|Central American University - UCA
Number 209 | Diciembre 1998
First Reflections On the Wounds Mitch Inflicted
In the post-Mitch vortex, a month and a half after the passing of the hurricane, provisional analyses and people's impressions of the events experienced still predominate. The fact is that what we lived through was incredible. It was like some divine judgment, an historic insight for the whole country, an x-ray exposing Honduras' social structure.
Alert: grade 5 hurricaneWe learned through the media that this dangerous hurricane was forming on October 23, just days before Mitch hit Honduras. Grade 5, they called it. We followed it on TV, where it was just a red whirl over the deep blue of the sea. Every day it moved a little closer, but we thought it would pass us by. When finally on Monday 26 it struck Guanaja, one of the small Bay Islands, we still thought that it would move on north to Belize. But suddenly it changed course and launched itself ferociously at the Garífuna coast around the mouth of the Aguán River near Trujillo. The media's warnings helped save many lives. People who had faced the fury of hurricane Fifi in 1974 warned those of us who had not lived through that unforgettable experience, and the Hurricane Center in Miami leant official weight to the worrying forecasts.
In the city of El Progreso in the Sula valley, the torrential rains started on Wednesday 28. By then, the hurricane had already turned into a tropical storm, which alleviated some of the nervous tension. It was still being said, however, that some 500 mm. of rain would fall. While that did seem like a lot, we never imagined just how much it would be.
When the Ulúa River started to rise, we helped evacuate some people who had no radios, much less televisions, and had heard nothing about Mitch's possible dangers. They didn't want to leave. They had only heard warnings from their neighbors and weren't convinced. The waters rise every year, even covering their floors, and if they abandon their houses at all it is to go no further than the security of the nearby paved highway. We almost had to take them out by force. They were such poor people marginalized in a modern city that one girl started screaming when we put her into a car that night because she'd never been in a four-wheeled vehicle before.
Landslides and raging rivers In the hills outside the city of El Progreso, some people didn't manage to escape, because there the disaster didn't slowly unfold like a gradually rising river. Instead they were suddenly hit by landslides, as in the village of Las Minas, where nine members of a single family were buried under an avalanche of mud.
Others dramatically escaped when they heard the noise of the water in nearby streams and rivers sweeping down from the mountains, taking their communities with it. Guacamaya, a village just outside El Progreso, was devastated by mud, trees and rocks carried down by a stream that nearly dries up in summer. Although only a handful of people died, most of the inhabitants lost their houses and possessions.
In another town in the El Progreso municipality, Urraco, the people abandoned their houses in time, evacuating children and the elderly, but they ended up stranded on a hill surrounded by water, like the victims of some bizarre shipwreck. Then it was no longer the waters of the great Ulúa River that threatened their lives, but hunger and a lack of safe drinking water. What a bitter irony to die of thirst surrounded by a flood, but the river water was contaminated. (See the following article for a first-hand account of the odyssey of Urraco's inhabitants.)
Other people in the same banana-producing area sought refuge in trees or on rooftops for several days, desperately signaling to the helicopters passing overhead, evacuating people from other areas. The poisonous "yellowbeard" snakes that had also clambered to safety in the treetops were one of the biggest dangers for survivors in that rural area.
As hurricane and as tropical storm As a hurricane, Mitch tore off roofs, destroyed houses, knocked down trees, leveled banana plantations and flattened hillside cornfields on the island of Guanaja and the coastal area at the mouth of the Aguán River. While the sea level was at its highest the hurricane's swirling winds were faster and warmer. Locals say that the Calentura hill behind Trujillo was left yellow, as though burnt by the lashing winds.
Then as a tropical storm, Mitch turned south and moved right across the country, hitting Tegucigalpa, Choluteca and Valle before leaving Honduras via the Salvadoran border. As its winds died down, Mitch carried a kind of enormous bell of torrential rains, which unleashed their fury on part of Nicaragua's northwest area as well. In Honduras, these rains fell on ecologically damaged areas and on the Atlantic's vast river basins in the north. These water catchment areas swelled up violently, forming lagoons whose overflowing waters raced down towards the sea.
