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Cover Story

Mitch as metaphor

Posoltega, Nicaragua

(The following is the first of an occasional series on the ongoing problems and the emerging hopes of Central America by Gary MacEoin, a longtime observer of the region.)

Fr. Benjamin Villareal has been suffering acute depression for nearly three months. To sleep he must take tranquilizers and sleeping pills. But sleep brings no relief.

In the nightmares, corpses grossly deformed and missing limbs swirl around him, shoot up out of a sea of mud, upbraid him.

Villareal is parish priest of Posoltega. Last Oct. 30, the rim of the Casitas volcano gave way under the weight of megatons of water shed on it at the rate of 25 inches in 24 hours. The water swept trees, rocks and earth from the mountainside into the valley below, burying an estimated 3,000 of his parishioners (2,300 bodies have been recovered) in 6 to 15 feet of mud and converting the fertile valley into a desert.

That desert will remain barren for the indefinite future, a 20th-century Pompeii, a symbol of the fate of the global South. Yet because Posoltega is a symbol of the South, the future excavator will find no magnificent buildings. Unplastered adobe simply melts in water. One will find, at most, some human and animal bones.

I talked to several of the 700 survivors. Their condition seems to me worse than that of their pastor. Isaac had lost 15 members of his family, two children, two brothers, nephews, nieces. Armando lost 12. Camilo was carrying four wooden crosses to a place in the mud, by now semisolid, where his house once stood with his wife and three children inside. His only guide to the location was a ceiba tree that grew 25 meters from his door. Its top still projects from the mud.

The adults told me their story without the slightest sign of emotion. Everything gone, home, family, animals, tools, title documents. It was something that after three months had not yet become for them a reality. They were farther away than the priest was from starting a new life.

The children have their own traumas. They run and jump and laugh and ask to have their photos taken. But a rain shower, a car backfiring or a clap of thunder can make them shake with fright and dash cowering to the protecting arms of parent or aunt.

Some talk more easily about material losses. Many have lost everything. In places, as near El Progreso in the north of Honduras, the swollen rivers swept away not only houses and livestock but the very land itself, tripling the width of the river bed. What is left for many is debt incurred for seeds and fertilizer, debts the banks are not forgiving. Some lost little because that was all they had. One woman wept bitterly over her 29 chickens. Twenty-nine chickens? But for her that was as big a loss as a grocery store or a farm might be to another. It was her entire livelihood.

Hurricane Mitch is gone, leaving 4,000 confirmed dead and 2,000 missing in Nicaragua, 7,000 confirmed dead and 9,000 missing in Honduras, the two countries most affected. The material destruction in Nicaragua is set at $1.5 billion; in Honduras it amounts to $4 billion.

And what of the survivors? In Nicaragua, the municipal authorities of Managua have moved between 12,000 and 18,000 families from fishing communities on the shores of Lake Managua to a planned new settlement that, with incredible chutzpa, they have named Nueva Vida — new life. Each family is allocated — without property title — a plot 27 feet by 41 and four 4x4s and four 2x2s on which to erect a cover-all of black plastic. No windows. You enter by lifting a flap. It is a concentration camp.

Three months after the storm struck, most Mitch victims are in situations as bad as or worse than the people in Nueva Vida. They are in tent cities, schools, on road sides. The lucky ones share the shacks of friends. Governments have begun to negotiate with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international financial agencies for cancellation or renegotiation of pre-existing enormous debts and for new loans to rebuild the shattered economies. The figures for material destruction — $1.5 billion for Nicaragua and $4 billion for Honduras — were the ones bandied about in Washington in December. Responses are expected at a Stockholm meeting in May.

Even if they get what they are asking, what will it do for the victims? The answers I heard are not encouraging. Transparency International recently ranked Honduras in third place among the world’s most corrupt governments. Nicaragua is little better. The Nicaraguan Jesuit magazine, Envio, fears Nicaragua’s President Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo will use whatever aid he gets in the same way that dictator Somoza used the money that came after the 1972 earthquake — to add to his wealth and that of his cronies.

