From the Ecumenical Committee of International Church Personnel in Nicaragua
We, the members of the Ecumenical Committee, representing about 20 Catholic communities and Protestant denominations from the US, Canada, and Europe, write this letter in the hope of sharing not only information about what is taking place in Nicaragua following the natural disaster caused by Hurricane Mitch but also our concerns about how governments, churches, non-governmental organizations, and relief agencies respond to this crisis.
Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America with several days of non-stop rain over the last week of October and the first days of November and may be the worst natural disaster of the century in this region. In Nicaragua alone the death toll is in the thousands, thousands more are still unaccounted for, and hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have lost homes, farms, possessions, and the means by which to survive.
During the worst days of the storm overflowing rivers surrounded and divided major cities like Estelí and Matagalpa and completely washed away many villages in northern Nicaragua and on the Atlantic Coast, where thousands of people still wait atop rooftops and hills for helicopters to rescue them. Families have desperately stationed their children high up in trees to protect them, sometimes tying them to branches so they can't fall out of the trees while sleeping. And these are the survivors. More than 1,200 people who lived near Casita Volcano were buried alive in the mudslide that ensued when the volcano crater filled and overflowed, and another 1,400 are still missing. With a minimum of helicopters available and a limited but committed Civil Defense infrastructure, rescue workers struggled for days to reach survivors trapped in the mud. Tragically, many of those trapped died before they could be reached.
Though rescue and relief workers have reached many communities by now, thousands of Nicaraguans will suffer enormously in the coming weeks, and many will not survive. With drinking water contaminated and corpses still present on these scenes of disaster, epidemic disease seems inevitable. Food is scarce in much of the country, and the rain has reportedly caused more crop loss in 12 days than all damage to crops caused by last year's drought. Damage to roads, bridges, and agricultural machinery will cause serious delays in future agricultural production and will certainly lead to further indebtedness on the part of campesinos, farmers, and cooperatives who borrowed from the banks for this year's planting season. In sum, the situation is urgent, and how those with resources choose to respond will make an enormous difference in terms of saving and restoring lives.
Hurricane Mitch is being widely reported as a natural disaster, but the tragedy it has left behind here in Nicaragua also stems from human factors such as extreme poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and a national government that critics say takes lightly the concerns of the poor. We in the Ecumenical Committee believe these unfortunate human factors are maintained by the prevailing global economic order, which pressures the Nicaraguan government to prioritize paying debts ahead of caring for its citizens.
Even before this storm Nicaragua was in an untenable position. According to the British Jubilee 2000 Coalition, every day Nicaragua and Honduras pay $2 million in debt service. Last year the Nicaraguan government spent 2 and 1/2 times as much on the external debt as on health and education. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the outrage of debt bondage has never been more obvious. Ruled by international bankers and shaped by inhumane priorities, Nicaragua may need several years just to recover to its previous status, unstable as that was.
We in the Ecumenical Committee are also worried about the stability of the country at this time. Expressions of disappointment and frustration from the populace regarding the government's response to this crisis are increasingly common. When President Arnoldo Alemán, who maintains close personal and financial ties with the Miami Cuban community, accepted emergency relief in the form of medicine from the Cuban government but refused assistance from Cuban doctors, whose reputation is excellent for many in Nicaragua, many Nicaraguans questioned the president's priorities. President Alemán refuses to declare a state of emergency, saying that certain sectors of the country have not been affected by the hurricane and thus a national declaration of emergency is not warranted. However, many Nicaraguans make it clear they believe there are other reasons behind the president's decision. According to a Nicaraguan constitutional rights expert, the emergency law stipulates that the government must present an economic plan to international organizations, and critics charge that the Alemán administration is unprepared and unwilling to do this.
Another argument used by the government is that a state of emergency would automatically eliminate debts farmers have accrued with private banks, which in turn would scare away financial investment. CEPAD attorney Sebastian Castillo disagrees, saying that farmers and cooperatives on a case-by-case basis would have to prove the hurricane destroyed crops yielded by loans. Government officials have been quoted warning that a state of emergency would also lead to the suspension of civil liberties, but former National Assembly Deputy Dora María Téllez (who as a deputy debated the fine points of emergency law) contends that a state of emergency can be declared without suspending civil liberties.
An official state of emergency would also loosen Alemán's stranglehold on local non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. For several months the Ministry of Finances has denied the release of duty-free material donations from abroad, demanding taxes of 40% to 100% from the local churches and NGOs who receive them. NGO representatives say President Alemán considers many NGOs to be partisan or to have agendas contrary to his party's agenda.
