Jan 24, 2005
In 1996, Hurricane Mitch struck the Central American country of Honduras, the century's worst natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere. For five days it rained torrents, producing landslides that swept entire villages off hills. There were 9,000 people killed and nine billion dollars of property damage.
Six months later, a number of the richest countries met at a donors' conference in Stockholm. They pledged nine billion dollars for long term programs to develop the area, with the U.S. pledging 900 million dollars. Nine countries deferred debt payment.
Most of the money never arrived. The United States Congress set a two-year limit on reconstruction. When the time ran out and government money was shut off, many of the private organizations stopped their assistance too, leaving the projects unfinished. Nor did debt relief mean that interest payments on the debt stopped. The people of Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, had to come up with 219 million dollars to the banks last year alone.
Three years after the disaster, 20,000 people remained homeless, living in temporary shelter. They decided to do something about it. In 2002, 200 people from the area of Amarateca, where many refugees were settled, went into the capital of Honduras and stormed a church. They told the priest that no one could leave until they got permanent housing. Relief agencies finished the construction of buildings in their area, but left out the electricity, water and sanitation.
A year later the residents took action again: they blocked the major northbound highway demanding basic services. Today half the homes are still not properly wired with electricity, the water pump for the area is broken, there is a clinic without a doctor and a community meeting hall, to which no one in the community has a key.
The failure of reconstruction is clear. And so is the reason for this failure: The priority of capital is to extract economic surplus from the poor countries. Despite plenty of TV coverage at the recent donors' conference, there is no reason to believe that the tsunami victims will fare any better than did those of Hurricane Mitch.