Blown Away—Hurricane Joan Puts Nicaragua at Risk
Hurricane Joan's passage westward across Nicaragua is a story of extremes. Joan built up strength as it moved across the Caribbean Sea until it came ashore at the town of Bluefields on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The hurricane threw everything it had at Bluefields and Corn Island. Now there is nothing left of either community. The material damage left in the hurricane's wake is more than that left by the 1972 earthquake, more than that wrought by Somoza's bombing of the cities during the 1979 insurrection, more than that inflicted by seven years of contra war. And Nicaraguans, who have almost nothing, are giving everything they can.
While it is an exaggeration to say Nicaraguans have given the shirts off their backs, it may not be exaggerated to say that many Nicaraguans have each given their only spare shirt. The Tuesday after the weekend disaster young men from the disabled veterans organization arrived at a Red Cross post with 17 pairs of church. Two children showed up at a church in the poor neighborhood of Ciudad Sandino with a tiny bundle of clothes and a donation of some 30 cents. Women in the Managua barrio of Adolfo Reyes cooked food for the refugees packed into their churches, the few buildings there that could be trusted to withstand the storm.
At Red Cross headquarters in Managua volunteers sorted mountains of donated goods. At one end of the room bags of second-hand clothes rose like the nearby volcanic cone of Momotombo. In the center was Momotombito, the volcano’s smaller island neighbor, a hill of well-used shoes. These were not the fine cast-offs nor the unsaleable new lines that are given to relief agencies in the developed world, but the scuffed and down-at-heel shoes of the poor being passed on to someone in even greater need.
In contrast to the speed of Nicaraguans' response, support from many western nations has been slow in coming, especially given the scale of the disaster. The international relief is neither sufficient nor has it been dispatched quickly enough, said the chairman of the National Emergency Committee, Social Welfare Minister Reynaldo Téfel.
Preliminary official figures give 116 dead from the hurricane, 110 missing and 178 seriously injured. But without the comprehensive civil defense effort that evacuated almost 325,000 people, these tolls could have been much higher. Some 187,000 people were left homeless. Perhaps even more significant, in its long-term impact on the Nicaraguan people, is the damage to the economy. Agricultural production has been crippled in many regions, including direct damage to crops and infrastructure. Agricultural Vice Minister Salvador Mayorga estimates a loss of 1989 exports equaling 20-25% of last year's total. Fishing boats, roads, bridges and warehouses were destroyed across a wide sweep of the country. Years of development work were wiped out in a weekend.
While there’s no good moment to be struck by a hurricane, for Nicaragua Joan's timing was particularly devastating. Nicaragua is a poor country made poorer by seven years of the US-sponsored contra war and over three years of an economic embargo by the United States. It does not have the resources to rebuild and, with the embargo and US pressures on the World Bank and the IMF, it has virtually no access to many sources of international funds. Acting without such assistance, Nicaragua was in the midst of a painful economic restructuring process when the hurricane hit. The most positive sign of economic change had been the mid-year resurgence in agricultural production; there were big increases in the area planted in basic grains, meat exports had risen and there were high hopes for the important coffee crop. These positive features have now been flooded, crushed or blown away.
The double tragedy is that this has happened to Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, since the revolution, people have hoped and worked for more than just relief from poverty. This disaster has struck a country where the government is actively committed to finding ways in which its poor majority can work constructively to cease being helpless victims of poverty or disaster. The government's development goals mesh closely with those of many international aid and development agencies and the government has struggled to meet those goals despite the costs imposed on it by the contra war. Over the last year, Nicaragua has redoubled its ongoing efforts to reach a dignified peace, a prelude to reconstruction. But now, after the hurricane, Nicaragua must fight just to survive. Can it?
Yes. The commitment exists, within the government and among the Nicaraguan people. But reconstruction after war and tempest will require a special kind of international aid effort. There is no feast here for the international media, were they inclined to report it. The more heartrending signs of abject poverty don’t exist to draw sympathy and checks from an international viewing audience. Here what are most at risk are a model for third-world development and hope for change.
These are abstract concepts, hard to capture on film but very real in the lives of Nicaraguans, in the rural cooperatives and schools and health centers. A new rescue mission is needed, not mass media but mass action, drawing on the reservoir of inspiration that the Nicaraguan revolution has generated around the world in more than a decade of struggle.
