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Storm Could Trigger Another Diaspora

Hurricane Mitch caused more widespread devastation than the region's civil wars.

November 08, 1998|CARLOS A. ROSALES | Carlos A. Rosales is project director and associate at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, where he manages its Central American program

Even Mother Nature seems to have conspired against Central America. Barely a few years into its postwar reconstruction following almost a decade and a half of internal strife (36 years in the case of Guatemala), Central America now faces a newer and perhaps grimmer challenge of picking up the pieces in the wake of the worst natural disaster to hit the region in its modern history.

Press reports indicate that the destructive path of Hurricane Mitch has left as many as 15,000 dead and 2 million homeless. While El Salvador and Guatemala were also badly affected, Honduras and Nicaragua bore the brunt of the storm. With a gross domestic product per capita of under $700, both countries are the hemisphere's poorest after Haiti. According to preliminary estimates, Mitch destroyed more than 60% of Honduras' infrastructure, including 93 bridges around the country. Nearly 70% of the country's agricultural output was swept by the flooding, including 25% of coffee production and 75% of banana plantations. Other key crops like sugar, fruit, beans and corn were also crippled. At least a third of the population was affected. Government officials there believe that it would take their country at least 20 years to recover from the devastation.

Nicaragua fared only slightly better. About 950 miles of roads and about 70 bridges have been either destroyed or heavily damaged. At least 20% of the country's coffee plantations were destroyed, while other smaller crops like oranges were also affected. As many as 740,000 people may have been affected out of a total population of 4 million. Officials estimate that the physical damage inflicted on Central America by Mitch has wiped out 25 years of investment in the region's infrastructure, leaving more immediate and widespread devastation than the civil wars that claimed thousands of lives in the region during the 1980s.

Adding insult to injury, Central Americans have had to cope with continuing rains. In Nicaragua, a small earthquake earlier this week caused additional mudslides, and officials there now face the deadly prospect of dealing with tens of thousands of land mines left over from the civil war of the 1980s that are believed to have been unearthed by the flooding and are now scattered across the countryside.

International aid has begun to arrive. The United States and Mexico have led the way. Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Taiwan, Sweden, Norway and France have also joined relief efforts. Officials in Honduras and Nicaragua are pleading for more. Both countries are also appealing to the international financial organizations for debt forgiveness or restructuring.

Despite the very visible role played by local political leaders in leading relief efforts in affected areas (this led to tragic consequences in Honduras where the popular mayor of Tegucigalpa died in a helicopter crash as he surveyed the damage), the region may also suffer destabilizing political effects by exposing the governments' inability to respond effectively and promptly to a population already beset by staggering poverty levels, high unemployment rates and rising incidence of crime.

This situation has the potential of triggering a new diaspora of Central Americans as many of the tens of thousands of survivors may head north as so many of their compatriots did during civil war-induced destruction of the 1980s.

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