Sketches of an Unexpected Tragedy
The blow from hurricane mitch has been devastating in Nicaragua, but not fatal. There are solutions. The key will be whether the country, the government and society can work together to find them, can rise above the damage and turn this new crisis into an opportunity. We have to go on, to begin again.
With so little time before going to press, and with so much information still unreported or incomplete, we could not hope to adequately analyze this drama, which will necessarily mean significant changes in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. Instead, we have used this space to compile a record of first impressions and reflections on what has happened, together with data, anecdotes and initial political, economic and ecological assessments that may or may not have appeared in the international media. In the coming months we will be using this same space to help in the search for new alternatives, stubbornly hopeful that the shifts to come will favor life, reason and social responsibility, not the greater decomposition of our societies, so historically battered by nature's disasters and the even greater disasters that we as human beings are capable of provoking.
An extensive part of Nicaragua's geography was severely damaged by the non-stop rains that accompanied the passage of Hurricane Mitch over neighboring Honduras in the last days of October. Honduras was by far the hardest hit in Mitch's erratic path, but even though the hurricane did not directly touch Nicaragua, the indirect damages it caused made it more devastating than any of the 40 other hurricanes that did directly hit the country over the course of this century. The rainfall generated by the 400-km.-diameter hurricane broke historical records. In Chinandega, the department in Nicaragua's northwestern corner, the rainfall recorded for October was eight hundred times greater than the century's historic average, and in the mountainous center-north department of Jinotega a thousand times greater. Flooding, rising lakes, overflowing rivers and a horrific mudslide caused tragedy in many parts of the country, though mainly in the north.
Even worse than the 1972 earthquakeOnce the media began to report the magnitude of the disaster, well before the government acknowledged how serious it was, we knew that Mitch was worse in many ways than the earthquake that destroyed Managua in December 1972, leaving some ten thousand dead. It was worse because much more territory was devastated, worse because communication with various parts of the country has been physically severed, making both rescue efforts and reconstruction much more difficult, and worse because the country is already staggering under far more severe problems than it had back then. In 1972 Nicaragua hadn't yet lived through a two-year insurrection followed by a ten-year counterrevolutionary war; and it hadn't suffered the additional damage of an economic model that has intensified many of the already-existing inequalities between Nicaraguans. In 1972 Nicaragua was a country experiencing something of an economic bonanza. Now, 26 years later, it is the second most impoverished country in the hemisphere after Haiti.
For all that, there is no comparison in Nicaragua to the disaster that Mitch caused in Honduras. If all the problems mentioned above had already brought Nicaragua's economy down to its level of 40 year ago, as some economists calculate, Honduras' overwhelmed President, Carlos Flores, estimates that Mitch alone has set his country back at least as far. To use Flores' own words, "We lost in less than 72 hours what it took us half a century to build." He adds that everything in Honduras will now be referred to as "before and after Mitch." Honduras, next in line after Nicaragua among the continent's poorest countries, was battered not only by Mitch's rain but also by winds that reached 250 kilometers per hour while the hurricane was stalled off Honduras' Atlantic Coast for two days.
The combination of non-stop rain and the extremely violent winds wiped out most of Honduras' productive, agricultural, touristic, road, port and petroleum infrastructure. It also knocked out water, electricity and phone services almost everywhere in the country, including the capital itself. Hardly a city, town or village was left unscathed. A third of Tegucigalpa suffered severe damage when the rivers running through its deforested hillsides rose precipitously, breaking water pipes and causing landslides that affected neighborhoods of all social classes. A local cameraperson happened to be filming one hillside neighborhood when it suddenly gave way, sending dozens of homes and tons of earth crashing down into the ravine, burying untold numbers of residents.
The map of Nicaragua's disasterNicaragua's capital was largely spared such nightmares, both because it was far to the south of the hurricane's path and because it is relatively flat. It has, however, suffered due to the rise of Lake Xolotlán, on whose south shore Managua is built. The week of steady rains was enough to require the evacuation of the extremely poor neighborhoods along the contaminated lakefront, particularly in the north-shore municipality of San Francisco Libre. As the lake continued to rise with water pouring in from the swollen rivers that feed it, it severely damaged the low-lying municipality of Tipitapa, just east of the capital. The lake has risen over four meters so far, thus merging with the huge Lake Cocibolca to the south, to which it was previously linked only by the Río Tipitapa .
The most devastated parts of Nicaragua, however, are further to the north: the flat rural expanse of the otherwise dry northwest (León and Chinandega) and the mountainous north-central areas of Matagalpa, Jinotega and Las Segovias, on or near the Honduran border. Several northern cities—Estelí, Matagalpa, Ocotal, Jalapa, Ciudad Darío and others—suffered significant destruction and some damages were even reported in areas of Granada and Rivas, far to the south. As we went to press, we did not yet have news of the dramas people had lived through in remote municipalities such as Dipilto, San Juan de Limay, Santa Rosa del Peñon and Acuapa, which are still cut off by the destruction of bridges, highways, roads and trails.
The Río Coco, Nicaragua's longest river, caused the most severe damage. The river begins near the city of Ocotal and heads east, cutting between Nueva Segovia and Jinotega to mark the border of those two departments. It continues on through the mountains of Jinotega, defining the border with Honduras, until it reaches Raití, the outpost community that separates Jinotega from the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). From there it flows down through the highlands of the RAAN, past the Miskito river capital of Waspám, still separating Honduras from Nicaragua, and eventually levels out into a delta and empties into the Caribbean Sea just north of Cape Gracias de Dios. With the hurricane it accumulated more and more water as it traveled, directly from the rain and from all its swollen tributaries. Overflowing its sometimes high banks, it rose above rooftop level, even higher than the tops of coconut trees in the coastal region.
