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  Number 330 | Enero 2009
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Nicaragua

The Lessons of Mitch: Learned, Not Learned and Unlearned

Ten years after Hurricane Mitch, we returned to the places we visited back then and looked again at all the reports of efforts to respond to that disaster. This article summarizes that enterprise, which led to this conclusion: a long road is still ahead if we are to change our mindset and our political environment.

José Luis Rocha

To mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Mitch, the lucid and biting Nicaraguan caricaturist Pedro Molina drew two parallel sketches of the same family perched atop a house surrounded by flood waters. In both pictures the family made the same exclamation: “We must prepare ourselves so this never happens to us again!” One sketch was dated October 1998 and the other October 2008.

With this in mind and having before me the lessons learned in other latitudes, I reviewed what we didn’t learn from Mitch, what we didn’t unlearn and all the sensible, useful things we did unlearn through haste and bad judgment. We didn’t learn because reflections on the issue tend to be very stereotyped, centered on the weakness of the state and technical deficiencies. The universe of the learnable is thus reduced to the very narrow circle of the politically innocuous. We didn’t unlearn because it’s very difficult to eradicate customs that are deeply rooted or linked to the interests of dominant groups. And we unlearned because forced to imitate what isn’t understood, to reproduce something whose logic is unknown, to transplant projects from temperate climates to tropical ovens and to feign acceptance of things we never thought about applying for a split second, we accepted funds and signed agreements while telling ourselves we’d say yes but wouldn’t comply. The black hole of everything we badly imitated, failed to adapt and didn’t even try swallowed up many lessons that appeared to have been learned.

A “revolution of opportunities”

Rehabilitation and reconstruction processes are guided by political interests as well as humanitarian impulses. All involved are political actors trying to promote and influence change in the turbulent river—the changing environment—of monumental flows of soft financial aid, technical assistance, debt cancellation and the opening of new state and nongovernmental dependencies. The actors and the environment gel into different transformations in each disaster and gradually combine their organizational development with the unfolding of their interventions. Let’s leave to one side what goes on in the case of international agencies. In the national arena, Mitch was a “revolution of opportunities” that was very different from the 1972 Managua earthquake, but of no less interest to some.

In the case of NGOs, the availability of funds, consensus among the NGOs in their opposition to the government of Arnoldo Alemán, their proposals on the foreign debt and the reconstruction operations gelled into the creation of the Civil Coordinator, a network of NGOs whose whole was certainly always greater than the sum of its ever diminishing parts. The Civil Coordinator became a political actor with a resonating, thunderous voice in world forums at decibels never dreamed of by even its most prominent promoters. The first two leaders of the Civil Coordinator were constantly in the media and their opinion was—if not always heeded—at least attentively or hostilely listened to.

The irresistible rise of the NGOs

Generally speaking, Mitch was a watershed with respect to the political projection of NGOs in Nicaragua. With a conglomerate of officials with predominantly Sandinista roots, many of them professionals who had made a career in the public sector during the eighties and established the contacts they later cultivated, the NGOs emerged to fill the potholes in social policy left by the state’s retreat during the neoliberal era.

The post-Mitch aid multiplied and strengthened them. Fading NGOs were suddenly revitalized, while others changed their areas of specialization, turning their attention to more profitable issues. These conversions contained a bit of everything, including NGOs with specialized personnel and those who assumed specialties without a drop of previous knowledge. In summary, what was done post-Mitch was closely linked to the development of a part of civil society that aspired to join together as a decisive political sector.

On the other side of the political ring, then-President Arnoldo Alemán increased his political patronage to its maximum expression with the funds that came in following Mitch. He strengthened his links with the Catholic Church hierarchy, paid for tourist spins across Europe accompanied by half of his cabinet—family members included—under the pretext of participating in the Stockholm summit and rewarded his least scrupulous henchmen by diverting reconstruction funds to help them achieve personal opulence. The most shameless example of the latter was the construction of the beach house of Alemán’s tax division director, the now subterranean Byron Jerez. And he sought to cement his legitimacy through Nicaragua’s entry into the Highly-Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. The abuses committed with the reconstruction funds were the massive trunk that broke the back of a camel already bowed under enormous loads of corruption. Even international cooperation could not help but see and condemn it. Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín documented and denounced it and sent it to court, which landed him, not the perpetrators, in jail as a result of the then embryonic FSLN-PLC pact. At the time the Civil Coordinator was his most solid champion. How and why Jarquín later betrayed his cause and those who risked themselves to defend him is another story. What is relevant here is the confrontation that the post-Mitch funds generated between the Alemán government and the NGOs, and subsequently with international cooperation.

