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
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
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
a supervised prohibition of timber exports until plans are devised
for the future sustainable exploitation of the forests. …