Budding Organization And a Hurricane of Contradictions
The victims of the hurricane fear being transferred to the macro-shelters; the municipalities do not have land for housing; the victims are complaining to the national and local governments; those unaffected do not want to live near those who lost everything; the poor—the eternal victims—continue emigrating north; and the youth gangs and number of kidnappings keep on growing. But despite all this, the pain is at least providing a chance to develop organization.
What is being done? How are the refugees faring? Is the aid reaching them? How are Hondurans using the aid they are being sent? These are some of the most constantly asked questions both inside and outside of Honduras.
I shall attempt to answer them by looking at El Progreso, the municipality where I live. It is Honduras's third largest municipality after Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. It includes a rural population of 50-60,000 grouped in banana plantations, independent valley villages, hillside villages and semi-urban communities along the paved highway linking San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba via the city of El Progreso. With over 100,000 inhabitants, the city of El Progreso is the country's fourth most populous (La Ceiba is third). This municipality was one of those most badly hit by hurricane Mitch: the Río Ulúa flooded the valley, the overflowing Río Pelo destroyed many houses in the city itself and flood waters from nearby hills washed away many villages. About 60,000 people in the area are badly affected.
Christmas: A new stageIt felt as though the Christmas and New Year festivities marked the beginning of a new stage in the municipality's rehabilitation process. The lull in activities helped people reflect about the future and become more aware of the contrast between those who could afford to celebrate and those who had nothing. But the festivities also highlighted contradictions between the disaster and the normalization process. Because children in Honduras do not return to school from vacation until February, schools were being used as temporary shelters for the homeless. But parents and even teachers and education authorities began to apply pressure to have the schools cleared out so their children could once more "taste the bread of knowledge."
In the rural valley, peasants and fieldworkers felt pressured to sow basic grains immediately to avoid prolonging possible food shortages until the first harvest of the coming year's planting cycle. But nature will also have her say, and agricultural experts fear that a drought expected in April will destroy the corn harvest. So the affected populations in both urban and rural areas are feeling the pressure, the former due to the lack of housing and the latter because they have to start sowing under uncertain conditions.
Municipality: We can't helpFaced with complaints and protests made over the radio or directly to the municipal government— particularly from the urban population—local authorities issued a press release on January 14 referring only to the urban problems. It stated that, like the rest of the country, the municipal government was experiencing liquidity problems. It had no money because the destruction of the agricultural sector had affected the income it receives by taxing the stores where agricultural workers buy their goods. It specifically referred to the suspension of operations in the transnational banana companies. For example, Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands, suspended 7,300 employees and laid off 1,200 temporary workers. The municipal government said it had received only a little help from the central government and a couple of other institutions. Through the Honduran Social Investment Fund (FHIS) the government had dredged the Río Pelo, but it had not sent a single lempira in monetary assistance.
The city of El Progreso is in a sorry state. According to the local authorities the urban population is directly or indirectly affected by a number of problems: the streets are in bad shape, 300 houses were destroyed by the Río Pelo, refugees are still living in shelters, and sports facilities such as the stadium were damaged. But the city only proposed a solution to the street problem: purchasing two bulldozers.
Municipal authorities promised that nobody would be evicted from the temporary shelters housing some 800 families until one or two macro-shelters financed by the United Nations had been built on land lent by a parliamentary representative. Once the land was handed over, the homeless families would be relocated there within about four months. This would buy time to think up a housing project, because, according to the press release, "Neither the central nor the municipal governments are in a position at this time to provide any land for building housing."
As if by magic...The public position of El Progreso's municipal government in mid-January was very similar to that of other cities: clear out the schools by moving refugees to macro-shelters until they could be found a permanent location.
Pressure from the refugee population in El Progreso and other Honduran cities, however, brought about a change in plans. A week and a half after the press communiqué, an unidentified donor, as if by magic, promised to provide the money to buy a plot of land where each family would receive provisional housing on its own lot. The government did not identify the donor to keep the price of the land from increasing. The announcement marked the start of a new stage in the rehabilitation of the municipality.
