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  Number 220 | Noviembre 1999
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Mexico

A Natural Disaster Reveals a Social One

Mexico's autumn came in like a raging lion. First, an earthquake brought death and destruction to Oaxaca, cutting off thousands of communities. Relief workers were still struggling to get aid through when torrential rains in southeastern Mexico brought with them the greatest destruction in people's memory.

Jorge Alonso

The equivalent of a whole year's worth of rain fell in only three days on some areas during the first week of October. But that was only the beginning. In the middle of the month it was announced that half that amount of rain was expected again from yet another tropical storm. On October 27 the water level rose higher and spread further in the already-flooded state of Tabasco. Other states severely affected were Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Chiapas; Guanajuato, Coahuila, Nueva León and Tamaulipas were also affected, but to a lesser degree. Official damage figures varied. As of mid-October, the government was admitting 369 dead and 340,000 otherwise directly affected. Even earlier than that, the Catholic Church was putting the death toll at over 500, the disappeared at about 300 and those suffering material losses at around 500,000. As the days passed, the figures climbed. By the last week of October, the official death toll stood at 377 and other victims at a total of 433,000. Some 75,000 people were crowded into 626 shelters. Up to 1,000 kilometers of roads were damaged. The Church continued to insist that the real figures surpassed those released by the government.

There was no letup in the rain or in the release of excess water from the dams. Lives, homes, crops, trees, road networks and drinking water systems were lost to the rushing water. Flimsy houses were swept away by the floods, while those built on solid foundations filled with water and mud. Soon the bodies of both people and animals began to create a contamination problem. Many communities were left without safe water or electricity and many were inaccessible for weeks, adding supply shortages and untreated epidemics to their list of problems. Some were so thoroughly destroyed that their residents cannot return. The economic losses in agriculture and livestock have also been significant. Rocks and rubble were deposited on huge expanses of cultivated land. Schools, too, suffered a lot of damage; the official report speaks of 5,554 damaged school buildings. In painful contrast, 85 municipalities in the north were being affected by a severe drought.

The main culprits: Corruption…

The disaster and the unnecessarily extensive destruction it caused pointed the finger of guilt at the PRI government's corruption, and at poverty, a product of the economic policy of the last several administrations. Endemic corruption joined forces with on-the-spot corruption to exacerbate the tragedy, exceeding the government's capacity to control or even hide it.

One example of past corruption that came to light was that many local PRI political bosses had trafficked in land sales in high-risk zones, with the tacit consent of their bosses. The razed hillsides broke apart, sending huge landslides down on the communities below, and taking the homes located on the dangerous sites with them.

Corruption in the distribution of aid was facilitated by the fact that the thousands of tons of aid donated in solidarity by civil society had to pass through government channels, aggravating an already chaotic situation. Each affected town was told it would not be given all the aid it needed because other areas had needs that were more serious. As the informal information network began to kick back into action, however, it quickly became evident that government officials were repeating that exact speech everywhere they went.

The governmental corruption was especially marked in contrast with civil society's generous aid. Not only did many government officials respond slowly to the disaster, but some even stole the donated food and sold it and others only gave it out on condition that the recipient vote for PRI candidates in the upcoming elections; still others squirreled it away to use later for party purposes.

The government's actions were characterized not only by corruption, but also by inefficiency, negligence and a lack of organization for dealing with natural disasters. It has no efficient plans for providing information, for evacuation or even for attending to the population. In the majority of cases, even when adequate information could have been possible, the catastrophe arrived unannounced. By the second storm, when the government began to make feeble attempts to advise the population, it had lost credibility.

One anguishing problem was the difficulty of getting aid to the isolated communities. President Zedillo claimed that the bad weather prevented distribution of the aid received, but some of the government's land and air transport facilities were never even mobilized. In any case, a request for international help could have resolved the worst situations.

The government bristled in response to the accusations against it, but critical evaluations were soon being heard even within government itself. The Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources acknowledged that nature had taken its toll for the urban planning errors. The president of the congressional energy commission declared that the preventive work in the hydroelectric system had been faulty, and that incorrect administrative decisions around water storage in four of the country's major dams had contributed to the flooding of fields and population centers.

...and poverty

Even before the earthquake, drought and flooding, 725 of the municipalities that would be most damaged by those natural disasters were already victims of a social disaster. The map of the areas affected by the disasters coincides with the poverty map. A full 70% of the affected communities were already at the extreme poverty level, and the hardest hit of all were indigenous communities, which are also the poorest. With the infrastructure that had made possible a regional market now in ruins, the very possibility of sustainability is in question. Most victims wonder where they will be able to find work and how they will survive.