The build-up and the big blowJoan was an unusual hurricane. It moved west across the southern Caribbean Sea instead of going north or northwest the way hurricanes normally do. As a consequence, few ever menace Nicaragua. Joan was the first to do so since Hurricane Fifi in 1974 and tropical storm Irene three years earlier.
On October 18, Nicaraguan meteorologists issued a national alert that Joan had grown to hurricane strength and was heading straight for the Atlantic Coast. The following day, the government declared a national emergency, giving them effective control over information relating to the hurricane, and activated the National Emergency Committee.
Then Joan stalled for a day, a mixed blessing. It probably increased the strength of the hurricane but also gave Nicaraguans an extra day to prepare.
Prepare they did. The army, the Ministry of the Interior (which mobilized 2,000 people in Managua alone the night of the hurricane), the Red Cross, state workers, FSLN activists and members of the country's mass organizations, such as trade unions and neighborhood committees, were quickly mobilized, carrying out the brunt of preparatory work and actual evacuations. Their work saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.
Sandinista comandantes and civil defense advisers were dispatched to Bluefields and towns in the likely path of the hurricane. In Bluefields, a three-day supply of food, medicine and other emergency items was collected and stored as safely from damage as possible. More than 1,300 tons of medicine and food were distributed nationwide in the two days before the hurricane hit.
On October 21, the country's emergency broadcast system went into effect. The special programming, heard across the radio dial, broadcast constant weather updates and warned people that the storm was likely to hit with an intensity never before seen in Nicaragua. People living in low-lying areas were urged to evacuate, and advised of the location of refugee centers being set up across the country.
Nearly 325,000 people were evacuated across the country (close to one in ten of all Nicaraguans), including over 100,000 in and around Managua, and some 60,000 from the southern Atlantic Coast. As of October 28, almost a week later, 60,000 people nationwide were still in temporary refugee shelters. Many people had been reluctant to move to the shelters, some taken in by assertions broadcast on contra radio stations that the hurricane threat was exaggerated or a hoax, others fearing their few belongings could be stolen if their houses were left unattended. Those who made eleventh-hour decisions to take refuge in local centers were assisted by the emergency crews who continued to work through most of the hurricane, even at great personal risk. The air force evacuated 11,000 people at the last minute, in the teeth of the advancing storm.
The radio linkup was the heart and soul of the civil defense effort. It broadcast crucial information and helped to maintain calm, especially after Saturday night fell with most of the country without electricity and the storm heading towards Managua. Hurricanes often take their time. Joan spun furiously with winds of more than 150 miles per hour but advanced across Nicaragua at only 5 to 12 miles per hour. Corn Island was hit with Joan's first winds on Friday afternoon and it was not until early Sunday morning that the storm rumbled off into the Pacific Ocean.
The radio network tracked it all the way. It broadcast Comandante William Ramirez based in Bluefields speaking with President Ortega by radio at about 1:30 Saturday morning as the storm's full force struck the town. Then even radio contact was lost. As Bluefields took a battering the band played on—reggae, calypso and soca from the Atlantic Coast, normally joyful music that, in the circumstances, sounded like a dirge.
On Saturday night, radio brought listeners the impassioned pleas of Daniel Ortega urging people to stay in their houses or, if they were in danger, to go to the nearest refuge. He stressed that people could replace their belongings but that Nicaragua could not replace its people.
Then, just before midnight, Comandante Omar Cabezas, popular head of the national organization of neighborhood committees and author of a best-selling book on his life as a Sandinista guerrilla, was the author of an inspired moment. He asked everyone listening—Christians, church leaders, all Nicaraguans and foreigners who reside in Nicaragua—to pray "for our brothers and sisters on the Atlantic Coast...and for Nicaragua.” “When 'el muchacho' did that we were very touched.... It made us feel calm and not so alone,” said Concepción Martínez, a cook from the Villa Cuba Libre neighborhood in Managua.
