The Politics of Hurricanes Mitch (... and Lili)

By Alexander Cockburn*

There's nothing "natural" about the awful disaster of Hurricane Mitch. Those thousands of lives were lost to mud, water, hunger, disease though human agency. Hillsides dissolved and shanty towns vanished in the floodwaters because of economic and political policies, mostly imposed at the point of a gun.

If you want to pick a date when the fate of those thousands of poor people was sealed, it wasn't when Hurricane Mitch began to pick up speed off the coast of Honduras. It came forty-four years ago, in 1954, when the United Fruit Company, now renamed Chiquita Banana, prodded the CIA to take action against the moderately left government of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz had compulsorily purchased vast unused stretches of productive land held by Standard Fruit, and was planning to redistribute it to poor peasants.

A CIA-organized coup was not long coming. Guatemala entered its long night. Along with Arbenz vanished all prospect of land reform, not merely in Guatemala but throughout Central America. Instead, pressed most urgently by the Kennedy administration, came the so-called "export model" of development.

Through the next 30 years in Central America small peasants were pushed off their traditional holdings by local oligarchs flush with money and military equipment furnished by the United States. The peasants had no option but to migrate to forested hillsides too steep to be of interest to oligarchs and foreign companies who had seized the bottom lands. Year after year the peasants tried to ward off starvation, raising subsistence crops on slopes so extreme that sometimes, in photographs from El Salvador, one comes across a peasant working his land while tied to a stake, so he won't slip. In such manner the trees got cut down and the land worked and overworked, until a tropical storm would send the bare hillsides careening down in deadly mudslides.

Tens of thousands of other peasant families, forced off the good land, moved into Managua or Tegucigalpa or other towns and cities. The consequent shanty towns burgeoned along river banks, on precarious flood basins where at least the inhabitants had access to water. As with the degraded hillsides, these shanty towns were deathtraps, awaiting the inevitable.

There were plenty of auguries and warnings. In 1982 a mudslide on Monte Bello in El Salvador killed over a thousand displaced peasants who had moved there and deforested the mountain slopes to grow food and get fuel. In the mid-1980s the US Agency for International Development reported that across 5.5 million acres in Honduras, the soil was eroding at an average rate of 40 to 200 metric tons per acre a year. Geology and social displacement tell us the cause. In Honduras more than 75 per cent of the land has slopes greater than 25 per cent. The sharper slopes were all that the peasants were allowed to farm, though the terrain is entirely unsuited to agriculture.

At the time he was driven out by revolution, Anastasio Somoza, propped up for years by the United States, owned 20 per cent of Nicaragua's farm land. In El Salvador 2 per cent of the population held 60 per cent of the farm land. The Sandinistas who evicted Somoza promptly embarked on efforts to redistribute land to the peasants. Though such efforts were patchy, particularly in the north, their efforts to revive forests and to restore the integrity of the land won the Sandinistas international acclaim. Not for long. The United States put an end to all that, driving the Sandinistas into an increasingly desperate state of siege. In El Salvador and Honduras death squads cut down rural organizers.

So, for years now, those worn hillsides and floodplains through Central America have been awaiting Mitch. Even in the 1980s storms were inflicting $40 to $50 million in damage each year in the region due to flooding and consequent damage to infrastructure. In the highland regions of El Salvador and Guatemala the land is in even sorrier shape than in Honduras and Nicaragua before the onslaught of hurricane Mitch. The only way forward is for the peasants to be given good agricultural land and adequate financial resources. That's even less likely now than it was in 1954.

Humans caused the disaster just as humans made sure that the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras were incapable of responding to the catastrophe. After a decade of "structural adjustment" imposed by the World Bank, the IMF and USAID, these governments are hollow shells, mutilated by enforced cutbacks. Comes a hurricane and how can you begin evacuation if there's no money for gasoline, no vehicles, skeleton staffs, no vaccines, not even the ability to stockpile drinking water? How can you battle epidemics when the ministries of health have been decimated? How can you rebuild when the ministries of works have been similarly cut back?

So the Honduran government didn't put the country on alert. It simply hoped the hurricane would go away. After structural adjustment that's about all it could do.

A couple of years ago hurricane Lili struck Cuba. The government had evacuated thousands, stockpiled sandbags, positioned back-up generators, rallied medics. When Lili moved on, thousands of homes had been destroyed, less than half a dozen lives lost. Just recently the right-wing President Aleman of Nicaragua refused offers of help from Fidel Castro, making disparaging remarks about Cuba's political system, and saying, incredibly, that Nicaragua needed even greater disciplines of the free market to recover from the disaster. There's a bleak truth Aleman and many others should reflect upon: "natural" disasters are nature's judgment on what humans have wrought.

•This article was first published in the November 12, 1998 edition of Counter Punch, of which Alexander Cockburn is co-editor. Copyright 1998 Creators Syndicate, Inc.