A Year after Mitch: Organization and Hope
One year after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras
at the end of October 1998, and continued striking for over a week,
Hondurans have discovered the value of organization and learned how
to participate effectively. And where there has been democratic
participation and effective organization the reconstruction
projects have worked well, demonstrating that these
elements are essential for development.
Throughout this post-Mitch year, national life has been dominated by reconstruction, a process that has gone through four basic stages. Each stage has had its own particularities, but some common threads both actors and issues run through all: the affected population, the Honduran government and congress, international cooperation, the foreign debt, immigration towards the north and even violence.
Stage 1: Disaster and emergencyHurricane Mitch first touched the Honduran island of Guanaja, then went on to hit the country's northern coast, Tegucigalpa and Choluteca, causing unimaginable destruction, the scale of which only slowly became apparent to the nation.
According to official figures, 5,657 people died, 12,272 were injured, 8,058 disappeared, and some 60,000 families ended up homeless due to the floodwaters. In total, 1.5 million people were affected to a greater or lesser degree. The road network was fractured, as 84 bridges were destroyed and innumerable stretches of highway flooded or buried under landslides. Production also suffered enormous damages with losses calculated at well over US$1.7 billion. Extensive areas of maize were flooded and large parts of the banana, sugar cane, plantain and coffee crops were destroyed. This in turn produced high levels of unemployment among major economic sectors, including the banana sector, which is key to the Honduran economy. The grand total of all this damage was calculated at nearly $3.8 billion by the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
During this first stage, the month-long emergency period, the government received an outpouring of both domestic and foreign support. With many Hondurans going out of their way to help, the affected population was evacuated from areas at risk. Having lost their homes, the victims were sheltered in schools, churches, community halls, gymnasiums or any other available space. No door was shut to them as the whole of Honduras displayed a great level of compassion and solidarity.
The aid programs started up immediately, providing food, water, clothes and cooking utensils that were gathered at improvised collection centers where local people flocked with donations or were bought with funds provided by several church organizations and local NGOs. In those first days, the media, particularly radio stations, turned into aid collection and distribution centers. Everybody pitched in to help in every way possible.
As the days passed, international solidarity began to arrive and international figures came to view the damages for themselves, and were moved by what they saw. Tipper Gore, Nora de Pastrana, Jacques Chirac, Roberto Robaina, César Gaviria and Michel Camdessus all turned up, with the Honduran first lady, Mary Flakes de Flores, acting as liaison and building a very popular public image as a result.
Many countries began to send aid workers and equipment: Mexico supplied heavy machinery, the United States sent its Marines, Holland provided motor boats and Japan sent self-defense forces to help with health care and epidemic control. Many countries also pledged monetary aid.
Backing for the governmentThere was a general feeling of unity in reaction to the hurricane's effects and President Flores took steps to institutionalize this support by centralizing power. In order to deal with the emergency, he encouraged Congress to pass the Administrative Facilitation Law, which allowed him greater flexibility in decision-making and in reformulating the budget for the new year. This law also made it possible to create a Reconstruction Cabinet, made up of the ministers closest to the President. There was virtually no criticism of this centralization of power as the country was still punch-drunk and confused in the wake of the tragedy.
Later, the executive branch criticized the congressional representatives, who had been conspicuous by their absence from the departments they represented during the emergency. Shaken out of their inactivity, they held late-night sessions to rush through parliament a number of long-shelved laws needed to modernize the state along neoliberal lines, including a Concessions Law.
God's punishment, bad luck or poverty?During this stage, the idea put forth most strongly in both the media and in various forums was that the catastrophe had offered us a great opportunity not only to rebuild the country but also to transform it. Nobody wanted to return to the past of insecurity and poverty that had helped make the hurricane's devastation so great. While everyone agreed up to that point, the organized civil society of the middle classes and intellectuals disagreed with the government's idea of transformation, since they view it also as an opportunity to democratize Honduras, convinced that without democracy there can be no development.
While everyone agrees on the magnitude of the disaster, consensus ends there. The many interpretations of what happened can be put into three main groups. The traditional religious interpretation, which is the most spontaneous, widespread and popular, is that the hurricane was a form of divine punishment. This was particularly exaggerated by the Pentecostal churches and challenged by the most progressive Catholic groups, but there has been no serious analysis of why so many people experienced the catastrophe in that way.
