Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 210 | Enero 1999



A Cry Rises Over Raging Waters

Hurricane Mitch uncovered what Guatemala tries to hide: the impoverished squatter settlements clinging precariously to the sides of its urban ravines and the miserable lives of the thousands of children, women and men who live in them. We cannot rebuild unless things change in the capital and the country as a whole, in the cities and in the countryside; unless the poor are taken into account.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Guatemala did not suffer the worst of the terrible disaster that struck Central America at the end of 1998 with Hurricane Mitch—the disaster, ironically, that finally integrated the region. In Guatemala, as in El Salvador, the damage was just a shadow of the destruction wrought on Honduras and Nicaragua.

The areas hit hardest in Guatemala were the northern and Atlantic Coast departments of Izabal and Alta Verapaz, some parts of the Petén, the eastern parts of Zacapa, El Progreso, Jalapa and Chiquimula, the southern parts of Escuintla and Santa Rosa, a few places in the western highlands of Chimaltenango and El Quiché, and some of the marginalized neighborhoods in Guatemala City, Mixco and Villanueva. As in the 1976 earthquake, the worst damage occurred in the Motagua river basin.

The human victims were relatively few. While infrastructure, highways, bridges and rural roads were affected, the most serious losses were in agriculture, as vast plantations of onion, tomato, coffee, basic grains and vegetables for export were destroyed.

Hiding its "shame"

Let's look at one urban disaster, one of the many squatter settlements built on the steep slopes of the ravines skirting the high flat valley on which Guatemala City is located. This one was established under the Belize Bridge, which crosses the Río Vacas in the northern end of the capital, near the highway that heads out toward the Atlantic, to Santo Tomás de Castilla and Puerto Barrios. It is located only four kilometers from Constitution Plaza, the Cathedral and the National Palace.

Despite the precariousness of this neighborhood, its inhabitants still divide it into sectors: Jesús de la Buena Esperanza, with 367 "houses," and Colonia de la Paz, with 55. Most of the residents have poured in from elsewhere, peasants from the countryside, indigenous people from El Quiché, poor people who moved in from more distant areas around the capital. This neighborhood is but one example of the shameful situation in Guatemala. Innumerable neighborhoods like it ring the capital. In fact, roughly half of Guatemala City's population, the poorest of the poor, has settled on the steep, unstable slopes of its ravines, almost invisible to visiting tourists. The capital is very good at hiding its shame, but the silhouettes of these poor, makeshift shacks are the macabre, distorted reflection of the skyscrapers, expensive hotels and fancy restaurants in the city center, the luxurious neighborhoods with their grand, tree-lined avenues, the high overpasses and colonial center.

Disaster strikes

Under the Belize Bridge, in one of these settlements whose narrow streets snake down the hill, Mitch's torrential rains and the Vacas river's rising waters pulled many of the fragile little shacks out by the roots, dragging away all the household belongings of a number of families. Only two people died, but they were two of the most dedicated catechists in the neighborhood's local chapel.

The San Antonio parish in Zone 6 of the capital, run by the Jesuits, responded to the emergency in the first month after the hurricane. A primary school housed 250 of the disaster victims, and another 50 found refuge in the buildings adjacent to the parish itself. The young people in the parish and the neighborhood leaders organized to look for mattresses, food and medicine, and to take preventive health measures. The Jesuits took charge of channeling solidarity funds. There was only one case of cholera, which was controlled. Although the worst of the emergency was over for these hundreds of people, especially those who lived in sectors 3 and 4 of Jesús de la Buena Esperanza, their lives under the Belize Bridge were behind them. Meanwhile, the other families still there clung like parrots to the houses that had withstood the storm and waited for the next disaster.

35,000 victims in the capital

What happened under the Belize Bridge should serve as a prophecy of what could happen any day in many of the other squatter neighborhoods scattered on the slopes of the ravines. The number of victims there was small, but their story provides an important example of the urban problems that afflict half of Guatemala City's population.

According to the National Fund for Peace (FONAPAZ), an institution created by the 1996 peace agreements, similar disasters occurred in other marginalized areas of the capital: in MONAP, in several sectors of Zone 12, in La Verbena, in La Ruedita near the colonial center, and in San José Buena Vista. FONAPAZ calculates that some 7,000 families—around 35,000 people—were affected in total. If the figure is correct, it amounts to 3% of that half of the metropolitan population, those approximately 1,250,000 people, who somehow manage to survive in these settlements.
The 1976 earthquake, that other great "prophesy" that struck the capital 23 years ago, also did most of its damage and left most of its victims in these settlements. Like now, one could see hardly any of the earthquake's effects walking through the capital a few days afterward.
This time, only the sight of hillsides torn away and destroyed stretches of the Pan-American Highway heading out of town towards Mexico on the one side and El Salvador on the other gave any idea of the extent of the disaster caused by the hurricane's floods and mudslides. Before the month was out, everything was repaired in the city center and traffic was back to normal.