The NGOs’ justified leadership role

Alemán’s confrontation with international cooperation confirmed the NGOs as more legitimate and credible interlocutors with international cooperation. And the NGOs became the Alemán administration’s most blazing enemies, easily outdoing the FSLN, which eventually turned into a tactical ally and strategic subordinator. The post-Mitch reconstruction and some of its consequences can only be understood in this context.

It would, for example, be impossible to understand why the natural disasters law and other similar laws always included participation by civil society, or why the funds channeled through the state shrank and those channeled through NGOs increased at the same time. It was through such changes that foreign cooperation brought its power to bear.

The positive consequence was to strengthen and vastly project the voice of a sector that included professionals with strong social sensitivity and competence. The negative consequence was that civil society—at least the part that mattered to international cooperation and the most media-oriented part—was generally limited to NGOs. This spotlight on the NGOs left the following off the agenda, out of camera shot and beyond the reach of financial resources; the media, particularly on the issue of perceptions of natural disasters; teachers’ unions, with their influence on new generations; other unions, weak and thus in more need of a jump start: and other social organizations that also had something to say.

The possibility of receiving funds was linked more than ever to language skills and management styles. Those organizations with professionals capable of formulating projects would be rewarded, while trade associations and movements less adept at drawing up logical frameworks were left sitting on the banks of the great river of dollars that international solidarity generously poured into the country. It is just as bad for NGOs to be made invisible as for their leadership to overshadow other, more numerous sectors with whose interests they only partially coincide.

When the political arm
twists the administrative one

Mitch also had another important effect in the national sphere, one derived from the cysts of political culture and perceptible in the relationship between the parties’ political arm and the state’s administrative-technocratic arm. Those states that function best have career bureaucrats who earn their posts according to professional competence. Even in countries viewed as not very developed, such as China, applications for public sector posts have for many decades been strewn with exams and other tests. This approach gives the administrative-technocratic arm a greater chance of functioning independently. But in banana republic-style countries, posts are assigned according to the logic of nepotism, patronage and the personal whim of leaders, ignoring the candidates’ lack of suitability.

Political analyst León Núñez described this situation very well when observing that public officials in Nicaragua receive posts like someone who gets a farm to administer: they end up feeling like the owners and are disposed to ruthlessly exploit the post granted to them by their caudillo. In this case, the administrative-technocratic arm and the party arm either get confused and become a single whole, or the former is subordinated to the latter. Nicaragua has had a mixture of both models. The unrestrained application of the second model, without any influence from the first one, would lead to a debacle in any state. The Alemán administration was full of noted professionals who kowtowed to the big boss and even accompanied him in his jacuzzi. Men such as Mario de Franco, Iván Escobar Fornos and José Antonio Alvarado had enviable professional careers, and they weren’t the only ones; nor were they the only ones to display unrestrained servility.

In 1997, Arnoldo Alemán named Claudio Gutiérrez as director of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER), which was the main authority for managing natural disasters. Gutiérrez was a professional whose capacity was indisputable, and in fact he ended up presiding over the Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America. But his record took a dent when he paid the price for taking the helm at INETER. First, he minimized the magnitude of Hurricane Mitch, irresponsibly pandering to the interests of the executive branch, which wanted to present Nicaragua as an attractive country for foreign investment and the future breadbasket of Central America. Then he allowed the gerrymandering of the capital into three new municipalities to exclude from central Managua the home of the main opponent of his boss’ political party, thus making the opponent ineligible to run for mayor of that most hotly disputed municipality.

