The Politics of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua

(Editor's Note: This essay on the political, economic, and environmental causes of natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch by Alejandro Bendaña (, director of the Centro de Estudios Internacionales in Managua, Nicaragua was published on the internet in 1998, in different forms.)

By Alejandro Bendaña, Center for International Studies, Managua, Nicaragua

A hurricane or natural disaster hits two equally populated territories with the same force. Why is it that the human damage can be so much higher in one settlement than in another? And why does it take more time to recover in one than in the other?

The answer is essentially political. Hurricane Mitch is one of the many hurricanes that meander in the Caribbean this time of year. It wasn't even the strongest: indeed it was categorized as a tropical when it made land fall. Yet it hits the poorest part of Central America leaving thousands dead and inflicting devastating damage. More furious weather phenomena hit Florida or Cuba, but the human toll is minimal. Flooding in Honduras or Bangladesh takes a huge toll. An earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale shook up California in 1992 and one person died. A less intense earthquake in Managua left 15,000 victims. A typhoon in Bangladesh can signify half a million lives.

Lest we believe that Nature or God has an unjust neoliberal class bias, one would have to conclude poverty and bad government kills more than natural disasters. Some weeks earlier a hurricane swept across Cuba: again the human toll was minimal. The answer:more effective organization. Ten years ago Hurricane Joan crossed war-ravaged Nicaragua from East to West. Then even the most isolated communities along the Atlantic coast had sufficient warning and support for evacuation. There was ample warning from the weather service and Civil Defense about the possible consequences of Mitch -- yet less than eighty miles from Managua, entire villages and families were buried alive.

Nature can provoke disasters and so can human-created political structures. The difference is that the first is a calamity and the second is simply criminal. The criminality implicit in the absence of preventive organizations, alert communications went out and as government and civil society took to the task of preserving lives and property.

Limited institutional ability can be directly linked poverty and incompetent government, but it should not be divorced from dependency and insertion in international structures that spell impoverishment and rob people of their very right to life by depriving them, or their governmental structures, of the capacity to comply with the elementary responsibility to insure the safety of its citizens, indeed the right to life.

The Tragedy of Posoltega

The town of Posoltega lays buried under the mud. The US conqueror William Walker last century proclaimed himself President, burnt down the city of Granada leaving a sign behind saying, "This was Granada." Granada came back, but Posoltega will not. It may well be the Pompeii of the twentieth century. What will the future archeologist discover there? Men, women and children -- no discrimination who died holding on to each other, buried alive, all poor, with very little possessions, barely scratching a living of a landscape that is no longer recognizable. Yet far lest sumptuous than Pompeii because no wealthy lived in Posoltega, there were no palaces, just humble housing, often made of adobe -- mud -- that simply disintegrates when it comes into contact with water.

The people of Posoltega died primarily because they were poor and mostly destitute. Had they not, then they would not have been living there, would have migrated. Those in nearby agricultural settlements also died, forced to migrate on account of poverty and unfair land distribution, on account of an export-oriented economy that substituted cotton for orchards and forest, leaving the countryside barren. And once the prices of cotton collapsed on the international market never to rise again. So people took to settling on the slopes of volcanoes, sometimes ill advised by irresponsible externally funded agrarian projects, and what was worse, as in most of Nicaragua, took the ax to the timber for firewood -- they could not afford gas or kerosene kitchens -- leaving the mountain slope like a sled ever so ready to quicken instead of holding back earth displacements provoked by rains.

And we could tell a parallel story in regard to other parts of Nicaragua where swollen rivers took down houses and sometimes lives, of those that drowned trying to cross rivers, or even in Managua itself, of the thousands of poor who lived by the lake and were force to run for their lives.

This was a disaster foretold worthy of Garcia Marquez -- Cronica de Una Muerte Anunciada. The central government basically ignored the weather service and civil defense reports, it played down the first information stating this was a focalized phenomena with no serious national implications. Posoltega was buried four days after the heavy rain reached critical dimensions. Still President Aleman resisted the recommendations of many, including several ministers, to declare a state of national emergency and proceed with mass evacuation, displacement and rescue efforts. No he said, that is something the sandinistas would do, and he was no sandinista. But you did not have to be a Sandinista to know that many of United Nations System relief operations would not kick in without the such a legal declaration. Who was going to take the Nicaraguan plight seriously if the country's own President did not.

While the Presidents of Honduras declared the emergency and took to the media and international organizations to demand immediate attention and support, his Nicaraguan colleague just across the border played it all down, Aleman played meteorologist in front of television cameras assuring everyone that the little drizzle would soon pass. This was three days after Mitch assumed hurricane dimensions and some European cooperation agencies began pulling their people out of the risky areas. Even the "Weather Channel" was issuing serious warnings about what Aleman termed a "little excess rain." The heaviest rainfall took place on the 27th. The next day the Army reported that 30,000 were already displaced. Still the order for the state of alert was not issued for the national and international community, and to date there is no official state of emergency. A community flooded and bridges breaking down and still no state of alert. Only on the 30th four days after the deluge began was the National Emergency Committee set up giving to go ahead to national emergency planning. (1)

Still in the best of cases, let us assume greater sensitivity, efficiency and responsibility on the part of the government -- a big assumption indeed -- would it have been much different? We simply don't know, but one thing is for sure, with proper backing more people would have been battling to prevent the worse and today we would still be able to lift our heads with some pride and say we did our best. Instead we have to say that little was done properly, before during and after the disaster. Again we don't know for sure, although one could compare with Honduras official reaction.

The fault does not lie exclusively with Aleman. Nicaragua is a country that was ruined by war and then ruined again with excess debt payment and structural adjustment policies that drastically reduces the capacity of government to govern. Elementary basis of State presence -- such as civil defense structures, Police, fire brigades and clinics, not to mention minimally empowered municipal bodies -- simply either did not exist, or were woefully understaffed, undertrained and underpaid with little or no communication links with the capital or with central authorities. In Nicaragua 54 of the 143 municipalities are classified as highly vulnerable to flooding, but due to budget cuts only 37 of those 54 had an active Civil Defense set up.

Had it not been for people helping people through their own civic structures, everyone seemed to be running around either throwing their hands up or posing for cameras. As the New York Times reporter remarked, "Some countries work, some don't. This one doesn't."

There is some exaggeration in such a statement, but not much. The truth is that Nicaragua was working, but it was working for and within the neoliberal framework of irresponsible dismantlement of state institutional capacities, misguided spending limitations affecting civil defense and prevention structures. Cheap roads and cheap bridges fell apart quickly, so when hundreds were cut off and many were calling for help from tree tops and roofs, the government had a total of four Russian made military transport helicopters to its name. The Army -- that legacy to the Sandinista Revolution still hated by many right-wingers -- never looked so good. The Police, which in many communities represents the only state presence, did a heroic job, and they could have done much more but when their budget request was cut by two thirds, leaving Nicaragua a per capital basis one of the least policed countries in the world.

Why was the Police Budget cut, why was the Civil Defense budget request rejected? President Aleman was uncharacteristically honest in saying that his government was determined to comply at any cost with the Structural Adjustment Plan, building up the reserves mandated by the IMF, and slashing budgets on "non-essential" services. And why try so hard to comply with ESAF and even exceed banking requirements: the answer he said was HIPC: the prospect (illusion) of attaining early entry into HIPC and thus being able to use debt "relief" as a political trump card in the next election on behalf of his chosen successor. Small wonder that several international agencies had misgivings about turning over relief aid and distribution to government bodies.

Donors have long harbored serious doubts about the cronyism and corruption that characterizes the Nicaraguan central authorities. In effect, the first lots of relief had a way of finding themselves to Liberal party dominated structures while having strange difficulties reaching Sandinista municipal governments. The trouble however was that when Daniel Ortega loudly complained he simply reinforced the impression that party politics was in control -- his accusations may have been correct, but coming from a person with no moral authority then even the truth lacks credibility.

Aleman reacted to donor complaints by making yet two new political mistakes. The first was to turn over the distribution of relief supplies to the Catholic Church hierarchy. Now the Protestant community howled and complained their flock and churches were being discriminated. The joke in Managua was that there was only one thing left to do: and that was for Aleman to admit his incompetence and just simply turn over the Presidency to Cardinal Obando. Responding to the new furor, Aleman then invited Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party to form part of a National Reconstruction Committee. Ortega's acceptance would further confirm the popular cynicism that was already developing in terms of the new amoral power sharing agreement drawn up behind the back of the people and the needy. To her credit, former president Violeta Chamorro refused to join.

Relief vs. Rehabilitation

The costs associated with Mitch are staggering. Estimates of long-term damage are still preliminary -- no one can agree on figures in Both Honduras and Nicaragua -- but what is sure that is that the costs will be monumental and multiyear whose scale, according to the Washington Post, "almost defies the imagination". (2) Honduras may required new homes for an estimated 1.4 million people about 25 per cent of the population. Nicaragua needs about a million homes or about 20 per cent of the population. In addition there are catastrophic losses of crops that are the backbone of the economy. Thousands of workers are being dismissed. The government's response: creation of ten thousand temporary jobs with a weekly salary of US$ 9.00. (3)

Highly-publicized media images of the catastrophe jarred peoples and governments. One wonders what would have happended without the photographers and television crews. Bangladesh suffered huge floods but there was a hardly a blimp on television screens. The conservative weekly The Economist asked:

"Can it be right for the rich world's generosity to be so conditioned by what happens to occur within reach of its camera crews? And why only by this sort of horror, a dramatic, photogenic natural disaster or rarely, famine?" (4)

The truth was and is that a majority of Nicaraguans were already below the poverty line, like many in the so-called poor countries, barely surviving from day to day, victims of the structural and permanent hurricane that takes the form of joblessnes, extreme poverty, absence of health care, malnutrition producing over time more deaths (off camera) that the toll taken by a single flood.

So what of the generosity? Emergency assistance began to pour in -- even though President Aleman continues to state that there is enough food to go around. Does an ounce of prevention could have saved pounds of relief of "relief"? What stands out here is that prevention -- that is structurally addressing the man-made dimensions of disasters -- would be much more expensive than relief. Emergency assistance is much more congenial and "safe" than addressing the structural dimensions of the dimensions of national enfeeblement in the so-called Third World.

Take the United States. It responded sending some eight helicopters and about 70 million in supplies. During the 1980s the US spent 15 billion in waging war in Central America (half to destroy and enfeeble Nicaragua). Instead of eight helicopters Mr. Reagan then sent a full scale nuclear aircraft carriers and battle ships, while Congress approved some 100 million for the contras to wage war.

Official rationale tended to be ideological. The government deliberately played down the tragedy because it did not want to scare international investors, or give the Bretton Woods institutions that the country might fall into arrears. We know that neoliberal economics and politics kills -- that it takes the form of structural violence in the form of high infant mortality rates, malnourishment, denied rights to health and education, etc. Perhaps however we were never so aware of how macroeconomics mania entails giving Nature a free hand to commit a class discriminating genocide against the poor in poor countries. Nicaraguan debt payments are greater than half of all national revenues -- and sustaining the debt payments (primordial reason for being of SAPs) has meant that public agencies had to cut expenditures between 30 per cent and 90 per cent in real terms since 1994. After the hurricane, plans are underway in both countries to accelerate the pace and broaden the scope of privatization.

If one human being takes the life of another then this is punishable by law. But what about neoliberal economics, debt dependence and structural adjustment. True prevention begins with information and organization, but it does not end there: it also requires funding. As the bankers say, Who pays? How are we supposed to pay for the implementation of the minimal guidelines recommended by the United Nations (this is the International Decade for the Reduction of Natural Disasters) that call for the incorporation in development plans of strategies that include:

  • Exhaustive evaluation of risks, threats and vulnerabilities on a national basis in regard to potential natural disasters.
  • Carrying out programs and plans to to mitigate and alleviate suffering at the national and local level after a natural disaster with community participation and appropriation.
  • Access to international and national early warning systems with broad-based community education and awareness of what to do.

In terms of floods and landslides, just as important is a strong environmental and forestry protection program that could contain the savage deforestation suffered in Nicaragua's mountainous areas. Primitive slash and burn techniques and uncontrollable fires last summer took a huge toll on the forests. Satellite observation revealed that some 18,000 forest fires took place over the course of the dry season -- a figure that is greater than all the forest fires in all of Central America over the past eight years. Deprived of thick vegetation mountain slopes no longer hold back water but instead simply produce mud and mud slides, inundating plains, valleys and lower zones. Last summer alone there were more than 18,000 forest fires in Nicaragua -- sum greater than all of the rest of Central America and the sum of all forest fires in the last years. This means that rivers overflow create new tributaries overnight sweeping everything in its wake. For over 20 years however the warning of geographers and ecologists have been ignored by populations and governments that warned of the consequences of placing settlements in volcanic soils that although rich are also very susceptible to erosion and shifts. What this means is that what happened in Posoltega this year can take place next year or later in at least a dozen other mountain settlements. Little did campesinos know that when they tilled the soil they were also digging their own grave.

Something is dreadfully wrong when a rain precipitation of under 1,000 milimiters can create such havoc. And it is not "El Nino" or global climate change. The scope of the devastation is explained principally socio-ecological terms: the impact of impoverishment and the agro-ecological destruction that it helps generate leading to a situation where such rainfall leaves behind up to 2,500 dead, one million homeless and 40 per cent of the agrarian production in tatters.

Impoverishment in turn is the product of a development model that pays tribute abroad in the form of unfair terms of trade and declining prices for primary exports, in the form of mounting interest rates on the foreign debt, in the form of a highly regressive taxation system. An internal commercial system allows big merchants appropriate profits that in reality belong to the campesino producer. Liberalization means that most basic foodstuffs can be freely imported thereby affecting small farmer systems, while the industrial countries insist on protecting their own farmers, and even the Nicaraguan government goes out of its way to subsidize sugar production in the hands of the big commercial estates.

Structural Adjustment also means depriving campesinos of access to alternative credit schemes as state-owned banks are privatized and restrictions are clamped on development NGOs. Paying up to 10 per cent monthly interest rates, campesinos who are also driven to mountainside cultivation and forest destruction on account of the land reform reversal taking place under the Chamorro and Aleman governments. Land that is being handed back to Somoza era landbarons, particularly those who acquired U.S. citizenship and could count on US government backing and blackmail tactics. Under these conditions Nicaragua and other countries might as well live in a permanent state of emergency every time the rain appears to be excessive.

We know that countries and human beings are bled and that they pay in the form of historical transfer of resources from South to North. But where is justice, where is restitution, where is transformation -- where is the Jubilee? That is the question we must answer. We cannot control Nature but we can control governments and government dominated multilateral bodies.

Of course there are always those -- beginning with the neoliberals themselves -- that claim the Capital and Markets, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways and that this cannot be contested. But we also hear some voices -- sort of left neoliberals -- that say we must be "pragmatic" and deal with those "realities" of power as they stand. They contest the details and sometimes the manifestation of savage capitalism, but not the essence and root of the savagery itself. Help the poor because we cannot contest poverty? They say let us monitor the corporations, the governments, the multilateral bodies; we say let us transform them and, if need be, dismantle them and create people-centered as opposed to US/Corporate/Capital oriented instruments of power. What then about the systemic globalized mudslide that is burying the poor the world over?

Debt Cancellation for Who and How?

Or if we look at it in systemic terms we could calculate that all the assistance that has come to Nicaragua is about the equivalent of what we pay in twenty days in the servicing of the foreign debt. So far the US administration has been deaf to the please for debt relief or cancellation made by Jimmy Carter and the Central American presidents. Washington has pledged a total of 80 million for the region -- precisely the same amount that Nicaragua and Honduras would have to pay back in five weeks. Debt. According to Jubilee 2000 USA, "Unless it is canceled, this burden of debt -- which is essentially unpayable -- will make the effort at long term recovery a tragic failure. It's absolutely shameful that, especially after a disaster of this magnitude, we continue to demand repayment."

Compare this with the noble attitude assumed by Cuba. Itself a country going through difficulties, it wrote off some 50 million in debt -- something that neither Spain or Germany have done -- and sent medicines and offered to send doctors. The government rejected the latter, as it had also earlier sidelined the entire NGO community. The government simply has no right to reject such offers, and people were infuriated. It was less a demand for charity than for elemental responsibility and human sensitivity to the tens of thousands affected by the tragedy.

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. But when Jubilee Nicaragua some months ago squarely put the issue of cancellation on the public agenda, government officials and even some of debt monitoring friends laughed us off. Look whose laughing now when everybody from President Aleman, Cardinal Obando, Jimmy Carter and even George Bush starting talking of writing off or adjusting debt payments.

So now the question is not whether there should be debt cancellation but how. And here is where we part company, or we better do so. Government officials and business tycoons speak of cancellation by adjusting the Structural Adjustment straitjacket and the HIPC framework. The President of the Nicaraguan Central Bank stated on November 7 that the ESAF program could not be touched and that indeed the purpose of debt cancellation was to better allow the government to comply with ESAF. While in Managua, Mssr. Camdessus insisted on the same. But it is clear that structural adjustment programs, an integral part of the HIPC scheme, will continue to concentrate on macroeconomic stability at the expense of susbstantive poverty alleviation program possibilities. As Eurodad points out, "While debt relief could be accelerated under HIPC this does not change the fact of that "relief" will continue to be tied to adherence to a suicidal austerity program defined by the IMF."

The Nicaragua Jubilee Initiative believes that debt cancellation, if it is to lead to social alleviation then it must deal with processes of indebtment and impoverishment, and therefore entails an alternative to both SAPs and HIPC, and the neoliberal premises on which they are based. Debt cancellation for the rich, for sustainable capitalism, or debt cancellation for the poor, for sustainable justice, encompassing if demanded domestic debts. These are two very different political and social logic, while governments and even a few bankers will speak of debt cancellation or moratorium, with the very same breath they will demand no debt relief to the poor farmer or small businessperson that was wiped out.

We reject any logic that subordinates reconstruction to structural adjustment. SPAs, ESAF and HIPC -- or even debt cancellation itself -- will draw us away from the chief need and objective of poverty alleviation and social development. Debt cancellation, in this context, does not spell structural reform but rather sustained liberalization, privatization schemes, macro-economic neoliberal programs linked to generating maximum foreign exchange earnings for debt servicing to be resumed with little regard for community micro-economics.

For this reason Nicaragua Jubilee calls for debt cancellation with explicit links to the creation of a Reconstruction and Human Development Fund drawn from international donations and governmental redirecting in national counterpart funds derived from debt servicing. Unless we deal with the disaster that takes the form of neoliberal political and development model, including its ecological and social components, Nicaragua and other countries will remain "accidents" waiting to happen. Under these conditions, the only alternative open to Nicaraguan popular society is to demand the non-payment of the debt.

1."Mitch: huracn pol tico del Presidente," Confidencial (Managua), 8-14 de noviembre, 1998.
2."Mitch Costs Assessed as 'Staggering'," Washington Post, November 11, 1998.
3."Destruccion en el camps aumentara el desempleo," La Prensa, 12 de noviembre, 1998.
4."Debt Relief for Central America", The Economist, November 14th, 1998.
5.See interview with Jaime Incer in La Prensa (Managua), November 9, 1998.
6."El fondo monetario, ecologico y social del desastre," El Nuevo Diario, 10 de noviembre, 1998.