Cry for change

Despite their structural precariousness, the squatter settlements in the ravines multiplied after the earthquake. And they are still there after Mitch. In their fragility, their instability, their unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, they are proof of the lack of adequate urban solutions. This time, over 3% of the marginalized population "living" in the ravines were victims. Next time, as in the "poor people's earthquake" in 1976, the disaster could well affect the majority of them.

This is the cry that rises today from the ravines and the other poor neighborhoods brutally pounded by Mitch. It is a cry for city planning and for a radical change in the municipal government's priorities. It is also a cry for planning in the country as a whole, including its rural areas; for new policies in agricultural industrialization; for the dissemination of technology and the democratization of credit; for new policies in communications, education and training, public health and safety; for a change in policies that could effectively halt the constant migration to the capital

What solutions?

In times of disaster, the fallacy of that indisputable axiom of neoliberalism, that the state should not intervene in the market, is especially clear. In a developing country, to use the common euphemism, the market has either no interest in the marginalized population or a perverse interest in them. What solutions are being proposed to the victims from the ravine under the Belize Bridge?
According to FONAPAZ, when the emergency struck, 27 shelters were prepared for the victims with aid from the office of the Vice President, who headed up the emergency Cabinet, and from the government Social Investment Fund (FIS). The "victims" were defined exclusively as those left homeless. By early December 21 shelters were still open, 17 run by the government and 4 run by sectors of civil society, including the Catholic Church.

When we talked with the people from FONAPAZ, they were taking the San Antonio shelter over from the Church. There were people of good will among them, but also bureaucrats who did not even deign to ask the parish how it had managed to cope with the emergency for a month. Instead, they set about photographing the victims so they could make identification cards for them, a move that evoked fear of police controls.

And the state's role?

One of the people in charge of FONAPAZ explained their policy to us. In the wake of the disaster, they served only homeless people. They were trying to find land for them north of the capital, along the highway to the Atlantic beyond San Pedro Ayampuc, near Palencia. They would work with real estate companies to arrange the move. The government would pay three-fourths of the cost of the lots, and the other fourth would be charged to the people displaced.

When we asked him if they had thought of relocating people on government land, he replied that the Guatemala City municipality does not have its own land, that only Amatitlán and San Miguel Petapa, municipalities to the south of the capital, and Chinautla to the north have land. Inevitably, one thinks of the enormous empty fields on both sides of the Calzada de la Paz, which links the Belize Bridge to the neighborhoods of Vista Hermosa (Zones 15 and 16) east of the city. If this land, which is some of richest and most beautiful in the capital, no longer belongs to the municipality, it must be in private hands. And it is very probably in the hands of businesses that do not intend to locate poor people there, since low-income housing is not profitable on the market and property values in Vista Hermosa would drop if poor people moved in. In the distribution of urban land, the state has a role to play in correcting the market. The fact that it does not have the will, the courage or the vision to take on this role is another matter.

The relocation

Helen Janette Martínez, one of the community leaders in the shelters, shed a little more light on the community's past and the solutions offered for its future. The only time that any attention was paid to the urban problems in the settlement under the Belize Bridge, she explained, was during what might be called the "bonanza" period when the Norwegian Church provided aid. Just one example of these problems is that the Río Vacas, which flows through the bottom of the ravine, contains sewage, hospital waste, dead dogs and other garbage, creating a constant public health problem.

She told us exactly where FONAPAZ was planning to relocate the community: in Azacualpía, 18 km beyond where they previously lived. Transport alone would cost people four quetzals a day round trip, assuming that they come in to work in the morning and do not return home until evening. That is well over twice what they paid for a similar trip to the city center from the Belize Bridge.

People believe that the municipal government and/or FONAPAZ are serving the interests of the real estate companies. The relatively decent land in Azacualpía had already been sold and the land offered to the people from the Belize Bridge had no water, electricity or sewage system. They had only the promise that this urban infrastructure would be installed. They were also promised roofing, wood, nails and material to build latrines. Most of the lots measured 52.5 square meters and cost 14,000 quetzals ($2,000), of which the National Housing Fund (FONAVI) would pay 12,000, and the people would pay the rest in monthly payments of 100 quetzals with no down payment required. Some lots were 96 square meters and cost 16,000 quetzals, of which FONAVI would still pay 12,000, leaving 4,000 to be paid the same way.