President Ortega and his brother, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, traveled through the most vulnerable of Managua’s barrios on Saturday evening (the President had flown to Bluefields the day before and would go again the day after). The fact that the President (whom people referred to as “Danielito” as they spoke with him that night) had visited was helpful in convincing some people to leave who were otherwise inclined to pooh-pooh the danger. Eighty thousand in Managua were temporarily evacuated as hundreds of rescue workers transported people to the shelters, distributed food, and in more than one case, made human chains to rescue people from certain drowning as drainage ditches turned into raging rivers in a matter of minutes with the torrential rains.
The AftermathBy Sunday morning heavy rains on the Pacific Coast were all that remained of the hurricane. The devastation left behind was only revealed on a region-by-region basis over the following days. There was a little good news: Managua had been spared the worst of the storm and the national death toll had clearly been kept down by the massive civil defense effort. From there on the new got worse.
Corn Island was leveled by the 150-mph winds and all of its 7,50 residents lost their homes. On Saturday morning, a radio-telephone conversation between President Ortega and Ray Hooker, a coast FSLN delegate to the National Assembly who was stationed on Corn Island, was the first time most Nicaraguans realized the true ferocity of the hurricane. "The situation is very difficult," reported Hooker. "There is not a single house with its roof on the island. Promar, the only seafood processing plant, was destroyed, as were the schools and the only clinic. All the churches and the stores were also destroyed.
"Ninety-five percent of the fruit and non-fruit trees were downed by the intensity of the winds. The hurricane lashed us for 14 hours, from three in the afternoon yesterday until five o'clock this morning. There are still intense rains, the population needs medicines, and we have only one doctor.... I lived through the 72 earthquake in Managua and this was much worse."
In Bluefields there was a similar tally of wreckage: 90% of houses destroyed; schools and government offices 90% destroyed; the hospital, post office, communications, electric plant and major fishing company facilities all damaged or destroyed. Bluefields had disappeared; its 43,000 residents were homeless. It was a hard idea to get across. When resident Moisés Hernández told a reporter, “All of Bluefields is destroyed,” he was asked, “Which barrios?” “Everything, everything, everything,” came the reply.
The field of destruction was so expansive it defied even the widest angled lens. No buildings were undamaged; some, like the Bluefields Public Library, the old Standard Fruit warehouse and hundreds of homes, were simply gone—melded into the public domain of timbers and twisted sheets of corrugated zinc roofing that lay several feet deep everywhere.
To the horror of those who took refuge inside seemingly strong churches and government buildings, not even cement withstood the 12-hour battering. When nails could hold no longer, the zinc popped off like buttons, then the acoustical ceiling panels were sucked out and the wooden roof frame flew off. If there were no concrete girders, the unsupported walls undulated visibly and finally collapsed. One woman, who escaped her house only moments before it collapsed and then struggled through the wind, rain, and flying debris to a refuge only to have part of it cave in, gave birth at some point in the endless night.
The Red Cross, charged with distributing government and other provisions, immediately designated posts in each of the barrios and quickly developed a census of most of the remaining families, which changed daily. By the week's end, people were receiving 15-day supplies from the government's stock of rice, beans, soap and sugar, Cuban donations of condensed milk, oil, and canned tuna and juices. Others were at the Ministry of Health Post, which was giving typhoid shots.
The traditional hostility of older Creoles toward the government had been fanned by contra radio reports that the army was stealing food, and some blamed the Cuban milk rather than the fouled water for the children's diarrhea. But President Ortega’s visits right before and after the storm touched many.
At El Rama the rivers rose 46 feet and stayed high for days. When they receded, much of the town had been destroyed. Two days after the water level had dropped, Mayor Samuel Mejía told a group of visiting aid agency representatives that 25,000 people had been seriously affected in the town and surrounding area. About 5,000 homes and food for 10,000 families for 6 months are needed. The dock, the transfer point for goods going by road and river from Managua to Bluefields, has disappeared. The school has lost its roof, the special school and the high school are destroyed, the bank and the warehouses are gone.
Around Mejla the houses of the town were in disarray: some without roofs, others with walls missing, some leaning, others fallen, some lifted and dropped in the middle of the road, others reduced to a small wet woodpile. Mud was everywhere. The town was monochromatic brown. A once two-story building rose from the chaos. The tidemark covered the first floor but above this was the wind's work. On the upper story only two walls remained, providing a splash of blue to the encompassing brown.
