Hurricane Mitch's Legacy Aid Provides 'Revolution of Opportunity' - for the Needy and the Corrupt

Article excerpt

An exact calculation will never be made of the human and material damage caused by hurricane Mitch in Central America. But the worst hit countries - Honduras and Nicaragua - may have lost a generation or more of economic progress. An enormous amount of humanitarian and reconstruction aid is needed, and there is no reason to delay its prompt arrival.

It is important to ask, however, whether this aid will be used only to rebuild bridges to the past. Before the hurricane, the countries of Central America were extremely poor and suffered from a grievous disparity of income between a small number of the very rich and millions of the very poor. Although all governments of the region now have elected civilian governments, Central America's history of civil wars, revolutions, foreign interventions and dictatorships has left these new democratic regimes extremely feeble. Governmental institutions remain ineffective and riddled with cronyism and corruption. Civil society is weak.

The modest private sector, as in a hall of mirrors, reflects the public sector's incompetence and corrupt practices. The backwardness of Honduras and Nicaragua are the result of natural and historical catastrophes. The different catastrophes are related. Even though the first kind can't be averted, the second magnifies their consequences. In 1972 an earthquake destroyed Nicaragua's capital. In 1975 Hurricane Fifi devastated Honduras. Humanitarian and reconstruction aid was also available then, but it didn't improve the condition of either country. The current tragedy may represent an opportunity to prevent another return to the way things were. Or it could sow the seeds for greater tragedies in the future. The former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza said that the earthquake that laid waste his country's capital represented a "revolution of opportunity." Aid for that crisis ended up in the pockets of Somoza and his cronies, and another kind of revolution erupted seven years later, leading to civil war, American and Soviet involvement, and two decades later, a GNP per capita that had dipped to the levels of 40 years ago. This time, international aid must be used to break the cycle of historical and natural catastrophes. Courage and new ideas are needed to guide reconstruction efforts. For example, given that massive deforestation is to blame for a major part of the damage, the international community should consider a supervised prohibition of timber exports until plans are devised for the future sustainable exploitation of the forests. …