Difficult beginnings

By the beginning of January, the people had moved to Azacualpía and were working to build their houses. Their fears were proving true. FONAPAZ had moved them to their new location on December 12, where they found only a large tent filled with mosquitoes and other predators. Within a few days of arriving, the diseases began to spread: skin infections, conjunctivitis, throat and bronchial infections aggravated by the cold. Although FONAPAZ told us that social security would care for its affiliates and FONAPAZ would handle other health problems, the people were totally abandoned. FONAPAZ had not even leveled or cleared the lots, which were full of rocks. Each family was given eight sheets of tin roofing and 13 planks of wood. A week later, because of the intense cold, they were given pieces of black plastic to cover the spaces where the walls should have been, and were promised enough rough, 3 cm thick tiles to lay down a 6 square meters floor.

Apparently, no school is planned for the neighborhood. The San Antonio parish is looking for teachers, and the Daughters of Charity have sent a few sisters to Azacualpía, one of whom is living there full time. The priest who served these families in their old settlement travels to give them Sunday Mass. Only two NGOs are helping the people, one of which will stay for only three weeks.

FONAPAZ's challenges

FONAPAZ certainly has larger tasks on its hands than just attending to the 35,000 victims of marginalized neighborhoods in the capital. It must also deal with the consequences of Mitch in rural areas, where the main problem was the loss not of houses but of crops. Half of FONAPAZ's 350 employees work in the rural areas.

The institution's officials explained that they are now working to relocate the rest of the people who were left homeless, and have other offers of private land in Mixco and Villa Canales to finish the task. Once that is done, the second step in their plan is to reforest the steepest slopes of the ravines surrounding the capital to make them unsuitable for houses, so as to discourage new migration from rural areas. It remains to be seen if this is actually done, or if it works.

"Politicized" aid?

The opposition parties accuse the government of politicizing their response to the disaster, using the disaster for electoral purposes, to gain ground in the presidential, legislative and municipal elections scheduled for the end of 1999. But government officials say this is untrue. They maintain that the problem has been caused by some NGOs, which have sown distrust, especially among the Mayan people. Because of this, people risk missing out on lots or roofing to repair houses not totally destroyed by Mitch. The government also accused some politicians in two specific cases of encouraging people to either invade land or to pressure FONAPAZ to buy land in bad condition so they can complain about it later.

Inexplicably, the government allowed itself the luxury of rejecting offers to pardon the country's foreign debt. No matter how small the debt and how insignificant the share of exports used to pay the annual interest— especially compared with figures for Honduras and Nicaragua—it would have provided some relief, and an opportunity to devote more state resources to the urgent needs of the poor.

The government designed a 100-day plan to deal with the catastrophe, but the fundamental challenge is not to repair the damage quickly. It is to recognize and make structural changes to respond to the precariousness of the lives of this country's urban and rural poor, who make up the vast majority of its population. This requires enormous investments, which in turn depend on changing the state's policy priorities in its relationship with the market.

Structural lack of solidarity

Profound changes must take place in civil society as well. When one hears prominent businesspeople in CACIF, the big business umbrella organization, say that a 10% minimum wage increase would increase unemployment, one realizes the total lack of cross-class solidarity, or of a structural base for such solidarity. This does not bode well for Guatemala. The Ministry of Labor has had to admit that the 10% raise—which the government finally had to decree because it could not come to a tripartite agreement with business and unions—is only a palliative measure. And indeed it is, since even the new wage provides barely enough to buy a fourth of the basket of basic goods a family needs to live with minimum decency, and only half of the basic foods it needs just to survive.

In religious services with Guatemalans who have annual incomes of tens of thousands of quetzals, the average contribution for Mitch victims has not been over ten quetzals. How many more "prophesies" of the Guatemalan people's real situation will strike us before those people who have more, who have everything, will understand the Christian mandate that what are superfluous goods for them belong to the needy so they can live with some dignity? As long as this solidarity does not exist in society, the state must create it through a just, efficient and legal system—through taxes, for example. The state must assume a redistributive role to compensate for the market's selfishness. The social forces responsible for soliciting and channeling solidarity among the people cannot shirk their roles either.

The international aid that Central America, including Guatemala, has received because of Mitch is of historic significance. But unless civil society and the state in our countries begin to act with solidarity, they will not create the structural conditions necessary for authentic development.

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