The costs of Mitch

Can a hurricane threaten the fragile new democracies of Central America?

By Mary Jo McConahay
Published November 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It is an image local residents can't get out of their minds. The mayor of the village next door, fighting to cross the street that had become a river in the dark, rescuing one family and going back for more, when his raincoat caught on debris rushing down from the mountain. The current was too strong, and it carried him away, struggling, until he drowned.

It is only one small story in Central America, where some 10,000 died horribly as a result of Hurricane Mitch. At a moment when mass burials are taking place in hardest-hit Honduras and Nicaragua and disease is breaking out on the still inaccessible Mosquito Coast, it is difficult to look beyond the immediate human tragedy. But Mitch struck at a moment when this region had become a collection of peacetime democracies for the first time in history. If displacement, famine and physical loss are not confronted well and quickly, Mitch's economic and political costs may be as devastating as the immediate effects of the storm.

The Inter-American Development Bank immediately called the hurricane and storms a catastrophe "the likes of which we have not seen hit Latin America before." Such tragedy would never be wished on any country at any time, but from here, it is impossible not to look around and ask, "Why here? Why now?"

Nicaragua and Honduras, most deeply affected, were, with Haiti, the rock-bottom poorest countries in the hemisphere, even before all their bridges fell, before landslides and the sheer force of water cracked every other kilometer of asphalt road.

Tiny, deforested El Salvador was already the ecological basket case of the region before the first drop of rain fell. ("Where is 99 percent of El Salvador's territory?" the grim joke went. "In the sea.")

And this country, Guatemala, was celebrating 22 months of peace after 37 years of civil conflict in which some 150,000 died. Government was coming up short on money to fulfill commitments in the peace accords, but scrambling to find it. Now all bets are off.

Historically in Central America, the dislocation and discontent that follows natural disasters have been fertile ground for would-be organizers of dissidents. That was famously the case following earthquakes in the 1970s in Nicaragua, where Sandinista youth worked in poor barrios that later supported their revolution. In Guatemala, young people who first saw the reality of the impoverished countryside when volunteering to help after the disaster eventually supported guerrillas.

Indeed, corruption in handling international earthquake relief on the part of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and his cronies was one of the nails in the coffin of that regime. And in the 1980s, rebel sympathizers were able to use the earthquake that hit the Salvadoran capitol to their advantage, too.

This is the first time in the memory of most Central Americans that the region is at peace. Observers are beginning to say that unless aid comes in quickly and is applied efficiently, without corruption, it will be a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Here in Guatemala, many look back 25 years to the last terrible visitation, an earthquake that killed 24,000. While that immediate death toll was higher, the effects of Mitch may be more devastating: The earthquake did not destroy food crops. Mitch did. Not only are crops gone, but seeds too. "And not just any seeds," as one elderly man reminded me, but those that had been bred year after year for the microclimate of each hill and valley, to produce the best for its soil and air. For these countries, famine is now a possibility.

At the edge of this town a church stands near the village that was overrun by the river that carried the mayor away. An ancient tree grows there that the local devout believe is miraculous. Often, they gather its seeds for the power they might contain. The plaza before the church is now a mass of mud. Townspeople gather there and watch workmen try to clear it, but the miracle tree remains out of reach.

Mary Jo McConahay

Mary Jo McConahay is Central America editor of Pacific News Service.

MORE FROM Mary Jo McConahay

Related Topics ------------------------------------------