FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Politics of Hurricane Mitch

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

There’s nothing “natural” about the awful disasterof Hurricane Mitch. Those thousands of lives were lost to mud, water, hunger,disease though human agency. Hillsides dissolved and shanty towns vanishedin the floodwaters because of economic and political policies, mostly imposedat the point of a gun.

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

A CIA-organized coup was not long coming. Guatemala enteredits long night. Along with Arbenz vanished all prospect of land reform,not merely in Guatemala but throughout Central America. Instead, pressedmost urgently by the Kennedy administration, came the so-called “exportmodel” of development.

Through the next 30 years in Central America small peasantswere pushed off their traditional holdings by local oligarchs flush withmoney and military equipment furnished by the United States. The peasantshad no option but to migrate to forested hillsides too steep to be of interestto oligarchs and foreign companies who had seized the bottom lands. Yearafter year the peasants tried to ward off starvation, raising subsistencecrops 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 hewon’t slip. In such manner the trees got cut down and the land worked andoverworked, until a tropical storm would send the bare hillsides careeningdown in deadly mudslides.

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

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

At the time he was driven out by revolution, AnastasioSomoza, propped up for years by the United States, owned 20 per cent ofNicaragua’s farm land. In El Salvador 2 per cent of the population held60 per cent of the farm land. The Sandinistas who evicted Somoza promptlyembarked on efforts to redistribute land to the peasants. Though such effortswere patchy, particularly in the north, their efforts to revive forestsand to restore the integrity of the land won the Sandinistas internationalacclaim. Not for long. The United States put an end to all that, drivingthe Sandinistas into an increasingly desperate state of siege. In El Salvadorand Honduras death squads cut down rural organizers.

So, for years now, those worn hillsides and floodplainsthrough Central America have been awaiting Mitch. Even in the 1980s stormswere inflicting $40 to $50 million in damage each year in the region dueto flooding and consequent damage to infrastructure. In the highland regionsof El Salvador and Guatemala the land is in even sorrier shape than in Hondurasand Nicaragua before the onslaught of hurricane Mitch. The only way forwardis for the peasants to be given good agricultural land and adequate financialresources. That’s even less likely now than it was in 1954.

Humans caused the disaster just as humans made sure thatthe governments of Nicaragua and Honduras were incapable of responding tothe catastrophe. After a decade of “structural adjustment” imposedby the World Bank, the IMF and USAID, these governments are hollow shells,mutilated by enforced cutbacks. Comes a hurricane and how can you beginevacuation if there’s no money for gasoline, no vehicles, skeleton staffs,no vaccines, not even the ability to stockpile drinking water? How can youbattle epidemics when the ministries of health have been decimated? Howcan 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 adjustmentthat’s about all it could do.

A couple of years ago hurricane Lili struck Cuba. The governmenthad 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 PresidentAleman of Nicaragua refused offers of help from Fidel Castro, making disparagingremarks about Cuba’s political system, and saying, incredibly, that Nicaraguaneeded 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.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail