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Honduras: Corruption hinders hurricane recovery

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

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Honduras was harder hit by Hurricane Mitch than any of its neighbors. The human toll: 6,000 dead, 2,000 missing. Material toll: $6 billion in lost crops, destroyed roads, damaged buildings, 70 percent of the country’s 5.8 million people affected, with more than a million needing new homes.

In Tegucigalpa, the capital, the water rose to the second floor. Many citizens lost titles to property. Some even lost the land, as rivers cut gulches a hundred yards wide and 50 feet deep. Motor vehicle records and other government documents were swept away.

It would have been even worse had the government reacted like that of Nicaragua, which insisted for days -- because President Arnoldo Alemán didn’t want to frighten his international financiers -- that there was no crisis. President Carlos Flores, an autocratic leader, took charge promptly, issued timely warnings and organized cleanups.

A dictator is good in an emergency. But when the time came to rebuild, Flores proved to be a disaster. The head of the second most corrupt government in Latin America, he moved quickly and decisively to use the disaster as a means to consolidate the neoliberal economic order. The transnational corporations, the ultimate decision-makers in Honduras, seek privatization of communications, water, trash collection and airports. That process is now being expedited.

Wage increase postponed

On Nov. 18, just over two weeks after Mitch struck, the Honduran Congress without debate gave the president control of reconstruction funds, authorizing him to approve contracts without competitive bids. The increase that was to take place at year’s end in the minimum wage, now 42 lempiras ($3) a day, was postponed for six months because of the “fragility” of employers.

The president’s friends were the beneficiaries of his new power. Multimillion dollar contracts for road repairs and cleanup went to Congressman Roberto Michelete in El Progreso and to the Williams y Molina firm in San Pedro Sula. Loggers who were authorized to remove trees downed by the hurricane cut precious and “protected” hard wood. In San Pedro Sula, the mayor took advantage of the emergency to fire street cleaners and use donated food to pay for cleanup after the hurricane.

A constitutional amendment allowed foreigners -- the transnational companies -- to own lands on the coast and along the country’s borders. Laws reversing 30 years of land reform were rushed through. The confederation of indigenous and black communities on the Atlantic Coast protested. Noting that since 1994 the government had signed eight agreements with them but had implemented only a small part of what it had signed, it said that the constitutional amendment “condemns us to physical and cultural extinction.” Their protest has gone unheeded.

Even the association of cattle ranchers has criticized the changes as benefiting only exporters and businesses engaged in processing agricultural products. “These laws have undone the benefits of 30 years of land reform by tacitly legalizing the reconsolidation of big landholdings,” according to the association of peasants. “By authorizing the importation of cheap grains, it destroys domestic production.”

Similar protests against favoritism in the awarding of contracts have gone equally unheeded, such as that of Jesuit Fr. Ismael Moreno. “The daily reality of the people is clear: authoritarian imposition, deception and political calculations, party loyalties, a pattern of following orders that prevails from the highest levels of the country down to the president of a neighborhood or village association. ... In this time of calamity the risk exists that international assistance will perpetuate the arbitrary use of public institutions, of public delinquency disguised as legality and immunity ... and greater controls, both open and subtle, of democratic spaces.”

Much speculation exists about the position of the armed forces. With massive support for 40 years from the United States, the military officers ran the country and amassed wealth. Their bank is the biggest building in Tegucigalpa. They own an insurance company as well as several security companies that provide an army of armed guards. They have acquired a reputation for authoritarianism, corruption, violations of human rights, assassinations, illegal detentions and disappearances.

Shortly before Hurricane Mitch, a constitutional reform was enacted that formally ended the autonomy the army had enjoyed since 1957 by providing that the president should be the commander-in-chief. What change will result in practice is still to be seen. Jesuit Fr. Ricardo Falla, a respected commentator on public issues, thinks the generals will be content with the amnesty they have been granted for past violations and concentrate on their profitable narcotrafficking, while continuing to manipulate from under cover.

The biggest unknown of all is what will happen to the banana industry. Dominated by Tela Railroad Company, La Chiquita and other United Fruit subsidiaries, it has long been the country’s biggest employer and source of foreign exchange. Hurricane Mitch devastated the plantations, and it will take a full year to restore production, if the company decides to replant. But it is by no means certain that it will do so.

The first response was to lay off all workers for a year without pay. Later, it was said the layoff would be reviewed after some months, but so far none of the permanent workers has been recalled. Instead, outside contractors are being used for cleanup after the hurricane, and these employ nonunion labor at minimum wages.

United Fruit has long been trying to break the trade unions that achieved substantial gains after a long strike in 1984. The company has introduced laborsaving techniques and expanded into production of African palm, a source of vegetable oil that requires less labor than bananas. By last year, the number of union workers employed by the company in El Progreso, a major production center, was down from 10,000 to 3,500.

Desperate workers

So far there are no official pronouncements, but it is widely believed that the company is holding out for new concessions from the government in return for a commitment not to move its banana production to lower-cost countries. The situation of the idled workers is becoming desperate. Year-end bonuses and vacation pay have helped to tide them over for a couple of months. A prolonged idleness will mean hunger and social unrest.

Clearly the victims of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras cannot expect any significant recovery in the short term. Yet they are not totally without friends. As in Nicaragua, the disaster has evoked a strong response from international nongovernmental organizations, especially those of Europe where even small countries like Finland, Denmark and Ireland have responded generously. With their encouragement, national nongovernmental organizations have formed coalitions to coordinate relief and rebuilding efforts.

The nongovernmental organizations are committed to long-term programs. They stress and seek to foster the solidarity that sustains poor people and which neoliberalism works to destroy. One of their priorities is to ensure that aid does not foster dependency. With this in mind, a coalition of Protestant and Catholic agencies that derives most of its funding from Protestant sources is promoting a “solidarity network” to improve women’s self-image. Neighbors are encouraged to form groups of four families. Three mothers can go out to work while the fourth cares for the children and is paid in food for her family and herself.

Another nongovernmental organization, called COMAR and headquartered in Siguatepeque, provides technical -- especially marketing -- services for peasant producers through a national network of 50 organizations. A project of the Catholic and Mennonite churches, it negotiates the sale of its members’ produce and distributes to some 500 retail shops around the country. It also promotes handicrafts and natural medicines.

ANDAR, still another organization, is developing an ambitious project in Olanchito on the northern coast in cooperation with the Costa Rican ARIAS Foundation and the World Union for the Conservation of the Environment. The project provides technical assistance, basic tools and seeds. The idea is to enable women, who have been involved in the planning from the outset, to create patio gardens, both for their own food and to supply the local market. Child care centers, as well as such facilities as electric corn grinders and community wells will free the women to work their gardens. The project will reach communities that include 10,000 people of whom two-thirds are children.

Hondurans have one other source of relief in the short term. Remittances from young people working in the United States already amount to $400,000 a year. With the massive migration northward in the last three months, it is anticipated that by the end of next year the total will exceed the $1 billion that El Salvador has been receiving steadily for many years now. It is true that militarization of the U.S. southern border grows apace, but throughout history neither walls nor armies have been able to stop hungry people.

Gary MacEoin’s E-mail address is gmaceoi@compuserve.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999