Faced by such an unexpected disaster, many people thought that Mitch was some scourge of God. In fact it was a scourge, but of nature, wounded by this new globalized form of capitalism that has heated up the atmosphere and damaged the ozone layer, provoking more powerful, dangerous and frequent natural phenomena than ever before. But there are two sides to every coin. Communications have also been globalized, which meant that the hurricane was detected earlier and more warning alerts were transmitted with greater precision and speed than when Fifi hit Honduras in 1974. "Perhaps that's why there were fewer deaths this time," commented one shopkeeper. But that was before we heard about the tragic events in Tegucigalpa.
Geography of the destruction There were three main causes of destruction, though in some cases these combined to greater effect. The first was the flooding caused when the great flat rivers in the north of the country overflowed their banks, completely swamping the city of La Lima between San Pedro Sula and El Progreso, for example, as well as San Pedro Sula's international airport. The second factor was the mountain streams that burst their banks with so much rain and turned into raging rivers. In El Progreso, the Pelo River destroyed 200 houses in the Pénjamo neighborhood, undermining their foundations until they collapsed. And thirdly, there were landslides, such as the ones that affected Tegucigalpa, the hilly capital.
Unlike Fifi, which only battered the Caribbean Coast, Mitch affected the whole country, including Tegucigalpa, which in fact suffered the greatest concentration of damages. The Choluteca river cut the city in two—Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela—and left an immense, pestilent lagoon in the middle that has still not drained away a full forty-five days after the tragedy. All this damage has had serious implications for the government's capacity to function. For example, the Ministry of Education building was totally destroyed and all of the centralized documentation on students lost.
In geographical terms, the whole of north, central and southern Honduras as well as eastern areas on the Nicaraguan border suffered the worst destruction. The west was less affected. Land communications with Nicaragua were disrupted, but not those with Guatemala, or with El Salvador through Poy.
The country was broken up like a piece of shattered glass. Bridges of all sizes were destroyed, landslides blocked roads and in some places rivers carried away paved highways. Approaching the Chancaya River on the road to Yoro is an impressive sight. A temporary road was created along the riverbank because the original highway had completely disappeared. It was not a case of merely clearing away a landslide; the river had swallowed up the highway.
Air communication with the north of the country was cut off when the elegant San Pedro Sula airport, pride of the locals in their rivalry with Tegucigalpa, was flooded out. The waters of the Camelecón and Ulúa Rivers inundated the valley and when the water reached about a meter and a half high in the airport parking lot, the thick glass of the air terminal gave way, flooding the airline ticket counters, the immigration service's computers, everything.
The destruction in numbers
Official figures for November 10 showed the following damages:
Houses destroyed and damaged: 220,000
Bridges destroyed: 169
Communities disappeared: Morolica, Orica, Santa Rosa del Aguán, Valle de Angeles, La Libertad, Bajamar.
Zones devastated: Bajo Aguán, Sula Valley, the Bay Islands, the Mosquitia region.
Main cities affected: El Progreso, Guanaja, Tegucigalpa, La Lima, Tela, Choluteca, Roatán, Sabá, Santa Rita, Tocoa, La Ceiba, Comayagua, Santa Bárbara, San Pedro Sula, Trujillo, Pespire.
Although not officially stated, these figures were little more than estimates. The days went by, but the highly inefficient Permanent Contingencies Committee (COPECA) failed to come up with any departmental breakdown of the figures. When foreign journalists started demanding such a breakdown, the anomalies began to appear. In the department of Santa Bárbara, where there had really been just a handful of fatalities, the official figure showed over a thousand.
How many really died? So what happened? In the first days, COPECA proved to be totally ineffective and offered very low figures. When the official death toll stood at 375, two serious events hit the news: the devastation in Tegucigalpa and the tragic mudslide of the Casitas volcano in Nicaragua, which caused several thousand deaths. On hearing of the tragedy in Nicaragua, Honduran TV started commenting that, "There can't possibly be fewer deaths here!" So the President of the Republic suddenly appeared on November 4 announcing that there were 6,420 fatalities, without explaining the figure or providing any breakdown. Afterwards, the figure rose to 6,600 and finally reached 7,500, the one generally accepted as definitive. At that time, protesting the lack of precision was considered neither "patriotic" nor in keeping with the need to display "solidarity." The numbers were imposed as unquestionable, to be taken like those in the Bible, according to its literary genre.