In addition to damaging Gutiérrez’s prestige, these incidents also tarnished INETER’s intangible assets. It’s hard to calculate how much the institution lost in funds, technical support and leadership, but its decline can be measured in Law 337 on natural disasters, passed in 2000, which reduces INETER’s role to monitoring disasters and gives the responsibility for declaring alerts to a recently-created committee. It could even be that the imbalances in institutional coordination during Hurricane Felix, which devastated Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean region in 2007, are associated—even if only partially—with the discrediting of an INETER fatally converted into a weapon for shooting down political rivals. The governors did not unlearn the vice of twisting the administrative arm with the political one. And all new hurricane victims paid the price.

The relevance and new powers of local leaders

National vices are projected on the local level: the screen is smaller and not all of the image fits; the first row almost touches the screen and some spectators can even see the pores on the actors’ faces; the seats are closer, you can smell your neighbors and reactions spread quickly; the film snaps; and the projected spectacle mixes more with the everyday one. All of this makes the effects of both the vices and virtues more audible, visible and tangible, more pedestrian. Unfortunately, the connections that transcend the local sphere are frequently hidden.

On the small scale of municipalities, rural districts and communities, the mayors and other local leaders achieved greater relevance following Mitch. This was partly because some grew as leaders of NGOs that were financially and technically strengthened with reconstruction resources and partly because many municipalities received more international aid and the new municipalities law turned decentralization into the transfer of responsibilities accompanied by a transfusion of funds.

Mitch turned many mayors into local heroes, in some cases perhaps to an extent that didn’t really correspond to the real successes of their administration. It created a “special time” administration that exceeded the “real time” one. Real time puts a municipality’s imagination and skills to the test. Special time creates additional problems, putting its competency and probity to the test, but at the same time it can greatly facilitate its work. Funds arrive by the cartload and with fewer strings attached; technicians from the departmental capitals follow the smell of the money and the works multiply and cover areas outside the municipal government’s customary obligations, thus providing more future votes, etc.

The Posoltega mayor’s office filled up with technicians from León, the nearest departmental capital, famed as a university city. As happens almost everywhere in the country, a large number of those who get a degree in León end up migrating to Managua, the big metropolis. Only a financial cataclysm—the post-Mitch aid—allowed professional city dwellers from León to migrate to a rural municipal capital in the middle of nowhere like Posoltega.

Posoltega was not the only case. The Ocotal municipal government received support from a Spaniard and extensive personnel from Managua, which increased even more with support from the United Nations Development Programme. Later, the Municipal Technical Units created by the World Bank and support from the Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE) gave rise to a sort of enclave technocracy, with professionals nominally working for the municipal government but with guidelines imposed from outside and salaries much higher than those of their local colleagues. In many municipal governments, independent offices were built for this handful of intellectual elites. To provide them a familiar atmosphere, computers and air conditioners came to communities where they were as fantastical as a flying car.

Elites or not, they were subordinated to the mayors and in some way their presence helped bolster the power of some of their bosses. The mayors mimicked the vices of the national caudillos, with reelection a very tantalizing option. Some gave a foretaste of what their bosses would do later, turning, or fighting to turn, their wives into their successors. Those unable to get back into office or place their wives in the vacant post, founded NGOs using the skills and contacts acquired during the post-Mitch period, reproducing what many of their party colleagues had done in the early nineties.

Some found doors opening to them that they never even glimpsed before in their lowly party positions. The National Assembly opened up to former Posoltega mayor, Felícitas Zeledón, who had catapulted to fame for her fierce publicizing of the Casita volcano tragedy, denouncing both President Alemán’s criminal underestimation of the damage caused by the mudslide and INETER’s negligence.

Local funnels of power

Following the thread of local projections of the great national super-production of political culture, we’ll take up those who imitated the higher-ups in their parties. This group includes mayors and leaders of the community microcosms. Over a decade ago, sociologists from the Nitlapán Institute coined the expression “local funnels of power” to refer to rural district and community leaders who accessed determining posts for the distribution of local resources—church aid; job offers and in kind and cash benefits from NGOs; micro-financing loans—to construct a patronage network in which they distributed and redistributed, allotting themselves the largest share.

Local funnels of power are not necessarily “damaging” individuals. They often have many virtues: emancipated women with a gift for words; skillful jacks of all trades who know carpentry, masonry, cabinetmaking, plumbing, etc; housewives with a bent for accounts and a notable capacity for synthesis; peasants with a complex cosmovision that transcends the straitjacket of everyday life. Their skills place them in a prominent situation and they end up hired by NGOs, municipal governments and parish priests seeking skillful or trainable and sharp interlocutors or counterparts. But moving to the beat of the local culture, they often extract juicy benefits from their talents and position and block the development of young leaders whom they fear could later eclipse them. When that happens, they are no more than a dominant group impeding the unfolding of the whole community’s potential.

The post-Mitch aid solidified such leaderships. In Wiwilí, Puerto Morazán and certain communities of Posoltega, the leaders traded in the aid and allocation of tasks in the food-for-work programs. The cooperation agencies have been aware of these indiscretions and highlighted them in their evaluations, but they haven’t been able to record them all or to come up with a solution, which usually ends up in the mechanisms of the social audit.

Land accumulation slipped
through the oversight net

Let’s look at an example. Following the mudslide, the Alemán government declared the slopes of the Casita volcano both a national monument and areas of risk, two good reasons for prohibiting people from cultivating or living on them. The government’s decision may have calculated the return of some of the farms on those slopes to their former owners, from whom they had been confiscated by the Sandinista government in the eighties, thus providing a happy ending for the elites in this particularly long-running Nicaraguan land conflict. And in fact, while a quick glance at the municipal government records shows no recorded sales, in reality there has been a trade in land whose full extent we couldn’t determine. Purchase and sale contracts have been drawn up in the lawyer’s offices nearest at hand—in Posoltega, León, Chinandega, Chichigalpa, Telica and other municipal capitals. The information is dispersed, but the former owners of the land keep an eye on the situation and pass information from mouth to mouth. Does the mayor’s office really not know what’s going on? That depends on what you understand by mayor’s office. All the officials know that one of the main buyers has been one of the funnels of local power: the last mayor of Posoltega, institutionally the person responsible for overseeing compliance with the prohibition, but who was soon using municipal machinery to build local roads to connect his new plots of land with the points of commerce and thus increase the value of the properties. “The person who has bought the most land over there is the mayor,” one of the Posoltega municipal functionaries whispered to me. Mayor turned farmer and then road builder: a classic example of the revolution of opportunities.

Where there’s a land-buying leader, there must also be a land-selling one. And in this case the one who sinned for the money is more guilty than the one who sinned by paying for the land. The land title deeds of the Rolando Rodríguez cooperative are in the hands of its legal representative, Pablo Isaac Pérez Albenda, the only person in whose name all the documents have been made out, according to the municipal land registry. The cooperative has two farms: Santa Narcisa, entered on February 4, 1982, in tome 152, folio 33, and located in the El Ojochal rural district; and El Socorro, located in San José del Tololar and entered in tome 270, folio 194-197. The former has a cadastral value of 1,551,157 córdobas (about US$77,500) and the latter is valued at 2,138,628 córdobas (about US$107,000). The legal representative of the many partners in the cooperative has made a good profit “selling and renting the lands of the dead.” This clever leader, whom the cooperative members trusted to the point of putting their lands under his name, made a killing without any organization controlling—through social, fiscal, legal or any other kind of audits—his freedom to do as he pleased with plots belonging to both himself and others. The funnel channeled so much off because the international agencies, NGOs, municipal government and other entities were more interested in auditing their meager sums of moneys. They shifted out bits of straw, allowing the enormous beam of wood that was the land issue, the great axis of accumulation, to go unnoticed.

Some with and some without land

The funnels of local power also bared their claws wherever they could in the housing projects and post-Mitch distribution of goods. In Posoltega the situation varies a lot from one settlement project to another. The communities of Santa María and El Tanque, for example, ended up in very different situations, despite being neighboring communities with families of similar origins and having very similar lands.

The community of Santa María didn’t receive much land. The plots on which the houses were located have barely enough room for a place to wash clothes and a couple of trees. But the cooperative was supplied with tractors, trucks, sewing machines, irrigation pipes, fumigation spray-tanks and many other articles. The benefactors’ logic is curious: they didn’t invest in land, but did invest in instruments and machines for working it. Under those circumstances, how long does it take for the equipment to rust and become glorified scrapmetal? Santa María’s inhabitants openly complain that the leaders of the Association of Survivors of El Casita sold off cheap all the gifts that foreign cooperation gave the community.

In El Tanque, meanwhile, each family was given a plot of just over a hectare of land, plus areas to be collectively worked. The land is producing and for the most part is still in the hands of the same owners. Persistent supervision and assignation of the good most in demand—land—were the basic components behind this successful experience. Have we learned the lesson, or will it go back into the enormous sack of lessons unlearned?

A good project that collapsed in Ocotal

In Ocotal we discovered one lesson that was definitely unlearned. This municipality stood out in the post-Mitch period as having one of the best housing experiences. The mayor skillfully surrounded herself with a group of professionals who directed the most interesting housing project in the country: houses built of adobe bricks made from local materials, a very comfortable house model and a determined number of working hours to be put in by the beneficiaries to qualify for the right to a house. The mayor’s project stole a march on many other housing projects being implemented at the time, but unfortunately the professional team could not stay to see the work through to the end or answer for its results. Without such supervision, many anomalies cropped up that were only detected years later.

Today large cracks can be seen next to the main beams in many houses, which are in danger of caving in on the inhabitants. And if that wasn’t enough, the construction took so long that the municipal administration changed before many houses were formally assigned. The new administrators refused to hand over the houses claiming the potential beneficiaries had not complied with the required number of working hours to earn the right of possession. According to some of the hurricane victims, hundreds of tricks were used to deprive them of their houses. However true that is, everything suggests sloppiness in recording the number of hours worked.

Last but not least, the change of administration also ruined one of the most positive and sustainable collateral effects of the project: the adobe factory, which was to have been a source of work for many hurricane victims. Ten years ago, during envío’s field study to report on the various reconstruction initiatives, few seemed as promising to us as the Ocotal housing project, which we highlighted in glowing terms. But once bereft of advice and stimulation, the owner/workers fell into anarchy and the factory collapsed. The production of quality adobe bricks in Ocotal would have resolved the problem of various houses being built with terrible materials, such as adobe bricks with plastic bottles, cans and bits of glass visible among the mud mass that forms the basis of the bricks. It’s not just that such articles are of dubious esthetic virtues. More importantly, they deprive the bricks of the required consistency and they soon get deformed, particularly those at the bottom of a wall. That’s why there are so many twisted and sagging houses, with uneven rows, containing some thick, healthy bricks and others crushed by the weight of the rows above.

Another lesson badly learned or ignored was that lack of clarity fuels a feeling of uncertainty, undermining the best intentions and the project’s social validation. And one vice not unlearned was the inclination of new administrations to discontinue their predecessor’s projects, or let them continue neglected and heading toward entropy. Recently-arrived officials always want to leave their own mark starting from zero, which often results in reducing to zero works already in progress.

infantizing guardianships

Another vice not unlearned, the flip side of the one just above, is the overriding need for continuous guidance from a guardian figure to ensure things come to a good end, or at least don’t end in failure. The guiding line of international advice and supervision at the beginning, middle and end of projects appears to be an essential element in the project-oriented culture that dominates us. Some years ago development cooperation rhetoric insisted on concepts such as “endogenous.” In reality, talking about starting or promoting “endogenous” initiatives was revealed to be what in fact it was: a contradiction in terms. With a little more modesty, cooperation workers lowered their expectations and started talking about “appropriation” of projects by their beneficiaries, while in the case of microcredit they used the term “hot money” for that lent in communities where the inhabitants have added part of their savings to the microfinance portfolio.

But once the management ethos and language saturated the discourse and practices of development cooperation, efficiency, efficacy, sustainability and financial equilibrium displaced appropriation as the latest criteria; and democratizing aspirations were restricted to the search for equity and participation, an ambiguous term that could just as well refer to promoters who emerged from the masses as to the modest right to offer an opinion on the design of one’s house, on local financing policies or on the dose of soya in a school breakfast. The evolution of development cooperation’s programmatic modes has not moved towards shaking off infantizing guardianships.

The enormous challenges
of housing reconstruction

Reconstruction processes are rife with challenges, although most people involved are unaware of them. It would be impossible to carefully summarize or explain them all, partly because of all the gaps even among the best informed—on whose documents I’m basing my observations—and partly for reasons of space.

I’ll limit myself to mentioning a few, formulated more as questions than recipes, starting with the typical lack of a list of potential beneficiaries. How does one draw up such a list? With information from the local power funnels? If so, how do you avoid patronage? With the help of parish priests and parishoners, giving another kick in the teeth to the secular state? If we resort to independent lay experts, how do we technically determine who needs a new house? To what extent does the previous house have to have been damaged? What houses can be classified as uninhabitable in a context in which housing materials and designs were already very poor even before the natural disaster struck? Is there nothing to be done other than cynically accept that disasters and the aid that follows are an opportunity to improve certain aspects of the living conditions of a country’s marginalized sectors? This leads us to the dilemma of whether aid is a kind of “solidarity charity” or compensation to those who paid the price of a horrendous holocaust.

And must the houses be safe or decent, above all? What’s the right balance, according to the available resources? I remember a pair of Swiss anthropologists, lecturers from Zurich University, who visited the housing project being implemented by the María Elena Cuadra Movement in Posoltega. They were scandalized by the “sumptuousness” of houses that weren’t even plastered or painted. The dimensions, materials and design made these houses ten times more expensive than those in neighboring projects. The Swiss women argued that they were suitable for urban middle classes, that peasants didn’t need such a design because it wasn’t adapted to their life style. Does their life style have to be static? The most admirable thing about that design—unique in the area—was that it was divided into three rooms, allowing “the peasants” a degree of conjugal privacy and a distribution of bedrooms by sex.

Due to limited competition in the construction market, there aren’t many opportunities in Nicaragua for the emergence of novel designs removed from what are conceived as peasant houses. Municipal governments are forced to contract the same companies over and over again, even when they build highways with a thin layer of asphalt that develops potholes with the first downpour of the rainy season. The services provided by consultants and contractors are poor, further complicated by the lack of human resources for any kind of work, be it management, architecture, agricultural extension, organizing, etc.

Relocate them or leave them where they are?

The issue of where to locate the settlements for reconstruction project beneficiaries includes many thorny problems. The main one is the escalation of land prices produced when agencies or the victims themselves seek land for the relocation. But that’s preceded by an even greater problem: the disjunctive of whether to relocate or stay where they are. This has been answered in recent years employing a conjunctive: stay where they are and readapt. Given the proliferation of risks, unless the habitat is extremely inhospitable, certain cooperation agencies presume that families and communities can adapt to environments that are apparently hostile and even disaster prone. It is assumed that the risk mitigation and disaster prevention measures will act as a buffer against the pounding of nature, but the jury is still out on that one.

The dilemma persists for those who don’t share the assumption, and becomes even more complicated with the issue of who decided whether to stay or relocate and when and how to construct: the affected community? Technocrats? Politicians? The land markets? Cooperation workers? The church in its divine wisdom? The answer is best found in the context. In practice, the real possibilities of the affected community deciding are conditioned by political and economic factors. In Ocotal, Posoltega, Somotillo and Wiwilí, the when, how and where of the reconstruction were entirely defined by land availability; the speculators’ appetite, in turn conditioned by the former point; the bureaucracy’s sloth; and the international agencies’ eagerness to negotiate, pressure and disburse.

Implacable time

All of the post-Mitch housing projects took months to get under way. Despite being the center of international attention, not a grain of sand or a sack of cement was yet to be found in Posoltega six months after the disaster. In some cases the delay was due to agency bureaucracy, in others to the spurious interests of Alemán’s top leadership, which wanted to take over the El Tanque lands. In yet others, it was the unrestrained venality of the landowners, who went out of their way to exploit the situation. Relocation was imperative because the government had declared the affected area a national monument.

In the case of urban Ocotal, relocating was quite simply a condition imposed by a municipal government anxious to introduce a minimum level of urban planning. But almost a year after the hurricane, none of the houses in the municipal project were finished and occupied. The funds came in dribs and drabs, the tardiness of the National Water and Sewerage Company delayed the planned finalization of the housing projects and the idea of building with local materials turned out to be very expensive due to the advisory personnel: in cost terms, local materials and imported personnel are factors that push in opposing directions. The difficulty involved in balancing prices and quality, which requires well-paid personnel, becomes even harder with the massive drain of brains and skilled labor to Managua and, in recent years, to Costa Rica, the United States, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Time is another important factor. Keeping communities revolving around a housing project—no matter how commendable—for over a year economically undermines the communities and even the municipalities. Food-for-work or housing-for-work programs don’t compensate the lost opportunity costs involved in reconstructing the productive and commercial fabric. The delays are frequently due to disagreements among different organizations that have to provide the minimum infrastructure or grant their approval.

When does someone stop being a victim?

Whatever the reason, the delay’s effect is always the same: it prolongs the reconstruction/rehabilitation process, another vice never unlearned that has the effect of freezing the victims in time and raising the tricky question of when they stop being victims. In Nicaragua the victims of flooding, displacement by war and many other disasters have preserved their status as victims for decades, turning it into a primordial identity trait that generates paralysis. Such individuals survived to be a victim and live off being a victim, a label that absorbs and redefines all their other features.

In many cultures, grieving—sometimes for a one-year period with the obligation of dressing in black—has the advantage of delimiting the period for venting one’s sorrow, defining a beginning and end. The political economy of foreign cooperation has engendered the possibility of turning people into perpetual victims. As long as they are victims they don’t look to reincorporate themselves into the existing productive and commercial circuits. Their grief isn’t processed. The shell of perpetual victimhood has to be broken by constructing intermediate steps towards productive insertion and emotional health, a process that requires a lot of psychosocial work and organizational agility. This was a lesson learned in certain places and not even mentioned in others.

So what did work?

So far I’ve written about the badly learned, the bad things not unlearned and the good things ignored or not learned. I’ve recorded therm here lest we forget. But the hurricane didn’t just leave behind tares and husks. Many programs did work in Mitch-affected Central America. The following is an incomplete list of what worked and mustn’t be forgotten: the participation of beneficiaries; the existence of counterparts that conspired with the beneficiaries and kept their own private interests reduced to a minimum expression; transparency; equity; the redirecting of grief; putting a quick stop to the idea of being “aided” and moving on to self-recovery; the creation of mechanisms to involve victims in their own reconstruction; the creation of communal reconstruction committees; discussion in these councils of on-site reconstruction as opposed to relocation (the former has the advantage of not requiring land purchases); third-party audits that included overseeing the funnels of local power; and lack of discrimination along party, gender or religious lines.

Among many other mechanisms, principles and policies, NGOs, communities, municipalities and international agencies have made the following innovations: the registering of houses in the name of the man and woman or the widow of deceased men; programs in which women are privileged beneficiaries; the creation of confidential complaint committees; education on citizens’ rights; the defining of legal and political mechanisms to assess houses not built in line with anti-seismic norms or in dangerous areas; appropriate treatment for people with disabilities or the elderly in reconstruction projects guided by the beneficiaries themselves; breaking the populist myth that the owners know about reconstruction in rural areas; letting only NGOs and foreign agencies with a recognized capacity to technically and administratively manage reconstruction projects participate in the reconstruction process; response to annual low-intensity disasters (whose accumulated number of victims is greater than in the big disasters, but aren’t seen as newsworthy); disbursements according to the work done; relying on an organizational network; audits of the quality of houses and the construction time; and a fluid interaction between agencies and beneficiary communities.

Roads and tremors

To give us some idea of the long road still ahead of us in Central America and Nicaragua, around a million people lose their houses every year in India despite the existence of a strong state that plays a very active role in disaster prevention and reconstruction. The length of the road we still have to travel will depend on our capacity to break pernicious habits, learn ever more lessons and reconfigure our corrupt socio-political environment. Until we do so, the words of the Honduran José Cecilio del Valle, one of the founders of Central America, will remain all too valid: “Politically as well as physically, America is the land of tremors.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central American (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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