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Mitch washes injustices to the surface

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

When the rains of Hurricane Mitch fell heavily on Central America for days on end, the houses swept away in the resulting flood were the homes of the poor. The bodies covered by mudslides or carried out to sea were the bodies of the poor. And as the clouds finally cleared off in the days following the storm, it was the poor who were left weeping.

When Hurricane Mitch visited apocalypse on Central America at the end of October, the storm laid bare the injustice upon which the isthmus’ economies and societies are built. The disaster that was Hurricane Mitch was long in the making. The poor were dying in droves well before the disaster relief teams and network news crews flew in a month ago.

Where the rich add house to house and field to field, the poor are pushed to the margins, crowded onto riverbeds at the edge of industrial parks or driven into the mountains where they cut down trees to plant meager fields of corn and beans. The impact of this steady expansion of the agricultural frontier pales in comparison, however, to the damage done by logging.

Transnational wood companies, in cahoots with local military officials and often bribing -- or threatening -- underpaid government bureaucrats charged with protecting forest resources, are cutting down more trees in Central America than are landless peasants. Yet peasants often support the clear-cutting, because timber sales produce quick cash for struggling communities, and newly opened fields offer fresh topsoil for planting corn and beans. A United Nations study showed that between 1990 and 1995 forest land shrank from 41 percent to 35 percent of Honduran territory. Environmental groups say the figures are even more alarming.

Those who want to change this situation put themselves at risk. Carlos Luna, a feisty small-town environmentalist, was gunned down May 18 in front of his family in the small town of Catacamas. His secretary was also assassinated. Luna had denounced logging in what is supposed to be a pristine ecological buffer zone in the mountains outside of the capital.

When the rains fell, without the trees and without Carlos Luna, the mountains couldn’t hold all the water. Entire hillsides gave way. Many of the families that lived on those mountain slopes were washed away without anyone noticing. In a rational society, they wouldn’t have had to migrate to the mountains or urban shantytowns. There is plenty of lush farmland in Honduras. Yet national elites and foreign transnationals use it to grow bananas and other export crops.

During the 1980s, the army trained by the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency, caused the disappearance of the most vocal proponents of sharing the land. Since then the inequalities have worsened.

The poor have meager jobs on export plantations, and at night they go home to their shacks. Shacks that aren’t there now. Neighborhoods that aren’t there now.

To the south, along the border with Nicaragua, the flood waters uncovered dangerous reminders of the past.

Thousands of land mines planted by the U.S.-backed contras were dislodged by the floods and washed down mountainsides and rivers. The floods disrupted international efforts to remove the mines. Mixed with mud and debris scattered through affected areas, the mines now pose a renewed threat to poor farmers.

Two Hondurans were killed by a relocated antitank mine Nov. 18 near Santa Catalina. Another five people were injured. I met the injured people on the landing strip in Choluteca when the plane I was traveling in, ferrying emergency food to the region, was pressed into service as an air ambulance to bring them to hospitals in Tegucigalpa.

Magnifying class contradictions

Like all disasters, Mitch magnified existing contradictions of class. In the village where I live in the mountains outside Tegucigalpa, we were cut off for three days by mudslides and raging rivers. On the second day, a wealthy neighbor of mine -- a retired army colonel -- insisted that people on our street form a militia for protection against a poorer neighborhood down the hill. “When food gets scarce, it will be the law of the jungle around here,” he declared, “and we need to prepare to defend ourselves.” No one else in the neighborhood enlisted in his militia, despite the colonel’s offer to teach us how to shoot straight.

The government’s imposition of a strict curfew and partial suspension of constitutional rights also emerge from a fear that the poor might grow desperate enough to cross the narrow but deep chasm that divides the classes here.

Throughout recent Central American history, disasters have often led to accelerated political change after citizens saw how their national leaders responded to the crisis. Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo -- who failed to declare a state of emergency, politicized arriving aid and demonstrated general incompetence -- was left seriously weakened when the skies finally cleared. It was organizations outside the government that responded to the crisis.