Whatever the real figures, it is obvious that it was a gigantic, indescribable catastrophe, although not so much for the numbers of dead—which probably stand somewhere between two and three thousand in reality. The President of the Republic lied, just like the thousands of people who later drew up false lists to obtain more rations. The reality was that the Honduran government did not at the time have the infrastructure or organization to calculate the fatalities. But it pretended that it did, and that was the greatest lie. Nonetheless, the later calculation of the total number of people left homeless does appear to be accurate.
Agricultural damages As of December 1, the estimated damage to agriculture, including both production and infrastructure, and calculated using information provided by those affected, was the following:
Agricultural producers say they need US$1.8 billion to reactivate their sector, but only 880 million lempiras ($64 million) are available.
For some crops, the producers' estimates are significantly higher than the government's, for others they are lower, and in yet others they tend to coincide. It appears that businesspeople linked to the most valuable categories sang out the loudest during the analysis to evaluate the damage, whereas the voice of the peasants, the main producers of basic grains, was missing.
Unemployment and losses The damage to the agricultural sector will mean a sharp rise in unemployment, particularly on the banana plantations. The Tela Railroad Company, one of the main transnational banana companies operating in Honduras, has been authorized to suspend 7,433 jobs in the Sula valley for a three-month period and Standard Fruit has been given the go ahead to suspend 5,695 workers. Other companies linked to banana production were also authorized to suspend a total of 2,695 workers, for a grand total of about 15,000.
On November 25, the Labor Ministry announced that it had accepted the suspension of a total of 22,082 jobs. The 7,000 jobs lost outside of the banana sector were from factories that claimed to have suffered damages to their infrastructure. These included the Cheil and Mikwang assembly plants (maquilas) in La Lima (1,173 and 812 workers, respectively); the Leyde dairy and fruit juice company in La Ceiba (390); Operaciones Hoteleras in San Pedro (95); and the Venus sweets factory in Comayagüela (23). In these cases the figures are quite exact. But it should not be assumed that the workers were necessarily suspended because of damages to the factories, since both the above-mentioned maquilas have continued to operate.
According to the Guatemalan foreign affairs minister at the November 25 summit of Central American foreign ministers, almost a month after the disaster, the region will need $4 billion for its reconstruction over the next four to five years. More than half of this staggering figure corresponds to the reconstruction of Honduras.
Fighting for their lives Great efforts were made to protect lives during the disaster. The will came from deep down, from that basic instinct to stay alive and to protect the lives of others. Many examples of this occurred during the emergency, ranging from the most personal to the most collective.
Above all else was the personal will to survive. The example of 36-year-old Isabela Arriola, a Garífuna schoolteacher from Barra del Aguán, hit the international headlines. After losing her husband and four children to the flood, she spent a week clinging to a raft made of tree trunks, eating coconuts that were floating in the sea, which she opened with her teeth. She was finally picked up, unconscious, by a British boat some 120 km. from shore. Interviewed afterwards, she explained that she had found the strength to struggle on by talking to God and to her ancestors. For several days she had also talked to a duck that swam alongside her raft, which she named so she could hold a proper conversation with it.
The rescue and evacuation of people trapped in the middle of raging waters, often at the risk of the rescuers' own lives as they had very little to cling to, was just one manifestation of the enormous heroism and generosity repeated time and again throughout the country. Children were rescued from rising waters; people from isolated communities who had passed days without food or water were rescued in makeshift rafts; and in the days following the immediate emergency, hundreds of bodies buried by the avalanches of mud were recovered.
Another manifestation of generosity and the struggle to preserve life was the housing of people whose own homes had collapsed, flooded or suffered partial damage. Private houses, churches, schools, gymnasiums and many other buildings were opened up and turned into hostels for those who had lost their homes, particularly in the cities. The ragged, hungry poor with feet swollen from the humidity and fungal infections and eyes puffy from conjunctivitis gathered together in hostels in the main cities—Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba and El Progreso. In El Progreso, 150 hostels were organized and for three or four days they filled up with people being evacuated from the flooded zones.
Fighting for food There then opened another chapter in the struggle of thousands of people to stay alive—the search for food, drinking water, cooking utensils and clothes. Churches, business chambers, municipal governments and individuals began buying food to offer the basics to those with nothing: rice, beans, flour to make tortillas, sugar, coffee and salt. The water companies distributed free bags of purified water, and the population in general donated any clothes they could do without. In El Progreso, Radio Progreso became a donation collection center. In many small municipalities the churches and municipal governments formed an immediate alliance to distribute provisions. Many initiatives also started up in the cities, which in some cases doubled the aid being offered. The non- governmental organization CARE set up its own warehouse for several days where anyone could go with a list of the food they needed. Initially there were moments of great confusion, but also moments of great solidarity.
