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Will Mitch be another curse or disguised blessing?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

God does not single out the poor when a hurricane or an earthquake strikes. But the poor are in fact the principal victims of such so-called acts of God.

Case in point: An earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale hit California in 1972. It killed one person. A lesser earthquake that same year in Managua, Nicaragua, killed thousands.

The hurricane that devastated Nicaragua and Honduras, and to a lesser extent Guatemala and El Salvador, in the first days of November exhibited a similar class bias. In Nicaragua, Mitch destroyed 40 percent of the area planted in beans and 32 percent of that in corn, radically changing geography and ecology. Large-scale export production (coffee, bananas, sugar cane) was spared. In hard-hit Posoltega, the rains washed away the earth of some 14,000 acres (22 square miles), killing more than 2,000 people and leaving barren rock in parts, in others 6 feet of sand. A refinery and rum factory 5 miles from the mudslide’s tragic path stand untouched, along with their cane fields.

Why the disparity? The wealthy monopolize the good land. The poor cling to the hillsides or build shacks in flood plains.

Clearing the deck

In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, the question is now whether Central American governments will simply rebuild the structures of inequality that generate such incommensurate hardships for the poor or whether the disaster has cleared the deck so that more just systems can be built from the ground up.

The international Caritas agencies, including the U.S. Catholic Relief Services, have committed $500 million to a five-year program that will stress “the need for justice” and adherence to Catholic social teaching in all reconstruction. Various other church-related agencies and secular nongovernmental organizations are also emphasizing the opportunity for social change.

Even before Mitch, these countries were among the most ravaged in the world. The destruction of years of war was compounded by the International Monetary Fund’s “structural adjustment” programs in the 1990s. In Nicaragua’s major cities, for example, the number of families whose income covered only half the “basic market basket” (essential foods) grew from 41 percent in 1993 to 66 percent in 1998.

In a long analytical article in Envio, a monthly publication of the Jesuit-run Central American University in Managua, the opportunities and the dangers are well formulated. Those who have lost everything require humanitarian aid. The peasants who lost their crops and suffered soil loss but whose land survived need credit, not handouts that nourish dependency.

Technological challenge

Technology is another challenge. Vast expanses of land are severely damaged. Many farms must shift to different crops and need appropriate technology. The rains have resulted in cattle diseases and crop pests. Savage deforestation, especially in the last decade, caused much of the damage. Reforestation is essential.

None of this can happen, Envio insists, without institutionality, a word it describes as “a fashionable new nation-building term that encompasses structures, laws, norms and other necessary instruments, as well as attitudes or culture.”

Institutionality is largely lacking in all of Central America. But the problem is aggravated in Nicaragua by a government largely imposed on it by the United States by means of the contra war. It is a government of the rich that is determined to make the poor pay a price for their attempt to have a voice in their own destiny. It is a government that refused to declare a national emergency that would have triggered vast immediate relief from international agencies, arguing that this would harm its credit with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

This government has now drafted a reconstruction project estimated to cost $1.5 billion, most of it to modernize the country’s road and energy infrastructure. The Sandinista party, the main opposition, approves. Like the construction after the 1972 earthquake, which mostly benefited Anastasio Somoza and his cronies, the project would bring enormous wealth to businessmen allied to both parties.

This is not a national project, Envio warns. It is naked opportunism. “The government has no program, or perhaps does not even want one, to rehabilitate the peasant economy. It is rather using the human and ecological tragedy of Mitch to consolidate a project for the country that is not a national project for the simple reason that it continues to exclude the peasantry.”

Some 320 nongovernmental organizations and similar groups that have come together in the Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Coalition have a very different vision, one that puts bones and flesh on the Catholic Relief Services’ commitment to the need for justice in reconstruction. They give priority to preventive and curative health, education, nutrition, housing, the environment, credit, agriculture and forestry, community development, women’s empowerment, microbusinesses and cooperatives.

“We do not want to build the ‘same’ country,” the coalition said in a statement submitted to officials from 30 countries and 20 multinational financial agencies who met in Washington Dec. 10 and 11, 1998. “We want a reconstruction model that, rather than returning us to pre-hurricane ‘normality,’ is self-supporting and human, one that enables us to eradicate both extreme poverty and extreme wealth, that works to overcome the great inequalities in possessions, knowledge and power among Nicaraguans. Mitch has reminded us that our ‘development’ is increasingly less sustainable and more inhuman.”

‘The clamor of the victims’

Similar dangers and challenges are present in Honduras. According to Fr. Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit who coordinates an emergency committee in El Progreso, President Carlos Flores and his wife appear on TV as doing everything for the victims, while “authoritarianism and the manmade institutions have grown expert in trafficking with the clamor of the victims.” The danger, he fears, is that international aid will perpetuate the arbitrary use of public institutions and narrow democratic spaces.

Candelario Reyes, coordinator of a cultural center in Eastern Honduras, made similar comments on behalf of eight nongovernmental organizations, six weeks after Mitch. Thanks to bureaucratic laziness, political trickery and governmental apathy, he said, aid is not going where it is needed and much rots in storehouses. Land reform is urgent, he added, because 83 percent of the national territory is suited only to forestry, and all good agricultural land is held by transnationals or big landlords.

Many nongovernmental organizations, including the Christian Commission for Development, a coalition of Protestant agencies, have called for the same priorities. A commission program to improve the status of women incorporates creative ideas. One is to set up a solidarity network with units of four neighbors. While three would go out to work, the fourth would care for all the children, with the commission providing her with food. Another proposal is for women to be paid the same wages for housework as men receive in publicly financed emergency rebuilding work, 30 lempiras ($2.15) a day.

Local initiatives

The attempt to create something new is being led by small local initiatives supported by international nongovernmental organizations, initiatives like the Caritas project. In Honduras, for example, another project would build 600 homes in Tegucigalpa and 200 in Choluteca, to cost $2,250 each and to be completed in 60 days. People themselves provide all labor, with technical oversight, every 25 neighboring families working as a team. Construction is reinforced concrete, a concrete floor, electricity and a dry latrine. Unemployed people get the materials free. Others repay according to ability over six years.

Will Hurricane Mitch prove a blessing in disguise or yet another curse for Central America? The choices made by the international community and the national governments will determine the answer. If aid and debt relief become subject to the existing “structural adjustment” conditions and are diverted to programs that benefit only those who are already wealthy, the people of Central America will end up with more unemployment, lower wages, declining food production and further polarization of society.

The other option has already been set out by the nongovernmental organizations and private aid agencies, most of them church-related. They add one condition. All funds and resources received by nongovernmental organizations, unions and other agencies must be subject to independent financial audit and accounting, and to sampling of recipients to evaluate suitability. Funds provided to governments should similarly be reviewed by a monitoring commission with representatives of nongovernmental organizations, municipalities, churches and international cooperating agencies. The history of misappropriation of aid demands no less.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999