Another way of doing politicsThis promise coincided with the end of a two-month agreement between the municipality and the Catholic Church reached on November 18. According to its conditions, the Church had pledged to distribute the aid received by the municipal government and the municipal government promised to turn over all aid it received exclusively to the Church's Distribution Committee and pay for any transportation needed in the distribution process. Even with the agreement concluded, both parties were willing to maintain a certain degree of coordination because, despite certain tensions over the period, they both considered that the aid distribution had been handled in a transparent and equitable way.
With the municipality now in a position to purchase land, a four-way meeting was held on January 25 among local authorities, representatives of the homeless families, the Church and teachers. The municipal government proposed forming three commissions, each consisting of a representative from each sector. A statistical commission would verify the number of homeless families and their housing situation at the time of Mitch (whether or not they rented the house they lost) and their general socioeconomic situation (middle or working class); a land commission would locate the appropriate lands; and a relocation commission would transfer the shelters there.
This is not the usual way of doing things in Honduran politics. Instead of going through the local party representatives who are directly linked to the ruling political parties, the local government officially recognized the representatives of the homeless families. And while the composition of the three commissions undoubtedly took the "active forces" into account, it also reinterpreted the phrase. Normally the "active forces" are represented by the local rich businesspeople, but in this case they were noticeably absent. This new development meant that the commission members emerged from the meeting with real enthusiasm for the tasks ahead of them.
Monotony and symbolsThe Catholic Church continued to be responsible for the complicated task of providing the affected families with food, this time in a direct arrangement with the UN World Food Program (WFP) rather than with the municipal government, which had to struggle to provide food. According to the most recent lists, the Catholic Church is distributing around 9,900 family rations. The WFP provides rice, corn, cooking oil and beans or cans of sardines. The United States donated the rice and corn, as the red letters on the side of the sacks spell out graphically, Japan the sardines and the European Union the oil.
The Church supplements this monotonous diet with other items such as coffee and sugar bought with international aid, and with tinned food, clothes and other items that arrive in containers, mostly from the United States. Although not really necessary, the clothes appear to have a symbolic quality that makes them particularly appealing. Those affected fight with those unaffected over foreign dresses, shirts or pairs of designer trousers.
Time to sow? With chemicals?The distribution of food aid has been combined with work, but given the abundance of food in the WFP warehouses, its officials insisted that the food provision be free of the red tape involved in strict food for work schemes. The Church, with funding from other churches and NGOs around the world, has opted for another approach: it has started to support the emergency sowing of nearly 1,800 acres of corn and 300 of beans in the valley area by providing seeds and other materials. The communities have promised to return 15% of the harvest in kind or in cash, not to the Church's Reconstruction Committee but to the community to support landless peasants or widows or single mothers who were unable to plant. It is hoped in that way to strengthen the local emergency committees, which will be responsible for collecting these payments within three months.
People have already started planting, and though there were many delays and doubts fueled by fear that the whole plan could fail, the peasants said it was possible. Technicians feared that the soil could be too moist (or "too cold" as peasants say), and peasants and technicians alike recognized that disease will be a powerful adversary following such copious rainfall. This created a demand for chemical insecticides and fungicides that, quite rightly, are the torment of organic agriculture. But with no other way to reactivate production quickly and massively, the chemicals were bought, despite the damages they cause. It remains to be seen if we made the right decision.
Urban networksThe Church is also displaying a spirit of organization and work in the urban distribution of food. There are three urban parishes and each one acts as a storage and distribution center to which the supplies are transported in small trucks from the central warehouses in the gymnasiums of the Loyola Technical Institute (INTELO) and the San José High School. No food is directly handed out to any affected people from INTELO, nor is the food bagged there as was the case immediately after the hurricane. Also gone is the mob of volunteers who were responsible for handing out the food. The only people there now are the loaders, paid in kind and in cash, the warehouse head, paid by the Church, and a representative from the Comptroller's Office, paid by the government. These last two inspect what enters the two central warehouses from Puerto Cortés and what is sent out to the parish warehouses in the rural and urban sectors. A Church information systems team gives the go-ahead for those sectors to receive amounts of food corresponding to the lists they themselves presented, which were then reviewed by the team in the urban case and by organizers who visited the rural areas. Once in the designated sector, the food is bagged up according to the number of people in each refugee family, so that a family of eleven receives more than a family of three, for example. This improved distribution has only been possible due to the decentralization into sectors, several of which have even been divided into sub-sectors for doing the bagging up, the most delicate work.
The Church's Reconstruction Committee does not supervise the work that the refugees, both men and women, do in the city, such as cleaning the streets, filling in the potholes and opening up drainage canals. The municipal government is undertaking this supervision work with food provided by US CARE, which receives the food from USAID. So far, coordination has not been very good between the Church and aid organizations to ensure that the aid is not "duplicated."
Budding organizationGiven the presence of Reconstruction Committee members in the warehouses— Father Ismael ("Melo") Moreno, the committee's coordinator, sleeps in one—and the links that the distribution process has built up with those responsible for the shelters, the Church has effectively encouraged a budding organization among the urban refugees. Their representatives, elected by sector and sworn in at a special assembly, attended the meeting called by the municipal government and are the ones who discussed with the local authorities what steps should be taken in the eventual relocation of the refugees. Their opinions and their pressure had an effect both when the municipal government promised to ignore a decree from the Ministry of Education ordering the schools to be cleared by January 15 and when they were recognized in the January 25 meeting of the four sectors. This kind of pressure is not unique to El Progreso; it has also been evident in other cities. As a result, the start of the school year has been postponed to no later than March 1. However, the Reconstruction Committee has yet to decide on a housing construction project.
Should we build houses?On the one hand, it has seemed to us that it is up to the government and the municipality to provide the land for new housing, and that the Church should not get involved. The Church feels that it should concentrate on supporting the demands of the refugees, so that the government will have to shake off its lethargy and deal with its incapacities. On the other, we in the Reconstruction Committee's project commission have reflected on several areas in which we need consensus before deciding on the housing projects. We have realized that housing touches people's most profound sentiments and that a housing project should not just consist of putting up four walls and a roof. When refugee women talk about how it felt to lose their homes, they say it was like losing part of their heart.
It is interesting to compare the experiences in the city of El Progreso with those in the rural mountain parish of Sulaco-Victoria. Unlike in El Progreso, the reconstruction projects there have not emphasized food distribution. The people there did not lose as much as those in the valley, so the decision to rebuild housing has come more quickly, following a survey to determine which houses are no longer inhabitable. Wood corner posts, cement, metal roofing sheets and tools have been donated for a total of 243 houses, many of them dispersed throughout the mountain area. The homeless population was also given the freedom to choose more of one material than another, providing they do not exceed the 3,936-lempira (US$285) allowance. Three indigenous villages with a total of 90 houses have had to be rebuilt. The municipal government is providing the land, the FHIS is building the school, the Church is donating the building materials and potable water system and the people are contributing their labor. It is easier for local authorities to obtain land in rural areas than in the cities. It is also easier to carry out the projects with reliable, community-based organization, and for people to build their own houses themselves—in the city a professional builder is required. And finally it is easier to chose which materials to make the walls out of and it works out cheaper as less security is needed against robbery, and fewer living or working comforts are required.
Radio support"Radio Progreso: the voice of a people on the move" has played an essential part in the complicated process of organizing the reconstruction work in El Progreso. Every day, the program "With the warmth of a cup of coffee" starts with a bible reading, followed by a commentary aimed at the refugees related to whatever work is being promoted at that particular time. It is a strategy based on the inspiration of the word of God. Next, it reports on the steps being taken by the Reconstruction Committee and broadcasts announcements to the various sectors: "Tomorrow is the assembly in the Monterrey sector, don't miss it!" or "If you're from the Mocula sector, make sure you collect your seeds today at 2pm..."