In the banana-producing cities, such as La Lima and El Progreso in the Sula Valley and Sabá and Olanchito in Aguán, people instinctively looked for the only food available: the green bananas that had been left on the trees and could not now be exported. The companies turned a blind eye. Hundreds of men left with giant bunches of bananas over their shoulders or with bicycles laden with three or more bunches. We were witnessing the struggle to find food in the desperation of extreme necessity, a time when the right to private property pales beside a more fundamental right—the right to life.
Fighting for clothing Something similar happened in a maquila industrial park in La Lima, when people spontaneously invaded the assembly plants themselves. The results could have been disastrous, but fortunately no one was hurt. On hearing that one plant had been flooded and the new clothing soaked or muddied, hundreds of local people jumped the surrounding fences and entered the factory to rescue the clothes before the company could burn them or throw them away, as is usually the case with imperfect pieces. The soiled clothing was no good for export, and could not be sold in the country either since the maquilas pay no taxes. The people felt it was their right to appropriate the clothes. It wasn't looting; it was justice.
Another manifestation of the struggle for life during the emergency was the desire to contact family, friends, NGOs or churches in other countries by phone, or internet where possible, to tell them what had happened and what help was needed. Such communications served to request aid, mount projects and, safe in the knowledge that aid had been promised from abroad, release money to feed so many hungry people. It was also during those first days that President Carlos Flores called for Honduras' foreign debt to be pardoned and openly asked the US government to suspend the deportation of Hondurans illegally residing in the United States. In response, the Clinton government agreed to a temporary suspension.
Globalized solidarity The response of other countries acting in solidarity began to be felt almost immediately. At first it came in money sent to open accounts set up in the national banks, but these often failed to provide needed information about the donors so that receipt of the aid could be promptly acknowledged. Later help came in the form of provisions, medicines, clothing and countless other items that are only now beginning to arrive in the country. The people from two countries—Spain and the United States—were particularly generous. A new side to solidarity in the US, not especially noticeable in the 1980s, is the solidarity from the immigrant populations. Many people here were surprised by the amount of aid sent by Hondurans and other Central Americans living in the United States.
In just a few days in Spain, collections outstripped amounts that had been raised over a considerably longer period of time to help the waves of refugees that had escaped the massacres in Rwanda. Why? Maybe because Spain and Honduras share the same culture and language; maybe because that hour of pain reawakened the dormant dream of a united Central America; perhaps because it was a natural disaster and therefore the drama was easier to understand; or maybe because the news evolved over several days with a dramatic crescendo before its devastating outcome. We will never know what kind of informative policy moved the world media to dedicate so much time and attention to Mitch.
Then the different governments started to respond to the situation, each according its particular profile and political interests. "Mexico always comes first, there's only one Mexico," they said in Honduras, and even forgave it for beating Honduras at football. Mexico concentrated its aid in Tegucigalpa, providing machinery and engineers. Then followed Japan, Cuba, the United States and France, the latter pardoning Honduras' $119 million bilateral debt. Other countries also announced the cancellation of Honduras's bilateral debts with them—Spain $32.5 million and Canada $13.5 million—and promised to support the idea of pardoning its multilateral debt in the relevant arenas. Holland pardoned Honduras the interests on and amortization of Honduras' bilateral debt with that country—a total of $1.1 million.
The personality parade After the solidarity aid came a parade of foreign personalities. George Bush arrived and was described as "dismayed" by what he saw. Then there was Tipper Gore, who made a show of humility by sleeping in a refugee hostel, and the handsome Prince Felipe of Spain, who made the hearts of more than one young girl miss a beat. Then Jacques Chirac and Hilary Clinton arrived on the same day, tripping over each other in their attempts to project their own images. Next it was Cuban foreign minister Roberto Robaina's turn and two days later of IMF head Michel Camdessus advising us "not to get too obsessed with pardoning the debt, but look further, look towards reconstruction." And, finally, there was the secretary- general of the OAS, the president of the IDB and Zedillo's wife—as Mexico's First Lady was identified in the newspaper headlines, where her own name did not appear to deserve a mention.