The hurricane added new pain to the still-open wounds of both civilians and former military in Wiwilí, Quilalí, Bocay, Raití—communities along the Río Coco and its tributaries which became famous during the war years. Mitch was more destructive than the war, say some survivors of both in those embattled towns, which have now virtually disappeared. In Quilalí, just north of the river in Nueva Segovia, a new baseball stadium had just been built; it had been a huge undertaking. The stadium, called the "sports pride of the north," hadn't even been inaugurated yet when the water and mud washed it right off the map. In Wiwilí, which in the 1980s grew from a small community to a respectable-sized town spreading up both sides of the Coco's gentle banks, only 300 of the 2,800 houses remain. In San José de Bocay, built along the far steeper banks of the Río Bocay, just southwest of its junction with the Coco, no more than 3 are still standing.
Not until November 5 did the first news of the devastation suffered in the Atlantic Coast begin to filter into Managua. Helicopters flying over the flooded delta at the mouth of the river after the rain had stopped reported seeing no signs of life, though some coast people assume that the villagers fled the area early, recognizing the signs of impending flooding. If indeed they saved their lives, they could not save their homes, and would have had no way to save their animals. Even as late as November 10, there was still no clear news on the whereabouts of the inhabitants of over 70 Miskito communities that had been washed away by the rising river. Moravian Church representative Norman Bent estimated the victims in the region as a whole, particularly the RAAN, at 45,000, and denounced the lack of information and urgent action in that zone as "one more expression of the racism and neglect with which our communities have historically been treated."
The zone running from Matagalpa to Rivas that makes up the backbone of national cattle ranching activities was spared the devastation, as were the banana zones of the south and most of the coffee zones around the country, though the final verdict will not be in until later damage from rot, fungus and other pests produced by the excess wetness is factored in. A good percentage of the perennial crops for export and a large part of the productive capacity throughout the country also escaped the heaviest blows. All this allows hope for recovery once the bridges, highways and roads are reestablished, and of course provided that the reconstruction policies prove equal to the task.
Conflicting figuresAs late as November 10, envío's closing date, there were still major differences in the casualty figures, depending on the source. Those mentioned by President Alemán to the national and international media differed from those of Vice President Bolaños, who is heading up the National Emergency Committee, which differed from those of the agricultural producers' organizations, which in turn differed with those of local leaders and municipal authorities. In round numbers, however, Mitch's victims represent nearly one-fifth of Nicaragua's population.
The human costs of the disaster appear to be roughly the following: at least four thousand dead with up to another two thousand missing; over half of the victims are children, as is to be expected in a country in which virtually half the population is under 16 years old. It is not alarmist to suggest that we may never have an exact number of dead, since the census in most remote and isolated disaster zones was not very accurate to begin with. Another eight hundred thousand people suffered the partial or total destruction of their homes. A large percentage of those in the rural areas lost not only their house and the little it contained, but also their chickens, the few head of cattle and beasts of burden they may have had, household pets, fruit trees, tools, seeds, fences and any other small investment in infrastructure, and, of course, subsistence crops just on the verge of harvest. Those in the rural community centers lost their tiny businesses—a small backyard shop and the tools in it, the bit of stock in their little living-room grocery store... everything.
Before the deluge, an ecological disasterThe ecological losses from the disaster have not yet been evaluated as a whole. Nicaraguan environmental expert Jaime Incer Barquero was the first to lucidly point out that "Mother Nature has sent us the bill." He was referring to the fact that the rain's effects were even more destructive due to the country's irrational imbalance between human settlements and forested watershed areas, massive deforestation in the disaster zones and disinterest in reforesting on the part of those responsible for determining Nicaragua's future. Last but not least there is also the persistence of anti-ecological agricultural practices in the rural zones as a consequence of impoverishment and historical backwardness—and not just by the area's peasants. Incer recalled the devastating burning of agricultural lands in March to May of this year, which deteriorated so much soil and saturated the entire country's skies for weeks, even forcing the closure of airports. In this environmental wasteland, there was little to absorb or cushion the avalanche of water.
Mitch has changed the topography of several zones in northern Nicaragua, opening gullies and even canyons, altering the course of rivers and arroyos, which now run through unprotected channels, uprooting hundred-year-old trees and affecting entire forested areas. The hurricane has very probably carried tons of soil nutrients off to sea. Nature requires decades to produce a centimeter of fertile topsoil. But in one of nature's paradoxes, it is possible that the flooding has re-fertilized some lowland soils that had been overused by the big growers and leached of their nutrients. As usual it is the poorest peasants who lost the most since they are the ones who have been living and trying to grow crops on undesirable hilly slopes after large cattle ranchers and others pushed them off the better lands they had cleared. If those treeless hillsides were unfertile before, they are little more than gravel now.
The irresponsibility of those in charge in Nicaragua or in Central America is shared with others, harder to identify, around the world. Mitch was a deadly offspring of the dangerous La Niña current, which followed in the wake of El Niño. What is the relationship between the global climatic changes and these destructive phenomena of major droughts followed by major rainstorms? What is already clear is that the terrible effects of these phenomena have a lot—if not almost everything—to do with the increasingly irrational and inhuman model of economic growth that is dominating the planet. It is a model being imposed by the few on the great majority in all the Third World countries, those in Central America not excluded.
Posoltega: the greatest human disasterThe worst nightmare occurred at the base of the 1,400 meter-high volcano called Casita, in the rural zone of Posoltega, department of Chinandega. The torrential rain that began falling into the extinct volcano's crater lake on October 26 caused part of the rim to give way about midday on October 30, when it could no longer contain the overflowing volume of water. The gigantic avalanche of water and rocks produced a slide that covered an 80-square-kilometer area several meters deep in mud and vegetation, burying eight communities and over two thousand inhabitants in a matter of minutes.
The 700 survivors of the Casita horror will either never find their dead relatives or have already seen their bloated and virtually unrecognizable bodies incinerated where they were found, half-buried among mud, uprooted trees and dead animals. Many survivors were themselves physically battered, but their souls took the greatest beating. One inconsolable woman muttered between lost, almost inaudible sobs that all 26 members of her extended family had been swept away in the avalanche. A group of Nicaraguan psychologists announced they had gotten materials through Internet that their Colombian colleagues used to provide therapy for the survivors of a similar mudslide in Nevado del Ruiz, a tragedy that killed 25,000 Colombians in 1985.