The proposal Alemán brought to Washington in December allocated two-thirds of the aid to restoring major highways. Undoubtedly, bridges must be rebuilt, and many roads were damaged. But the benefit of this massive project will go principally to the contractors and to the business community. Nothing is planned for the farm-to-market dirt roads that sustained far worse damage and that are the lifeblood of the peasants. Nor is the government talking of money to move the surviving victims from hillsides to locations where hurricanes and earthquakes cause little damage, land that is now idle.

President Carlos Flores Facusse of Honduras has given the impression in the United States and elsewhere of having a more sympathetic attitude toward the victims than does Alemán. And indeed in the first days he showed more awareness. Alemán, at that point, refused to call a national emergency, an action that would have automatically brought major international aid that only such government action will trigger and even publicly called the mayor of Posoltega crazy when she mourned the loss of thousands from her municipality. Flores, on the other hand, responded energetically as the waters were rising to the second floors of buildings in Tegucigalpa.

Flores is an autocrat and knew how to deal with the immediate crisis. But three months later, he has offered no vision for a new beginning. Like Alemán, all he projects is the utilization of the disaster to convert the country into a vast maquiladora economy. This means a thousand Nueva Vidas.

If other maquiladoras are any indication, the inhabitants will earn a minimum wage that is less than half the cost of a meager food ration for an average family. Without land to grow their rice, beans and corn, they will have no alternative. It will be a new slavery.

Central America has for the past 25 years been slowly developing its civil society, with the previously silent majority finding its voice and a share of power. The movement is significantly more developed in Nicaragua than in Honduras. The Sandinista rebellion, provoked by Somoza’s plundering of international aid after the 1972 earthquake and the Sandinista triumph in 1979 gave it strength, as did the rapid growth in education under its education minister, Jesuit Fr. Fernando Cardenal.

The self-exiled in Miami who returned and took over the government in 1990 have worked hard to undo the grassroots organizing, but much of it still remains. Immediately after Mitch, 320 nongovernmental organizations (called NGOs) and similar groups formed a coordinating committee. The committee’s reconstruction plan, submitted to the international financial agencies in Washington in December, in spite of the government’s efforts to exclude it, offers a vision of the future utterly different from that of the government.

Mitch, it says, "has revealed the disequilibrium of our model of ‘development.’... We want a rebuilding that does not take us back to the ‘normality’ of before the hurricane but which enables us to overcome the exclusion and marginalization of large sectors of the population and a better and sustainable use of our natural resources."

Concrete proposals include a fund to buy land in safe areas for those who had lived on steep slopes, a fund to take care of debts incurred for production of destroyed crops, repair of farm-to-market roads, credits to replace farm implements and livestock, help for those who lost their wage-earner, emotional help for the many traumatized and for those suffering from post-hurricane intrafamily violence.

Perhaps the most important proposal is for a committee representative of the NGOs, municipal governments, private enterprise, the churches and international aid agencies. Its function would be to audit the proper use of all aid received by the government and to determine not only whether it is being used for the indicated purposes but also to evaluate the effectiveness of the aid by its recipients. Practicing what it preaches, the committee has already put in place independent auditing of all aid coming to its members.

The NGO committee’s recommendations are unlikely to alter the government plans, although its ability to arouse international awareness should help to limit the misappropriation of aid. Besides, the NGOs do have some ability to promote their objectives, using the not inconsiderable funds that reach them from abroad to promote education, health and awareness of social problems.

Caritas International is building a $500 million fund for a five-year program. The European Community has committed an equal amount, most of which is likely to be channeled through NGOs. Protestant churches in the United States and Europe are responding, as are CARE, the Red Cross and others. Some good may yet come from the evil of Mitch.

Gary MacEoin is the author of Central America: Death or Life (Sheed and Ward, 1988) and nine other books on contemporary Latin America. He has devoted 55 years to observing and reporting on the region. His E-mail address is gmaceoin@Compuserve.com

Use the links below to access previous NCR coverage of the Mitch aftermath:

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999