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COLUMN ONE

Aid Stalled Yet Again; Hope Dims

Food and other items finally get from L.A. to Nicaragua, only to sit on a dock. Hurricane victims face desperate conditions.

April 05, 1999|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PUERTO CORINTO, Nicaragua — Hundreds of tons of hurricane aid from Los Angeles are stacked up in metal containers under the hot sun at this small port. An hour's drive away, thousands of victims--barefoot children with swollen bellies, a mother cooking beans in an old paint can--are barely surviving in makeshift refugee camps.

Long delays in getting help to Hurricane Mitch victims are not what Nicole Wool and thousands of other Los Angeles donors had in mind. Five months have passed since the storm tore through Nicaragua, killing 3,000 people and leaving 40,000 families homeless.

"It's just terrible," Wool said when told the shipment containing donations she rounded up was sitting at the port. A student at Southwestern University School of Law, Wool rushed to collect bags of food and clothing from her classmates last December. "To have all that stuff sitting there and not have access to it is just inhumane."

The Nicaraguan consul general in Los Angeles had pledged that all the goods collected would be handed out immediately by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. Instead, the cargo has ended up in the hands of a social services operation run by the Nicaraguan president's daughter, Maria Dolores Aleman. She was in Ecuador last week during her Easter holiday and has said she will decide what to do with the goods after she returns this week.

The stalled shipment shows how good intentions can be undercut by a lack of planning and the politics of aid distribution in a country still divided by civil warfare that raged for about a dozen years.

Shortly after the storm struck Oct. 28, the Nicaraguan consul general in Los Angeles appealed for donations.

The consul and his small staff soon were overwhelmed by mountains of contributions. The 675 tons--from food to medicine to mattresses--became stranded in Los Angeles warehouses for nearly three months because there was no money to pay for shipping.

The snag was reported by The Times in late January. The response from the public helped raise thousands of dollars to transport the badly needed supplies.

Finally, on March 12, the 28 cargo containers of supplies--one of the largest humanitarian shipments to be sent to Nicaragua--were loaded onto an old freighter at the Port of Los Angeles.

But after landing here on March 19, nearly all of the 40-foot containers remain at the dock. There is no specific plan for distribution.

Meanwhile, relief officials here say that international food donations have tailed off while malnourished victims make do with meager rations and babies go days without milk. "We need the help for our children," said Miguel Canda, who survives with 11 family members in a plastic tent at a dusty camp an hour from the port.

Canda and other refugees from a massive mudslide that killed more than 1,500 people in a Sandinista-administered area complain that they have been forgotten by the Nicaraguan government. The little food that has arrived, they say, has come largely from international relief organizations and local nonprofit groups.

President Arnoldo Aleman, a widower, has appointed his daughter as first lady. She oversees charities to shelter street children and provide supplies for hospitals in the capital of Managua.

The few Los Angeles items that have been distributed--thousands of dollars worth of new Simmons mattresses--did not reach hurricane survivors, as intended, but went to needy hospitals as part of one of her charity projects.

"I'm appalled," said Claudia Lanuza of Compton-based Simmons Corp., which made the $30,000 gift. "We wanted to deal specifically with hurricane people."

The 26-year-old first lady said she would give some of the containers to the Catholic Church and that she and the government are moving as fast as possible to get aid to those who need it, as well as to deserving institutions.

"The destruction was very fast, but the reconstruction is very slow," she said, adding that she hoped to have the Los Angeles goods distributed in a month.

She said the government is working to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and address victims' long-term needs.

Some critics, however, accuse the Nicaraguan government of ignoring immediate needs at some refugee camps.

"They decided arbitrarily that the emergency is over, and they have turned their backs on the victims of the hurricane," said Carlos F. Chamorro, a scion of one of Nicaragua's most prominent political and journalism families. He recently surveyed hurricane-hit areas with students from UC Berkeley, where he is on a teaching fellowship.

Clearly, massive amounts of humanitarian aid have found their way to thousands of people across Central America. But the Los Angeles shipment shows that international gift giving can be an uncertain venture.

The tale of the troubled aid is something Los Angeles donors did not envision.

A Tragic Story Inspires Action

In late October, Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America with driving rain and winds up to 180 mph.

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