A Flood of Ideas to Build Central America Anew POST-MITCH 'OPPORTUNITY'

Article excerpt

The rivers of Central America were still running high with the waters of hurricane Mitch last month when the Managua newspaper La Tribuna ran this six-column, front-page headline: "A historic opportunity."

The opportunity is to use the global focus on one of the century's worst natural disasters to turn one of the world's poorest regions into a new and different Central America. The idea is being fostered by a wide range of strong voices - from Central American presidents to foreign officials, economists, and development analysts.

Mitch-damaged countries are to meet with donor countries and international aid organizations in Washington Dec. 10-11. Agenda: to map out a strategy for long-term progress instead of simply building roads and housing. Sen. Bob Graham calls for NAFTA-like freer trade to help Central Americans help themselves. One example of the thinking Mitch is churning up: Sen.. Bob Graham of Florida is calling for a "Central American and Caribbean Relief Act" that would extend to the region eased trade provisions similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The act proposes micro-credits to encourage restoration and creation of small businesses; and a disaster management agency within the Organization of American States to improve disaster prevention and mitigation in the region. "The severity of this tragedy opens the way for the United States to play a substantial role in the reconstruction of Central America," says Senator Graham. A "long history of heavy US involvement" in the region makes US participation and even leadership in an aid program "appropriate and imperative," he says. A clearer picture of how much aid Central America can count on should come out of the Washington meeting. Already some experts in the region peg reconstruction at $20 billion, with forgiving of international debt one of the principal demands of affected countries. Nicaragua's external debt tops $6 billion - servicing it requires almost 40 percent of the country's budget - while that of Honduras tops $4 billion. The trick will be not just achieving substantial relief from the international debt, observers say, but also making sure the savings on servicing the debt are channeled in the right areas: education, small-farmer development, land-use planning and enforcement. "For this to be not just a reconstruction but a transformation, which is what our Central American governments are calling for, we will have to have the participation of all sectors of society," says Eduardo Montealegre Rivas, Nicaragua's foreign minister. "If we recognize that one key to development is involvement of all contributing actors - private business, NGOs {nongovernmental organizations}, government, the churches - then we have to work to make them all part of this effort." Nicaragua last week set up a six-commission reconstruction organization, with one of the commissions focused on promoting broad grass-roots involvement. …