As it deals with matters of great importance to the sectors, the program has a large audience and acts as an organizational support for the reconstruction work throughout the municipality.
Crisis in Choluteca and TegucigalpaIn El Progreso, the housing problem has yet to explode into the kind of organized protests and street violence that have been witnessed in Choluteca and Tegucigalpa, the cities worst hit by Mitch. On January 19 an unprecedented confrontation took place in the southern city of Choluteca between 500 refugees and 70 riot police when the police broke up a protest march to the city center. The protesters armed themselves with sticks and stones, and there were injuries on both sides. In the end, negotiations were held with the Church acting as moderator, and the municipal government promised to provide about 300 square yards of land for people to build their own macro-shelters, with the FHIS providing the construction materials. There have been rumors of over 1,000 requests for land. During the talks, local authorities accused a Spanish missionary of instigating the protest and threatened to have Immigration authorities investigate his status in the country. In the end people were satisfied with the outcome, since their main concern is to have a plot of land to live on.
Days earlier in Tegucigalpa, another disturbance involved even more people, again over the issue of housing, when 450 people were forcibly evicted from land belonging to a builder in El Mogote. The violence, which left five people injured, broke out despite the intervention of the priest from San José El Pedregal, whose parish includes the disputed land.
Then on January 18, the inhabitants of the Amaya Amador neighborhood in Tegucigalpa protested to the Supreme Court, demanding the titles to the land they had been occupying for years. They insist that they are living on common land, but are threatened with eviction by one of the President's relatives, Mario Facussé, who says he is the owner and is throwing the weight of his fortune around to get arrest warrants issued.
On the same day, inhabitants of the La Loarque neighborhood of Tegucigalpa obstructed a bridge in a successful protest against the building of three macro-shelters a kilometer away on lands belonging to the Public Employees Retirements and Pensions Institute. They claimed that the shelters for some 1,500 refugees would become a center of delinquency and gangs.
All of the contradictionsThe refugees in the Tegucigalpa shelters strongly oppose being transferred to macro-shelters because they are afraid of being thrown together with people they don't know— other flood victims from a variety of different neighborhoods. They also fear that the government will forget them once the urgent problem of clearing the capital's 167 school-refugee shelters for the beginning of the academic year has been resolved.
According to one UN representative responsible for building the shelters, "The word macro-shelter should never have been used. They should have been called `temporary shelters' so as not to give people the impression they are going to spend the rest of their lives there."
For a variety of reasons, the conflicts that flourished with Mitch are now even more visible: refugees against the central and municipal governments; those unaffected against the refugees; those not badly affected by the hurricane but permanently "affected" by poverty and with no land security against the rich; and Church representatives siding with the refugees against government institutions and the police. The reverberations of these tensions are felt in the government itself, where there are even contradictions within the Reconstruction Cabinet. The forced resignation of the foreign relations minister was just one consequence of the undercurrents of tension that Hurricane Mitch brought with it.
Organized crime: KidnappingsAlong with the wave of protests, some violent, over the lack of housing in the country's main cities, there has also been an outbreak of organized crime in January. Particularly worrying was a spate of three kidnappings, the crime that most terrifies the private business sector. The first of these took place in San Pedro Sula, where the victim was Ana Paola Castillo, wife of a judge and daughter of an independent banana grower. The second victim was a bread manufacturer from Tegucigalpa who met a tragic end despite the fact that his relatives paid a ransom of a million lempiras. The third, a trader from San Pedro Sula, was released the same day he was kidnapped in a high-risk police operation.
The private business world reacted with a march in solidarity with the victims and against kidnappings. Some 500 people marched through the streets of San Pedro Sula before celebrating a mass in the Cathedral where they prayed for the release of Ana Paola.
