Hurricane Mitch and Disaster Relief: The Politics of Catastrophe

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Anne Schenk

THE LEVEL OF destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch is hard to overstate. While there is no way to know exactly how many lives were affected by the category-five hurricane that devastated the region between October 26 and November 1, early reports indicated that across Central America 11,000 people are reported dead, 15,000 are missing and at least 2.4 million made homeless1.

Honduras, the hardest hit, was reported to have lost 92,000 homes and 112,492 square kilometers of road. One third of the capital, Tegucigalpa, was wiped out. Honduran President Carlos Flores remarked that Mitch has brought about “an end to the twentieth century” in his country.2

Sixty percent of crops were destroyed, including the entire banana harvest, leaving thousands without work and the country without its most important export crop. A quarter of the educational infrastructure was destroyed, forcing the cancellation of the rest of the school year.3 Health, transportation and energy sectors also suffered heavy damage.

In Nicaragua, over 2,000 kilometers of roads and bridges were damaged or destroyed, over half of the health sector and eight-and-a-half percent of all schools suffered some damage.4

While not as widespread, the damage in Guatemala and El Salvador was equally devastating in certain areas. El Salvador is estimated to have suffered seventy-five percent crop loss and 55,000 people displaced.5 In Guatemala, bean, rice and corn crops were destroyed along with a large portion of coffee and banana crops.

Leaving aside the unanswered question of how much global climate change may contribute to the severity of such storms, there is no doubt that the Mitch’s devastating impact was exacerbated by the poverty and resulting ecological degradation that already existed in these countries.

The storm’s victims came primarily from the poorest and most neglected segments of society. Years of war, destructive industrial and agricultural practices, and subsistence farming by impoverished peasants have destroyed extensive tracts of forests and wetlands that once protected against erosion and flooding.

The week-long torrent came after months of severe drought, making the massive amounts of water even more impossible to be absorbed fast enough. As a result, unprecedented flooding wiped out farms and homes, drowned livestock, and left people clinging to roofs and treetops waiting for rescue.

In addition to the physical vulnerability of large segments of the population, government neglect and political opportunism appear to have contributed to the number of casualties. National governments failed to warn vulnerable communities, particularly those locally governed by opposition parties, of the impending danger until, in some cases, too late to evacuate.

In one tragic example, it was in the Sandinista-governed municipality of Posoltega in northern Nicaragua that mudslides on the La Casita volcano swept away at least five communities and 2,000 people and left survivors isolated for days.6

Opposition leaders, human rights organizations and international relief agencies have also reported abuses in the distribution of aid. As relief efforts began, aid often failed to reach areas under opposition control; in other cases, the aid was used as political blackmail.

In areas of Guatemala, some villages were denied food aid if they did not support the ruling National Advancement Party (PAN). Residents of one village reported that were told by the mayor that they must vote for him to receive aid.7 In El Salvador, both UNICEF and US AID are investigating the possible diversion of aid intended for the heavily-damaged lower Lempa River area, a stronghold of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) party and a scene of hideous atrocities by government forces during the civil war.8

Most notorious for the politicization of the crisis, and most despicable in his disregard for its victims, is Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán. Alemán is accused of downplaying the severity of the storm from the beginning, refusing to declare a state of emergency, even as entire villages were reported to have been washed away.

Alemán has also attempted to control the relief effort in order to extract political gains. He initially refused medical help from Cuba, falsely claiming it was not needed, while admitting doctors from the United States military. In an effort to wrest power from the municipalities and to weaken non-governmental organizations, Alemán put the Catholic Church in charge of aid distribution and unsuccessfully tried to impose a fifteen percent tax on incoming aid from international and grassroots relief agencies that refused to comply with this arrangement.

And in his own version of welfare-to-work, Alemán is now insisting that those who lost their homes due to the hurricane must be sent work the coffee harvest or in sugar refineries in order to receive assistance.9 He made this announcement after attending a requiem mass for the 2,000 killed at Posoltega, claiming that the hard work would help the survivors of the disaster cope psychologically with the tragedy.

Killer Floods and Crushing Debt

Underlying the poverty and environmental destruction that magnified Mitch’s destructive power is the massive foreign debt that has rendered Central American countries unable to invest in economic and social infrastructures.

International lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have effectively hijacked their economies, imposing harsh conditions of “structural adjustment” in exchange for assistance in financing foreign debts, which in 1996 totaled a collective $17.1 billion.

Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) essentially require that countries spend huge portions of their national income on debt repayment while annihilating social spending, privatizing social services, and selling off public industries to foreign investors.

