Atlantic Coast: Only a Slight Seam
Following the October 1988 hurricane that flattened the Atlantic Coast city of Bluefields, an emergency commission made up of Sandinista government officials and national and international nongovernmental agencies organized a day-long talkathon to collect money, food, medicines and clothing from the rest of the population for the 187,000 homeless victims in the hurricane's path. Despite the growing economic crisis, people gave generously.
In late July of this year the new government tried to one-up that performance for what it said were 100,000 victims of massive flooding in the northern Atlantic Coast. The collection was smaller, but still generous.
The two talkathons had marked differences. For example, in 1988, it was led by the radio stations, which hooked up to the talkathon center at 6 am and finished at 6 pm; this time it was led by state television, which kicked in close to 9 am and signed off at 5 pm, thus losing the chance to tell people on their way to or from work where the collection centers were. While such differences could be attributed to the inexperience of the new government and an excusable desire to promote state television, another difference was less explicable. In 1988 the collection followed weeks of daily TV images of the massive destruction and urgent calls for international help. This time the emergency went virtually unreported until just before the media event. In fact, as one sharp-eyed viewer noted, the TV images of flooded lowlands, first shown as the propaganda mounted in the three days before the collection, were actually archive footage from the 1988 hurricane; a note to that effect was cut from later showings.
The main similarity in the two emergencies was that, in both cases, Cuba was the first to respond to the international call.
What’s Wrong with this Picture? Owen Hodgson, vice minister of the controversial new ministerial-level Institute for Atlantic Coast Development (INDERA), held his first press conference to request help on June 17. He announced to the invited diplomatic corps that a number of river communities in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) had been affected by heavy rains, leaving some 18,000 people in need of immediate aid. Their crops had been washed away, some had lost their houses and others, inexplicably, had lost their agricultural tools and fishing equipment.
A few days earlier, Barricada had carried a story about the reconstruction of Waspán, a town on the Río Coco, without mentioning any heavy rains. And a week later, Minister of Health Ernesto Salmerón visited Puerto Cabezas to review the health situation there since the Cuban medical brigade left following the elections. Press coverage of Salmerón's junket also failed to note any flooding. Dr. Salmerón later explained that the emergency was in outlying communities and news had not yet reached Puerto Cabezas by the time of his visit; he did not mention INDERA’s emergency call.
A National Emergency Commission was formed on June 20, made up of the Red Cross, Caritas, the protestant ecumenical aid agency CEPAD and the Catholic and Moravian churches—all of whom work in the indigenous communities—to try to supplement 61 tons of food already sent by the International Red Cross. A month later, El Nuevo Diario reported that CEPAD was still trying to get 900 tons of food from Canada and the United States for the Atlantic Coast out of the Corinto port, but could not pay the taxes levied by the government.
On July 17, Yatama leader and INDERA minister Brooklyn Rivera contacted the Cuban Embassy, which agreed to send an emergency medical brigade and medicines. In less than 24 hours, 12 tons of medicines and 23 Cuban specialists had already landed in Puerto Cabezas, some of them doctors with no more clothes than those they had been wearing when the call came through to Havana. Two days later they were supplemented by another 5 doctors, this time with 11 more tons of medicines and 27 sacks of clothes. The Cubans also agreed to provide 800 tons of food. The Cuban medical team had left a week after the elections, following threats on their lives from supporters of the Miskito organization Yatama; this time Yatama reportedly guaranteed the brigade's security.
The government did not really go into visible action until after the Cuban response. On July 23, Dr. Salmerón told El Nuevo Diario that “we want doctors from other countries too.” The pro-Sandinista daily cited Salmerón as saying that when he was in the United States a few days earlier he had asked the Pentagon for medical battalions “for yesterday.” The next day he told La Prensa that the governments of Spain, West Germany and Costa Rica had offered help, as had nongovernmental agencies from France, Norway, Finland and Holland. Last but not least, USAID was interested in helping too.