In a second wave of solidarity, with the first stage of the emergency nearly over, many Hondurans living abroad have come to visit their relatives, bearing boxes filled with items ranging from the most to the least necessary—the basics alongside presents. It is almost like a practice run for the traditional Christmas return home of those who emigrated to the United States. The now reopened San Pedro Sula airport is packed full of such visitors.
The presidential image This procession of international visitors is helping President Carlos Flores improve his image. Because of the emergency, the image of Flores' US-born wife, Mary Flakes, has slowly but surely begun to replace that of the President; she now appears to be some kind of fairy godmother. With her beautiful and distinguished figure, she symbolizes the solidarity between two friendly countries in response to Honduras' needs. To reinforce this symbolism, she appears in the media handing out aid to the homeless, even in municipalities where the government's provision of aid has been slow and cumbersome. She personifies and represents the María Foundation, to which her husband is trying to give a quasi-religious spin to project to the general public.
Flores, owner of the La Tribuna newspaper, is very aware of the power of images. This has led him to promote symbols and a degree of control that blocks the emergence of any expressions of protest that might tarnish the image of his government abroad or destabilize the population.
Divine punishment? But there have not only been signs of life, of grace and solidarity. There have also been signs of darkness and of sin. The first and most important of these is the crushing poverty and nakedness of those left homeless. This was a catastrophe that hit the poor, exposing the sinful structure of Honduran society, which is by no means the exception in Central America. When people spontaneously interpret a hurricane as the scourge of God, perhaps they are expressing awareness that this sin of inequality and injustice is somehow being punished through the tragedy. It is a mysterious tragedy with echoes of Christ's crucifixion, because again the innocents—the poor—are the ones being punished, as in the worst tragedy in this universe: the death of God, drowned in the abysm of the world's sins. The hope is that these poor and innocent people who feel that they are being divinely punished will be the source of some mysterious, universal redemption.
The outbreaks of violence are another sign of this darkness. Almost immediately after the destruction of Tegucigalpa came a general spate of looting that forced the government to declare a curfew until the end of November. Some people also tried to take advantage of the raging waters for other own dark ends, as in the case of the attempted murder of an anti-drugs chief by drug traffickers and a couple of bank raids that barely made the news. There was also violence in Tegucigalpa's jails, caused by the dangerous conditions and the prisoners' desperation. There were several mass jailbreaks.
Few signs of corruption On a more positive note, there have been few signs of corruption in the management and distribution of international aid, with the exception of one low-ranking official who diverted an aid cargo with the complicity of a superior. He was imprisoned and the case received great publicity in an attempt to demonstrate that no type of government corruption will be tolerated.
In one interview with a foreign journalist, President Flores appeared to hesitate when asked what assurance he could give that the aid would get to those who most needed it. It was not an unreasonable question. Before Mitch struck, Honduras had just been classified as the third most corrupt country in the world by the organization Transparency International. But Honduras has certainly not been characterized by corruption in these days, and it is a long way from the situation in Somoza's post-earthquake Nicaragua of 1972. The negative note for the government is its centralism, and its distance from civil society and even from the political groups within its own party that do not include people who have the President's confidence.
Rebuilding roads By the beginning of December we had already entered the rehabilitation stage, a transition period between the previous emergency and the upcoming reconstruction stage. The effort and speed with which Honduras' land communications have been reestablished has been exemplary. The country with the best highways in Central America could not remain fractured if it wanted to survive the disaster and return to some form of normality. People were still being evacuated from the flooded banana fields when the population from the villages started looking for even some primitive way to make contact with the cities. Some communities made log rafts to reach El Progreso, taking their bicycles along and using them on the river dikes. Some communities cobbled together bridges out of planks and tree trunks and charged vehicles to cross. In the most difficult crossings, four-wheel drive vehicles made the plunge across the streams whose water levels had dropped. Then came tractors, and finally trucks and buses could pass, though not without submerging their tires.
The landslides were cleared. One of the most completely destroyed bridges over the Cangrejal River between La Ceiba and Trujillo was incredibly rebuilt by moving earth to force the river through a narrow channel. Lumber dealers and public works rehabilitated the crossing at Yoro in three weeks, though with a detour of several kilometers down the sandy riverside. Everything done was provisional, mere rehabilitation. The reconstruction will come next.