Join a gang or emigrateFaced with inflation (12.8% in 1997 and 15.7% last year), unemployment, the lack of housing (the shortage of 800,000 in 1998 has now risen to one million), the scarcity of money and the cultural commotion caused by the disaster, Hondurans are increasingly resorting to two illegal socioeconomic alternatives: gang activities and emigration north. The ever more desperate demand for housing and the influence of organized crime make the gangs seem an attractive choice. By demanding housing they confront the government, destabilizing and intimidating it. Through kidnappings they directly hurt and terrify business society and scare off investment. This also destabilizes the government, albeit indirectly. Now there is also inter-gang violence in the poor neighborhoods, which is affecting the poorest sectors.
The migration towards the north has accelerated. In December 1998, some 5,900 illegal immigrants, the majority of them Honduran, were caught in Mexico, over twice the number caught in December 1997. Two main reasons are behind this migratory avalanche: high unemployment levels in Honduras have been pressuring citizens to leave, and they have been attracted to the United States following the suspension of the deportation of Hondurans decreed by the Clinton government in the wake of the hurricane. The decree promised "temporary protection" for 18 months to 300,000 Central Americans who were illegally residing in the United States.
Criticism of the Citizens' ForumRight from the beginning, the government reacted to the catastrophe by centralizing power, and has continued to do so. The passage of laws has been facilitated by a weak and somnolent parliament, allowing the government to legally establish a small Reconstruction Cabinet to which it has named people of the President's full political confidence. Even other tendencies within the Liberal Party itself have found themselves excluded.
The first public reflections on the political and institutional situation and the reconstruction process have now taken place. First in Tegucigalpa and then in San Pedro Sula, a Citizens' Forum invited critics of the present government to put forward their views and then published a final communiqué in which it made some very strong recommendations to the government. According to the Forum, the risks of the current political process are "the restoration of authoritarianism promoted by the Executive Branch's centralizing and concentrating style; the absence of any pro-active, integrating and visionary capacity in the Executive Branch that would enable it to propose a reconstruction and transformation plan for the country to Honduran society and the international aid community; the reduction of the Legislative Branch's independence; the growing exclusion of civil society; evidence that the political class wants to reform the Constitution to facilitate presidential continuism or reelection; an alarming reduction in the media's critical capacity due to direct or indirect and open or hidden co-optation by the branches of the state, and the executive branch in particular.¼ "
In the Tegucigalpa forum, Víctor Meza, who was a close adviser to President Carlos Flores before he took office, commented that "reconstruction without the participation of the citizenry does not guarantee the country's democratization or allow for transparency."
Government: Neither money nor landThe government's response was not long in coming. First to speak out was Minister of the Presidency and Reconstruction Cabinet coordinator Gustavo Alfaro. Then came the turn of the President himself.
In an interview, Alfaro said that the state lacked money and land to resolve the most sensitive bottleneck at the moment— housing. He added that the government only owned the land on which public buildings have been built and that most of the old common or municipal land has been sold off to private individuals. He recognized that housing is a priority but explained that the state can only legally buy land at its tax registry price and nobody is willing to sell at those rates. Recognizing the judicial branch's ineffectiveness and dependence on capital, he said that, although they could recur to the Forcible Expropriation Law, previous experiences in that area had been "terrible" because the owners appeal at all possible levels of the legal system, time passes and nothing gets done. In his opinion refugees do not want to go to the macro-shelters because they are hoping to be given a house.
Following these statements, which gave an interesting insight into the incumbent government's mentality and weaknesses, Alfaro turned his attention to the finances available for reconstruction, albeit in a rather confused way. He repeated what President Flores had said days earlier: that the government had no money and that, properly speaking, the reconstruction program had not yet started, except for the schools reconstructed by the FHIS at the cost of abandoning other programs. By way of example he said that the government had diverted money from a World Bank loan for state modernization to buy several Bailey bridges and stressed that the World Bank and IDB had just approved the first credit (some $45 million) for reconstruction of the road network.
Despite this response to the criticisms of the government's ineffectiveness and slowness, however, the minister of the presidency made no attempt to respond to the accusations that power was being increasingly centralized and democracy undermined.
