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BY Mike Mastromatteo
Bishops unmoved by government's softening of so-called birth-control campaign
LIMA, Peru—In response to international pressure against the Peruvian government's birth control campaign, health authorities have announced a change in the country's population program. But Peru's Catholic bishops believe the change is too little and too late.
The scandal surrounding the allegations of forced sterilizations as part of an official population control campaign hit the government last November. Despite President Alberto Fujimori's high profile battle against the devastating consequences of El NiÒo, the “sterilization issue” never disappeared from the front pages. The scandal has haunted him almost daily, jeopardizing his hopes of remaining in office for a third term.
The government's first reaction to the avalanche of criticism that sterilization was being carried out by force or deception, was to accuse the Catholic Church of trying to derail the birth control program “for ideological reasons.”
The Ministry of Health launched an aggressive public relations campaign saying that there had been only a “few cases” of forced sterilization in the midst of the birth control campaign.
But a new and unexpected attack against the birth control program came to light when the local press gave consistent evidence—official letters and internal memos—confirming explicit directives by the government to establish tubal ligation quotas, and of a reward and penalty system for health officials meeting or missing established goals.
A U.S. Commission's Report
The criticism of the sterilization program has had a strong impact on public opinion. But since the judiciary is tied to the government, efforts by some local congressmen to sue the Minister of Health, Marino Costa Bauer—who denied all charges at a hearing before the Peruvian Congress—have little chance of success. A critical report from a U.S. Congress Commission that visited Peru Jan. 17-25, made a stronger impression on Fujimori, who is always concerned about his relationship with the super powers.
The Commission's 20-page report indicated that there is hard evidence demonstrating that the Peruvian government's campaign systematically violates human rights. It also states that the U.S. Government is connected to the program through financial support provided by the Agency for Inter-American Development (AID).
In conclusion, the report strongly recommends that U.S. Congress withdraw financial aid to the population control programs until the Peruvian government demonstrates its determination to stop human rights violations.
The Peruvian Congress recently reached the majority necessary to summon Health Minister Costa Bauer for another hearing, thus revealing a significant crack in the once monolithic pro-birth—control stance of the majority in Peru's Congress.
On March 11, Costa Bauer made a surprise announcement before Congress: He stated that 10 doctors around the country would be suspended for abuse and presented a redesigned birth control manual which, among other things, establishes a 72-hour waiting period between proposing sterilization to a woman and carrying out the procedure. The revision of the birth control manual—the handbook used by all health officials—is in keeping with a new government ad campaign requesting couples to ask for the “best birth control method for your family” in each health center, because “health authorities are fully respectful of your choice.”
The ad seems to soften the government's inflexible stand, but critics believe it's little more than a cosmetic change. “The government will be more careful about mistakes and evident violation of human rights, but there is little evidence that major changes will be introduced in the overall policy, quotas included,” according to an editorial in the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica.
In fact, the government has announced that health authorities will maintain “strict control in order to ensure that the (birth control) campaign is properly carried out at the lowest levels of command.” The Fujimori Administration has not said anything about the policy of quotas, but has confirmed that the campaign will continue.
In an emergency document, the Peruvian Bishops' Conference said they “are more united than ever in our strong rejection of the current birth control campaign. There is enough evidence to show that such a campaign is addressed to fight the poor, and not poverty, and that [the campaign] in its very nature violates human rights.”
Archbishop Juan Luis Cipriani, a close friend of Fujimori and a key player in last year's hostage crisis at the Japanese residence, said the government's program “treats the country as a big farm and Peruvians as animals only concerned with mating.” Archbishop Cipriani demanded the immediate cancellation of the program and called for the resignation of Health Minister Costa Bauer, a friend since their school days.
For its part, Caritas Peru—the Peruvian Catholic relief organization—has disclosed evidence of new cases, gathered in Ayacucho and Huancavelica, of forced sterilization. The two regions are among the poorest in the country. With testimonies which have been well documented since the beginning of the year, Caritas called a press conference, providing dramatic material that promised bold headlines and more cover stories.
Testimonies gathered by Caritas include cases of peasant women such as Paulina Aranda, a mother of three, who was told that police would put her in jail if she did not accept a tubal ligation. Another mother, Maria Pucalla Ponce, was forcibly sterilized in exchange for the birth certificate of her fourth child. There was also the case of Eleuteria Yauri, an illiterate, who signed what she thought was a paper accepting a donation of medicine. In fact, the form gave her “consent” to a tubal ligation.
Investigations into the government's sterilization program have turned up names, dates, and places confirming similar testimonies. “All departments of Caritas around the country are carrying out or have already finished the same investigation,” said Bishop Alberto Brazzini DÌaz-Ufano, president of the Peruvian bishops' Life and Family Commission. “If the government insists that human rights violations in this (birth control) campaign are [rare], we are willing to demonstrate that it is the regular operating mode and not the exception.”
In other words, the bishops have expressed their willingness to play hard ball despite the government's hopes that the sterilization debacle would fade as have most political scandals involving the government in recent years.
The Catholic Church, along with several human rights organizations, seem prepared to continue highlighting the current government agenda until it drops the population campaign outright. In early March, new cases presented by Caritas Peru received front page coverage and two full pages in the Sunday edition of El Comercio, Peru's most influential newspaper. “We don't have political calculations, we only have a mission and a commitment to God and our people,” Bishop Brazzini says. “For us, this will end only when it is over, that is to say, when the life and the rights of our people are fully respected.”
Latin America Correspondent Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru