Nicaragua (March 1999)
by Donna Vukelich, Independent Consultant, Nicaragua June 1999

Long before Hurricane Mitch ravaged Nicaragua, the country’s economic and social panorama was bleak. Economist Alejandro Martinez Cuenca had begun to warn of the toll exacted by the Asian economic crisis and pointed to the significant drop in price of key Nicaraguan exports by the time the hurricane struck. He stressed the potentially devastating long-term effects of this crisis given Nicaragua’s increasing global economic interdependence. Though most government officials maintained that Nicaragua would not be affected by the crisis, sociologist Oscar Rene Vargas predicted the ‘Africanisation’ of Nicaragua: ever higher levels of poverty, increasing malnutrition among children, rising illiteracy rates and the like.

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In the best of times much of Nicaragua is difficult to reach. Within five days in October, Hurricane Mitch dropped four feet of rain. The resulting floods surpassed anything that Nicaragua’s civil defence had ever prepared for, and many areas were virtually cut off. 

On the last morning of October, Felicitas Zeledon, mayor of Posoltega – a small village in northwest Nicaragua – announced that several small villages in her municipality were buried under a wall of mud. She was accused of being ‘alarmist’ by the government and of having exaggerated the situation.

The reality of Mitch’s impact on the country is truly staggering. Damages have been estimated at US$1.5bn, including US$600m in losses to the country’s road and bridge infrastructure. Much of Nicaragua’s basic grain crop has been wiped out (the next planting season is not until May), many poor people’s homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, and thousands of domestic animals lost.

Needless to say the areas hardest hit were those least able to absorb the damage. A governmental ‘map of poverty’ issued by the Social Emergency Investment Fund before the hurricane could be mistaken for a map of the areas hardest hit by Mitch. Not surprisingly the poorest areas are also those most devastated in environmental terms, and indeed Mitch’s passage revealed the enormity of the ecological damage already existing Nicaragua.

Complaints concerning the politicisation of aid distribution began in the immedate aftermath of the hurricane. In a clear violation of municipal autonomy the government excluded elected Sandinista mayors as well as a number of liberal mayors who have questioned government policies, from receiving aid. As serious is the continuing marginalisation of civil society. President Aleman, already in a conflictual relationship with the many NGOs which have borne the brunt of attending to the population’s needs (state funds have been slashed by structural adjustment programmes) has been openly hostile to including them in any relief work.

Aside from its mismanagement of the situation, of equal concern is the government’s inability to direct relief or reconstruction efforts in a coherent way. Sociologist Orlando Nunez accuses the government of being little more than an ‘overseer’ for the international financial institutions and says the disaster has served to highlight how Aleman has completely sidestepped his responsibility of providing even a minimal level of social services to the Nicaraguan population.

Though Nicaragua has been the beneficiary of significant debt forgiveness over the last two months, the Civil Society Lobbying Group (GPC) worries that the Aleman government will only further burden the country with debt as part of the reconstruction process. The GPC is calling for debt forgiveness to be linked both to a coherent strategy of acquiring any new debts associated with reconstruction, as well as to a national plan of sustainable development.

Meanwhile the Non-Governmental Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Coalition has set up a monitoring process which includes financial auditing of funds and resources received by NGOs, as well as an innovative process of social auditing that will involve those people most affected by the hurricane. This will allow the coalition to assess governmental, non-governmental and church response to the disaster.

Reconstruction work continues apace, with most major roads and bridges repaired. Yet refugees from the hurricane still live in squalid conditions and complain that food is not reaching their shelters. Orlando Nunez warns of a wave of rural–urban migration (or emigration out to Costa Rica or the US) which may result in the virtual depopulation of much of Nicaragua’s rural sector. To compound this, agricultural experts report that the hurricane has transformed large tracts of land into areas which are no longer suitable for agriculture. Nicaragua is facing ‘apocalyptic poverty’ in the rural sector, says Nunez, who adds that the government and the large landowners have been looking to recover vast extensions of land. This could set the stage for an accelerated process of land concentration which would relegate the already poor peasantry to a state of even more crushing poverty.

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