The second basic interpretation of the disaster emphasized the causality of nature and even the bad luck that seems to be affecting Honduras. This is the view held by the government, which claims that before Mitch everything was going well and—as President Flores phrased it months later in Stockholm—“the flags of hope were unfurled.” The government's strategy has been to exaggerate the extent of the disaster as much as possible and thus ideologically mask its own inefficiency and slowness in reconstructing the country.
The third interpretation, in contrast, stresses social causality. In other words, the hurricane caused such destruction because the country's social structure favored the rich and left the poor unprotected. While Mitch also hit the middle class, the vast majority of those most affected were poor or extremely poor. According to this theory, Mitch acted like an x-ray, exposing the underlying situation in Honduras to public awareness.
Alliance with the ChurchDuring this stage, the government recognized the affected population's religious sentiment and its own incapacity to attend to the victims needs. One element that helped increase this incapacity was the suspicion of corruption hanging over Honduras, which shortly before Mitch had been classified by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Given this, the government decided to turn the management of the emergency shelters, particularly those in Tegucigalpa, over to church organizations.
This policy of approaching church organizations was communicated to the municipal level as well, and in several areas agreements were established between the local authorities and the churches or parishes in an attempt to respond to the immediate emergency. In El Progreso, for example, the local mayor signed an agreement with the Catholic Church promising to pass all emergency aid over to it for distribution. Although these experiences failed to resolve many problems, they were an important step toward creating a new alliance between the Church and local governments in their dealings with the central government. This alliance assumes that negotiations with the municipality will be supported by grassroots pressure. At the same time as it was negotiating with the municipalities, the Church was also organizing the affected population in both the cities and the countryside.
Debt cancellation and deportationIn this same first month the government, organized civil society and the churches reinitiated with renewed energy two very important mobilizations at an international level. One was to urge the US government to make its migration policy more flexible toward Hondurans, as it was unfair to continue burdening the country with more deportees when the calamity had only increased the tendency to migrate to the North. The other was to urge the pardon of Honduras' foreign debt, whose ever- increasing burden has kept the country weighted down like a bird tied to a stone. Between 1980 and 1998, Honduras paid out almost $6.1 billion in debt service payments (capital and interest), but during the same period the debt balance increased by nearly $1.4 billion. According to recent Central Bank figures, the total debt now stands at just under $4.3 billion.
The demand for debt cancellation elicited the sympathy of many industrialized countries, raising great expectations domestically, which have since been increasingly frustrated. Two of the main advocates of debt cancellation have been Mauricio Díaz Burdett of the Foreign Debt Social Forum (FOSDEH) and Archbishop of Tegucigalpa Oscar Andrés Rodríguez.
Stage 2: Divisions emergeThe first stage drew to a close by the end of November. It had been short in duration but long on both pain and enormous feelings of unity, solidarity, creativity, hope and enthusiasm. Admirably, there were no flagrant acts of violence during the month-long curfew, such as attacks on storage areas or street disturbances, nor were there any grassroots demonstrations. The curfew was lifted on November 30.
The second stage was also very short, but was important in that the general feeling of unity quickly began to change and the main divisions that would characterize the rest of 1999 began to emerge. This stage opened with the Consultative Group meeting of donor countries in Washington, which established the foundations for organizing international collaboration, and closed with the government's first anniversary in power in mid-January, which coincided with Congress's ratification of the military's loss of autonomy. Both of these events enhanced the government's image among the international community and national public opinion, but they were only two tiny islands in a sea of emerging divisions.
The first division was that Hondurans gradually became disenchanted with the government again. President Flores made a good showing in Washington, where the Inter- American Development Bank (IDB) offered $166 million and the World Bank $45 million in loans, and many individual nations also announced large and speedy loans, but back home in Honduras, nothing changed. Nobody so much as glimpsed this money and the population began to ask where it was. At the end of November the Office of Comptroller General stated that the country had only received $5.5 million so far, but most people did not believe it. The government began losing credibility, and more and more complaints were heard that the reconstruction effort was slow, not very transparent and ineffective. The suspicion of government corruption was a constant.