The Italy-Nicaragua Association had beautiful plans to build several schools for the children of the Casita districts. With that objective in mind, a census had been taken of the school-age population, which has made it possible to know more exactly the names of many of the children killed by the mudslide. Names had even been picked for the new schools: Little Clown, Little Fish, Little Stars...
Alternative projects swept awayA wide variety of alternative development projects had been patiently and optimistically cultivated for years in many of the disaster zones that had been abandoned by official policy. There is still no tally of how many of these projects were ruined and will have to begin again from zero, or even less than zero. A sad example of this is the tragedy of San Francisco Libre, the extremely poor community on the north shore of Lake Xolotlán. It was on its way to human and economic recovery through a series of alternative projects, which we spoke of a couple of years ago in the pages of envío. The rise of Managua's lake flooded the municipality and swept away the new crops of pitahaya, an exotic purplish cactus fruit, together with the pig-breeding project, fruit trees, cattle, fish hatcheries, everything.
Another example is the small-scale shrimp cooperatives in the Puerto Morazán zone, where so much money and effort has been invested over the years. The shrimps were to have been harvested the week after Mitch hit, but virtually all production and 70% of the infrastructure in the zone's promising new hatcheries were lost. Those who lost the most, again, were the small-scale producers.
A scarcity of foresight, but no lack of arroganceThe President, Vice President and even some Cabinet ministers demonstrated a dangerous mix of foot-dragging, arrogant self-sufficiency and lack of foresight in the first week of the tragedy. Hurricane Mitch traveled so slowly and was known to be so powerful—one of the Caribbean Sea's four strongest in the 20th century—that some elementary precautions could have been taken. But none were. The President's tendency to minimize the danger and the effects of the rains—even as late as Saturday, October 31, when he pooh-poohed the first reports of the Posoltega tragedy—may well have been responsible for some of the misfortunes.
Nicaraguans were treated to one example after another of official improvisation and inefficiency, particularly in that first week. Easily the most staggering of these was President Alemán's haughty refusal of Cuba's immediate offer to send a brigade of 12-15 doctors specializing in disasters, who would accompany tons of medicines. Most Nicaraguans first learned of the offer when journalists asked Alemán if rumors of it were true and why the government had not officially responded to Cuba. Alemán confirmed the offer then publicly rejected it with the argument that Nicaragua already has "more than enough doctors." Had victims of Mitch clinging to rooftops in the isolated rural areas heard that response, they would have wondered what country their President lived in, since no Nicaraguan doctors or even medicines have been seen in their community health post—if they even still had one—since the 1980s. Alemán's response became more impatient and defensive with each new journalistic challenge, until he finally snapped that the Cubans only wanted to come to Nicaragua to eat, since there is no food in their own country. Ungracious anticommunist vitriol aside, the fact is that the Cuban medical brigades, whose valuable services were welcomed in neighboring Honduras, bring their own supplies with them.
The new health minister, Martha McCoy, accepted the medicines on presidential order, but she reiterated that Nicaragua has enough professionals to deal with any problem. Alemán's slap in Cuba's face was even more unforgivable given that he has accepted brigades of doctors offering help from Mexico, the United States, France and other countries. Cuba, however, has been practicing revolutionary solidarity for long enough that it wastes no time on petty responses to the sometimes ideologically blinded attitudes of governments whose peoples are in need. The Cuban government immediately sent the first planeload of 30 tons of medical supplies to Nicaragua, and did not hesitate to send a second shipment after the medical crew accompanying the first one was not allowed off the tarmac. The economically battered and boycotted Cuba even pardoned Nicaragua's $50 million debt.
A world of appearancesOne of the most characteristic features of Alemán's Liberal government has been the cult of appearances. Right from the first day of its administration, in January 1997, one of its priorities has been to try to impose image on reality. The appearance of development is imposed through the "fluff economy" being set up in Managua. A prime example was the inauguration of a McDonald's restaurant when that company returned to Nicaragua in June of this year. On that occasion Vice President Enrique Bolaños pompously exclaimed that with the opening of the new transnational hamburger stand "Nicaragua has finally taken off its loincloth." (That racist slur had a particularly ironic twist since the new McDonald's overlooks a traffic circle adorned with statuary of Nicaragua's historic indigenous figures—in loincloths—and officially named the Rotonda Güegüense for the protagonist of a 17th century Nicaraguan play about a crafty indigenous interlocutor who outwits the clumsy Spanish colonizers.)
When Nicaraguan analysts and government officials began in mid-October, after a strangely long silence, to analyze the consequences that the Asian crisis could have on Nicaragua, Central Bank president Noel Ramírez declared that they would be "minimal" because the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF II) would "immunize us" against them. He reiterated that Nicaragua's 1998 growth rate would be 6%. It was another game of appearances, quite apart from the fact that the hurricane would soon make that figure an unrealizable dream. The vast majority of Nicaragua's population has felt nothing of the Nicaraguan economy's positive growth rates the past three years. Furthermore, the Asian and world crisis were already beginning to be felt in the country through a drop in export prices and expectations of fewer foreign investments and shrinking international cooperation.
There are also continuing efforts to impose the appearance of governability over the reality of growing social decomposition and of reconciliation over a visceral anticommunist ideology. The government is also trying to sell an image of even-handedness to cover up its policy of excluding capable professionals in all public posts for the simple reason that they are not Liberal followers.
Mitch not only hauled down over 70 bridges and innumerable electricity pylons. It also pulled down, hopefully for a long time to come, the possibility of continuing to deceive ourselves and the rest of the world with appearances. It laid bare the fragility of our "development" and the ephemeral or false nature of the figures proclaiming our "progress." Nature's ruthlessness with Nicaragua left no way to hide the evidence that tens of thousands of today's hurricane victims were already victims of the policies of a handful of their own compatriots. The world, aghast at Central America's catastrophe, is seeing these faces for perhaps the first time, but their suffering is not new with Hurricane Mitch. Their bodies reflect years of malnutrition and marginalization.