A woman in a ripped green nylon skirt and gray blouse too big for her, clutching her small bag of possessions, said she had refused to leave, and been badly knocked about by the hurricane. She showed bruises on her thigh but kept repeating that the worst was a tree branch that came through the house and hit her on the chest. She seemed in shock.
A man, working to salvage something from the ruins of his house, said: "The army, the MINT [Ministry of the Interior] and the Red Cross, they are the ones who did the most here. That has to be acknowledged, they have to be thanked.”
Extensive areas of Region V were either flooded or affected by high winds. Whole towns, including Acoyapa, Santo Domingo, Villa Sandino and La Gateada, were virtually wiped out. Eighty percent of the region’s houses lost their roofs, 90% of the bean and corn crop was lost and 100,000 acres of forest were destroyed.
Two regions lying out of the direct path of the hurricane were particularly badly hit by flooding. Damages sustained in coffee—rich Region VI (Jinotega-Matagalpa), threaten the country’s already weakened economy. Forty-eight lives were lost, 10 bridges (including one of lost, 10 bridges (including one of the country’s most strategic) washed out, and 365 miles of roadway was rendered unusable. The loss of roads and bridges may make it impossible to harvest much of the region’s essential coffee crop, now prematurely ripening. In Region IV, in the hills west of the town of Rivas there was especially heavy flooding. Some 34,000 acres of crops were destroyed and 23 people were killed. “The river betrayed us,” said one peasant.
Health and education infrastructure, already stretched to the limit, was also affected. Nationally 339 schools have been destroyed, 110 in the southern region of the Atlantic Coast, and 190 health centers and 18 local health posts were damaged.
The relief effortRelief efforts were underway even before the hurricane arrived, with aid solicited through advance brief aid solicited through advance briefing for members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of international aid organizations. It was the Cubans who got their goods to Nicaragua first and kept them coming. By Saturday afternoon, before Joan had reached Managua, the first planeload of Cuban supplies was being unloaded at Bluefields. Twenty-three planeloads later, Cuban aid is still arriving. Others have joined in. The Swedish government has donated $3 million, the West Germans (government and churches), $2 million. The Soviets have promised 11,000 tons of rice and a boatload of supplies from the Soviet Red Cross and planeloads of aid are expected or have arrived from a host of other countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the European Economic Community, France, Great Britain, Italy, Panama, Spain, Switzerland and Uruguay.
The number of donations is impressive but, in the face of what is needed or what has been given in the past after other disasters, the mountain proves to be little more than a foothill. Wascar Lanzas, deputy director of ENABAS, the agency charged with distribution of basic foods, says there is simply not enough aid to meet Nicaragua's basic food needs.
One country, the United States, is noticeably absent from any list of donors, and many of the western countries' donations have been minimal in comparison with previous contributions. When Hurricane Gilbert recently hit Jamaica, President Reagan promptly promised more than $125 million in food, medical supplies and communications equipment, and sent teams of experts to help with reconstruction.
The White House declared the US would not provide aid to Nicaragua, charging that the Sandinista government could not be trusted to use the assistance for disaster relief. US congressional aid for victims of the contra war was rejected by the Nicaraguan government and the National Assembly earlier in October for the simple reason that the aid was voted in a package designed to keep the contras in the field and fighting. To the Nicaraguans it seemed highly cynical to pay for the fighting and then want to also care for the victims—a case of having your war and feeling good about it too. President Ortega welcomed all relief aid for the hurricane but emphasized again that “the best and only humanitarian aid the United States could give us would be to stop its terrorist policies against Nicaragua.”
US solidarity and aid organizations have been much more forthcoming, with Quest for Peace and Oxfam (US) leading the way. Quest for Peace launched a fundraising drive for $10 million and Oxfam has been advertising for funds in major US daily newspapers. Nicaragua Network, Operation California and the US Catholic Conference have also contributed, among others.
Some one hundred European NGOs are currently working to raise relief aid. The United Nations’ World Food Program donated 900 tons of food. But in general, NGO representatives in Nicaragua report that fundraising is difficult at present because it has been a relatively busy year for natural disasters in the Third World.