Garífunas vs. governmentThe government also provoked the opposition of the indigenous and Garífuna populations on the Caribbean coast, who represent only a small percentage of the national population but have vocal organizations supported by the international community. In its nocturnal sessions, the Congress passed the first round of a reform to article 107 of the Constitution, which had prohibited foreigners from owning property within a 40-kilometer strip along the country's coastline and borders. The government had pushed the Congress to change this article to encourage tourist investment, making the Garífunas, many of whom live in fishing villages on the coast, feel they had been stabbed in the back. While they were too prostrated by Hurricane Mitch to do anything at that particular moment, they staged a protest on the floor of Congress when the second legislative session was opened to initiate the government's second year in office. That first seed of discontent would later explode.
Unaffected vs. affectedTensions and division also emerged between the affected and unaffected populations. As the new school year approached, parents and teachers called for the schools being used as emergency shelters to be returned to them. Those left homeless by Mitch were in the way, occupying and messing up the classrooms. Strong pressure was exerted on them to leave, but the homeless resisted as they had nowhere else to go; the macro shelters being built by the International Organization for Migrations were still not ready.
From then on, those severely affected by Mitch, particularly in the urban areas, began to be viewed as lazy, demanding, uncivilized, thieving, worthless rabble. Within a matter of weeks, the perception of these victims had changed completely.
During this stage, middle- class intellectuals organized in the Citizens' Forum started to severely criticize the government for its anti-democratic, intolerant and manipulative behavior. The Forum even argued that the media was no longer part of civil society because journalists paid by the government had become an extension of the state apparatus. Such criticisms find a sympathetic ear in society and slowly filtered into all social strata.
Civilian-military crisisDivisions also emerged in the government itself and even within the Reconstruction Cabinet, with the President asking his foreign affairs minister to resign after he was seen mingling with the indigenous people protesting in the Congress building. Flores then took advantage of the opening of his second year in office to make further changes in the Cabinet.
The new year rang in with three kidnappings, a crime that had briefly disappeared with Hurricane Mitch. The business class worried that they augured a new wave of organized violence that could feed off the country's critical new situation, particularly when the body of José Domingo Mitry Ritshmawi was discovered a few days after his disappearance. In the event, these turned out to be isolated incidents and it is fair to think that the government contained the expected outbreak of organized crime by pressuring the military.
At the end of this stage, which lasted a month and a half, the government, and the President in particular, emerged in a stronger position after Congress ratified a constitutional reform stripping the armed forces of their traditional autonomy. This triumph of civilian over military authorities not only cloaked the President in prestige, but also left him in charge of the top-down military structure. Within the military the struggle between the militaristic officers who did not want to accept the loss of autonomy and the more civilian-oriented ones who supported the President remained latent, to be resolved months later.
International triumphsProgress was made in the efforts to get the foreign debt canceled. The Paris Club suspended payment of the country's bilateral debt to its member countries for three years, which implied relief amounting to some $432 million up to the year 2002.
The movement in favor of undocumented Honduran emigrants also had its effect. The United States promised to suspend deportations until January 7, 1999, then approved the Temporary Protection Status (TPS), which offered temporary residence permits to Hondurans and Nicaraguans entering the country before December 31, 1998. Registration for the TPS closed on July 6, 1999. US State Department figures indicate that some 200,000 Central Americans entered the United States as a result of Hurricane Mitch, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service claims that 90,000 undocumented Hondurans and 60,000 undocumented Nicaraguans were already living in US territory.
Stage 3: The race to StockholmDuring this two-and-a-half- month stage ending with the important Consultative Group meeting in Stockholm in late May 1999, the government focused its attention on the upcoming meeting. In the Washington meeting in December, the IDB had summoned the affected countries to present their reconstruction plans in Stockholm on May 25, giving them six months to prepare.
The government ate, drank and dreamed Stockholm. The preparation of the plan to be presented was supposed to involve not only a technical process but also a political one, incorporating the demands of civil society, but the government did not let civil society participate in the plan's design. As the days went by, the government became hypersensitive, and began to reject all criticism out of hand. Such was the case, for example, with the Human Rights Commissioner's accusations of government corruption in the handling of aid.
Meanwhile, the affected peasants on the country's northern coast, who were not thinking about Stockholm, desperately tried to plant new crops even though the land in the flooded valleys was still “very cold” and the seeds kept rotting. They had to replant various times and when the seeds finally took root, it was too late; the grown corn dried up in the inclement summer sun of April and May. During this period, the World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services and Care also implemented food for work programs in an increasing number of communities.