The faces of the poorestThe greatest disaster in the short, medium and long run centers around the production zones of these already extremely impoverished peasants. The destruction of rural roads in those isolated parts of the country, many of them battlefields in the 1980s, makes the challenge even greater since no strategic crop is grown in those districts, just subsistence production at best. The Liberal government's discretionary handling of the new Rural Development Institute and Rural Credit Fund projects, which has already already jeopardized the European cooperation funds on which these two institutions depend, has only increased the abandonment of the most impoverished rural sector.
After years of exclusion and oblivion, the rural producers of that part of Nicaragua have arisen from the water and mud like protagonists of a painful tragedy, to remind Managuans that they do indeed exist. For them the rains were simply the straw that broke the camel's back. Those who already had little and kept finding themselves with less now suddenly have nothing, other than the muddy clothing they had on when they fled their flimsy shacks or were rescued from roofs, trees or hilly rises. The difference between what they had before and what they have now is not much. What has changed is that they are no longer so dispersed, and the cameras of the world media are temporarily focused on them so they can't be easily disguised behind figures of economic growth or stability.
If part of the rural Nicaragua now hurt by Mitch had been left to its fate, another part was the object of a questionable "aid" program. To break ground for a Liberal victory in the municipal elections two years from now, the Alemán government had just begun a proselytizing campaign consisting of sending free food, clothing and medical services to various zones of the countryside. The Office of the First Lady, María Dolores Alemán, the President's daughter, was responsible for these trips, and personally distributed the donations.
Given the huge volume of donations now coming into the country with the emergency, it is not yet clear who will capitalize politically from the new situation. But the pain of these rural zones will surely haunt the obscene squandering of resources that has characterized neoliberal Managua in recent years. Will this tragedy trigger a change of direction toward greater solidarity and social responsibility?
Controversy over the "emergency"A particularly tense debate never resolved to anyone's satisfaction accompanied the first days of the disaster. In part to give the appearance of normalcy and a sense of confidence in his control of the situation, President Alemán refused to declare a "state of emergency." Social and political voices of all stripes clamored in vain that this official category be applied. The bylaws of some donor entities determine the proportion of aid earmarked for emergencies that can be used according to the official category that the country's government gives the situation. Honduras' President Flores had immediately declared a "state of exception."
On Saturday, October 1, the President finally visited a hospital in Granada, which was already providing refuge to nearly a thousand homeless from that southwestern department. The next night, after stubbornly downplaying the scope of the emergency for several days, he addressed the nation. In his speech he defined the disaster as worse than the 1988 hurricane Joan, and decreed that the flag be flown at half-mast for three days in mourning for the thousands of dead, most of them from Posoltega. Two days earlier he had called Posoltega's Sandinista mayor "crazy" when she announced that up to two thousand people had been buried in the mudslide and desperately pleaded for immediate help for the survivors. At that point, Alemán was insisting that only one person had died. Only after all this did the President finally declare a "state of partial natural disaster" in certain areas of some departments, even though by now he was admitting that the crisis was even greater than the 1972 earthquake.
As usual, the issue was politicized, and in this case with an absurdly fabricated judicial argument. Following Alemán's address to the nation, Vice-President Bolaños announced during a press conference with several other Cabinet members that the emergency law requires suspending a long list of civil rights, which he proceeded to read. He argued that his government did not want to implement these extraordinary powers since it was "committed to democracy." In response to a later question from a journalist, Bolaños added that the FSLN was calling for the state of emergency because it was naturally repressive. In the following days the government even used taxpayers' money to reproduce Bolaños' argument in a television ad.
The fallacy of this excuse was lost on few people, even those who know little about legal matters. For one thing, the Constitution effectively overides the emergency law by establishing a longer list of liberties that cannot be abridged by any national emergency. For another, the liberties that can legally be suspended are optional, not mandatory.
Then there were the contradictions between the government's claims of being democratic and its authoritarian practice, which were not long in emerging. First President Alemán named Vice President Bolaños as the head of a National Emergency Committee, despite the fact that no national emergency had been decreed. But the greatest contradiction with democratic liberties broke just as we were going to press, when the media reported that the government had just expelled a US citizen named Julie Noble who had until recently worked for a USAID-funded education organization in Nicaragua. She was ostensibly thrown out for not having her migration status in order, but under other circumstances that could have been easily put right. Her real sin was having sent an e-mail message to contacts back in the States recommending that hurricane aid not be sent through the government due to corruption and conflict of interest. The message found its way back to Alemán's office and with no public protest from the US Embassy on her behalf, she was out.
What was really behind the Alemán government's unwillingness to declare the emergency? Various things. One was the fear among high government officials, many of whom are themselves bankers, that the private banks would be obliged to massively pardon the debts of borrowers who had lost their crops or other investments. It is estimated that 28% of their total loan portfolio is in agriculture, and a sizable amount in shrimp farming. There was also fear on the part of this power-centralizing government that it would be forced to relinquish resources, functions and power in general to the municipalities. Furthermore, after trying in every way it can to corral, weaken and deligitimize the civil society organizations that are not offshoots of Liberalism, it feared losing control or at least hegemony over the donations that an emergency always attracts. Last but not least, several analysts believe that a clause in the emergency law requiring the government to provide international donors with its emergency economic program was another reason the government did not want to invoke a state of emergency: they say the government had no such economic program or any intention of unilaterally deviating from the restrictive structural adjustment program imposed by the international financial agencies.
Huddled and hungry masses If the government does not respond to Nicaragua's critical emergency situation with unity and solidarity, the social decomposition, already in progress for some years now, could spread, creating outbursts of social disorder that we have not experienced since the first years following the FSLN's electoral loss in 1990. Images of President Alemán sitting safely and comfortably in the back seat of his luxurious black four-wheel drive vehicle while surveying the damage in León and laughing as angry citizens beat on the roof demanding a response from him will only fan the flames of frustration and rage.
