The Hurricane Mitch: beyond Natural Catastrophe


Between October 25th and November 2nd, Central America has suffered a natural disaster caused by hurricane « Mitch », which produced an real economic and social disaster for certain countries of the region : Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Added to the thousands of deaths and wounded, there are hundreds of thousands of victims who have lost the few things they owned : a roof, a few crops and some animals.

The international opinion underlines the « natural » aspect of the catastrophe, but it is necessary to stress the political and economical process that have led to the human disaster we know. We find it essential to consider this natural catastrophe from a different point of view and take into account the obvious responsibility of different agents involved in the aggravation of this disaster. Mitch has shown the fragility of an economic, social and political system that excludes the majority of the population. In the following statement we shall consider the situation in Nicaragua as an example.

The responsibility of the governments

The context of extreme poverty of the population increased the terrible consequences of the hurricane. The peasants of these countries, victims of the exclusion policies of the authorities, weren’t able to forewarn the devastating effects of « Mitch ». The policy led by the government of Nicaragua during the last years has increased the poverty for the sectors already in a difficult situation. A survey conducted in December 1998 by the International Foundation for Global Development (FIDEG), based in Managua, shows that « from 1993 until the end of this bitter year, the proportion of the population that can obtain only half of the cost of the living index has gone up from 40,8 to 65,5 % in the main cities of the country ».

Furthermore, the attitude of the government of Mr Arnoldo Aleman in relation to the catastrophe contributed to increase the number of victims and damage. The Nicaraguan government minimized the importance of the hurricane for internal and international political reasons ; information was withheld, assistance was stalled, no declaration of emergency state was made imediately. Thus for three reasons: 1) if the government declared the state of emergency, it would have been forced to admit that the peasants are not in conditions to pay back their debts, which means that the government would have had to grant financial support ; 2) for internal political reasons, the NGOs were not allowed to distribute the support so that only the larger circle of authorities could benefit from them ; 3) for fear that alarming forecasts would scare foreign investors.

This is why the conduct of the government of Mr Aleman can be qualified as criminal.

The responsibility of the international financial institutions

It is publicly known that the international financial institutions condition the credits granted to each country. One of the main conditions imposed is the application of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) of which the dramatic consequences are known : devaluation, drastic reduction of social services, privatization of the public enterprises and public land for the benefit of a reduced minority, abandon of cost of living indexes on salaries, setting at the lowest the prices of raw materials, increase of debt. For us, the neo-liberal policy imposed by the international financial institutions (IMF/WB) and followed by the governments of Central America are not irrelevant to the extent of the damages caused by Mitch.

In Nicaragua, because of the structural adjustments, the small farmers were forced to choose between paying their debts or leaving the lands they owned after the agrarian reform. The concentration of land in the hands of big landowners pushed the peasants to cultivate areas liable to flooding, slopes of mountains or volcanoes, lands too close to the rivers. Not one measure of prevention has been established by the authorities to prevent natural disasters, yet very frequent in these areas at risk.

These areas were all the more dangerous due to the massive agricultural and forest exploitation and the war, which have brought to a dramatic deforestation. The forest and the vegetation limited the damages caused by this type of catastrophe.

In addition, we must consider the burden of the external debt as a vicious circle affecting all countries touched by Mitch. The weak income of these countries flow to the hands of the creditors, in particular to those of the IMF and the WB. Ruled by governments in connivance with the international financial institutions, the Central American countries can hardly survive and don’t have the least opportunity to plan a medium or long term national program. It is not fortuitous that the two most stricken countries are those that hold the sad record of the highest external debt in the region Panama excluded1.

The responsibility of the transnational companies

Furthermore, any attentive observer can note the attitude of the transnational banana companies, such as Dole (Castle and Cook) and Chiquita (United Brands Company), after the hurricane. Because of the destruction of part of their plantations, these two societies have dismissed a large number of workers: 12’000 in Honduras and 3’000 in Guatemala2. Their conduct is a serious threat to the survival of thousands of workers and their families, who not only have lost their job, but also their homes and remain unprotected by a social structure, which is practically non-existent in these countries. These suspensions intervene in a particularly critical moment for the workers and their families as the first sowing season will only start in July. What will these people do to survive until the first harvest?

Is it right and acceptable that the employees of these big companies are forced to assume on their own the consequences of the hurricane on the banana plantations, when United Brands and Castle and Cook announce very important figures?3 Furthermore, the multinationals take advantage of the situation to exert pressure on the trade unions. They question the collective agreements imposing themselves on the trade unions and make redundant in the first place the unionized workers (in Guatemala, at Cobsa-Dole, all the members of the trade union UNISTRAGA have been made redundant)4. Suspensions, threats and layoffs are an open violation of the Economic and Social Rights.

However it is important to remember the reasons of the behaviour of the transnational companies towards the Economic and Social Rights of the populations in the southern countries. We can advance that these massive dismissals are an integral part of a well planned strategy: externalization of the social costs at the loss of the most basic Human Rights; internalization of the benefits, transferred to the origin countries of these multinationals.

The transnational companies, as major economical agents world widely, have the obligation to respect the Economic and Social Rights. The tripartite declaration of principles on multinational companies and the social policy adopted by the governing board of the International Labour Organization in 1997, is very clear. It stipulates in particular that all the parties involved by the declaration must respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the corresponding International Pacts, as well as the Constitution of the International Labour Organization.5

The role of the United States of America

We must also insist on the influence of the policy of the successive governments of the USA. As a matter of fact, they have played a disastrous role on Central America; they have kept this area in a political and social instability while preventing reforms, notably agrarian reforms, overthrowing democratic and popular governments and supporting armed movements. In this context, the arrival of 1’700 American marines in Nicaragua in December 1998 in order to rebuild the country, seems a pure provocation if we consider the relations between both countries during the last decades. We ask ourselves whether the deployment of troops isn’t just part of a plan to militarize the country.6

The reconstruction and the international aid

Today, the most urgent issue is that of the constitution of a democratic distribution of the international aid and the appropriate use of it. For the time being, the signs we receive from the government of Mr Aleman are not reassuring. Arnoldo Aleman estimates that 2/3 of the international assistance should be set apart for the modernization of the road and energy infrastructure of the country.7 One of the projects for which he is asking for financial support is the enlargement of the road to Masaya, one of the main roads of Managua, which hasn’t been affected by the hurricane. This type of reconstruction proposed by the government in Nicaragua, that presents itself as “exporter” and “urban”, tends to reinforce the big agricultural producers and the construction sector actually in growth.

The non-governmental and peasant organizations in representation of the most stricken sectors of the population now in the most extreme penury, question these facts. They propose a model of assistance and reconstruction directed straight to the population in need. The proposal elaborated by the “Civil Coordination for emergency and reconstruction”, which has 320 non-governmental organizations, networks, groups and national associations, asks to give the priority to rural development, first of all to the small and medium producers, and insists on the necessity of finding a model of sustainable development, ecologically and humanly suitable.

Moreover, the attitude of the rich countries and the IMF regarding the assistance is worrying. In order to grant emergency help they force the application of the Structural Adjustment Programs. The members of the IMF will be meeting in Stockholm in May 1999 to consider this issue. This conditioning is unacceptable and will contribute to worsen the situation of the countries in Central America.

In relation with the reconstruction issues and the distribution of support, CETIM recommends that:

1. All serious reconstruction projects include a real and democratic participation of the social sectors concerned. Representatives of the civil society, non-governmental organizations, municipalities, rural and urban communities, must be accounted in the distribution of assistance. Transparency must be assured in the attribution of funds.

2. The catastrophe Mitch must encourage the international community to lead an extensive analysis of the SAP and to finally question these programs. Experience has shown us that the adjustment imposed has led to the enrichment of a few in detriment of the rest of the population.

3. The bilateral and multilateral external debts of the countries stricken by the hurricane should be immediately and totally cancelled, and it must be assured that the benefit of this political decision and the released funds must go first of all to the disadvantaged. The Human Rights Commission should make recommendations in this sense to the member countries and IMF.

4. The internal debt of the sectors affected by Mitch must also be cancelled by the governments. This would concern, in the specific case of Nicaragua, 200’000 rural workers who are a force for the reconstruction.

Furthermore, the transnational companies should conform themselves to the terms stated in the two Pacts and International Conventions on Human Rights.

Remark: For more information about the hurricane Mitch and the economic and social context, see the bulletin number 50 of the Correos de Centroamérica (Bulletin of information and reflection about Central America, the Caribbeans and Mexico) and the series of articles on this subject in the daily Le Courrier, Geneva (starting from the 28th January).

Categories Cases Environmental justice HUMAN RIGHTS Rights of peasants Statements Transnational Corporations
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