Housing constructionThe new school year started up in the cities with few pupils attending. Slowly the homeless were transferred from their emergency shelters in schools to the macro shelters. Although the people described these shelters as “hen houses,” they at least provided a certain degree of freedom, as the affected population no longer felt under pressure to leave.
Once in the new shelters, they settled down to wait for the construction of their final houses, which would take a long time, particularly if they were part of bigger projects. The main problem for housing was land. The government sent a bill to Congress to buy land at market prices rather than at the tax assessed value, and at no time was any land expropriated for the common good. Nor did the homeless population occupy lands, because they were in a very weak position and had little organizational capacity since the macro shelters threw together people from different neighborhoods who did not know each other.
Meanwhile, the housing projects were being drawn up with almost no participation from the government. Although the Stockholm participants were expected to pledge money for housing, the churches and NGOs took the initiative, establishing agreements with local authorities, because the need for houses was urgent and international solidarity had already channeled money for this purpose. In some special cases the homeless population was taken into account in the agreements and named its own representatives, despite its organizational difficulties.
Violence and criticism growAn atmosphere of urban grassroots violence and crime spread during this period, with increasing news reports of killings between youth gangs. It was hard to tell whether the police were siding with one of the rival gangs, or internal factions within them, to kill young “troublemakers,” or if the conflicts really were just gang disputes. The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) charged that death squads linked to the police were responsible. In any case, urban violence began to rise as one of the consequences of Mitch, as did police repression in extra-judicial attempts to control it.
The potential for this violence increased with the arrival of the first airplanes carrying deportees from the United States, many of whom had been expelled for criminal activities. The figures for the first half of 1999 show an average of 286 deportees per month, down considerably from the average of 380 in the first half of 1998, probably as a result of the TPS. Still, the arrival of “problematic” elements frightened both the government and society in general.
At the same time, tensions were increasing between the government and civil society. Several groups, including the Citizens' Forum, had organized an arena for discussion called Interforos. The critiques and proposals that grew out of Interforos were drafted into a document that was presented to the government. The government virtually ignored the Interforos document and refused to publish drafts of the plan it was preparing or discuss it with civil society. Even the presentation it was obliged to make to Congress was very vague, only a quick outline of the plan's main areas.
Corruption: The first great crisisIt was in this setting that the Human Rights Commissioner published its recently-completed social audit of reconstruction projects, financed by the Danish, government, which charged 17 cases of corruption. The Flores government made its disagreement with the findings very obvious, but the conflict only took on international ramifications when Congress, as always influenced by the executive branch, got back at the commissioner. It cut his term in office from six to four years and reduced the functions legally corresponding to his post, limiting his investigations to strict human rights violations such as political kidnappings and extra-judicial executions, as in the 1980s. The aim of this reform was to stop him from investigating corruption cases, which the government considers the responsibility of the Office of Comptroller General and other state organizations.
By attempting to cover over the accusations in these 17 cases, particularly with such a crass maneuver, the government only succeeded in turning national and international opinion against it, endangering the success expected in Stockholm. This represented the government's first serious post-Mitch crisis. Congress, and by implication the executive branch, was forced to back down on the reforms with which it had attempted to silence the commissioner's critical voice.
Just before Stockholm, however, the government managed to divide organized civil society when the Citizens' Forum broke away from Interforos and backed the plan the government had presented in the earlier Consultative Group meeting in Washington. Once in Stockholm, President Flores talked to the representatives Interforos had sent, inviting two of its members into the official delegation and promising that when they returned to Honduras, he would promote joint work sessions to push the “consensual” plan.
President Flores gave a lyrical but vague speech in Stockholm, repeating concepts from Washington such as the flags of hope unfurled. He did not discuss the written plan he had brought with him and when questions were put to the delegation, it did not give the in-depth responses expected by the experts from the creditor countries, who knew the real situation in Honduras perfectly well.
Stage 4: Supposed reconstructionThis stage started at the beginning of June, immediately following the Stockholm meeting, and has continued right up to today. Its chief characteristic is the question asked by public opinion when the delegation returned: What exactly did we achieve in Stockholm? Despite the wealth of official figures and statements provided by the government since then, the question is still being asked, and it remains unanswered.
While the President was in Stockholm, his colleagues in Tegucigalpa warned people not to expect him to return with millions of dollars in his suitcase. They explained that some of the money had already been received and spent, some would only be given over time as a number of projects would last for three years, and some was in loans that would have to be paid back. Just before the trip to Stockholm, the government had stated that it had received $502 million up to May, of which it had already spent $82 million. In Stockholm, Honduras secured $2.7 billion, 70% of what it had requested. Of this total $3.2 billion from Stockholm and before, $1.5 billion is in new, fresh resources that will be arriving over the next two or three years, but $1.6 billion is coming in as loans, putting the country further in debt.
While the Church began demanding transparent management of the $2.7 billion from Stockholm, the Jubilee 2000 campaign took off worldwide and the archbishop of Tegucigalpa called for the total pardoning of Honduras' debt. It emerged in the meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) in Cologne, Germany, that Honduras had a good chance of entering the Highly Indebted and Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative that would lead to the partial pardoning of its multilateral debt. Jubilee 2000 criticized the G7 decision as insufficient, stating that the whole debt should be written off because it is unjust.
A touched-up economyDuring this stage, figures have been released showing the economy looking well, albeit thanks to the cosmetic “touch-up” of emergency food aid and money for reconstruction. The devaluation of the lempira was only 0.4% for the half year, lower than the equivalent period in 1998, and inflation stood at 5.3% for the half year, its lowest level in six years. Meanwhile, construction rose by 21% during the first two months of the year. Some of these macroeconomic figures probably explain why the levels of social instability and protests were no higher.
But there are signs of recession. The demand for credit stands at 4% for these months when in previous years it was around 30% for the same period. Unemployment has increased, and a drop of 2% is expected in the GDP since the international price of coffee, the country's main export crop, has fallen, although agricultural production, particularly banana cultivation, is slowly recovering. The sector of assembly plants for re-export, which suffered little due to Mitch, remains slack, since the US Congress has not approved parity with NAFTA. And family remittances, the country's third biggest source of foreign currency, are unstable as the TPS is only valid until the middle of next year, when there could be a mass deportation.
An outbreak of “presidentitis”July witnessed an unexpected political disturbance that began to overshadow concerns about reconstruction and appears not to have been encouraged by the government. It rather seems to have been inspired by the expectations generated over the money secured in Stockholm and the realization that it could be used to finance political activities.
That idea encouraged the presidential pre-candidates to begin declaring themselves and start touring the country's departments. The candidates for the Liberal Party's nomination included businessman and perennial candidate from the northern coast Jaime Rosenthal, Congressional president Rafael Pineda Ponce and former Honduran Social Investment Fund (FHIS) minister Manuel Zelaya. The National Party pre- candidates include banker Ricardo Maduro and Elías Asfura, the party's candidate in its last presidential campaign. Former CODEH president Ramón Custodio also launched himself as an independent candidate, although he will later have to join forces with an established party.
This “presidentitis” epidemic has distracted the government structures, creating disorder. The virus has even attacked the Reconstruction Cabinet itself. Manuel Zelaya resigned several months ago as FHIS minister to openly dedicate himself to his political campaign. Just before the anniversary of Hurricane Mitch, Tomás Lozano, who is also on the Cabinet, declared that he, too, would soon be devoting himself to political campaigning. The local level is mirroring the national one with municipal councilors, civic leaders and advisors all being sought by the politicians' campaign committees.
International solidarity is perplexed to see election campaigning already underway with the country's reconstruction still pending and the government less than halfway through its term of office. President Flores does not appear very happy with the campaigning either, as it is dividing his government team and undercutting his power, which is for the moment based more on reconstruction works than on the campaign. It has also damaged his national and international image by creating a favorable climate for criticism and disunity.
Crisis in the Armed ForcesThis stage also saw the possibility of internal divisions in the Armed Forces. There were threats of a barracks coup and the President had to act to resolve a very delicate situation between two groups within the military. One was dominated by top-ranking officers who had not come to terms with the constitutional reform stripping them of their autonomy, and the other by more civil-orientated officers close to the President who resented being passed over for appointments to the High Command although their rank merited it.