In the first days of the rains, as washed-out bridges caused an interminable backup of inter-regional cargo trucks on the Panamerican Highway, a mass of hungry people from Telica, Chinandega, sacked two trucks carrying thousands of pounds of meat, trampling two children to death in their frenzy. Ten days later, hundreds of Estelí residents armed with machetes gathered in front of the mayor's office to demand food, and two days later the inhabitants of Ciudad Darío kidnapped their mayor, holding him hostage for hours. Their ransom demand? Sacks of beans to eat.
The emergency of hunger and of foreseeably greater unemployment for thousands of homeless people will last for months. What turn will the consciousness of these hungry masses take in the context of a clear crisis of political leadership, which we all began to suffer well before the hurricane struck?
Time to strengthen the municipalities? One way or another, the hurricane affected over half of Nicaragua's municipalities. Before it, many of those now devastated municipalities had already declared themselves bankrupt due to the national government's centralist tendencies. In the first days of the tragedy, the Association of Nicaraguan Municipalities (AMUNIC) released a communiqué calling on the entire population to continue supporting the mayors of their municipalities. "Very limited resources are available to them and in some cases none at all. Let's remember that the municipalities do not receive a budget line and in situations such as these, they can only count on the solidarity and good will of their citizens. The need for an effective transfer of the General Budget of the Republic to the municipalities becomes clear at moments like this. The example of the mayors in the midst of the drama, the need to reconstruct the affected municipalities and the lack of resources demand such transfers."
As the water level started slowly to recede in the first week of November, the cadavers buried in the tons of mud accumulated by the flooding were not all that began to appear. All the weaknesses resulting from the central government's attitude toward local power began to emerge as well, as did the uncontrollable zest for leadership roles and camera hogging of a sizable number of political leaders of all stripes. Most importantly, the accumulated social, political and ethical errors of Nicaragua's society and the high costs that must be paid for years of neglecting to organize the country's poorest sectors became painfully evident.
But all crises are also opportunities. Alongside the flourishing of so many negative attitudes a new consciousness of responsibility and solidarity also began to appear, as did a sense of nation among new and still little-known local leaders. There has even been some spontaneous organizing in municipalities and communities that, while not yet up to the task of dealing with such a tragedy, has forged linkages amid the pain that are strong enough to engender new experiences within the setting of local government. Perhaps this tragedy will mean that the time has come for municipalities, that the time has come to strengthen the mayors, giving their arenas for action and decision-making a new lease on life.
The costs of polarizationLocal power will not be strengthened without tensions. Efforts to deal with the emergency revealed the political rivalries and high degrees of party polarization in which a major segment of the country's political class and even some sectors of society itself are immersed. The manipulation of these attitudes became evident in the attitudes of those in high government positions. Political differences prevented coordination in getting the incoming aid immediately out to various parts of the country and led to negligence in first-aid activities, treatment of the victims and reception of donations. They may also make the task of reconstruction more difficult.
The President proclaims daily that his is a "facilitator" government but he neither facilitated depolarization nor put aside his own demonstrations of intolerance and exclusion. He did not incorporate organized sectors of civil society, the country's organization of mayors or even the Protestant sectors into the National Emergency Committee.
On November 4 Alemán, by then somewhat less cocky in word and gesture than he had been at first, put the Catholic bishops of the most affected dioceses in charge of the Departmental Emergency Committees so they could channel the aid through the parishes and religious groups. He did this even after many mayors had already decreed a "municipal emergency," making use of the autonomy granted them by law.
The decision was challenged as undermining institutionality, since it bypassed the municipal authorities. It was also questioned by some Sandinistas, who feared that the old feud between the FSLN and the Catholic hierarchy would lead to discrimination in providing aid to communities with a strong Sandinista identity. Protestant leaders, already stinging from being excluded from the National Emergency Committees, opposed the decision even more strongly. Over 30% of Nicaragua's population is now estimated to have converted to some form of Protestantism, and CEPAD, an ecumenical development and emergency aid institution formed in response to the 1972 earthquake, has a huge national network with a quarter century of experience channeling aid from religious and other organizations abroad to those in need.
Incalculable political costsIt is hard to evaluate the disaster's political costs for either the government or the FSLN, the main opposition party. Before the hurricane, in a climate dominated by corruption, governing Liberal leaders were on the point of concluding a seriously questioned economic and political-institutional pact with FSLN leaders. The pact would deal a significant blow to the country's already fragile institutional framework, and for that same reason represents a serious challenge to the also fragile social movements.
Institutionally, the FSLN has tended to ignore local government for a long time since party leaders are more interested in the now lucrative spaces of central government. The 52 Sandinista municipal mayors have been working without coordination or common strategy because their party is oblivious to the real power that local government offers. It is making no use of the opportunities for representative democracy at the local level, much less those offered by the Municipalities Law, passed during the Sandinista government, to encourage the citizenry's direct involvement in local government.
With the hurricane, while the central government was busy ignoring existing institutions, violating municipal autonomy and cutting the mayors out of leadership roles in the emergency committees, certain FSLN leaders opportunistically switched their attention back to the local power circles. Their aim was to manipulate the heroism of some Sandinista mayors, particularly Felícitas Zeledón, the exemplary mayor of Posoltega.
Days before the hurricane hit, Vice President Enrique Bolaños, exhibiting his highly ideologized capacity for political blunders, had rejected the possibility of any former military officer running for the presidency on the grounds that "they are only good at killing." Now, as chair of the National Emergency Committee, even Bolaños has had to acknowledge the exemplary work of the army's Civil Defense division in rescuing and getting supplies to hurricane victims. The entire country has praised the army's tireless and invaluable work.
