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Issue 34, January 1999

Unnatural disaster

    The original 'Banana republic'
    Neighbourhood watch
    Class interests

Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America at the end of October unleashing a deluge of rain and mud. The trail of death and destruction in its wake left more than 11,000 people dead and over 13,000 missing. MANNY THAIN questions whether the colossal price - paid in human life - was inevitable. And why has the response of the 'international community' been so limited?

HURRICANE MITCH WAS the most destructive Atlantic storm for decades. It formed in the Caribbean Sea as the fourth deepest depression ever recorded in the Atlantic region. However, by the time it reached Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, its intensity had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Yet it was in Honduras that it reaped the most damage. As its moisture-rich air rose over the mountainous terrain it released over 600 millimetres of rain in one day. But it was the lack of vegetation due to deforestation which was the release mechanism for tons of mud to cascade down the steep slopes into the inhabited valleys. Land clearings for grazing, used by poor peasants desperately trying to eke out a living, put them in the path of the raging torrents. Extreme poverty also meant that the dwellings were substandard, unable to withstand the battering.

The first mud slide devastated the Nicaraguan town of Rolando Rodriguez. Children clung desperately to trees, and men and women were sunk up to their necks in mud. Local residents, Mr and Mrs Centeno, somehow survived, their house one of only two still standing. Using a rope they began hauling stranded people into their home. They rescued 40 people, sprawled out on the safety of the dirt floor of their small house. Many others were out of reach, their pleas for help a constant reminder of their plight. For three days the Centenos tended to the broken bones and wounds of these survivors, ripping up all their clothes to use as bandages, using up all their food, even scavenging meat off a dead cow washed up in their yard. Four of the people pulled from the mud died in their home. Then more torrential rain sent another swell of mud down the mountainside and into the valley, sweeping away the trees with the children still clinging to them. Rescue helicopters did not arrive until the following day.

  This story could be replicated time and time again. Nearly half the country has been cut-off, 300 schools have been destroyed. One-third of Nicaragua is without water or electricity. One-quarter of its transportation infrastructure has been seriously damaged, 71 bridges are unusable.

The devastation is even more extreme in Honduras where 93 bridges were severed, effectively turning the country into a nation of islands. More than three-quarters of the Honduran infrastructure has been destroyed, including the Pan American highway. In Tegucigalpa, under a state of emergency with a nine-to-five curfew and alcohol ban, 700,000 people are in desperate need of food and medical aid. Virtually no one has running water. The main hospital only had enough food for a week and an unsafe water supply. Five thousand people turn up each day: 'We'd have far more if there were any public transport and no curfew', a hospital spokesperson said (The Independent, 10 November).

And this is just the start, before the inevitable cholera epidemic. There has been an outbreak of Hepatitis A. Bodies are stacked outside the morgues. For the lack of hygienic alternatives, people have been forced to consume food and water from rivers still clogged with bodies and dead animals. The bill for rebuilding Honduras is set at more than $2bn. Agricultural production, the backbone of these Central American economies, could take years to recover.

This disaster almost defies imagination. Of the ten million living in Nicaragua and Honduras, there are an estimated 11,000 dead, a further 13,000 missing/feared dead and well over a million made homeless. Parts of El Salvador and Guatemala were also hit.

The examples of people struggling for survival are not just stories about individuals. They are an indictment of global capitalism and its inability to provide for the world's poor. It has been left to the people of Central America to dig themselves out of the mud. And it has been the workers of other countries who have been the quickest to react. Throughout Latin America, campaigns raising money and supplies have been set up. In Britain, in 24 hours, appeals raised as much money as that promised by the government.

The workers and poor face absolute destitution in an area of the world already bled dry by international bankers and multinationals. Honduras and Nicaragua are the two poorest countries in the western hemisphere after Haiti. The average income in Honduras is $2 a day ($700 a year), in Nicaragua it's $1.20 a day ($410 a year).

  top     The original 'banana republic'

HONDURAN PRESIDENT, CARLOS Roberto Flores, said people should not expect too much from the government - it was up to communities and individuals to do the work. At the same time, he predicted the birth of a new Honduras - a phoenix rising from the mud and debris - that the effect of Hurricane Mitch will be to wipe the slate clean and allow him to lay the foundations of a better, more socially equitable country: 'New, remodelled, vigorous and modern without unfair privilege or advantage for anyone'.

But what hope is there of this? Flores answered this when he became president less than a year ago. One of his first acts was to lower the already low export tax on bananas and to increase VAT from 7% to 12% - hitting the poor hardest.

Honduras is the original 'banana republic', reflecting the political influence of US-based multinationals, Dole Food and Chiquita, which have dominated the Honduran banana industry for 100 years. Now these notoriously anti-union multinationals are threatening to lay-off thousands of banana workers. Chiquita spokesmen have said that 77% of the crop has been damaged along with the company's infrastructure, claiming it faces losses of $70m (one-quarter of its world-wide production). The unions say this is an excuse to axe workers' jobs in the face of over-production in this sector. Soil specialists have even estimated that the flooding will net these companies millions of dollars worth of nutrients (banana plantations are in flood areas so they can benefit from annually enriched soil).

The developing banana war between the US and European Union is also linked to political lobbying by Chiquita. The US itself only grows bananas in Hawaii, and does not export those to the EU. Yet the Clinton administration lodged a complaint against the EU with the World Trade Organisation last year within 24 hours of a decision by Chiquita's previously staunchly Republican chairman, Carl H Lindner Jnr, to donate $500,000 to Democratic Party funds.

  By 9 November Honduras had been promised $120m aid. This has to be compared with the $3.6bn immediately given to panic-stricken bankers to pay off the gambling debts in Long-Term Credit Management, which collapsed in September. As ordinary people showed extraordinary determination, the US armed forces took a day out to fly Tipper Gore - the US's 'second lady' - on a trip around the devastated countryside for the benefit of US media. In 'solidarity' she slept rough alongside Hurricane Mitch victims - after 'freshening up' in the hotel rented by the media circus, of course. Hillary Clinton is next in line for a tour.

Promised international aid is only now trickling in and new loans are being arranged for a country crippled by debt. Nicaragua and Honduras are saddled with debt repayments of £1.3m per day (in 1996 Honduras spent two-and-a-half times as much on debt than on health and education). Honduras owes $4.5bn to foreign creditors, costing $564m in debt servicing per year - 80% of its annual budget. Nicaragua spends 40% of its budget servicing its $6.1bn debt, which at £800 per person, is the world's highest per capita debt. Most of this is owed to the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and IMF.

When uproar greeted the statement by Clare Short, Britain's International Development Secretary, that debt was irrelevant to the relief programme, Gordon Brown put forward a proposal for a debt moratorium, while rejecting unilateral action by Britain. In reality, it was an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity - these countries are in no position to pay anything, anyway.

The Independent on Sunday editorial (8 November) agreed with Short's initial sentiment: 'The very concept of outstanding debt or interest rates are utterly meaningless to a family whose home has been swept away by typhoon and torrent and who have had nothing to eat for days'.

  top     Neighbourhood watch

BUT WHO PAYS for the debt? The working class and poor. IMF debt relief depends on categorising countries. As a Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Nicaragua should have some of its loans cut by 2001/02. But to become a HIPC in the first place, countries must spend at least three years implementing IMF-inspired economic reform - the infamous 'structural adjustment programmes' - which involve drastic cuts in social spending and other attacks on workers' wages and conditions. And if countries fall into arrears at any time, they are automatically disqualified from the IMF agreement and have to begin all over again.

The advanced capitalist countries and their financial agencies recoil at any suggestion of writing-off debts. The debt burden is one of the main weapons for keeping the developing world in line. Imperialist powers fear that debt cancellation would cut across their ability to force economic austerity on the poorer countries. Cancellation would set a dangerous precedent, from their point of view, by encouraging other countries to default - especially during a time of economic crisis and world recession. Private investors would also be discouraged from lending money in the future - because they could not be guaranteed a return.