The President cleverly made use of the division to change the main military chiefs, thus consolidating his power, unifying the Armed Forces and keeping them subordinated to him. The progressive shift of power from military to civilians within government structures, however, does not necessarily imply progress in democratic terms. One new advantage is that the military can now carry out tasks proper to a modern army with greater neutrality, such as providing support during emergencies, as proved at the end of September this year, when the rains again became fierce and many people had to be evacuated.
Renewed floodingDuring this stage, peasant farmers began a new corn crop with help from NGOs and church organizations that provided them with seeds and chemicals. A good harvest was expected but the contention dikes along the rivers in the valleys had not been repaired and the canals had not been dredged. Their efforts would be in vain if the plains were to flood again, so the farmers began writing letters to the government and sending out warnings over the radio. They even peacefully occupied the headquarters of the Sula Valley Commission, the organization responsible for repairing the dikes in areas that do not belong to the banana companies. Plantain growers and even the San Pedro Sula airport administrators raised their voices as well, in an attempt to get the necessary protection from the flooding predicted for September and October.
The government apparently was not convinced and did not heed the calls until torrential rains began to hit the country just after this year's September 15 Independence Day celebrations. When they finally opened their eyes and discovered just how fragile their own rehabilitation work on roads and bridges really was, 15 bridges had been destroyed and 26 roads declared in a bad state by COPECO. The Sula valley flooded again and many dikes that had been badly and hurriedly erected gave way to the waters while others had never even been put up in the first place. In addition, the silted-up rivers had not been dredged, so this time it did not take a Mitch-style storm to cause Mitch-style damages, which resulted in 28 deaths and 17,609 people evacuated in September and October 1999.
The government's tarnished imageIt did not rain torrentially in the Sula valley, but the El Cajón dam filled to capacity and the subsequent releases of water destroyed the crops belonging to many communities. A number of peasant farmers who had sown in February and lost their crops to the subsequent drought had re-sown in June only to see their fields of corn now flooded by a sea of water.
There was great resentment over the bad administration of El Cajón, as the dam should have been prepared to receive the traditional September and October rains without having to release any water. At the same time, the government's image plummeted. The President personally visited the most affected places to check out the destruction and made statements alluding to Honduras' inability to cope with such catastrophes and trusting the country to God. His constant reply to any suggestion of ineptitude or slowness was that we did not realize the true magnitude of Mitch and that the country was still wounded and highly vulnerable.
When the sun finally came out as the first anniversary of Mitch approached, the government started thinking about how to bolster its image, but two factors tarnished it even more. On the national level, the government and Congress hastily pushed through several laws without consulting the population. The issue of article 107 and the indigenous people's protest re-emerged with a demonstration in front of government house on El Día de la Raza, October 12, which the police repressed with tear gas and gunfire. The local media sided with the government, accusing the demonstrators of arming themselves with sticks and stones even before they left their communities, but the real facts were disseminated internationally and the government was pressured into opening up an inquiry that has yet to be concluded.
The other factor was linked to the international image of the government's honesty. Just after the anniversary of Mitch, the government was hit by another bucket of cold water when news came through from Europe that Transparency International had once more declared Honduras one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This endangered the pardon of the foreign debt as it increased doubts over the government's capacity to dedicate the money saved to development rather than the already-lined pockets of a privileged few.
There is indeed corruption in this country, evidenced by the 17 still uninvestigated accusations made by the Human Rights Commissioner, the fact that nobody has yet been imprisoned for corruption and the judiciary system's cover-up of corruption in the recent bankruptcy of the Banco Corporativo.
A mass and a reportThe symbolic act of remembrance on the first anniversary of Hurricane Mitch was celebrated by Archbishop Rodríguez in the Suyapa Sanctuary, with the President and his wife and members of the cabinet, the Armed Forces and the diplomatic community attending. Monsignor Rodríguez asked the different sectors not to denigrate each other and called on the Honduran people to build a new Honduras. He thanked the international community and encouraged the President, stating that it is easy for those who do nothing to criticize.