The result in Central America has been both economic recession and a shrinkage of the very health and emergency response systems that could have saved lives when Mitch arrived.

Second to Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, post-Sandinista Nicaragua is a laboratory for structural adjustment. In a country where, prior to Mitch, the unemployed outnumbered those with jobs, the Nicaraguan people under ex-president Chamorro and now Alemán have been subjected to an Enhanced Structural Adjustment program (ESAF) that has drastically reduced subsidies for basic needs.

Even in the face of Hurricane Mitch, which has caused over $1.5 billion in damages in Nicaragua, Alemán has pledged to strictly adhere to structural adjustment, claiming that it would be irresponsible to deviate from the plan. In fact, it appears he may take advantage of the opportunity to speed up the privatization process.

After having rejected medical assistance from Cuba, Alemán is now inviting Cuban doctors to assist victims in remote areas, claiming that Nicaraguan doctors have refused out of fear. The latter have countered with a defamation lawsuit, and are claiming that the Health Ministry assigned them to such dangerous areas as a ploy to force them to resign in order bring the government in compliance with ESAF conditions.10

As a result of the catastrophe, the international community has pledged millions of dollars in relief aid. Many governments and humanitarian organizations have joined the Central American presidents in calling for at least a partial cancellation of their debts.

A number of countries have suspended debt payments by Nicaragua and Honduras, and both Cuba and France have forgiven these countries debts entirely. Nicaragua and Honduras are two of the poorest and most heavily indebted countries in the world, with a combined debt of nearly $10 billion.

The World Bank and IMF have multimillion dollar relief funds for Central America, and are likely to grant a moratorium on debt repayment as well as a small amount of debt relief. A complete cancellation of foreign debt is not likely, however.

In the words of an IMF official in Nicaragua, total cancellation of debt and relief from structural adjustment would “mean leaving behind stability” and a disruption in the region’s macroeconomy that would be like “putting out a fire with gasoline.”11

Not mentioned, of course, is the danger that canceling Central America’s debts would also set a precedent the IMF and World Bank do not want. African countries, for example, need not get any ideas about having their debts forgiven so that they might fund AIDS treatment and prevention efforts.

A Fresh Start?

It will take decades and billions of dollars to recover from Hurricane Mitch. In the immediate term the region must deal with providing food, water and shelter and with the spread of diseases such as cholera, dengue and malaria. Reconstruction efforts will be hampered by wartime land mines that have been shifted to new, unknown locations.

In the long term, with the massive agro-export industry in ruins perhaps for years to come, tens of thousands of Central Americans face increasing poverty and economic uncertainty. Already, banana workers expect to face demands for concessions, and there are reports that some banana growers have already fired workers and cut medical benefits.12

One potential result of Mitch could be a rapid expansion of the maquiladora sector as governments look for immediate solutions to the lack of income from agro-exports, much of which went to pay foreign debt.

Mitch has brought the reality of poverty to center stage, and has provided the world with an opportunity to change. A number of campaigns have been launched that are pressuring both for a total forgiveness of foreign debt, and for reconstruction policies that will focus on rebuilding local economies and repairing environmental damage.

It is vital that international aid be delivered equitably without structural-adjustment-type strings attached. If any good can result from this disaster, it is the recognition that poor countries cannot continue to carry such unsustainable debt under such oppressive and disastrous conditions.


  1. El Salvador Watch. No. 74 (November 1998). Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
  2. Weekly Update on the Americas. Issue XXX (11/8/98-11/14/98). Nicaragua Solidarity Network of New York.
  3. Mejia, Thelma. HONDURAS: Autoridades cerro el ano escolar por el huracan. InterPress Service, 13 Nov. 1998. Posted at reg.
  4. Nicaragua Network Hotline, December 7, 1998.
  5. U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities report, 11 November 1998.
  6. Hurricane Mitchs Aftermath in Nicaragua: Weekly News Update on the Americas Special Report, 8 November 1998, by Toby Mailman.
  7. Centr-Am News, Issue XXX.
  8. El Salvador Watch, November 1998 (CISPES).
  9. Sources from Centr-Am News, 11/29-12/5/98, Issue XXXIII.
  10. Weekly News Update on the Americas, Issue XXXIII, 11/29-12/5/98. Nicaragua Solidarity Center of New York.
  11. Weekly News Update on the Americas, Issue XXX, 11/8-11/14/98. Nicaragua Solidarity Center of New York.
  12. US/Guatemala Labor Education Campaign.

ATC 78, January-February 1999