The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.42           November 23, 1998 
Hurricane Mitch Toll: Social, Not Natural, Catastrophe  

MIAMI - In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, workers and peasants in Central America are suffering one of the worst disasters in history. Jerry Jarrell, the National Hurricane Director here, said that Mitch could be the worst storm since 1780 when 22,000 people were killed in the Eastern Caribbean.

The death toll is so high due to the ex treme conditions of underdevelopment imposed through domination by the imperialist powers, which - from Washington, to London, and Bonn - have responded with meager offers of aid. In addition, the capitalist regimes in Central America took little to no preventive measures that could have minimized fatalities. Much of the food and other aid that's now arriving is sitting unused as helicopters and other resources for transportation to hard- hit areas are scarce. What thousands of working people perceive as indifference among many of these capitalist politicians is generating anger and protests.

Worst hit were Nicaragua and Honduras, the second- and third- poorest nations in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Guatemala and El Salvador also suffered serious damage and many deaths. While official figures for the region refer to 11,500 dead and 13,000 missing, it is widely accepted that the death toll will top 20,000.

Tony Savino, a freelance photographer on assignment for Newsweek in Nicaragua, described visiting the town of Renaldo Rodríguez that was devastated by a massive mud slide. "The town had been made up of 164 houses but only two shells were left," he said. "It was just a huge field of mud and debris. A little further away there was a cane field. As I walked towards the cane field I could see many dozens of bodies still laying where the mud slide had pushed them a week ago."

The official number for people displaced from their homes is 800,000 in Nicaragua; 569,000 in Honduras; 60,000 in El Salvador; and many thousands more in Guatemala.

Gonzalo Martínez, a jet engine parts inspector at AeroThrust Corp. in Miami, is organizing a food and clothing collection here. His family is from Jinotega in northern Nicaragua. He explained that the area surrounding the town is devastated. "The roads from Managua are completely destroyed," he told Militant reporters. "The only way to reach the area is by helicopter. There are approximately 20,000-30,000 homeless who have come into Jinotega. They are still finding bodies. Two small towns in the mountains were totally wiped out."

Many roads, bridges, and communications lines are destroyed. In Honduras more than 100 bridges are reportedly out and 68 major highways are cut off. In Nicaragua 70 bridges are either completely wrecked or severely damaged.

The massive devastation of agriculture in the region is compounded by the destruction of infrastructure, which means that many of the crops that survived will rot before they are able to be transported. In Honduras at least 80 percent, if not 100 percent, of the banana crop was lost. In banana production alone, U.S.-based monopolies Chiquita and Dole have already announced long-term layoffs of 12,000 workers in Honduras. Prior to the hurricane unemployment in that country exceeded 35 percent.

As much as 50 percent of Nicaragua's peanuts, beans, and soybeans crops are rotting underwater.

In addition to these problems, the rains uncovered thousands of land mines that were planted in Nicaragua and along the Honduran border during the U.S.-organized contra war aimed at overthrowing the government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The Sandinistas came to power through the 1979 popular revolution during which working people toppled the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Some of these mines have floated down river and into villages.

A social, not a natural, disaster
Working people in Nicaragua defeated the contras militarily but the FSLN lost elections to a bourgeois-led coalition in 1989, after giving up on implementing the revolutionary program of the organization, which was at the heart of cementing and bringing to power an alliance of workers and peasants. The policies of the capitalist regimes that have ruled Nicaragua ever since have wrought economic and social ruination to the majority of the toilers.

Col. Raúl Estrada, who heads the Joint Operations Center in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, estimated there may be as many as 75,000 mines to be cleared. The results of Hurricane Mitch are mostly a social, not a natural, disaster.

Savino, on his return from Nicaragua, described the class character of the relief efforts he witnessed. "There was all this food and other aid in Managua just sitting there," he said, referring to Nicaragua's capital. "Government people said they couldn't reach some in the most needy areas such as in Posoltega. But me, a journalist, I was able to get there. I also saw some of the road repairs. They were fixing small potholes around Managua. I guess this was for the better off people with their four-wheel drives. In the meantime, the countryside is in desperate need of road repair."

With the lack of drinking water, shelter, adequate food, and medicines, disease has begun to break out. Twenty-five cases of cholera were reported in Guatemala. In many areas there is no medicine for the sick. Doctors in Nicaragua have reported what they believe to be malaria. But they don't have equipment to do blood tests to find out for sure.

The depth of the crisis in Central America, which existed before Hurricane Mitch, and the lack of adequate responses by the governments there and in the imperialist countries, especially Washington, has led to anger among many. When Nicaragua's president Arnaldo Alemán visited León, a city hit hard by the storm, crowds gathered yelling, "Murderer!"

Press reports from Nicaragua state that the inadequate help being given is especially galling to a people that remember the corruption of the Somoza dictatorship during the 1972 earthquake. While 10,000 people were killed and many more were injured and left homeless at that time, the Somoza regime funneled the international aid through its National Guard, which stole and redirected much of it for the private gain of government officials and others.

Private aid agencies in many parts of the world have responded to the need in Central America. But it's clear that only massive aid from the developed capitalist world could adequately meet those needs.

Such aid is not forthcoming, however. With destruction estimated in the billions, governments in the European Union announced they will donate $120 million and Washington has pledged only $70 million. And this U.S. "pledge" is moving at a snail's pace. The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel quoted Honduran Capt. Carmen Velásquez who referred to aid supplies that were sitting outside the city of Choluteca. "Look at all this food sitting here waiting for the people who need it," he said. "We only have a few helicopters to deliver them. If it wasn't for the Mexicans, people out there would have nothing. What's taking the U.S. so long to send helicopters?"

Referring to the U.S. military bases in Honduras, the Sun Sentinel also quoted Juan Ramón de la Fuente, Mexico's health minister, who said of the U.S. relief effort: "I can't find any justification for the passivity with which they have moved since they have so many facilities and have them close."

In response to calls by the Central American governments that the U.S. government halt deportations of immigrants to their countries, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced November 6 that it would delay expulsions to the storm-ravaged countries until November 23 - a total of two and a half weeks.

On November 9 the heads of state in Central America met in El Salvador. They called on the developed capitalist nations - from North America to Western Europe - to provide real massive aid to their countries as the only way out of the catastrophe there. They also called for better trade relations.

Some bourgeois politicians have even floated calls for the cancellation of Central America's foreign debt. Honduran president, Carlos Flores Facusse, called his country's $4.2 billion foreign debt unpayable.

According to a report in the November 11 El Nuevo Herald, the governments of France and the United Kingdom have announced they would favor a debt moratorium, unlike Washington that holds most of the debt these countries owe.

Servicing the foreign debts of these countries has been draining much of the wealth produced by working people into the coffers of imperialist banks. This has accelerated the impoverishment of millions and worsened living conditions and infrastructure that exacerbated the destruction of Hurricane Mitch. Nicaragua, for example, pays $250-$300 million a year on its debt of $6.5 billion. These payments equal 40 percent of the country's export income.

In stark contrast to the imperialist regimes, the Cuban government canceled $50 million in Nicaragua's debt and offered to send all the medical personnel needed to carry out the relief effort there. The Nicaraguan government has so far turned down such aid from Cuba.

In Miami, press coverage of the Cuban doctors sent to Honduras and the refusal of the Nicaraguan government to accept any help from Cuba has sparked discussion and debate. Some rightists have denounced the Cuban government for sending aid to the Dominican Republic and Honduras while the people of Cuba themselves have been hit by a drought and then Hurricane Georges. Others see the Cubans setting the right example.

Anibal Cano, who works at the United Airlines kitchen here, told Militant reporters Washington should help more in Central America. "President Alemán did wrong in not accepting Cuba's doctors," he added. "My point of view is that a politician doesn't have to mix politics with a tragedy in the country."

Ernie Mailhot is a member of International Association of Machinists Local 1126. Maggie McCraw, member of IAM Local 368; and Rachele Fruit, member of IAM Local 1126, contributed to this article.

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