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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Government Is to Blame, not Mitch

The damage could have been abated if Central American governments weren't hollow.

November 12, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications. He is co-author with Jeffrey St. Clair of "Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press" (Verso, 1998)

There's nothing "natural" about the awful disaster of Hurricane Mitch. Those thousands of lives were lost to mud, water, hunger and disease through human agency. Hillsides dissolved and shantytowns vanished in the flood waters because of economic and political policies, mostly imposed at the point of a gun.

If you want to pick a date when the fates of those thousands of poor people was sealed, it wasn't when Hurricane Mitch began to pick up speed off the coast of Honduras. It came 44 years ago, in 1954, when the United Fruit Co., now renamed Chiquita Banana, prodded the CIA to take action against the moderately left government of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz had purchased vast unused stretches of productive land held by United Fruit and was planning to redistribute it to poor peasants.

A CIA-organized coup was not long in coming. Guatemala entered its long night. Along with Arbenz vanished all prospect of land reform, not merely in Guatemala but throughout Central America. Instead, pressed most urgently by the Kennedy administration, came the so-called "export model" of development.

Through the next 30 years in Central America, small peasants were pushed off their traditional holdings by local oligarchs flush with money and military equipment furnished by the United States. The peasants had no option but to migrate to forested hillsides too steep to be of interest to oligarchs and foreign companies. Year after year, the peasants tried to ward off starvation, raising subsistence crops on slopes so extreme that sometimes, in photographs from El Salvador, one comes across a peasant working his land while tied to a stake, so he won't slip. In such manner the trees got cut down and the land worked and overworked, until a tropical storm would send the bare hillsides careening down in deadly mudslides.

Tens of thousands of other peasant families, forced off the good land, moved into Managua or Tegucigalpa or other towns and cities. The consequent shantytowns burgeoned along riverbanks, on precarious flood basins where at least the inhabitants had access to water. As with the degraded hillsides, these shantytowns were deathtraps, awaiting the inevitable.

At the time he was driven out by revolution, Anastasio Somoza, propped up for years by the United States, owned 20% of Nicaragua's farmland. The Sandinistas who evicted Somoza promptly embarked on efforts to redistribute land to the peasants. Their efforts to revive forests and to restore the integrity of the land won the Sandinistas international acclaim. Not for long. The United States put an end to all that, driving the Sandinistas into an increasingly desperate state of siege. In El Salvador and Honduras, death squads cut down rural organizers.

So, for years now, those worn hillsides and flood plains through Central America have been awaiting Mitch.

The only way forward is for the peasants to be given good agricultural land and adequate financial resources. That's even less likely now than it was in 1954.

Humans caused the disaster just as humans made sure that the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras were incapable of responding to the catastrophe. After a decade of "structural adjustment" imposed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and U.S. Agency for International Development, these governments are hollow shells, mutilated by enforced cutbacks. Along comes a hurricane and how can you begin evacuation if there's no money for gasoline, no vehicles, skeleton staffs, no vaccines, not even the ability to stockpile drinking water? How can you battle epidemics when the ministries of health have been decimated?

A couple of years ago, Hurricane Lili struck Cuba. The government had evacuated thousands, stockpiled sandbags, positioned backup generators, rallied medics. When Lili moved on, thousands of homes had been destroyed, but less than half a dozen lives lost. Just recently, the right-wing President Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua refused offers of help from Fidel Castro, making disparaging remarks about Cuba's political system and saying, incredibly, that Nicaragua needed even greater disciplines of the free market to recover from the disaster. There's a bleak truth Aleman and many others should reflect upon: "Natural" disasters are nature's judgment on what humans have wrought.

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