Ba’ra sma ki? The Caribbean’s Challenge
As the UN representative in Managua so accurately put it,
the combination of the Caribbean Coast’s historic emergency
and the one caused by Hurricane Felix produced “a difficulty
seldom found in any geographic place on Earth.”
Are we prepared to deal with that difficulty?
Is the government?
All witnesses of the now devastated communities in the North Caribbean, including two people who lived through the experience and write about it in these pages, agree that the arrival of Hurricane Felix and its violently spiraling category 5 winds caught the region totally off guard. Virtually no one was prepared for the emergency unleashed that pre-dawn September 4.
Are President Daniel Ortega and his government officials prepared to respond to this emergency? Ba’ra sma ki?, the Miskitu communities must be wondering. Are you there? Will the government be there for all that must be done and all that the affected communities must be allowed to do for themselves in that land of so many challenges? The government styles and policies we’ve seen unfold over these first nine months would suggest it is poorly equipped to meet the coast challenge.
A colossal disasterThe disaster is both material and spiritual, a tragedy touching both the soul of each family and individual and the collective soul. The Miskitu and Sumu-Mayangna people are in mourning, as are the black Creoles of Bilwi and the mestizos, both those born in the Caribbean region and more recent arrivals. There are irreparable human and ecological damages as well as social and economic losses that have no short-term solution. National and international solidarity has struggled to provide humanitarian aid to cover the most urgent basic needs—food, drinking water, clothing, shelter—but has been unable to cover or even reach everyone in the devastated zone, which is a quarter of the Nicaraguan land mass and includes some the country’s most isolated and inaccessible zones. The disaster is enormous.
Many reports from the coast speak of 500 dead, although official figures so far recognize only 102 identified and unidentified bodies and 133 reported disappearances. Complaints could be heard from the very beginning: many deaths could have been avoided if the government had decreed the red alert in time and the naval authorities had evacuated the Miskitu Keys faster and more diligently, although there were also reports that many on those tiny islands refused to leave with the military or even when Moravian church authorities made a last minute attempt to get them out in civilian boats.
Admittedly, Hurricane Felix increased to a strength that surprised even the meteorologists monitoring it and veered off its predicted course. Despite that, there have been suggestions of initial indolence by a central government that was perhaps busy preparing for the formal inauguration of the Councils of Citizen’s Power, a ceremony announced for mid-September that ended up cancelled. The Honduran authorities dealt with the threat to that country’s Miskitu area—the predicted point of impact—with greater capacity and agility.
The hurricane passed directly over the Miskitu Keys biological reserve with winds of nearly 120 miles an hour, destroying the coral reefs and mangrove swamps in this extremely valuable Biosphere Reserve, not to mention virtually all human structures. There were still hundreds of men, women and children on the Keys at the time, most of whom only lived there part time to fish or trade, and had their permanent residence in one of the mainland communities or in Bilwi, the capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). It was on the Keys that the majority of deaths and disappearances occurred. In Bilwi wrenching ritual laments have been heard at dawn day after day for those who never returned, swallowed forever by the sea.
A world no longer greenThe staggering official figure of those affected in the RAAN is 198,000 of the total population of some 300,000, with 377 indigenous communities of differ-ent sizes destroyed. The great majority of the victims lost everything they had when the winds ripped the sheet metal roofs off their houses and spun them through the skies like paper. They also lost their fruit trees and animals, as well as their rice, cassava and plantain crops and anything else they had planted. The fishing families lost their sailboats, outboard motorboats and nets, and the lobster divers lost all their gear. What the wind didn’t make off with it ripped to shreds.
Even after the winds began to subside, the seawater rains caused several rivers to overflow their banks, flooding bank-side crops and villages and extending twenty meters inland. The Río Coco alone—known by Miskitus as the great Wankí—rose seven meters. Water sources were contaminated and respiratory and intestinal ailments now proliferate, as do mosquitoes. There is fear that such drastic alterations in the ecosystems and food chains will only increase the plagues of rats that have afflicted the area in recent years.