The archbishop has fought hard to have the foreign debt pardoned and has made some fairly strong and prophetic statements abroad. Within Honduras, however, he tends to be more frugal in his accusations and more conciliatory. Thus although he did not heap praise on the government, the President emerged from the event with renewed legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet had produced a report detailing the progress made in the post-Mitch reconstruction effort during the year, which was published in the newspapers and broadcast on all national radio stations. The report stresses everything positive done, but makes no mention of the social problems that cropped up. The only “enemy” that appears are the forces of nature and plain bad luck. The government recognizes no deficiencies in its management and fails to distinguish between advances for which it was responsible and those resulting from the efforts of civil society and the international community. For example, the government assumes responsibility for the 59,000 houses either under construction or already completed, though it is a known fact that the government has implemented no housing projects and has only pledged to provide drinking water, electricity and sewerage systems—which so far it has mostly failed to do. Overall, it is a purely quantitative report that does not evaluate the quality of the works undertaken.
More organizationOne year after the catastrophe, what has Mitch bequeathed us? The seriously affected people with whom we spoke say Mitch brought some positive things, too. Top on their list were getting to know each other, learning about institutions that are helping them, getting closer to the churches—not to the mass or service, but personally to the people in the religious organizations—and getting organized. They now see organization as the way to surmount their great needs.
How would it have been possible to distribute food to 100,000 families without people organizing by sectors and by communities? How would it have been possible to get the mayor's offices to buy land on which to build the houses without organized pressure? Consequently, people have discovered organization.
The discovery of organization has in turn generated the blossoming of new ones, though not always strictly within the framework of reconstruction work. Where there was already a certain degree of organization in places like Colón, Choluteca, Intibuca and Lempira, this has been extended to the vast majority of the communities. Where there was little organization before, new forms of it have now emerged. Where the people are organized and have participated in the reconstruction, the projects have been implemented, the money sent in solidarity has reached the grass roots and the communities have learned to act as NGO counterparts and to begin to negotiate with their local authorities. Finally, where there was no previous organization and none has emerged, the reconstruction work has stagnated. This verifies that participation and democracy are necessary to development, as civil society has been insisting for some time now.
Two lines on aidHigher up the scale, two kinds of reconstruction policies have been affecting the disbursement of funds and their use in projects. On the one side are the Inter- American Development Bank, the World Bank and the European countries, which advocate greater decentralization and citizens' participation in the reconstruction process. On the other, USAID and the Honduran government prefer a more top-down distribution system.
The Stockholm funds were conditioned on processes of municipal decentralization, social audit, citizens' participation, environmental sustainability and the incorporation of gender and ethnic perspectives. The government has not acted in these areas and the European countries and multilateral organizations have responded by slowing the monetary disbursements. The churches and organizations working on agreements with the municipal authorities resent the fact that the funds from countries and entities advocating participation are not reaching them because they necessarily must go through the government—and through AID as well—which restricts their flow.
In general, it is also fair to speak of two implementation channels: AID's top-down projects, designed and supervised from Tegucigalpa, and the more democratic projects financed by international NGOs.
Strong pressure is being exerted on most of the funds. Civil society is pressuring for the Stockholm agreements to be honored and the government is resisting such a transformation, hoping that time will break the European countries' will by 2001, when the government prefers to implement the funds as an essential part of its election campaign.
A slow responseThe government only really became responsible for the slowness of the reconstruction process in March. Before that, the emergency aid arrived late due to the inefficiency of both AID and the World Food Program. The food did not arrive until the second stage, and even then it came late and unevenly, so that if the WFP sent a thousand tons of corn, it did not send any oil, and if it sent oil, there was no corn. The macro-shelters built in the second and third stages with AID financing were hastily constructed with no thought for the customs and habits of the people for whom they were being built. The money for the final housing has yet to show up.
There are two reasons for the slowness in handing over aid since March. First, it is very difficult for the government to increase its capacity to execute aid in just a few months. Even before Mitch, the government did not have the capacity to implement projects, which necessarily means that its capacity to implement the avalanche of post-Mitch funds is very limited. Second, the government has refused to share responsibility for reconstruction with the municipalities and encourage citizens' participation, the only realistic way of responding to the country's needs.
Ineffective infrastructureIn 1999, the government has mainly concentrated on rehabilitating the infrastructure, such as drinking water systems, bridges, the road network, protection dikes and dredging the channels of streams and small rivers. It has not, however, worked on dredging bigger rivers such as the Aguán, the San Pedro, the Cuaca, the Tocoa, the Chamelecón and the Ulúa.