Aid with accountabilityThe international community and various national institutions either publicly or privately made known their concern that all the international aid that will be coming into the country for some time be handled transparently and really get to the victims. The specter of what happened with the earthquake aid that came into the country in 1972 still haunts the minds of many and even fresher is the specter of major corruption cases involving high-level officials of the Alemán government in the months preceding the hurricane.
Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín recommended that the mayors be included in the Emergency Committees and suggested that no aid be sent into the country or handed out to victims in the name of political parties. At the request of various foreign governments and agencies, Jarquín's office put personnel in the areas where the aid is being received and will itself play a major role in auditing that aid from the time it enters the country, and not just once the emergency is over, as the President of the country would apparently have preferred.
Liberal jurist Sergio García Quintero's comments on this spiny issue hit the mark: "The people of Nicaragua do not trust President Alemán's government or the National Emergency Committee he created, possibly because they intuit the profound implications of the World Bank's conclusions regarding Nicaragua in its document of March 1998, in which it says: 1. That in Nicaragua the public sector is weak and inefficient. 2. That the government suffers a lack of clear priorities about the problems and objectives to be resolved in the near and medium future. 3. That the public sector demonstrates weak coordination among its various social programs, which creates deficiencies in the institutional agreements. 4. That the government's use of public resources is not sufficiently transparent. 5. That the internal controls and audits are fragile. 6. That the government is generating a lack of confidence in the application of the laws and scant confidence in the judicial system, which constitutes the greatest obstacle to national and foreign investment."
The foreign debt: a new opportunityThe president of the National Coffee Commission was the first to demand from the government "an economic plan in accord with the tragedy." He reminded President Alemán of the well-known phrase: "Managua is not Nicaragua, Managua eats because of Nicaragua." Days later his call was echoed by other political and social sectors, among them the FSLN, which proposed "modifications to the economic plan." Right from the start, however, Central Bank president Noel Ramírez has insisted that the ESAF agreement would continue to be applied without any variations.
The most important change that could occur in the macroeconomic framework has to do with restructuring or partially or totally writing off Nicaragua's foreign debt, or at the very least declaring a moratorium on debt service payments. The first voices calling for full and unconditional cancellation of the debts of Nicaragua and Honduras—both of which are extremely poor, highly indebted and were severely battered by the hurricane's fury—came from Germany, as early as November 1. The initiative came from the Sudwing Institute, an organization of German civil society. At the same time that it called for debt cancellation it also asked that an Emergency Fund be created to cushion the effects of the disaster, noting that "the foreign debt has paralyzed the possibilities of economic development for these two countries." The institute pointed out in the draft of its initiative that Honduras had paid $410 million in debt interest in 1997 and only $16 million for the purchase of medical and surgical equipment that is indispensable in responding to a catastrophe such as the country is now experiencing. Nicaragua had to pay out $240 million in interest in 1998.
The Nicaraguan government's official position—perhaps the only one it could sustain within the adjustment's strict framework—is to request that the calendar be speeded up for joining the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, promoted by the World Bank to alleviate the debt of countries in that category. Even before the emergency, Nicaragua thought it could join this initiative by the end of 1999.
Civil society organizations around the world and even the British government have criticized what they see as serious shortcomings in the initiative. Its eligibility requirement once a country even makes it to the HIPC list is flawless fulfillment of a tough structural adjustment program for several years. If the country—and its people—make it through that grueling gauntlet, 80% of its foreign debt principal would be cancelled and interest payments would be reduced somewhat. The critics have proposed very interesting modifications, some of which can be seen in the document "Life Before the Debt," prepared by Catholic NGOs from around the world (envío no. 203, June 1998).
Could Nicaragua and Honduras, taking advantage of such a serious and widely-reported emergency, aspire to total cancellation of their foreign debts? It is hard to imagine. It would be a serious precedent for the international financial system, which uses the debt payments as an important mechanism of control over the economies of the South. Other HIPC countries would also begin to pressure for a similar total write-off. In these circumstances, it seems that the most Nicaragua will be able to achieve is immediate entrance into HIPC and a reduction of its annual interest payments so they not exceed 10% of the value of its exports.
Meanwhile, as a result of Nicaragua's compliance with ESAF II, discussions had already gotten underway with various Paris Club creditor countries to renegotiate individual debts on a bilateral basis. As of a week before the hurricane, Nicaragua's unpayable $6.5 billion debt had already been reduced by $83 million. On October 16, Canada and several European countries had cancelled a total of $30 million of Nicaragua's respective debts with them, and six days later Austria wrote off Nicaragua's entire $40 million bilateral debt and the United States shaved $13 million off the total owed to it. Once the hurricane hit, France pardoned the $70 million Nicaragua owed it on the same day Cuba cancelled the debt with it.
International responseHumanitarian aid began to arrive in Nicaragua from around the world on November 5. The international community, moved by the hard-hitting images of devastation suffered all over Central America, responded in unprecedented fashion. Spanish civil society was exemplary; in only two days they collected over $35 million, breaking all records for any previous humanitarian campaign. Governments joined forces to send tons of food and medicines, as well as military, technical and professional teams to collaborate in reconstruction tasks that were beyond the capacity of the Central American countries themselves.
The economic injections that Nicaragua and the rest of Central America will be receiving will partially cushion the most visible effects of the disaster for the first few months, and to some as yet unknown degree will allow the damaged infrastructure to be rehabilitated. But even at that, the aid will only reconstruct the existing economy at best; it will not reactivate it.
As the world was discovering that Honduras exists, the people of Nicaragua, who got accustomed to being in "the center of the world" during the 1980s, again hit the international headlines for a few days. But this time it was for one of the few standard reasons that Latin America ever makes the news: a natural disaster. The faces of the poor did not look the same as in the 1980s, defiantly defending their revolution against the slings and arrows of the Reaganite propaganda mill. Most faces looked no less determined to pick up and go on, but they seemed more tired, more battered, more submissive.