The ecological damage is immeasurable. It is estimated that over a million and a half hectares of forests were ripped up and six river watersheds severely affected. The habitat of valuable species has disappeared and the animals that survived—monkeys, deer, wild boar, toucans and many others—are suffering. The pine forests fared better due to the flexibility of their trunks, but other forests of precious tropical woods—mahogany, oak, royal cedar—were flattened. Six “protected areas” were razed. The buffer zone of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve was damaged although its nucleus, which is Central America’s lung, stood up to the beating.
The North Caribbean landscape suffered a mutation. Eileen Mairena Cunningham, a Nitlapán researcher from the coast, described it like this: “The communities were surrounded by trees and their lands were like grassy carpets. The communities were separated by forests and couldn’t see each other. You only saw them as you approached. Now all that has changed. The trees are either strewn across the ground as if someone had flung down a box of giant matches, or are split down the middle. The world is no longer green, it’s brown because the mud burned the grass and the fallen trees have been drying. Now you can see one community behind another from hundreds of meters away, unprotected by the green forests. You can distinguish them by the ‘roofs’ of donated blue and white plastic.”
Will Centralism still reign?One mutation deserves another. The Ortega-Murillo government has given ample evidence of its centralist, sectarian tendencies and inefficiency since taking office. Responding to the Caribbean challenge will require quite a mutation.
From the very beginning of the crisis, the government centralized operations, placing all decisions under central government and Army control. All aid was sent to the National Disaster Prevention System warehouses.
At the outset such centralism was logical. The country’s civil defense system is under the jurisdiction of the army, which also has the most appropriate resources for transferring people, bodies, doctors and supplies. It made endless flights with food, roofing and other aid in the first days. But since then the centralism has become harmful, generating ill will and conflict. The RAAN has its own supposedly autonomous regional authorities, along with municipal and community authorities as well as churches—the Moravian Church, while somewhat shrunk from its heyday, is still the coast’s core religion. The port city of Bilwi, still known on the Pacific-side as Puerto Cabezas, has a well organized civil society and many NGOs work out in the communities. The government has shown little desire to coordinate with any of these local groups, which have capacity, years of experience, their own resources and no shortage of proposals. Many were put to work while others were shoved aside, but none were consulted. Will the centralist tendency mutate?
And what about sectarianism?The government has also shown a notable sectarian tendency: love and reconciliation only for unconditional supporters. There is a strong perception that the Managua government has been politically manipulating the aid. Given the centralization, the accusation is hard to refute… or prove.
The eighties left many people on the Caribbean side of the country with deep-rooted anti-Sandinista feelings, although the FSLN consistently gets more electoral support in the RAAN than one would expect given the long and difficult history of coast-Managua relations and the particular history of the Sandinista decade. Following the regional autonomous elections two years ago, the FSLN made a governing alliance with Yatama, the regional Miskitu party, and with its two long-time leaders, Brooklyn Rivera and Stedman Fagoth, both of whom were vigorous enemies of Sandinismo in the eighties—not to mention of each other. Of all the alliances the FSLN has made within what is known as the National Convergence, this was the most promising, because Yatama won a plurality in the RAAN but not an outright majority, and chose the FSLN as its governing partner over Alemán’s PLC, which came in third.
But the mix of centralism and sectarianism has tarnished this alliance. Many Yatama supporters wonder what good it serves. The way they see it, Rivera and Fagoth are sitting pretty as National Assembly member and Fishing Minister, respectively, but neither represents them or resolves anything. The person deciding everything now is Lumberto Campbell, presidential delegate for the Caribbean. He was the obvious choice for Ortega to send to coordinate everything, not so much because he is the coast’s only Sandinista comandante from the insurrection period and an Ortega confident, but because he ran the southern coast region during the eighties and thus has firsthand hurricane experience due to Joan, which flattened Bluefields in 1988. Now that the initial emergency is passing, major challenges lie ahead for Yatama, the FSLN, and their alliance.
