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February 1999, Volume 6, Number 2

South America

The 1980s are considered to have been a "lost decade" in Mexico, Central and South America: a time of debt crises, unemployment and emigration. Economic growth averaged 3.3 percent a year in 26 Latin American economies in the 1970s, -0.4 percent in the 1980s, and 1.6 percent between 1990 and 1997. For the two largest Latin American economies, Brazil and Mexico, the percentages are 6.1 and 3.5, 0.3 and 0.1, and 0.5 and 1.

Nevertheless, job growth in the 1980s was faster than in the 1990s: 3.3 percent a year, compared to 2.8 percent a year in the 1990s. Population growth has slowed, from two percent a year in the 1980s to 1.7 percent a year in the 1990s.

Argentina. The Argentine government announced in January 1999 that it would crack down on illegal immigrants, blaming them for an increase in crime. Most illegal immigrants are from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. Police, who say that 60 percent of petty criminals in Buenos Aires are foreigners, have mounted sweeps involving 1,000 officers in immigrant areas, arresting hundreds of migrants.

Argentine President Carlos Menem said: "We have already signed amnesties and agreements with neighboring country and from now on, unfortunately, illegal immigrants will have to leave the country, because we cannot submit our community and police to the increase in crime." The government is proposing a new law that would provide jail terms of five to 20 years for smuggling illegal migrants who then commit drug crimes or violence and fines of up to $50,000 for firms employing them.

Argentina's opposition Alliance, leading in polls for elections to be held in 1999, countered that there should be: "legalization of all the immigrant population, and ... that behind the crime statistics lies the hand of the government in a selective and xenophobic plan directed at Latin American immigrants." An amnesty in 1994 legalized 210,000 illegal immigrants. Eduardo Duhalde, the likely presidential candidate of the ruling Justicialist Party, says, "Charity rightfully begins at home and if the situation becomes more difficult we must think first of the Argentineans and then of the foreigners."

Sociologist Enrique Oteiza of the State and Society Studies Center, author of Immigration and Discrimination, argues that the government is scapegoating illegal migrants to improve its standing with voters. He notes that, in the 1920s, half the Argentinean population was foreign born, and that "The proportion of immigrants has never been as low as it is now."

The government estimates that there are several hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants in Argentina, while Oteiza says there are no more than 100,000 or 200,000. Almost all migrants enter on 90-day tourist visas. They can obtain work permits and remain if they find formal sector jobs, with employers willing to pay social security and other taxes. Most migrants work informally or in temporary jobs where no social security contributions are made, such as maids, in the garment industry, and in construction.

Brazil. The Brazilian Federal Police are searching for an estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants after the expiration of a three-month amnesty program that permitted 40,000 foreigners to obtain legal status. Brazil's last amnesty was in 1988, when 35,000 migrants were legalized. Brazil in 1998 had an estimated 990,000 legal immigrants.

The Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR), formed in 1991 and is comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and with associate members Bolivia and Chile. In December 1998, MERCOSUR agreed to the establishment of a Social Labor Commission to ensure compliance with basic worker's rights. MERCOSUR in 1996 had 207 million residents (compared to 388 million covered by NAFTA), a GDP in 1990 US dollars of $670 (compared to $7100), and a 1991-96 GDP growth rate of 3.4 percent (compared to 2.1 percent). Brazil devalued its currency, the real, in mid-January. Since 1994, the real has been pegged unofficially to the dollar, which reduced inflation but also increased inequality.

Venezuela. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma said he will crack down on organized crime gangs that exploit illegal foreign labor. On December 28, 1998, Venezuelan authorities discovered a smuggling ring that included government civil servants engaged in bringing illegal Chinese immigrants into the country.

Oni-Dex (National Identification Office-Alien Monitoring Directorate) reported that 3,000 Cubans arrived with forged passports in November 1998; immigration authorities deported them, sometimes on the return flight. In early January, Venezuelan authorities uncovered an international ring that provided forged Venezuelan visas at the Havana, Cuba airport.


"Argentine opposition says immigrants should stay," Reuters, January 26, 1999. Evert Garcia, "Mayor Views Deportation of 97 Illegal Haitians," El Nacional (Caracas), January 22, 1999. Marcela Valente, "Argentina: Menem links crime to undocumented immigration," Inter Press Service, January 20, 1999. "Argentine doors still open to immigration," BBC News Service, January 20, 1999. "Venezuela uncovers counterfeit visa ring in Cuba," Agence France Press, January 2, 1999. "Police begin search to deport illegal immigrants," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts," December 12, 1998. "Authorities Detect Arrival of 'Unusual Number' of Cubans," AFP, December 4, 1998.