Hurricane Mitch

Sandino Lives!

TIPITAPA, Nicaragua—Cesar Augusto Mejia has given up on politicians. Decades of war, incompetence, and corruption—on the Right and Left—tends to sour a person on politics. For many Nicaraguans, it hasn’t really mattered whether the government’s acclaimed ideology was Sandinista Left or neoliberal Right, the upshot has been a hardscrabble life, little meaningful work, and less hope.

A stenciled sign next to the road from Managua to the small town of Tipitapa summed it up. "Sandinistas y Somacistas..." was scrawled at the top, followed by words that a visiting North American journalist translated as "...we’re all the same." She was asked, "Does that mean, ‘we’re all in this together’?" "I think that’s the idea," she said. Later, as we passed the sign on our way out of town, a native Spanish speaker clarified, saying the sign actually reads "they’re all the same." It’s a protest sign, he explained. It says, essentially, that they’re both screwing us; neither party cares about the poor, about the people.

Nicaragua is one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries, and demographics suggest that it will remain so: Half the population is under age 15, and a half-million children have no access to the nation’s education system. For Cesar Augusto, the main problem has been finding work in a country with a 60 percent unemployment rate.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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The Business of Relief

In the weeks after Hurricane Mitch roared through Central America, people around the world pitched in. Tons of supplies—and many volunteers—poured in to Honduras, Nicaragua, and other areas devastated by the century’s worst storm.

Soon, however, the deluge of support slowed to a trickle, as the world turned its eyes to earthquakes in Turkey or floods in North Carolina. For poor Hondurans and Nicaraguans, the struggle to recover from the hurricane’s ravages goes on. "We were poor before Mitch, but we were okay," one Honduran man said. "Now we have nothing."

Not everyone has turned away. Ferdinand Mahfood—"Ferdy"—is one who remains committed to helping those victimized by Mitch, but not by sending leftovers. "The way to help the poor is not to go into our closets and send used clothes," he said while visiting Honduras this fall. "To help the poor, you have to go to the poor and find out what they need." And that’s exactly what he does.

In the early ‘80s, Mahfood—then a Miami-based import-export businessman running "Mahfood’s Commercial Ltd."—had a revelation while visiting a slum in Jamaica, his family’s home country. First, he said, he had a startling realization as he looked at the hundreds of poor men, women, and children—"These were the faces of Christ." Second, he felt he had the right set of skills to actually help them.

"My gifts as a businessman were perfect for the huge job that needed to be done," Mahfood explained in an article in Guideposts magazine. "Running a large import-export firm, I had acquired the management skills to ship merchandise throughout the Caribbean. I knew how to cut governmental red tape. And I knew how to bargain to get the best merchandise for the best price. Missionaries had built facilities [like the one in Jamaica] for the poor. What they needed were supplies. That I could provide."

He’s spent the last 17 years doing just that.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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A Statue for the Worm

Three months before Hurricane Mitch, the following story was related by pastoral social workers here in Honduras:

Once upon a time there was a village that eked out a meager living by subsistence farming. Then one year a plague of gusanos (worms) devoured the whole corn crop. Facing famine, the people held a village meeting, and after going around in circles with no solution in sight, Dona Tina spoke up: "Why not plant plantains and bananas?" And so they did, everyone working together from sunrise to sundown. The community prospered more than ever, selling the plantains and diversifying their activities. A year later when they gathered to evaluate the miracle, the mayor proposed erecting a statue of Do±a Tina whose creativity had saved the village. But a voice from behind proposed, "Why not erect a statue for the worm?"

Here in Tocoa, which means "place of water," our gusano is Mitch. We haven't seen the television images of Mitch's devastation, and we haven't been to Tegucigalpa, but we have been hungry, thirsty, up to our knees in mud or our chests in water, absolutely I-can't-go-another-step, respond-to-another-demand exhausted. And yet, in this parish on the northern coast of Honduras—which has given birth to a reconstruction and renovation program operating in 104 communities and neighborhoods and replicated throughout the diocese—while a statue has not been discussed, "Gusano Mitch" has been the opportunity for a real Jubilee.

At a glance Jubilee seems far away. The writing of this article has been delayed by the sixth tail of Mitch, which knocked out power for another five days. Families are still in shelters, the new corn crop (not the one destroyed by Mitch) has been lost in the valley, and you've read about the rest: deficit, disaster, and the traditionally excluded more excluded than ever. Mitch is the hurricane that won't go away.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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A Mature Compassion

"In 72 hours we lost what we had built, little by little, in 50 years." These were the words of Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse following the emergency summit of Central American leaders in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. In Honduras and Nicaragua, the most affected countries, 10,000 people were killed. Honduras needs new homes for 1.4 million and 70 percent of the nation's crops were destroyed. In Nicaragua more than 1,600 miles of roads were destroyed and 42 bridges damaged beyond repair. Costs of reconstruction are estimated at $3 billion.

Compassion has been mobilized. Ordinary people have responded to the misery, donating money, time, and resources. The U.S. government has announced an aid package worth tens of millions of dollars. However, without debt relief, this sort of compassion will mean little in the long run. For Carole Collins, national coordinator of the Jubilee 2000/USA campaign, it is plain. "The U.S. commitment...is certainly welcome and needed," Collins said. "Yet Nicaragua and Honduras are obliged to pay back more than $2.2 million every day. Unless it is canceled, this debt burden—which is essentially unpayable—will make the effort at long-term recovery a tragic failure. It is absolutely shameful that, especially after a disaster of this magnitude, we continue to demand repayment."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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