Flores: Don't stir up troubleMeanwhile, a visibly annoyed President Flores took advantage of his speech at the opening of the second legislature on January 25 to personally answer his critics. According to Flores, "It would help more if people would stir up less trouble; it would help more if they would confuse and agitate other people less; it would help more if they would provide guidance; it would help more if they would speak less and work more; it would help more if they would understand more and weigh up the immense dimension of a crushing misfortune that affects every part of our territory."
Changes in the governmentThe end of January marked the end of President Flores' first year in office and the beginning of the second legislative session of his term. The occasion was also marked by two changes in the government, one an expedient measure and the other more structural. The first was a Cabinet reshuffle in which seven new faces, including two women, took over the ministries of foreign affairs, government and justice, health, natural resources and environment, work, agriculture and defense. First to go was the foreign affairs minister, Fernando Martínez, at the beginning of January. The President asked for his resignation due to the internal disagreements that plagued his ministry right from the start. These flared into open conflict between the minister and the vice minister, who was backed by the President's office, over a statement he issued lamenting the US bombing of Iraq in December. Last to be replaced was defense minister General Mario Hung Pacheco in the wake of constitutional changes affecting the armed forces. The government explained the reshuffle as an attempt to create a more efficient and determined team to tackle the reconstruction effort.
The military and civilian powersThe second, more structural change—elimination of the army Commander-in-Chief post—is more profound and has been in the pipeline since the previous presidential administration. This change presupposed reforming the Constitution, which legally requires the approval of two-thirds of the Congress over two legislatures. No sooner had Congress reconvened at the end of January 1999 than it ratified the first-round approval obtained in 1998 following negotiations among top party leaders of the National and Liberal parties, in line with the prevailing non-participatory style.
The constitutional change brought to an end 41 years of military domination over civilian power with the armed forces Commander-in-Chief on a par with the President of the Republic. During that period, Congress chose the Commander-in-Chief from a short-list proposed by the armed forces high command, as established in article 279 of the Constitution. The reform removes this figure and places the armed forces directly under presidential control through the minister of defense, named by the President like any other minister. Always eager to present a good image, the President then named a civilian, former Honduran ambassador to the US Edgard Dumas Rodríguez, as defense minister.
Centralized and personalized systemPutting an end to armed forces autonomy, a step applauded by all democrats and considered historic by representatives of the political left, has strengthened civilian power in the country. However, this transformation does not necessarily imply the strengthening of civil society. And although it is a necessary condition for the establishment of democracy, it is not enough in itself. All levels of society must have a say in government decisions, and criticisms and suggestions from civil society— such as those put forward by the Citizens' Forum—have to be listened to. If not, the possible benefits of the reduction of military power will be cancelled out by the strengthening of the executive power base, headed by the President. Such a group would be isolated from the people and their civil organizations and would only be interested in them to try to wrest away their power.
This centralized and personalized system of government is particularly noticeable at the departmental level. The President's representative there is considered the only person capable of making decisions, as is the case in El Progreso. The cellular phone hanging from his belt means he can communicate with the maximum authority at any moment and can resolve with a simple "yes" or "no" matters formerly decided by the military. The military has been eclipsed and those who call the shots now are the civilian links on the presidential transmission belt, some of whom hold quasi- permanent parliamentary seats. The chain of command runs right down to the local party representatives who might benefit from a tractor to clear out a river bed, for example, if some parliamentary representative chooses to provide the favor for that reason, or to use on someone's private land, should that be the interest.
Despite all of this, many of us still continue to struggle for decisions to be made at the municipal level, where civil society sectors are taken into account, and not exclusively through negotiations between one or two people and the local mayor. We continue to work towards this new way of operating so that the traditional corrupt, politicized leaders who are incapable of serving the interests of the collective whole are pushed aside. This time of reconstruction has provided us with an unexpected opportunity and we will not cease in our struggle to ensure that the men and women who represent thousands and thousands of victims of the tragedy are finally recognized.