Only withCentralism and sectarianism in a country like Nicaragua translate into inefficiency. From the outset, the Ortega-Murillo government has prioritized unconditional political loyalty over technical preparation and professional capacity when appointing officials at all levels. It goes without saying that this is having repercussions on the public institutions’ ability to respond to daily routine much less efficiently implement inherited projects or its own new ones.
The coast tragedy demands agility, creativity and an enormous professional capacity of the government, not only to send and distribute humanitarian aid—a task that could go on for many months—but also to turn this tragedy into an opportunity for change. Isn’t that what we should expect of a government that calls itself “revolutionary.”
With coast energiesThe revolutionary response wouldn’t be to get things back to the way they were “before” the hurricane but to jointly design a different “afterward” with the coast people, based on their own culture and in harmony with their own energies, which are not as passive, disorganized or dispersed as mestizos from the Pacific tend to think. Charity handouts or Pacific notions of development—highways linking the two coasts and major infrastructure works—are not what the North Caribbean needs and is demanding after the tragedy it has been through. The revolutionary way is what Ché Guevara taught us: “We mustn’t approach the people and tell them ‘we came to give you the charity of our presence, teach you with our science and show you your errors.’ We must go with a humble spirit to learn in the great fount of wisdom which is the people.”
The government has estimated that rehabilitating the affected zone will cost $300 million. Requesting millions from the international community, it is banking on emergency humanitarian assistance—which, while necessary right now, fosters an aid-dependent culture—and major infrastructure investments, when what the Caribbean people want most is to be able to plant, fish and work again. They want seeds, equipment and tools. They want to organize themselves to reactivate their agriculture, fishing, lumber and commercial activities. They also want what they’ve always wanted: demarcation of their indigenous lands.
Many of the famous Miskitu piki-nera women (the word comes from picking, and refers to the women who shuttled back and forth between the Keys and Bilwi buying the catch of small-scale fishing operations and peddling basic products, clothes and many other things throughout the zone) died in the Keys, leaving hundreds of children orphaned. Even in the middle of such grief, the first thing the surviving pikineras requested of the local NGO called Pana-Pana were loans of up to 15,000 córdobas, confident that they would be able to successfully renew their activity right away in Prinza-polka.
The vast and sustained investment the coast needs to rehabilitate what it had before the hurricane and build a different future compromises the government’s social plans, reduces its resources and cries out for a change of policy. What is needed is less centralism, more inclusion and more efficiency in a policy more committed to generate consensus “with a humble spirit to learn.”
So much painOn September 25, 20 days after the hurricane, President Ortega was due to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. He called a meeting in Managua two days earlier to get the latest report on the damages caused by the hurricane, pledging to be a mouth-piece for the coast people in the UN, arguing that Felix had caused “the greatest environmental catastrophe Nicaragua has ever suffered.”
in one brief minute
The RAAN’s human and environmental tragedy meshed perfectly with the central issue of this year’s UN General Assembly session: climate change. Experts say that this change, which is producing global warming, explains the increased violence and abundance of hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea. Both the capitalist and socialist development models over the past two centuries have actively contributed to this now rapidly accelerating climate change and politicians of both Right and Left still sadly lack a environmentally informed perspective.
In this context, President Ortega could have represented Nicaragua with a strategic message. The fact that he didn’t do so is only one reason his speech to the General Assembly was jolting and disappointing. Wanting to reclaim the position of a globally important leader ensured him by the Sandinista Revolution and the Cold War during the eighties, he overacted, altering words and gestures in an attempt to give scenic force to a poorly stitched together denunciation of global capitalism. With a confusing mental guide, Ortega tried to fit in too much and in the end failed to deliver anything.
Not a single one of the 3,426 words of Ortega’s 25-minute speech—which centered on heated criticism of the United States and ardent support for Cuba, Venezuela and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea—referred to what was happening in Nicaragua as a whole and only 184 mentioned what had happened in the Caribbean Coast. He used only one minute of a rambling speech to express the pain of a whole region.
