Bluefileños Gettin’ It Together
It is commonly said that every cloud has a silver lining. So, apparently, do hurricanes. In Bluefields, the bright side is a new and previously unknown level of organization. Through their participation in neighborhood-level emergency committees, thousands of people have produced quantum leaps in the city's reconstruction.
Forming clean-up brigades, health brigades, wood-cutting brigades, food distribution brigades, electric post-replacing brigades and building brigades, the population in just one month and with very few resources has, together with the government, cleaned most of the streets and sidewalks of debris, so far prevented any epidemics, returned electrification to 27 blocks, re-roofed the hospital and minimally repaired many of the damaged houses, particularly those of families who lack their own means.
Members of each of the religious denominations, of the Protestant umbrella group CEPAD and of the Red Cross are represented on the emergency committees in each of the 16 neighborhoods, as well as on the parent regional committee headed by Comandante Lumberto Campbell, the top FSLN representative in the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). Referring to the regional committee, Rev. Leónard Joseph, a Moravian church official, explained that “we meet daily to present our reports and plan the next day’s activities. Each institution [including the government agencies on the committee] shares what its role can be.” Joseph said that the immediate priorities include providing food, health care and at least temporary shelter to the city’s residents, and working with the brigades to repair storage facilities for incoming donations.
Harry Chávez is the regional government delegate and member of the emergency commission in charge of accepting and coordinating the donations. He said that current food supplies in Bluefields would only last through the month, adding that “if four month’s worth of food came in, we wouldn’t have any place to store it.” To Joseph’s list of immediate priorities, Chávez added support to the region’s producers—in the case of the coast, this includes many people who do small-scale fishing as well as peasant farmers—and getting aquatic transport, portable sawmills or chain saws and dredges. "Heavily laden boats can't come into Bluefields any more because the channel filled up," he noted.
Help for peasantsThe National Union of Small Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG) is providing seeds and 9,000 sheets of zinc roofing for 300 of the 840 peasant families in the region who lost their homes. Zinc is no longer a luxury roofing material but a necessity, since the hurricane left no palms with which to reconstruct the region’s traditional thatch roofs.
The agrarian ministry is also sending tools, rubber boots and insecticides which, because of transport problems caused by the hurricane, have not yet arrived in Bluefields. Once there, the problem will be getting the goods to the communities. Boatmen operating the small outboard motor boats that ply the inland rivers have to carry chain saws to cut through the giant trees that have fallen across their route.
It is unlikely that seeds, tools and credit will get to these isolated producers before December, the end of the second planting opportunity of the year. Harry Chávez estimates that the country will need food donations through next August, when the first planting of 1989 is harvested. Joseph said that the government has assured food supplies for three months, and that the problems could begin in February or March, if international solidarity does not continue.
Smoothing the rough patchesIn a visit to Bluefields in late November, Vice President Sergio Ramírez was treated to a chorus of complaints about irregularities in the distribution of supplies to the city’s population, some legitimate and others the result of ignorance of policies. For example, to a complaint that refugees returning from Managua were not receiving bedrolls like those who had remained in Bluefields, someone explained that they had already been given up to three per family while in Managua. Patricia Delgado, an FSLN worker, also suggested that "there are too many people joining communal work for the first time and surely temptations come up in the process of distribution that some people can't resist."
During the assembly, Comandante Campbell announced that a boat would be arriving in the coming week with 100,000 sheets of zinc, which would be sold to those who could pay, and donated to those in need. The zinc is being supplied by Sweden and the aid agency Diakonia; it is estimated that between 350,000 and 500,000 sheets are needed to re-roof all the houses in the region that lost their roofs. Campbell added that the distribution of the zinc in Bluefields would be carried out in an organized way, to avoid opportunism or other problems.
In response to charges of irregularities in the first hectic days after the hurricane, Campbell suggested to the church representatives that they each assign members to the neighborhood posts where food is given out. Joseph, who admitted that there were not very good controls at the beginning, said that the army released its own food first, but was then accused of keeping some of the donations it unloaded from the planes. Now the local brigades handle the unloading and the Red Cross distributes the food to the neighborhood posts.
Diatribe backfiresAsked about the effect of inflammatory statements by Radio Impacto, the Costa Rican contra station, Rene Enríquez, who works with the Moravian church's social assistance agency, said he had seen very little negative reaction toward the government. In a meeting of nearly 100 people in his neighborhood, Old Bank, he said, one man tried to speak against the government/but the rest wouldn’t let him continue.
Enríquez added that an offensive article in La Prensa, calling the Cubans "neo-colonizers" for offering to construct 1,000 new houses in Bluefields, backfired badly. "When local CDS representatives went house to house asking if the families wanted the Cuban houses, only one family said no, fearing that the 'communist' government would take the house away later." A delegation of representatives from all the neighborhoods, headed by Maronite pastor Brother Ray Hodgson, former mayor of Bluefields, went to Managua with nearly 3,000 signatures protesting La Prensa's mockery of the Cuban assistance. La Prensa "offended our intelligence by trying to make us appear colonized by the Cubans," said Richardo Morales, a member of the delegation. "Besides, it's unjust to treat them that way, when there's not a single costeño who's not thankful for that aid."
With the hurricane, the government has renewed impetus to work on a two-year-old urban plan for Bluefields. "Engineers and architects have been working on the plan every day," said Harry Chávez. Asked if the population is involved, he said there had been two meetings. "About 10 days ago, we met with the leaders of the neighborhoods, to show them the major ideas—to put a boardwalk in Old Bank where the swamp is now, where the houses should be, the shopping center, etc. Then we had another one 5 days ago, with about 200 neighborhood leaders."
Many people, he noted, cannot relate very well to the overall plans and are really only interested in what is going to happen in their own neighborhood. "Since the people living in the swampy area will obviously have to move, we're going to involve them a lot in the discussions about the boardwalk." He added that they also plan to lay out better services such as health, education, a new potable water system, electricity, phones, the industrial fishing capacity. "But these are long-term plans, a decade perhaps,” he noted, a bit wistfully. “Now the comandante is working with a team to determine the real priorities under the new conditions.”