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U.S. beefs up response to Mitch as France, Spain, Sweden pitch in

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“Disaster relief is often a political event in Latin America,” The New York Times commented in an editorial some days ago. The Clinton administration’s response to the unprecedented disaster in Central America caused by Hurricane Mitch at the end of October -- an estimated 25,000 dead or missing, 3 million homeless -- is a perfect example. It is equally true of the response of the administration of one of the nations most affected by the disaster, Nicaragua.

The first U.S. action was to evacuate from Honduras families of embassy personnel and 200 Peace Corps volunteers. The volunteers are healthy young people with skills that could have been used to save lives. Some were so outraged that they resigned rather than leave.

Washington next promised $3 million in aid, a sum so paltry in relation to the calamity that popular protest caused it to be raised quickly to $70 million. When the first U.S. official delegation after the hurricane went to Honduras Nov. 10, another $10 million was thrown in. This was after Honduran President Carlos Flores publicly criticized the United States for failure to respond promptly and adequately.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Honduras and announced further U.S. aid, $51 million in food, $17 million to help small businesses reopen and $55 million in military support and supplies. Washington simultaneously announced $54 million debt relief for Honduras and Nicaragua. But Washington continues to reject all appeals for cancellation of bilateral debts and would restrict the restructuring of Club of Paris debts to countries that have economic plans approved by the International Monetary Fund.

Responses from other countries, which had far fewer economic ties and political involvements in Central America, were vastly more generous and spontaneous. France canceled its bilateral debt with Nicaragua ($30 million) and with Honduras ($70 million). President Jacques Chirac has visited all the affected countries. France is urging the Club of Paris group to grant a three-year moratorium on debts owed to it. France has joined with Britain in a joint fund ($33 million) to cover debts of Central American countries to the World Bank and the IMF.

Spain has allocated $105 million to help rebuild the region’s infrastructure. Sweden has committed between $100 million and $200 million for roads, bridges and agriculture, over three years. Holland has canceled its bilateral debts.

According to the British Jubilee 2000 Coalition (www.jubilee2000uk.org/), Nicaragua and Honduras pay $2 million daily in debt service. Last year the Nicaraguan government spent two and a half times as much ($349 million) on debt service as on health and education.

Cuba’s response is particularly challenging to the United States. Although it is desperately short of medicines as a result of the 35-year U.S. embargo, Cuba immediately offered medicines and 100 doctors to Nicaragua. The medicines were accepted, the doctors rejected. Cuba then sent the doctors to Honduras and told all the affected countries it will send them all the medical personnel they need. Cuba has canceled the $50 million debt that Nicaragua owed it. Mexico was also quick with aid, sending 16 helicopters, four rescue planes, food, medicine and 445 rescue personnel.

Nicaragua’s Ecumenical Commission -- consisting of 20 Catholic communities and Protestant denominations from the United States, Canada and Europe -- has been bitterly critical of the politicization of the disaster by President Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo. He has obstinately rejected widespread appeals to declare a state of emergency, saying that it would damage his relations with the international banks. The issue is critical. Various aid agencies have emergency funds that are immediately released when a state of emergency is declared. The “red alert” that Alemán has declared releases only 50 percent of such funds.

The Ecumenical Council believes that Alemán’s decision has been forced on him by international lending agencies who “prioritize payment of debts above caring for people.” It warns that, with drinking water contaminated by corpses and epidemics of malaria, cholera, dengue and leptospirosis inevitable, these policies will result in outbreaks of violence and an increase of instability.

Meeting in El Salvador Nov. 11, the governments of Central America called for cancellation of all bilateral loans to Honduras and Guatemala. They called for an expansion of the list of Central American products that can be imported duty-free to the United States. And they appealed to the international community to grant amnesty to undocumented Central Americans.

Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has joined with the Christian Commission for Development of Honduras in calling for cancellation of the entire debt of Honduras and of Nicaragua. Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo of Managua, Nicaragua, supports them. His plea: “Have compassion on us.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998