As the hurricane was still battering Nicaragua, Alemán told journalists that a state of emergency would lead to "a river of profits for many fishermen." A government official, who requested anonymity, was more explicit, saying, "We will not declare it because NGOs will take advantage of international aid." Fortunately, in the days following the hurricane the NGO community managed to negotiate an agreement with the government allowing financial and material aid to pass through customs duty-free if the receiving NGO is registered properly with the Ministry of Foreign Aid.
According to a constitutional expert, Nicaraguans afflicted by Hurricane Mitch would benefit by the declaration of a state of emergency because some international organizations prioritize higher percentage of emergency funds for countries in a state of emergency than for those in less extreme conditions. For example, some organizations are known to designate 50% of emergency funds where there's a "declared red alert," which Alemán has declared, and 100% of their funds where there's a "state of emergency."
Many representatives of civil society are concerned that, despite the likelihood of attracting more aid, the president still refuses to declare a state of emergency. An increasingly larger portion of the public seems to think President Alemán is playing political games with emergency relief and would leave his people hungry, cold, and increasingly ill rather than set aside partisanship and his differences with certain sectors of civil society. Some Nicaraguans are responding angrily: recent newspaper headlines suggested Alemán is unfit to serve as president, while onlookers jeered the president and threw things at him during an inspection of an area affected by mud slides. We members of the Ecumenical Committee are concerned that civil unrest, compounded by widespread suffering, may lead to outbreaks of violence and that Nicaragua will become increasingly unstable.
We believe that Nicaragua needs a relief situation like that in Honduras, where the government is fully cooperating with church agencies and civil society. In part because of widespread perceptions that President Alemán is not fully cooperating with civil society and in part because of the swirl of scandals that have followed him since taking office in 1996, following an election flawed by irregularities, we would recommend that aid be channeled through NGOs. For anyone unfamiliar with the many NGOs working in Nicaragua, at the end of this letter we include the names, addresses, and bank account numbers of a few of the NGOs we believe will work effectively in emergency relief and longer-term rebuilding and development.We emphasize that these are only four organizations which we are most familiar and at this moment can commend for your consideration. We will try to share names, account numbers, and addresses of others when we have more information.
Thousands of Nicaraguans are suffering in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, and international support is essential to helping Nicaraguans survive this crisis. We urge you to contact your local Congressional Representatives and Senators to advocate four points: to make increased funds available for Nicaragua and Honduras, to channel official U.S. emergency aid through the NGO community and nternational relief agencies rather than through the Nicaraguan government, to mobilize U.S. helicopters stationed in Panama immediately for rescue operations in Nicaragua, and to send help as soon as possible to Nicaragua and Honduras in the form of road and bridge reconstruction.
Co-coordinators of the Ecumenical Committee of International Church Personnel in Nicaragua:
1. Accion Medica Cristiana (Christian Medical Action) Monetary donations should be sent to: BICSA (Banco Internacional de Costa Rica, Miami Agency) PO Box 111002 Miami, FL 33111 ABA No: 066011567 Fax. 305-381-6971 Tel. 305-374-0855 Account no. 2100-20-02-10200-1648 Account name: Accion Medica Cristiana Notice of deposit for hurricane relief should be sent to Accion Medica Cristiana, Apdo. 216, Managua, Nicaragua. Tel/fax 505-2674003, email direccion.AMC@netport.com.ni 2. Quixote Center/Quest for Peace PO Box 5206 Hyattsville, MD 20782 Tel. 301-699-0042 Fax 301-864-2182 email@example.com The Quixote Center can receive monetary and material aid for hurricane relief in Nicaragua to be distributed by their counterpart JUAN XXIII Center, Apdo MR-48, Managua, Nicaragua, fax 505-267-0416. Please advise JUAN XXIII of your deposit for hurricane relief. Please contact the Quixote Center for address to send material aid. 3. CEPAD (Council of Evangelical Churches of Nicaragua) Monetary donations can be sent to CEPAD's U.S. account at: NATIONS BANK Miami International Airport Miami, FL 33159 Account no. 1180221920 Account name: CEPAD Please advise CEPAD of deposit for hurricane relief at Apdo. 3091, Managua, Nicaragua, or fax at 505-2664236 or email firstname.lastname@example.org 4. Centro Ecumenico Antonio Valdivieso Wire transfers order to: NATIONS BANK International Miami Miami, FL ABA 066002482 favoring account (BBK) no. 0075-067890-001 of INTERBANK, A. Managua, Nicaragua for final payment to #201-02-001-017644-0. Beneficiary: Centro Ecumenico/Mujer y Comunidad SFL (project in San Francisco Libre). Please notify the Centro Valdivieso of wire transfer for hurricane relief at: Apdo 3205, Managua, Nicaragua. Fax 505-2223032 or email email@example.com