By then the media were calling it one of the biggest disasters on the region, comparable only to Hurricane Joan. La Prensa spoke of thousands of homeless; Bobby Holmes, president of the RAAN Emergency Commission, said that 92% of the cultivated areas had been affected—without saying how much had been planted; Salmerón spoke of malaria and measles epidemics; El Nuevo Diario reported bridges out, 7 dead and 8 disappeared. With each passing day before the telethon the figures of victims grew, multiplying from 30,000 on July 18 to 100,000 by July 21.
The telethon aired July 27, reaping many bundles of used clothes, $40,000 of which $25,000 was pledged by the British government, and another $10,000 in córdobas—to the penny the goal the organizers had set. Carlos Briceño, head of the state television system, said grandly that the day's programming would cost $100,000, “but this is secondary; we'll absorb it with pleasure.”
Killing several birds with one telethonHow many victims were there, and why the delay if there were so many? Was there really massive flooding?
According to Bobby Holmes, there had been some rain in May—leading to INDERA’s first call—but that the heavy rains had been between June 22 and July 5.
People from the region, however, said that the flooding and loss of crops was no more than usual for this time of year. The real problem lay in the fact that Cuba was no longer sending the 50,000 daily rations of food that arrived by boat every three months during the Sandinista government; the Red Cross was no longer stockpiling the 20,000 rations it had during the war; and the new government had not realized that it had to prepare for this annual emergency through contingency requests as the past government had tried to do.
To complicate the situation, the coast is economically paralyzed. Engulfed in war for much of the past decade, there have been repeated waves of repatriating Miskito refugees from Honduras over the past three years, turning into yet another flood since the elections. Accustomed to charity assistance, many of the returning communities have not yet recovered their organizational structures and old rhythms of subsistence agriculture.
Nonetheless, why all the razzmatazz? Why would state television spend $100,000 to reap $50,000? The apparent answer lies in the fact that the government has a credibility problem on both sides of the country. In the Pacific the government telethon improved its dubious image of concern for the poor, and took people's minds off their own economic crisis for a few days. As happened after Hurricane Joan, people who only had two handfuls of rice gave one to the flood victims on the coast.
In the Atlantic the credibility problem has an additional aspect. The central government has not yet provided any funding to the Regional Councils, as the autonomous governments in the RAAN and RAAS are called. This has fostered an alliance among FSLN, Yatama and UNO Council members, the general demand of which is respect for the new autonomous governments. Its specific target is INDERA, unilaterally created by the central government, which both Regional Councils view as undercutting their incipient power and violating the spirit of the autonomy law.
What better way for President Violeta Chamorro to restore her benevolent image than to fly out to Puerto Cabezas with 7,000 pounds of powdered milk and thousands of bundles of donated goods from the Pacific, as she did on August 7? What better way to bolster Rivera's tarnished prestige as a sell-out to the central government than to have him fly out with experts from the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Health Organization and AID7
In doing so, however, the RAAN’s Regional Council was once again bypassed, only adding to its fears for the future of autonomy. When President Chamorro arrived in Puerto Cabezas she held separate meetings with regional ministerial appointees, the Emergency Committee and the Regional Council itself, “to calm tempers.” It was the first time she had done so and the agenda of issues was growing.
In addition to the central government's failure to provide the Regional Councils with funding, it has also disbursed no administrative or development monies to the regional ministerial offices and has even refused to resolve who the ministerial delegates are. Regional Coordinator Leonel Pantin of Yatama has made numerous attempts to meet with Chamorro and central government ministers in Managua to have his own appointees ratified, but has continually been rebuffed. Rivera reportedly calls them technically incapable, disloyal to the government and pawns of his Yatama rival Stedman Fagoth—who, for his own reasons, has taken up the FSLN-Yatama defense of the Regional Council against INDERA encroachment.
At the end of the inconclusive meetings in Puerto Cabezas, both Fagoth and Chamorro offered comments in keeping with their respective characters. President Chamorro said sweetly, “All these problems are going to be solved,” while the volatile Fagoth warned dramatically, “This is a powderkeg. It's serious and has us all afraid. This isn't Switzerland here.”