Diane Coyle (The Independent, 11 November) laments the situation where 'the people are being made to pay with their life and health for the past follies of their leaders'. In many cases, the debts 'were… inherited from obnoxious regimes that squandered loans on guns and palaces'. But which 'obnoxious regimes' is she talking about? And whose interests do these regimes serve?

The whole Central American region - which the US looks on as its own 'backyard' - is policed by the US with a heavy hand. The struggle to destabilise the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, using the Contra forces based in Honduras, being a case in point.

  In a recent report, former CIA Inspector-General, Frederick Hitz, admits the US turned a blind eye to Contra drug smuggling. Ronald Reagan, US president at the time, was on a mission to rid the region of 'communism', and backed the Contras to the hilt, even stating that they were 'the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers'. In total, the Reagan administration spent nearly $2bn funding this semi-secret war, stationing 7,000 US troops in Honduras. In 1987 the Sultan of Brunei donated $10m to the effort.

Hitz's report details dozens of drug trafficking allegations by people used and employed by the CIA. Alan Hyde, a Honduran businessman, transported guns in 1987/88. But it was more a case of guns in, drugs out… and onto the streets of the USA. In March 1993 an attempt was made to investigate Hyde's cocaine dealing. This was shelved because 'his connection to (the CIA) is well documented and could prove difficult in the prosecution stage'. In 1986 the Drug Enforcement Administration wanted to look into the activities of Hangar 4, a military facility used to support the Contras. Again, the CIA blocked this. In fact, Hangar 4 was run by Lt-Col Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame, who organised the funding of this war after the US Congress eventually cut-off the official money supply to the Contras.

A further legacy of this dirty war are the hundreds of landmines released by the flood waters and now floating in the rivers. British marines opted for helicopter transport rather than dinghies because of the danger they pose.

  top     Class interests

FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS ARE being raised about the international response to this and other disasters and on the issue of debt in general. The International Herald Tribune (9 November) asked: 'Can we organise and finance the kind of international emergency and humanitarian relief so vitally needed in cases such as this? Can we design new financial mechanisms that spread risks throughout the world's financial markets so that the impact of disaster is not borne solely by the poorest?'

These questions strike at the heart of the capitalist system. How can a system based on the exploitation of workers and poor peasants come to their aid? With profit as the motivating force, the interests of the capitalists inevitably rule.

And here, environmental and economic issues become inextricably linked and are central to the problem. Globally, big business's race for profits has led to massive environmental destruction, destabilising the world's climate. Locally, deforestation maximised the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch.

This is no 'natural' disaster. The capitalist system's inability to deal with the effects of Hurricane Mitch cannot be put down to logistical problems, but the class basis on which the world is organised. Despite the US being one of the world's major oil producers, the rescue effort is being hampered by a lack of fuel. Whilst the US and its allies are threatening to attack Iraq with the most expensive, high-tech hardware available, it begrudgingly spares a few meagre crumbs off the table to deal with the devastating human crisis in its own 'backyard'. And, even though there are 700 US marines permanently stationed in Honduras, hardly anything was done to ease the suffering of the people for over a week. What is certain is that those troops will be used if Central American workers and peasants start to fight their way out of the hell they find themselves in. Troops are already on standby to patrol the bridges as they are rebuilt to stop people fleeing the affected areas, in preparation for widespread social and political unrest.

  It is a ringing indictment of the profit system that, as we approach (supposedly) a new millennium, we are witnessing such inaction in the face of such massive human misery. It is not that the money and technology to help do not exist. It is only in whose hands they are held and in whose interests they are used. Unnatural disasters, like the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, will continue as long as the world is run for the benefit of the rich and powerful in the richest capitalist countries. The wealth of this minority - the ruling class - is based on the exploitation of the workers of all countries and on the super-exploitation of the human and natural resources of the developing world. Struggle and solidarity - as demonstrated by the immediate response of the world's workers to Central America's suffering - offers the only way forward for humanity. For a 'new millennium' to really represent a fresh start, the socialist transformation of society must be won on a global scale.

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