the counters of stores. We looked for odd jobs. We managed," he laughs, "with jatom " (a distinctly Brazilian expression that means a combination of savvy, optimism, and good fortune -- and implies the ability to get along).

That ability to get along is something the poor of all Latin American countries have long since learned.

Take Maria Gonzalez, for instance. A Peruvian mother of 13 children, she and her illeterate common-law husband, Jose, have moved into the lower middle class through an unusual combination of hard work, perseverance, and personal contacts. But 15 years ago she was foraging the garbage dumps of Lima, the Peruvian capital, for food for her family.

She managed to get along. But it was not easy and it still is not easy. "Life never was easy; it has always been hard," she complains. "The basic problem is that no one seems to care."

In that comment, she "speaks a mouthful," says Carlos Chavez Moto, an Ecuadorian sociologist. "Governments have a very poor record in helping the masses of their respective countries. It matters little whether the government is leftist or rightist. Graft, corruption, insensitivity -- you name the problem, it is there. It is easier not to see poverty than it is to solve it."

Governments in the area do indeed often seem very insensitive to the needs of the people. Over and over again, this complaint is heard and echoed throughout Latin America.

This reporter, on an extensive tour of the area, kept hearing this very cynical comment: "Never trust government."

Yet government is an ever-present reality of life here. It grows larger in almost every country by the year. The public sector tends to dominate the private sector. Moreover, the priorities that most governments adopt appear aimed less at solving the problems of the people than in staying in power.

Throughout Latin America -- with the outstanding exceptions of Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and some of the newer nations of the Caribbean -- governments spend more money on arms than on education. In Brazil, for example, the 1981 federal budget allocated 8 percent to education, 21 percent to the military.

That is a statistic that Helio Santos can understand, however, for he got only years of education at the grade-school level, and his three children -- the oldest is 8 --grade school is only a scant two blocks from his home. "There is no room in the school," his wife, Helena, complains. "Next year, we are told there will be two new schools in the area."

but construction on both has been halted, for the school budget ran out of money.

Still, the military budget for 1981 was expanded, say sources in Brasilia, because the Army and Air Force were using outdated equipment and needed to modernize. In a situation like that it is hard for Helio Santos not to be cynical.

At the moment, two of every three Latin Americans live under a military government. And if Mexico, the second-most-populous Latin American nation did not have a civilian government, the tally would be even more lopsided. Military governments exist in Brazil, the hemisphere's largest country in land and population, and in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Surinam, and Uruguay. Military-supported governments are in power in numerous other lands -- Cuba, Grenada, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, and Paraguay.

Barbados, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela enjoy civilian rule, and some of them border on dictatorial rule.

But such niceties are lost on people like Helio Santos. For him, the daily struggle to keep himself and his family fed and to have some shelter and clothing, is basic.

"Maybe next year will be better," he says, but then sighs: "Unfortunately, I doubt it.

"Not only are the breezes gone," he adds in philosophical fashion, "but in a way their disappearance tells of the loss of hope as well."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.