The big trunk roads from Tegucigalpa southwards, from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula and from San Pedro Sula to Trujillo were quickly rehabilitated. Without these communications networks open, the country's capital was left without fuel, and in the first few days gasoline had to be rationed.
When the waters dropped, San Pedro Sula airport was rehabilitated. The runway was still in good condition. First, the military base opened up to light aircraft flying to Tegucigalpa, and soon after big planes carrying aid and foreign brigades started to arrive. Then the airport was cleaned out and soon reopened, although without air conditioning. On the white walls you can still see the stain marking how high the waters reached—somewhere around the shoulders of a tall person.
Struggling for electricity and water Electricity has been partially reconnected in several places. One problem is that the electricity posts cannot be sunk in the loose soil, which might shift. Domestic diesel generators, which are quite common in a country like Honduras so prone to power cuts, spluttered into action with the emergency. Meanwhile, on a positive note, El Cajón dam, often in danger of drying up, has completely filled up, guaranteeing a good year for the electricity supply.
The drinking water systems, disrupted by damaged reservoirs or broken pipes, have also been rehabilitated little by little. In Tegucigalpa and other big cities, the drinking water problem, which has been critical, persists in over 25% of the neighborhoods in the capital. The problem has to be solved by transporting water for human consumption in tanker trucks. In rural villages and in cities where the ravines have been washed somewhat cleaner than usual by all the rushing water, the women go out and wash their clothes in these cloudy waters.
One task that is proving particularly difficult during this rehabilitation stage is the digging out of plots of land and houses that were buried under a meter or more of mud. In several villages work brigades have been set up that go from house to house offering to do this work in return for food. In the cities, communal work is harder to organize and no municipal decision has yet been made about the safety of many of the flooded lots. Draining the lake that covered half of Tegucigalpa is another slow rehabilitation task that was started with the help of foreign machinery and brigades.
Politics during the disaster From November 19 to December 2, Congress passed various laws, almost invariably at night following a single, hurried reading. The contents of these laws were not publicized and the public was not even informed of the basic idea behind them. Two constitutional articles were even reformed, which will at least require another round of voting for definitive approval during a second legislature.
Some of the laws passed are aimed at making it easier to invest in the country, such as the Concessions Law and the Mining Law, which had been pending for some time. Others sought to concentrate power in the President's hands to the detriment of Congress, as was the case with the Law of Administrative Facilitation. These laws have been approved incredibly quickly, despite the initial opposition of the congressional president, who complained about the exaggerated speed of the process. Nonetheless, even he ended up falling in with the government line following pressure from the private sector and international banks, which demanded the speedy formulation of reconstruction plans.
The Law of Administrative Facilitation governed the creation of a Reconstruction Cabinet, made up of four ministers with President Flores' full confidence: Presidential Minister Gustavo Alvaro; Public Works Minister Tomás Lozano; Finance Minister Gabriela Núñez; and International Cooperation Minister Moisés Starkmann. Their tasks are to forge a reconstruction master plan, determine the priority projects, obtain financing for those projects and decide how they should be carried out. This Cabinet was also responsible for preparing the National Reconstruction Plan that Honduras was to present in Washington to the international financial organizations and donor countries in mid-December.
Flores emerges stronger These laws have left the President in a stronger position. According to the Concessions Law, for example, he can put contracts for public works out to bid without having to obtain congressional approval. The Administrative Facilitation Law empowers him to create the above-mentioned Reconstruction Cabinet as well as sectoral cabinets with the power to reorganize public spending and modify budgetary assignations while Congress is in recess. It also empowers the executive branch to directly negotiate and sign contracts for infrastructure works, for consultations and for the purchase of goods and services during the emergency period.
President Flores has also benefited politically from the tragic death of César Castellanos, "el Gordito," on November 1 when his helicopter crashed as he flew over Tegucigalpa observing the damages. The deceased mayor of Tegucigalpa had presidential aspirations, and a good level of popular support. He also had an alliance with one section of Liberals who were considering supporting el Gordito's presidential candidacy this time in return for his support of their candidate in the following elections.
President Flores has no solid grassroots support; his power base lies directly with the Honduran oligarchy, which could easily lead him to establish a form of dictatorship. It is not for nothing that he is rumored to have the same intentions as Fujimori in Peru. However, he would never dissolve Congress because he doesn't have to. He knows perfectly well how to manipulate it.