The victims of the natural disaster have also been victims of the neoliberal policy. Poverty went up 10% in the first two years of the Zedillo administration and even more sharply in the last three. In October, even as the new disaster was occurring, it was reported that one in three Mexican children suffer from acute hunger. Several civic organizations have charged that 43% of children under five years old are malnourished and that many die as a consequence. With one year left of Zedillo's six-year term, the program to fight extreme poverty, known as PROGRESA, has provided minimal benefits, and then to only two million families, which represents roughly thirteen million individuals. While that may seem a lot, over forty million Mexicans are sunk in a poverty that is not only not being alleviated but is getting worse every day. The slashing of social spending has brought very serious problems to the public health and education systems, where the shortages keep getting more acute.

Governmental grandstanding

President Zedillo, who does not grasp what the concept of social policy is about, used the opportunity to step into the limelight as the country's first and foremost brigade volunteer. But he was a brigadista who responded to the affected population's needs with authoritarian bullying. The height of his insolence was to refuse to accept international aid, a stance he later corrected by announcing that money would be needed for reconstruction. The Senate had to step in to ensure that the emergency aid was accepted. Even then, many tons of the material aid sent to the country was given the bureaucratic turtle treatment awarded second-hand merchandise destined for the street markets rather than being promptly dispatched as important goods requiring quick distribution.

The presidential activism was inefficient at best and illusory at worst, only enough to get coverage on the top of the news. Zedillo made a splash, but resolved little, taking advantage of the consternation to make a falsely bountiful gesture.
Meanwhile, the Church reiterated that not all communities were getting help and urged that the institutions do an end run around the government to provide aid and that they refrain from politicizing it. It argued that the President should get a grip on his inefficiency, exhibitionism and tirades against critics and take the steps needed to alleviate the grave situation. In a homily, the primate archbishop went so far as to condemn the PRI for using the donations for the victims to proselytize and labeled the theft of and trafficking in aid as criminal.

Though many communities were still cut off and some were even still under water by the end of October, clean-up operations were underway in other places. The army announced that it had removed well over eight thousand cubic meters of rubble in 183 towns and villages. The main challenge now is how to reactivate the economy. The Church argued that humanitarian aid would be needed for several months, since thousands of people lost not only their belongings, but also their means of subsistence. Honest professional assistance is needed to identify safe areas where people can be relocated and to begin a plan of housing reconstruction.

A pre-ordained tragedy

Market forces, guided only by the logic of the profit motive, have no capacity to bring about investment in things like preventive drainage systems or to halt the voracity of those who speculate in real estate deals with risky land. The victims of the earthquakes, flooding and drought are doubly victimized, first by a dominant economic project characterized by huge holes in its ecological, urban development and social policies. The Zedillo government has confused social policy with paternalist compensation works and these in turn with vote- getting. It is demonstrating a clear disinterest in investing in works that would reduce the dangers, and its fight against poverty has been pitifully superficial.

A policy that only recognizes individual initiative must be revised in light of its dramatic consequences when natural disasters occur. It is even more scandalous when combined with an inefficient and corrupt public administration. Nobel prize- winning economist Amartya Sen has written that it is not nature that puts millions of people unnecessarily at risk during climatic adversities but the combination of poverty, material fragility and social disorganization. The restrictions on the social budget lead government institutions to take ever fewer actions and thus the damage from natural disasters tend to take on ever-greater proportions.

What occurred this tragic October in Mexico is thus a reflection of the system's contradictions and unresolved problems. The first evaluations speak of a tragedy waiting to happen: a lack of forewarning because of authorities who did not carry out their responsibilities, who failed to do what had to be done even when they knew the magnitude of what was coming. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes most emphatically criticized the injustice and inequality of the corruption that was revealed, calling it the most brutal way to rob the poor.

Subcomandante Marcos expressed his solidarity with the earthquake and flood victims and called the government's way of dealing with the situation “disgusting.” He said that the torrential rains had left “children, the elderly, men and women, particularly indigenous and peasant farmers, the wretched of this pitiless, genocidal, demagogic system, with nothing.” He added that “what hurts the most is the criminal violence that rains down from the heights of power onto the despairing, mutilated, ignorant, tired and pain-filled population.”

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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