In Nicaragua, relief efforts began immediately with collections in the cities on the Pacific plain for money, clothes and other goods. As Managua taxi driver Walter Herrera described it: "I'm no Sandinista but since the revolution, with the autonomy thing, the people, well, we're equal, they are our people, they're like us, we're all part of the same country. The two coasts used to be two countries. It's now our responsibility to help them."
This spirit was at large in Nicaraguan society. Christian base communities in Managua took responsibility for feeding and caring for many refugees. They collected food and clothing and organized children's gamed in the refugee centers. All of the Sandinista delegates to the National Assembly donated 30% of their pay for October and their monthly subsidy of rice, beans and sugar. Various groups of workers donated a day's pay. Managua's rival baseball teams, the Boors and the Dantos, played a game to raise funds for the coast, while students at the Central American University put on a benefit concert.
Overall responsibility for distribution of money and supplies rests with the National Emergency Committee, formed in 1982 to deal with that year's severe flooding. The committee is made up of representatives from international agencies in Nicaragua, including the UN, UNICEF, the International Red Cross, the Pan American Health Organization and UNHCR; international NGOs such as Care and Oxfam; national NGOs, including Caritas, the Protestant development agency CEPAD, the Nicaraguan Red Cross, international aid coordinator FACS, the UNAN and UPOLI universities, the Lions Club, Catholic development agency Juan XXIII, and the CST and ATC unions; and state institutions, such as the Ministry of Social Welfare, Civil Defense, the Sandinista Police, the Foreign Cooperation Ministry and the Ministry of Health.
CEPAD representative Milton Argüello noted that the purpose of the committee is "to coordinate the aid, to know what resources are available, which organizations can respond to which particular need. But each organization continues to do its own work. Things are coordinated, but not centrally controlled.” He stressed that the committee is "very pluralistic, the government has invited everyone to participate."
This committee is worlds away from its namesake set up after an earthquake destroyed the center of Managua in 1972. "A National Emergency Committee, set up under President Somoza's control and run by the National Guard, institutionalized the misappropriation of emergency relief. Realizing that relief supplies were being siphoned off and sold by the National Guard, Oxfam's field director talked Mrs. Somoza into giving permission to bypass the official distribution system. This meant waiting in the aircraft control tower for the right plane to be spotted, then careering onto the tarmac to get the trucks loaded before the National Guard arrived on the scene."*
*From D. Melrose, Nicaragua: “The Threat of a Good Example,” Oxfam Public affairs Unit, Oxfam, Oxford, UK 1985, pp. 6-7
This time Oxfam defends the government. In response to suggestions in the US that the Sandinistas cannot be trusted, James Dawson, Oxfam’s director for overseas development, said, "We have worked with the government and would have no problem delivering aid through that channel."
Non-meteorological attacksNational emergencies present a challenge to any government opposition; it is hard to oppose government efforts to save lives, and organize relief and reconstruction. Often more is to be gained by pitching in and helping; the relief work of El Salvador's FMLN rebels after the 1986 earthquake is an example. But the Reagan Administration, the contras and some members of the internal opposition chose to actively obstruct relief efforts.
Shortly after Joan's passage, the Voice of America broadcast reports suggesting the "international community" doubted that aid money would be spent wisely. Similar views, all without supporting evidence, have been widely aired by La Prensa and contra radio stations beaming into Nicaragua.
As the first news came in, of the destruction in the Atlantic Coast, President Ortega bridled at a US State Department warning to his government not to commit human rights abuses during the state of emergency. "To speak this way with authority they must stop committing abuses like those they have committed over the last eight years against the Nicaraguan people."
This brought another salvo from Washington. Richard Weldon, president of Operation California, a group organizing material aid to Nicaraguan victims of the hurricane, told the Los Angeles Times that the US government was deliberately hindering private aid efforts. "The air force frequently transports, for free, assistance collected by charitable organizations in catastrophes,” Weldon said, but “this time they told us the political instructions were: ‘no aid.’” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater expressed fear that Ortega’s government would use aid funds against the contras.
The contras, for their part, ambushed a Red Cross ambulance taking a sick child from Nueva Guinea to Juigalpa at about 1 am on Saturday, October 22, just before the hurricane hit; the driver and two passengers were wounded. It was the second ambulance attack in three days.