Controversial constitutional reform One of the most recent decisions taken by Congress was the reform to article 107 of the Constitution, also pushed through at top speed and approved at night. This reform allows foreigners to acquire property on the coasts of Honduras in order to develop tourist projects. The tourist infrastructure remains virtually intact and according to the business sector is one of the economic areas that could help get the economy going again. This reform has been strongly questioned by the Garífunas, whose communities are located on the beaches of the Honduran Caribbean coast. While the Garífunas were struggling to cope with some of the worst effects of the hurricane—the community of Barra del Aguán had one of the highest numbers of victims— Congress was quickly pushing through the reform, ignoring commitments to a prior negotiation. Only one parliamentarian, Matías Fúnez of the new UD party, had the courage to vote against a reform that damages the country's sovereignty.
Even the foreign relations minister, who participated in the debates and negotiations over this reform, protested the way it was approved. And so, while public opinion has swallowed the other, basically technical laws passed during the emergency without any real problems, all this controversy over the constitutional reform could serve to awaken the country's conscience so it can fight to keep opportunist fishermen from landing some big ones in today's turbulent waters. It will have to stir into action and pick up certain threads again, such as the grassroots struggles of the indigenous and black peoples earlier this year in commemoration of October 12. Mitch pushed them to the back of people's minds, but only temporarily.
Churches active and committed The new situation has stirred the churches into action, and a notable reorganization. The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Oscar Rodríguez, decided to accept President Flores' initiative that the archdiocesan church assume responsibility for the hostels set up for those left homeless and for administering central government aid earmarked for this purpose. Some dioceses did not follow its example, but others did.
At the same time, the emergency encouraged close relations between the Catholic Church and local municipal governments in the distribution of food. In Tocoa, for example, the Church is responsible for distributing food in return for work throughout the municipality.
In El Progreso, where around 14,000 families were left homeless, the municipal government made the Catholic Church a similar offer. The local authorities promised to provide the food aid they received plus transport, while the Catholic Church would be responsible for distribution. Such initiatives sought to guarantee fair, transparent and apolitical distribution of relief aid. The Church took up the challenge after talking to various sectors of the population, including nuns, Protestant pastors, lay representatives of the parish neighborhoods, the Chamber of Commerce, teachers and grassroots organizations.
The experience has been a success In El Progreso, although it has proved difficult in the short time it has been operating. The Church has delegated its responsibility to certain sectors and there has been ecumenical collaboration, which is something quite unusual. There has also been both transparency and accusations that the government is not facilitating the provision of aid. And, finally, a process is developing to give the hurricane victims representation on the multisectoral distribution committee through the creation of local assemblies and a general assembly of hurricane victims. A daily radio program has accompanied this initiative. This participatory process has been quite the opposite of the process the government adopted in drawing up its national reconstruction plan and design of projects.
No specific steps had been taken as of mid-December to design lines and criteria for reconstruction, but the country is working towards this. It will have to try to avoid allowing the demands imposed by foreign aid to rush it into that stage too fast, which could lead to erroneous decisions based on dependency.
Reconstruction in El Progreso Among the possible areas of reconstruction that the Church might promote in El Progreso are:
Switching from giving food to paying with food for work done or to be done, as local emergency committees gradually replace the politicized neighborhood boards. This would also imply distributing tools, depending on the work to be done. Areas of work that could possibly receive payment in food include: cleaning out houses, creating micro-plots of vegetables in old tires, and rechanneling streams in the countryside and drainage channels in the streets.
Gradually emptying the hostels so people can return as near as possible to where their houses once were and where they can find work.
Relocating people to safe areas chosen by the people themselves with the aid of committed professionals, and later helping them organize so they can jointly pressure to buy the urban lots they have occupied at a low price.
Reforesting the hills where landslides caused much destruction.
Reaching places that the municipality does not cover, either geographically or socially.
Developing self-construction projects where the people build their own basic wood houses with sheet metal roofing.
Monitoring the arrival of international aid at all levels and doing ongoing analysis of the reconstruction process, accompanying this analysis with proposals from the municipal level.
Preaching, consoling and seeking some sense in all of this pain through faith, trying to subjectively read the signs of the times and encouraging work, self-sufficiency, truth and liberty.
By Ricardo Falla, sj, of the Reflection Research and Communication Team of the Jesuits of Honduras.