In Honduras, it was the military that lost face. President Carlos Flores sidelined the military-controlled National Emergency Commission and placed his cabinet members in charge of managing the crisis. In an attempt to defend the poor performance of the armed forces, Gen. Mario Hung Pacheco lamely suggested that Honduran army helicopters got better gas mileage on rescue missions than Mexican, U.S. and British helicopters. The army’s debacle in the face of Mitch bodes well for continuing demilitarization and democratization.

Survivors face an economy where some 10,000 small and medium businesses may go bankrupt because of the storm, and where the two large U.S. banana companies operating here have yet to commit to rehabilitating their plantations. Not that the job scene was great before, when 40 percent of the economically active population was unemployed. Many expect that the situation will get worse. Immigration officials here report that young men are already moving in large numbers across the border into Guatemala, the first step of the long journey north.

The U.S. government announced a temporary halt to deportations of Hondurans back to Central America, but like most everything else about the U.S. response, it came late. It was clearly the Mexicans who won the diplomatic show here. When the United States pulled out many embassy families and ordered more than 200 Peace Corps volunteers to leave the country -- a decision I still cannot fathom -- the Mexican government sent in hundreds of rescue personnel along with dozens of helicopters, planes and heavy equipment. In a country that likes to hate Mexico because its team always beats Honduras at soccer, the Mexican brigades were cheered when they showed up in neighborhoods to search for bodies or help with the cleanup.

The United States initially responded to Mitch with a pledge of $2 million for the entire region, an offer Flores politely dubbed “moderate.” Since then the numbers have gone up considerably, but still seem insignificant compared to the 60 percent of the country’s infrastructure that remains in a shambles. Many U.S. activists argue that considering the $4.5 billion the United States spent in the region in the 1980s to defend Central Americans from the scourge of world communism, the United States should be just as generous now that the threat to life and peace is real, not fabricated.

At issue is not just how much money is sent to Honduras and Nicaragua and other affected countries. Just as important is how it will be used. The majority of Central Americans do not want international assistance to be used simply to rebuild an economy in which almost three-quarters of the population was desperately poor.

In recent years, most U.S. and multilateral economic assistance to the region has focused on nurturing export-driven economic growth while reducing the size of the state apparatus. Yet Mitch washed away any illusions about progress in so-called “developing nations” like Honduras and Nicaragua. As long as justice is denied to the majority of people in these countries, it doesn’t matter how many jean-exporting maquilas or fancy McDonald’s restaurants are built. Such “development” only makes local elites even richer. As long as the poor remain at the margins of economic growth, rhetoric about “development” remains empty words, an economic miracle built on sand.

‘This aid is sacred’

Tegucigalpa Archbishop Oscar Andres Rodriguez, who also serves as president of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, has since the beginning of the emergency set a moral tone that demanded responsibility from government aid workers. In a country where military officers grew wealthy from the aid that flowed here after Hurricane Fifi in 1974, Rodriguez warned, “This aid from abroad is sacred, and who dares to steal it will not have pardon from God. For this type of person there is no pardon. They shall be cursed.”

Rodriguez also demanded justice from the world. Already an articulate proponent of debt reform, he announced in the wake of Mitch that while canceling Honduras’ $4 billion foreign debt “may not be economically possible nor politically possible, it has to be humanly possible.”

Almost three weeks after the storm passed through, with more than 200,000 residents of emergency shelters growing weary and impatient, President Flores asked the churches to take over the management of shelters and the distribution of food aid. It was a clever move, and the churches accepted the task, albeit reluctantly. Flores may in the long run have given the church additional moral authority to speak out.

“Will all the international aid just prolong the existing model of development, with its high level of poverty and favoritism toward the minority while the majority has just the minimum to survive?” asked Bishop Angel Garachana of San Pedro Sula, in normal times a fairly conservative leader. “In 10 years will we just rebuild the same Honduras we had before?”

We in the North can demand that the money from our own pockets -- both that spent by our governments as well as by our churches -- be used to build a different Central America.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998