Many of the infrastructure rehabilitation works have been expensively but badly done. The flooding this September and October swept away most of the “rehabilitation” projects done in the north of the country, and it is precisely in such projects that the suspicion of corruption is strongest.
The audits appear not to have had a real effect in this regard and the Human Rights Commissioner is too overwhelmed with tasks to be able to check them all out. What is needed is an audit by civil society from the different localities involved, but achieving this implies having the organization.
The housing challengeThe NGOs and churches have been quicker than the government in channeling funds and implementing both emergency programs, such as planting, and housing programs. The official figure of 59,000 houses under construction or completed does not seem to be accurate because it includes housing projects that have yet to get off the drawing board.
Despite this, the housing projects have progressed, albeit slowly, and it appears that they will leave behind organizational foundations because they have stressed the work and participation of the affected population and have established ownership conditions so that the houses cannot be sold during the first year of possession. At the current rate it is possible that within three years the problem of people made homeless by Mitch will be solved, though this will not be enough to cover the country's housing deficit since, according to official figures, that deficit stood at 700,000 even before Mitch.
An economy in recessionIn economic terms, the macroeconomic indicators could not be better: low inflation, a stable exchange rate and higher tax returns. But all of this conceals a time bomb of unemployment and the limited reactivation of Honduras' real economy.
Agricultural production is closely related to protection against flooding and it is not yet certain that the government will now offer the security needed next year against what are traditionally the most intense months of rain: September and October. The banana plantations will take at least three years to rehabilitate their crops fully and in some fields will plant African Palm rather than bananas. Many independent banana producers have switched over to sugar cane and only a third of the approximately 15,000 banana workers currently have work. Even when all fields have been rehabilitated, only 70% of the former work force will be able find work there.
All of this implies a reduction in the country's foreign exchange and a high unemployment rate, expressed in the country's low inflation level. Meanwhile, 45% of the African Palm crop concentrated in the Aguán valley was destroyed and the price of palm oil has fallen by 50% following the Malaysian government's attempts to settle its country's financial crisis by selling off its cooking oil reserves. Income and employment from African Palm have consequently fallen by 70%.
A credit program designed to reactivate agricultural production is needed as a more direct way to reduce the rural poverty levels aggravated by Hurricane Mitch. The government has offered production loans, but mainly to medium and fairly large farmers. The average FONAPROVI loan is out of the range of peasant farmers and the rehabilitation of peasant production has been left to NGOs and church organizations.
Changing mentalitiesPolitics seems to have upset the reconstruction process, or perhaps the reconstruction process has prematurely accelerated the political scenario. Whatever the case, the fact that pre-electoral campaigns have surprisingly emerged as early as the second year of this government's term in office means that there is a danger that reconstruction will become totally politicized once the elections actually get closer. In this context, the government, which is currently criticizing the outbreak of campaigning and political activity within its own ranks, can be expected to milk the reconstruction process to ensure the continuity of the same traditional circles.
This national trend will be repeated on the municipal level, which will clash with the movement toward decentralization demanded by civil society, challenging for the first time ever the traditional system of government and the power of the local chiefs.
On the national level, the Catholic Church has begun to break down its isolation from civil society. Bishops and Caritas representatives are abandoning the old model, which drew a line between civil society's criticism and the loyal criticism of the Church, and thus continues to legitimize the regime. This new trend is based in the parishes and the municipalities.
Local churches are also starting to make alliances with the local powers, be they municipal authorities or civic leaders, to claim their quota of participation from the national level. This implies changing the mentality of both church agents from the left, who used to systematically criticize local power, and the most conservative ones, who tended to systematically legitimize it. The hurricane-affected population's blatant need has forced those on the left to search for effective means of bringing about reconstruction and the more traditional ones to open their eyes to the reality revealed by the catastrophe.
A mature hopeA year after the hurricane hit, we can still say that Mitch not only caused enormous misery and destruction, but also opened up a new opportunity. Although the current levels of enthusiasm do not match those displayed during the first stage, a wealth of experience has been built up through the success and progress so far, despite the fact that it may have been slow and hindered by many obstacles. Thus in the midst of the desperation that was felt at certain times, hope has been maintained, and it is a much more mature hope than before.
Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras and envío correspondent in Honduras.