The day before the hurricane hit Bluefields, La Prensa, in an editorial titled “The Militarization of the Hurricane,” countered the widespread calls for volunteer efforts in work-places and barrios, arguing that the civil defense efforts had been taken over by the “frigid, bureaucratic, inefficient state military HQ, which always arrives late and does things badly.” Three days later, the paper did an about-face: “This is not the hour to be political, but to help the victims.” It called for the establishment of a national commission made up of representatives from the government, the Catholic Church, opposition parties and COSEP, the opposition business council.
COSEP, which stopped participating in the National Emergency Committee long before the hurricane, said it would not offer help unless asked officially. President Ortega then reiterated that anyone who wished to participate could join the committee, including those business people who “are truly ready to contribute to this emergency situation.” Indeed many sectors of Nicaraguan society, including those opposed to the revolution, have joined forces with the government and contributed substantially to the relief drive, most notably the Red Cross, but also school children and Explorers, the Lions' Club, Catholic and Protestant churches. Bishops Barni and Schlaefer, as well as Cardinal Obando, issued a call for their parishioners to aid^ in relief work and reconstruction.
Meanwhile, contra attacks continue. The hurricane itself has wiped out many old contra targets such as bridges, schools and health centers, but now there are relief convoys and the important coffee harvest to disrupt. On the morning of October 29, in their worst attack since the signing of the Sapoá peace accords on March 23, the contras killed nine civilians traveling in a passenger bus near San Juan del Rio Coco. The same day, they ambushed a military truck delivering food to hurricane victims in La Esperanza, killing a soldier and wounding two young civilians. The Honduran army stepped up attacks on the Nicaraguan border, even attacking border posts the night the hurricane hit. On October 28, President Ortega had issued a warning, based on intercepted radio reports, of the imminent incursion of 3,000 newly outfitted contras into Nicaragua, taking advantage of the disaster caused by the hurricane.
ReconstructionBeyond the immediate problems of having to feed, clothe and shelter almost 200,000 homeless lies the need to rebuild. Some of this work has already begun, even though a full assessment of the damage to the country's economic resources has still to be completed. Enough is known to realize Nicaragua's situation, in both the short and long term, is very grave.
Recovery depends on getting people back into production as quickly as possible. The two immediate priorities are getting the coffee out and getting the next planting of basic grains in.
Coffee exports bring in half the country's export earnings. But much of the coffee crop is grown in the central highlands where roads and bridges have been destroyed. The first job is to repair these so the crop can be brought out. The second task is to organize coffee-picking brigades from the cities and other parts of the country.
To restore basic grain production in Region V, the Agricultural Ministry plans to put together a simple package of seeds, tools and kitchen utensils for peasants so they can start sowing for the next harvest. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization will assist with 40 tons of beans for seed. The government can also be expected to provide abundant credit for farmers in Regions V and VI. This will add to the inflationary impact of the hurricane but is needed to get fanners back into production quickly.
Both these priorities might delay housing replacement. Dionisio Marenco, head of the FSLN's information department, has said that people on the Atlantic Coast may have to wait for a new house simply because without road repairs there will not be much of a coffee harvest, and without a coffee harvest there will never be replacement housing.
President Ortega expressed particular concern about the impact of the hurricane on Nicaragua's ecological balance, given the devastation wrought on tropical forests, which may be lost forever. He issued a call for ecological experts and representatives of European parties concerned with the environment, such as the West German Greens, to come evaluate the situation and offer plans for recovery.
The government plans to continue using army trucks and air force helicopters and planes for relief work, although an upsurge in contra attacks may severely limit the availability of equipment and men.
There are other restrictions on any rebuilding program for the Atlantic Coast. Access is especially difficult. The road to Rama has been damaged, the wharf at Rama has been destroyed as have been many of the river boats, and if one could get to Bluefields—where the wharf has also been damaged—there .are no warehouses to store goods. The major link is Bluefields’ small airstrip, but Nicaragua has few planes with which to deliver supplies. Consideration is being given to establishing a sea or air bridge between Bluefields and Puerto Lim6n in Costa Rica.
