In late October 1998, Hurricane Mitch pummeled Central America, causing extensive damage to the region, especially to Honduras and Nicaragua. A region already devastated by years of war, poverty and structural adjustment, Central America has now had to deal with a natural disaster which buried entire villages, killed thousands and left millions homeless and without the means to survive. As the authors in this NACLA report on Central America after Mitch document, the damages were borne primarily by the poorest sectors of the population, many of whom lived in areas that were most exposed to floods and landslides in fragile housing that offered little protection.
There was much hope in the wake of the destruction caused by Mitch that reconstruction efforts could open opportunities for sustainable development strategies in favor of the poor and marginalized sectors of society. The development model that has dominated the region for over a hundred years—export-oriented growth based largely on one or two single crops, such as coffee and bananas—has not brought about an inclusive process of sustainable development in the region. On the contrary, it has reinforced the power of small land-owning elites and perpetuated patterns of inequality that gave rise to the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s. But despite broad efforts on the part of community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and progressive international aid organizations like Oxfam to push forward a more sustainable development model, Central American governments have instead prioritized rebuilding infrastructure for the big multinationals that dominate the region's economy rather than rethinking their development plans and priorities. That is, when they have not been simply using Mitch as a cover for advancing their own interests and that of their cronies, as documented in this report by Paul Jeffrey.
Local efforts at democratic social change continue. This is reflected in the interviews with survivors of Mitch and local activists presented by Victoria Maldonado and in the efforts of rural farmers in Honduras to devise small-scale sustainable development projects described by Jeff Boyer. But as long as the region's governments remain enthralled to local and multinational elites, their interest in promoting sustainable development for the poorest will remain weak at best. And let us not forget the role of the multilateral lenders. As Alejandro Bendaña reminds us, structural-adjustment programs imposed on poor nations by Washington and the international financial institutions create dependency and impoverishment, robbing people and their governments of the capacity to provide for the general welfare of their societies.
Mitch not only exposed the structural inequalities of Central American societies; it also laid bare the need for an urgent change in national and international priorities. It is high time that international bodies and national governments accept the principle that development must prioritize people, especially the poorest.
The Human Toll of Mitch
Economic Damages as Percent of GDP
Source: Caballeros, Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), March 3, 1999.