His passionately aggressive diatribe against the privatizations, free trade agreements and transnational investments that characterize global capitalism didn’t quite ring true in Nicaragua. The FSLN that Ortega controls participated very consciously in the installation of that very model when its legislative bench was in the opposition. And Ortega himself switched on and off the grassroots protests against global capitalism according to convenience while he repeatedly negotiated quotas of power in the new business deals that global capitalism was creating. Now that he is administrating one of the countries most conditioned by global capitalism, his maneuvering room within the model he helped construct is virtually nil. The only thing left to him is empty rhetoric.
Faithfully following CAFTATwo examples in the same month as the hurricane clearly demonstrate the contradiction between the President’s rhetoric and his governmental administration. Barely a week after the tragedy, Ortega sent the National Assembly a Patent Law reform bill for fast-track approval. This legislation completely favors the transnational pharmaceutical companies to the detriment of generic medicines. Among the arguments for its approval, the President spotlighted that this reform is about “adjusting Nicaragua’s legislation to its commitments to CAFTA,” Central America’s free trade agreement with the United States.
The bill’s urgency was due to customary official indolence, but its content is another demonstration of the Ortega government’s limited capacity to revise and renegotiate much less reverse the terms of CAFTA. Faithful compliance with this capitalist treaty is part of Ortega’s agreement with the United States to maintain good relations. Rhetoric is all that’s left to the President.
That’s why his charged anti-imperialist speech in the UN got no rise out of the US delegation. After all, actions speak louder than words. Not even the US media took Ortega’s oratory seriously, in stark contrast to its treatment of other political figures in the South who are critical of US policies, such as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In her intervention in the National Assembly on the patents bill, Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) representative Mónica Baltodano spotlighted Ortega’s duality: “We remind the government legislators of the demagogy that your speeches in the international forums signify, speaking of 21st-century socialism and the need to build different relations among peoples, when it was your votes that permitted CAFTA to come into force.
“We charge that as a self-proclaimed leftist force you never promoted a debate to inform the Nicaraguan people of the negative effects that applying CAFTA would have on Nicara-gua’s future; rather, as this initiative shows, you continue promoting its application to the detriment of grassroots interests.”
No money for educationAnother example. Shortly before Ortega sent the 2008 budget bill to the Assembly on October 15, revealing the amount actually earmarked for education, Education Minister Miguel de Castilla was already reporting that there would no longer be $2.9 million for the school food program. The excuse was that the funds available for this program had been diverted to rehabilitate hurricane-wrecked schools in the RAAN. The minister lamented that “the school system will empty out because an immense number of children in the rural zones, even in Managua, go to school to eat more than to learn.”
Commenting on this news, economist Adolfo Acevedo, who heads the Civil Coordinator’s Economic Commission, pointed out that in the budget reform prepared by the government to respond to the post-hurricane emergency less than half of this year’s U$26.4 million tax collection increase (some $12.4 million) was earmarked for the devastated Caribbean. He also noted that there are over US$1.03 billion in gross international reserves in the Central Bank of Nicaragua and that it would only take 0.28% of those reserves to feed children who go to school to eat because there’s not enough to eat at home.
A question of prioritiesAnother fact: this month the Comptroller General’s Office finally released a resolution assigning administrative and penal responsibility to several officials from the previous two governments who were involved in issuing the controversial CENI bonds to cover the obligations of the fraud-induced bank collapses in 2000 and 2001. Of course this did not cover all or even the main figures actually behind that massive act of corruption. Undeterred, the Central Bank president confirmed that the government will continue honoring the burdensome domestic debt represented by these high-interest short-term bonds. Just in October, that will mean taking US$21 million out of the public treasury to pay the private banks that knew a good deal when they saw one.
Furthermore, Ortega’s economic adviser, Bayardo Arce, declared that the tax reform that would supposedly reorient the country’s extremely unjust tax system may not be reflected in the 2008 budget bill. “It would appear,” says Acevedo, “that the resource allocation priorities have not changed; they remain the same ones that were so criticized”—specifically by the FSLN during its electoral campaign and by President Ortega in the UN.
The education minister’s declarations also revealed his resignation to this scheme of priorities: “Keeping Nicaragua’s school system on its feet and thinking about the future of the country’s education costs a lot of money, and as far as I can see we don’t have the economic possibility of dealing with such a challenge imposed on us by poverty.”
Without prioritizing education from an ethical vision of justice and as a sustained long-term investment, Nicaragua will never get anywhere, no matter how many “zero hunger” and “zero usury” programs the government organizes, particularly because those programs will never amount to anything more than charity handouts that make no structural dent in the widespread malnutrition and ignorance.
Without a long-term vision, the Caribbean Coast will never break out of its historical abandonment, revealed to the country and the world by the hurricane. Maybe exposing pre-existing social tragedies is at least one positive effect of these kinds of natural disasters.
Ortega’s personal emergency: At times, the magnitude of these events serves to unleash political changes, hopefully but not always positive ones. The Somoza regime responded to the devastating 1972 Managua earthquake with looting and greed, but that in turn gave a huge push to the process that put an end to that dictatorship. The Alemán government responded irresponsibly, opportunistically and corruptly with the international aid that flooded in after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but in that case it consolidated the process that led to the perfidious pact with the FSLN, with all the negative consequences now burdening us. How will the Ortega government respond to Hurricane Felix and what will be the outcome?
A parliamentary system
The first signs are that the priority in the coming months won’t be the coast, but Ortega’s project to remain in power. That’s his real emergency. After returning from the United Nations, he attended a formal meeting of the World Courts of Justice held in Mana-gua—once again giving convicted money launderer Arnoldo Alemán a front-row seat, oblivious to the national and international embarrassment this caused. After greeting him, the President announced his goal of changing the country’s strongly presidential system for a parliamentary one.
In those same days, Supreme Electoral Council Magistrate René Herrera, who has a lot of influence on Arnoldo Alemán, announced that a sector of the PLC was negotiating constitutional reforms with the FSLN to transform Nicara-gua’s system of government. As all constitutional-rank legislation must be passed in two separate legislative sessions, these reforms would most likely be voted on in December 2007 then again as soon as the new session opens in January. There is no question of the reform not going through given that Ortega and Alemán control enough votes between them to pass any legislation they agree to, even consti-tutional reforms, which require a 60% majority.
FSLN functionaries immediately began coming out in favor of “direct democracy,” a term often used by Ortega for a parliamentary system. For his part, Alemán first talked about the need for a parliamentary system months ago, arguing that it would “deepen democracy.” People opposed to this change are convinced that a system in which only the legislative branch would be elected directly then the majority party would choose the country’s prime minister reflects nothing more than Ortega’s desire to be prime minister indefinitely, or at most alternate with his partner Alemán. As things stand now, he is constitutionally prohibited from running for consecutive reelection. Even analysts who are trying to keep an open mind are distressed that there is no talk of a period of debate about the pros and cons of this proposed new system much less of calling a referendum on it.
The announcement of the reforms monopolized the attention of the entire political class and hastened the announcement in Managua on October 4 of a “new” coalition opposed to Ortega’s intended “dictatorship” and that will oppose the PLC as well, if Alemán doesn’t relinquish his control of it. While it is not yet clear what parties have definitively signed on, the coalition does at least have a name: the Grand Unity of Democratic Forces.
Does it want to be there?The majority of Nicaraguans live in misery today. And the tragedy in the northeast quarter of the country creates a dramatic new situation. Even without it Nicaragua faces great risks in this complex new century. We need governments that can think and act with a sense of urgency, with the seriousness and social sensibility demanded by the magnitude of our problems and weaknesses.
Nicaragua must not be used by anyone, including the presidential pair, as the backdrop for a personal political project, especially when it contradicts common sense and the country’s needs.
In his address to the World Courts of Justice, Ortega interpreted his 2006 electoral victory, with barely 38% of the popular vote, as a definitive referendum legitimating any change, any project he decides to embark on. Since January, he has been using this minority presidential “mandate” to construct a national and international image that is totally incongruent with either his capacities or the needs of the country he represents.
It is universally accepted—even by those who adulate him—that Daniel Ortega has an immense debt to the country that he now has the opportunity to serve. The best way to work on his image is to begin paying that debt. Will he want to go there?