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The Politics of Hurricane Mitch
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.