The international community quickly rises to the occasion to alleviate pain at moments like this. The speed of these humanitarian responses, which prevent millions of people from dying of hunger or thirst or diarrhea in the first moments of a spectacular natural disaster, contrasts with the lethargy of the structural responses that could make development in peace possible for all, that would build a world in which no one in any country would have to die of hunger or thirst or diarrhea.
The international financial agencies that control Nicaragua's economy and are in turn largely controlled by the United States—i.e., the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and International Monetary Fund—did free up over $60 million to repair Nicaragua's infrastructure damage, which is a strategic urgency for any recovery plan. In a few more weeks the country will be entering the dry season, which will facilitate this task.
The US government's first reactions were timid and indolent, since the two parties were enmeshed in the imminent congressional elections on November 4. Just afterward, however, AID called the disaster "the greatest natural catastrophe of the western hemisphere" and announced the creation of a $70 million Emergency Aid Fund for Central America, half of it in food and half in specialized equipment to reconstruct the infrastructure and deal with disasters.
A few days later, seeing the impressive responses of other, more distant governments, which are less responsible for the war-inflicted tragedies of the past decades in Central America, it added another $10 million. This is still insignificant, however, when compared to the aid collected in a matter of days, person by person, by Spanish society. With pompous enthusiasm, Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States Francisco Aguirre referred to the US aid as "a Marshall Plan for Central America." It was an unfortunate choice of images, since a Marshall Plan of more genuine proportions is precisely what serious people are saying the region really needs.
Real images of the countryThe neoliberal model has imposed on countries like Nicaragua a state that reduces or abandons its social responsibilities, increasingly cuts public spending, particularly social spending, and touts the merits of privatizing health and education. What cruel meaning does this "modernizing" theory offer a country like Nicaragua, laid low by a tragedy such as this one?
Shortly before the hurricane, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Eduardo Montealegre was stressing in all his declarations that it was necessary to "sell Nicaragua." To plump up its image and sell it to foreign investors and first world tourists. How will Nicaragua's new tragedy sit with investors? The timid advances already made in the tourist industry landed face down in the mud, alongside the optimistic projections being put forward before Mitch's visit. It is hard to imagine that a Nicaragua even more devastated than it was before, with so much visible and publicized poverty and with forecasts of serious epidemics, could be a very attractive get-away spot for any amenity-seeking vacationer from the North. And it could be a long time before its image can be patched back up again.
More than seven plagues threaten extensive areas of the country. The tremendous amount of water that fell from the sky—destroying thousands of latrines among many other things—has created a colossal breeding ground for various epidemics. Rising figures for malaria, dengue, parisitosis, leptospirosis, fungi of every ilk, and all kinds of respiratory illnesses have already been reported. At the same time, the lack of clean water has spread other diseases: cholera, conjunctivitis, hepatitis, typhus and infections of every imaginable sort, to name just a few. Given the pre-existing crisis in the public health system, inexorably on its way to privatization despite the opposition of all public health workers, many of these diseases had already begun to spiral out of control even before Mitch. Dengue cases multiplied throughout the year all over the country and among all social classes. And each new person who contracts dengue for the first time is another person susceptible to the hemorrhagic strains the next time around.
Production lossesComparing the estimated figures of material losses in Nicaragua to the billions of dollars the Asian security markets lost or to the value of the stocks of transnational corporations, the devastation that Mitch caused is a drop in the bucket. Total material losses have been initially calculated at around a billion dollars, but the true magnitude of any such numbers only make sense when we plug them into the Nicaraguan context.
Based on initial data coming in from their affiliates in the countryside, the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) estimates that over 125,000 acres of crops of all kinds, some of which were just about ready to be harvested, were either washed away or battered into the ground. These losses in corn, beans, sorghum, rice, soybeans, sesame, peanuts and other vegetable crops represent 52% of the area planted in the second part of the 1997-98 season, and 35% of the entire production for the growing season as a whole. UNAG values these agricultural losses at a minimum of $52 million, only a couple of million more than Kenneth Starr spent investigating President Clinton's sexual affairs.
It is not yet known exactly how much has been lost in each crop in the affected zones, but it is known that 44% of the cattle herd is raised in those areas, where losses in milk production are estimated at 42%. The Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers (UPANIC), which on balance tends to represent larger capitalist farmers than UNAG, estimates that about twelve thousand head of cattle drowned, which is the most conservative figure to appear so far. Many more will now die or reduce their production due to the destruction of pastures, the proliferation of diseases that will not be properly treated, and stress caused by the flooding.
It is impossible to calculate how many of the chickens, pigs, goats and other small livestock that play such a key role in the economy of the poorest peasants were killed. A simple rural home can be nailed back up fairly fast, but reactivation of a peasant production unit is a process whose speed is proportionate to the capital available. Some zones of the countryside have been completely decapitalized with the unexpected avalanche of mud and rain. In those areas there is not so much as a chicken left to lay an egg.
After several years of drought blamed on El Niño, Nicaraguans had pinned their hope on a "good rainy season" over the course of 1998, and invested in that hope by increasing the areas planted with basic grains all over the country. Mitch washed a large part of that effort and hope out to sea. The fertile Sébaco valley became a gigantic lake, which meant huge losses in the rice grown there. Carrots, onions, cabbages and other vegetables strategic to the popular diet will have to be imported from Costa Rica since Sébaco's vegetable crops were also totally ruined. The shortage of these perishables began to be felt even more immediately than the basic grain scarcity, and the two together will undermine the already precarious food security of Nicaragua's population. It is a tragic demonstration of the fragility of an economy that depends fundamentally on a not very efficient or productive agricultural sector and has a growing majority of its population living unproductively in cities.
Two scenarios can be expected regarding the supply and demand of basic grains, though the shortage of beans will be the most dramatic problem. One is massive importation, either purchased or through donations, which will keep prices low or lower them further. That would affect the pocketbooks of the producers of decimated crops who hope to recover something by selling what little was not ruined. The other is to let prices rise, with devastating effects for low-income urban dwellers who are unemployed or eke out a bare living in either the formal or informal sector. This second situation is as attractive to wheeler-dealers as honey is to flies, which means that whatever is fair about the logic of the market would be contaminated by the anything-but-fair logic of speculation.
Those not huddled in a refugee center wondering where they will find a roof to cover their heads and those who still have some topsoil left on which to plant have one more opportunity to save this country from the predictable rounds of shortages and inevitable price rises that will otherwise affect the basic grains that form the staple of its diet. In some parts of the country, it is possible to do a third planting before the dry season sets in, but it is a partial and localized solution at best. The rains normally stop in November in the drier western part of the country, and most producers have no access to irrigation.
The only bit of silver lining to all the disastrous black clouds was that coffee, far and away Nicaragua's number-one cash crop, seems not to have suffered as badly as it might have. The 30% of Nicaragua's coffee grown in the hilly areas south of Managua seem to have been spared destruction. Producers in Jinotega and Matagalpa, the mountainous northern zones hardest hit by Mitch, where the remainder is grown, report that 30% of the crop there was lost. Had the endless rains come a month later, when the berries were fully mature, the losses would have been far greater. But the harvest is not yet out of the woods. The ripening berries could still be attacked by a proliferation of diseases spread by the flooding and continuing dampness. Even if they survive that, much of the harvest could have problems getting out of the region because roughly four thousand kilometers of rural highways and access roads to the coffee plantations were washed away or made impassable.
A chain reaction of lossesDirect losses are not the only losses. They will produce a chain reaction that will be felt in each locality in a country in which so many people have no elasticity whatever in their disposable income, if they are lucky enough to have an income. Those local merchants fortunate enough not to have lost all their merchandise will have no one to sell to. The economic collapse of various agricultural sectors and the increased unemployment due to the destruction of innumerable local manufacturing shops and other small-scale activities will mean the end of tens of thousands of erstwhile consumers, even if only of salt, sugar, a cake of soap, an occasional coke or a once-a-year pair of rubber boots. Nicaragua's already serious problem of falling demand among the immense majority of its population will become even more acute.
"Urbanization," that desperate migration stream from countryside to city which has swollen the urban army of unemployed former peasants since well before Mitch, will surely overflow as well. The Liberal government has continually spoken of gambling on the rural sector, of making Nicaragua "the granary of Central America," of the coming of the "rural revolution," etc., but without providing the basic services that make it attractive to live and work in the rural area. Can we expect it to do so now? Some 320 rural schools have been destroyed, and another 200 converted into shelters for the hurricane victims. Innumerable rural health posts were ruined and tens of thousands of peasant homes no longer exist. How can a rural population in such a critical state be expected to stay in those zones? Even more massive migrations can also be expected to flow toward the "paradises" of Costa Rica, the United States and even Mexico and Guatemala.
To all the costs of what happened must be added the costs of what will now not happen. Investment will not come because what happened undermines confidence in Nicaragua's future prosperity. It will also not come because of the drop in productivity due to illnesses, malnutrition and the precarious overall situation into which tens of thousands of rural and urban workers have been thrown.
How much trauma can a people absorb? The most difficult thing to quantify in any report, even in the impressionistic sketches on these pages, is the ravages of post-traumatic stress on Nicaragua's men, women and children, particularly those thousands who lost everything, including relatives and friends, in an avalanche that made no more sense than any other terrifying nightmare. In that strange way we all have of somewhat stereotypically tending to apply national characteristics to a people, Nicaraguans are known for their long-suffering resilience to adversity, for absorbing the blows that both nature and man land on them with such regularity and then picking themselves up and getting on with some semblance of their lives. But there are limits to that resilience.
In just the past quarter century, within the lifetimes of over a third of the population, the country's capital was felled by a horrifying earthquake that left Managuans prone to serious anxiety each time they feel one of the city's frequent tremors (the last ones just weeks before the hurricane). Less than six years later the country became engulfed in a violent nationwide military insurrection to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship; among other measures to put down the uprising, Somoza ordered the dropping of 500-pound bombs on urban neighborhoods, including in the capital. Within two years of Somoza's downfall in 1979, a counterrevolutionary war sponsored by the US government was underway in the same areas now devastated by the hurricane's rains; it would leave over 50,000 dead in the next 10 years. In the midst of that, Hurricane Joan decided to turn left at Bluefields in 1988, flattening the entire city and an immense swath of surrounding rainforest. And then in the early 1990s, with the war finally over, an offshore quake sent a huge tidal wave the length of Nicaragua's Pacific coast, smashing everything and everyone in its path for several blocks of shorefront. And just to complete the picture of natural disasters so far this decade, the Cerro Negro volcano in León erupted twice, sending several feet of coal-like black ash down over the area, forcing the long-term evacuation of poor rural communities in the area and destroying their crops. That volcano began to grumble again, during the last days of Mitch's rains.
If all that weren't enough, Nicaragua, even before the hurricane, had become a society of unemployed, with soaring levels of domestic and other forms of frustration-venting violence, a society so assaulted by desperation that an average of one Nicaraguan commits suicide somewhere in the country every day. And now? Can Nicaragua's political and business elite continue to be as insensitive as it was before this newest tragedy? It would appear to be technically if not ethically impossible.
Oracle over NicaraguaIn 1973, Ernesto Cardenal wrote an historic poem, "Oracle over Managua," about the earthquake that destroyed Managua just before midnight on December 22 of the previous year. About the rubble of death Cardenal wrote: "Now from the seminary one sees another Managua/ a few seconds and all the pride went to shit/ shells of houses like rotten burned-out eggs/ scorched walls / windows like eyeless sockets..." He concluded his tragic description of the disaster glimpsing the resurrection, the beginning of the end of an era of injustices, the era of Somoza: "Only the dead revive/ once again there are other prints/ the pilgrimage has not ended ." And so it came to pass. What will this catastrophe usher in? Will the pilgrimage of the Nicaraguan people never end?