But where does the job begin in Bluefields? There is neither electricity nor enough water. Electrical generators and well-drilling gear are needed as are tents, food and storage facilities. The lack of basic facilities rules out the possibility of bringing outside teams in to mount a large-scale construction effort.
On a larger scale there is the thorny question of the impact the hurricane has on this year’s economic reform packages. It could cause a reversal in the direction of the reforms, perhaps at considerable political cost to the government. The changes were intended to increase exports and agricultural production and to reduce the government’s deficit. The hurricane has damaged production and puts pressure on the government to increase its spending.
It is possible, if production of basic grains falls drastically and the shortfall is not made up with donations, that Nicaragua will have to retreat from its trend towards free market policies and return to rationing basic food supplies. Other goals of the economic reforms may also have to be reversed.
This would not just be economic fine-tuning. The harsh austerity measures of 1988 had been threatening for many years but had been delayed as long as possible to give the government the chance to consolidate its position, especially to take control of the contra war. To make the economic changes carried out this year, the government has had to mortgage some of its political popularity. The urban poor have been hit especially hard. If it now had to reverse direction, having inflicted the economic pain without much of the gain, the political cost would be greater.
Why this is an international disasterThe success of Nicaragua’s civil defense effort in limiting the death toll presents it own problems. Crudely speaking, there aren’t enough deaths to turn this into a gripping international disaster story. For many aid and development agencies, Hurricane Joan is just another natural disaster in a busy year for disasters—and, at that, not a particularly newsworthy one. And without a surge of international public sympathy, big relief funds are hard to gather.
For Nicaragua, Joan is obviously not "just another disaster.” And in several very important ways, this is not just another disaster for the rest of the world.
The hurricane represents an enormous challenge for the Nicaraguan revolution. At best, it will be overcome with the mix of commitment, principle and pragmatism that has become a Sandinista trademark. At worst, the damage done by Hurricane Joan, coming on top of the war and the US embargo, threatens to do long-term damage to the revolution. This is a turning point. The Nicaraguan people will take up the challenge but international aid agencies and solidarity groups also have essential contributions to make.
The hurricane's effects go far beyond Nicaragua. The survival* of the Nicaraguan revolution is at stake, and the Nicaraguan revolution occupies a special place on the world stage. Although battered and bruised it is still struggling to develop a mixed economy, maintain political pluralism and to have, if not full independence, at least a diversified dependence on the larger and richer nations. Nicaragua is not the "good example" it promised to be or may still become. It has been too undermined by the enormous cost of the war for that. But it remains an important symbol of the much wider struggle of small countries to take control of their own destiny.
Nicaragua is particularly significant to aid agencies because its government is committed to the interests of the majority. Aid agencies and solidarity groups find themselves in the all too rare situation of working with, rather than against or apart from, a government. A survey of the experience of western development agencies in Nicaragua makes the point: "For many development agencies, the important difference in Nicaragua today is that there is a considerable degree of coherence between their own development policy and that of the Nicaraguan government. For both, the task of development includes meeting the basic needs of the poor majority of the population—in health, education, housing, and food production."* Aid agencies have been able to work with Nicaragua's committed, not corrupted civil service in a relationship with the government quite different from the paternalistic relationships of the past.
*Aid That Counts—The Western Contribution to Development and Survival in Nicaragua, by Solon Barraclough, Ariane van Buren, Alicia Gariazzo, Anjali Sundaram and Peter Utting; Transnational Institute (Holland) and Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales, pp. 98-101.
Hurricane Joan puts at risk the ability of the Nicaraguan revolution to carry out the dream of a better life for its people. A government with humane and equitable development policies has been threatened by seven years of war, trade and credit embargoes, and the flight of its professionals brought on by economic decline. Without an outpouring of aid not only for relief but for development, the hurricane may be the burden that tips the balance. It destroys people’s lives and productive capacity, reverses the few economic advances made this year, puts an unbearable strain on family and government finances and threatens to rob people of hope. And if the Nicaraguan people are robbed of hope, then we are all robbed of hope. That is why this big disaster in such small country will have an impact reaching far beyond its borders.
JUANA, LA HURACANA
We have to pick up the pieces
of everything that was destroyed.
Because this people was born
To overcome hardship
Not to be overcome by it.
—refrain of Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s hurricane song, written hours after the storm.