At the end of October 1998 Mitch the most terrible hurricane to have hit the American continent did severe damage to three Central American countries. This meteorological phenomenon registered the highest possible classification and the speed of the winds was higher than any others before.
It stayed for three days on one of the paradise islands of Honduras and then swept across almost all the country's territory from north-east to south-west, passing through the centre. It stormed for three hundred kilometres across the whole of Honduras and parts of Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The damage it caused was gigantic. In only five days it dropped approximately 300 hundred cubic kilometres of rain which burst riverbanks, flooded lagoons and lakes, carried away villages, cities, bridges, roads, productive areas and everything that stood in the way of the water and the mountains of mud that it moved. In Honduras alone 1,400,000 people were affected, with 10,000 deaths and 15,000 disappearances. In the capital Tegucigalpa, the formerly romantic rivers and streams which cross it all broke their banks at the same time and produced havoc the magnitude of which surpasses the imagination.
By way of comparison the number of people affected had the United States suffered to the same extent would have reached 60 million. It made more than one visiting foreign dignitary exclaim, `It's a tragedy of biblical proportions'.
The vulnerability of countries was laid bare; their enormous social problems came to the surface; extreme poverty was on hand with its enormous burden of distress; richer people were hit as never before; many middle class people still held their property deeds but had neither house nor land; the lower classes saw their already inhuman level of survival dropping even further; the gross domestic product fell sharply; per capita national income slumped to the levels of some years ago and history shouted, `reconstruction has to go hand in hand with transformation', 'things have got to be done differently', `a new way has to be built and not looked for'.
Mitch caused nearly three times as much damage as the major earthquake in Guatemala in 1976, and more than twelve times the havoc wrought by El Niño in Central America. (See box.)
Damage wrought by natural disasters in Central America (US$)
These facts speak for themselves but one piece of data is missing for an accurate view of the damage caused by Mitch. No natural phenomenon has caused such damage to the GDP as Mitch did in Central America, especially in Honduras and Nicaragua. In the case of Honduras, 80 per cent of the GDP was affected and the destruction in Nicaragua was equivalent to 33 per cent of the GDP.
Damage to the social structures came to US$799 million; to the productive structure, US$3,920 million; to the infrastructure, US$1,220 million; and, to the environment, approximately US$67 million.
The recent processes of democratisation have been put to a difficult test because of the sudden worsening of conditions of life, the spread of poverty, the fall in exports and employment and finally due to the physical, economic and social vulnerablity of these nations.
In contrast to the vulnerablities some strengths have become manifest, particularly in Honduras. The fact is that the Honduran people and its government reacted as one, presenting a united front to the tragedy. The confidence that Hondurans have in their institutions is another reason for hope that allowed us to face the disaster in such a way that there was none of the looting that happened in such places as Armenia in Colombia, for instance. The part played by the churches in the distribution of aid, the lack of politicisation of the emergency procedures, the cooperation that was the framework for the rehabilitation process and the state of the process of transformation have allowed the government and civil society to join forces in confronting the great tragedy.
No less important was the attitude of the political parties who agreed among themselves not to politicise aid to the victims and to call a halt to political activity as testimony to their deep concern for the magnitude of the tragedy.
The attack on poverty, the generation of employment, the rehabilitation of production, the creation of new centres of production and the holistic vision of the countries and peoples of Central America are the basic pillars of the Central American process of rebuilding and transformation.
Beside these strengths other dangers emerge - the danger that the Central American people forget the Mitch tragedy. They might start to act again as they did in normal conditions or drop their guard when we have only just begun to rebuild and transform. That would be a mistake with historic consequences. Something which could add to that threat is that the international community could forget little by little the intense solidarity that it showed at the moment of the tragedy.
The great tragedy caused by Mitch carried many lessons for the peoples and governments of Central America. These lessons must be learned with care and must light the way forward toward a globalisation with all its dangers and possibilities.
If the process of globalisation that we are living out ever more intensely finds us uneducated, untrained, unproductive, uncompetitive and deprived of national identity it will create the effects of a destructive social tornado. If on the other hand we are aware and armed with national identity, high morale and developed abilities, the will to reduce poverty and improve income distribution, a democratic vocation and we are determined to reduce social inequalities, the winds of the tornado will moderate into something that will enable us to go forward to a future of humanity, prosperity and an ecologically sustainable environment.
It is that fight that we are waging.
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