In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch which devastated Honduras in 1998, Moises Starkman recalls how his hopes were lifted by the immediate response of the international community.
“It was the human drama of Mitch that impacted a lot of countries,” the country’s former Minister of International Cooperation told Univision, recalling how Mexican aid arrived quickly in military planes and helicopters, followed by a convoy of trucks and tractors.
Back then, a death toll of 20,000 people and images of communities swept away in flash floods, sparked a global fundraising effort in the United States and Europe, that poured billions of dollars into the country.
But Starkman, now a 67-year-old university professor teaching politician economica, fears this time the response to the double blow of hurricanes Eta and Iota will be different.
“Mitch was terrible, but the impact now is more economic, it's not the same,” he said. “And the attititude in countries is very different, like the United States, Europe and even Mexico. No es que no van a ayudar, pero no va a ser como Mitch,” he added.
These days the world is distracted by the covid-19 pandemic which has stretched budgets, as well as the Nov 3 ongoing dispute over the election results in the United States. Shocking levels of political corruption in Honduras and Nicaragua also serve as a damper on the enthusiasm of nations to help.
Although the out-going Trump administration has so far said little about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Central America, it is likely to be a major concern for president-elect Joe Biden, who has already proposed a $4 billion plan to tackle poverty in the region and head off and another wave of migration.
With the U.S. transition stalled by President Donald Trump’s reluctance to accept defeat, Honduras may have to wait until Biden is in office on January 20. Even then, the new president will likely have other priorities.
On Thursday, the U.S. announced $17 million is emergency humanitarian aid for Central America, largely dedicated to helping provide shelter for displaced families. The U.S. military is also responding with rescue and logistics operations from its Honduras-based Joint Task Force-Bravo.
But other than that, the international response has been weak. “Compared to Mitch the international response has been slow, and I would say inadequate,” said Adriana Beltrán an expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based policy watchdog.
While the death toll from Eta and Iota – now approaching 300 people with hundreds still missing – pales in comparison to the 20,000 lives lost during Mitch, Beltran said “the economic toll could be equal or worse than Hurricane Mitch.”
The storm damage comes on top of the covid-19 economic lockdown, a persistent drought that has ruined farmers in what has become known as Central America’s ‘dry corridor’, and rampant political corruption in the region.
“The pandemic had already left us with very serious economic consequences, but had effected the productive agricultural sector,” said Carlos Hernández, executive director of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), a Honduran civil society group. "Eta and Iota destroyed the productive infrastructure that was the only hope that we had left," he added.
Official estimates are that the storms affected the lives of more than three million Hondurans, roughly 30 per cent of the country’s population.
The economic loss just from Eta ranged from 10 to 20% of GDP, or roughly $2.5 to $5bn. Iota's impact likely increased those numbers.
The most impacted area around the northern city of San Pedro Sula is the country’s commercial hub, surrounded by large banana plantations, which now lie flattened and waterlogged. Its international airport is also under water and toxic, sewage contaminated mud, and the nearby city of Puerto Cortes, one of largest ports in Central America, is also cut off.
“If you add it all together it’s devastating,” said Beltran. “You are facing a situation of hunger and a higher percentage of people are going to fall further into poverty,” she added.
Long and steep recovery
Analysts familiar with the recovery effort after Mitch say donors working with technocrats in the Honduran government, developed a coordinated plan for reconstruction, as wellas civil society. As a result, the multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort was deemed a relative success.
While it’s still early, right now there is little sign of that taking shape. “The recovery period is going to be long and is going to be steep,” said Celine de Sola, the Salvadoran co-founder of Glasswing International, a non-profit which provides community education and health projects it runs in Central America.
But they lack the capacity for the more expensive reconstruction projects, such as rebuilding bridges and roads, or repairing schools and hospitals, washed away by the storms. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have said they will provide coordinated support to the countries hit hardest by the hurricanes, including lines of credit and technical assistance.
The World Bank Group’s President, David Malpass, said in a statement, “We are going to give the countries impacted by Eta all the support they need to quickly assist the affected families, repair the damage and, what is very important in the medium term, build back better.”
But they have so far not showed the same urgency as they did after Mitch. In 1998 the U.S. government quickly pledged more than $304 million. In May 1999, donors met in Sweden and pledged about $9 billion.
“The main problem the government has is the lack of credibility and the perception of corruption,” said Starkman who won high praise for his apolitical technocrat approach after Mitch.
Current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is notorious for politicizing government assistance programs, which have been tainted by rampant corruption.
Hernández faces serious accusations by the U.S. Department of Justice of conspiring with drug traffickers in order to fund his political campaigns, which he has adamantly denied. One of his brothers, Tony Hernández was convicted in court in New York last year of major drug crimes and faces a possible life sentence.
Due to its horrendous record of public corruption, Honduras failed earlier this month to qualify – for the ninth year running - for special U.S. government assistance to fight poverty under the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Under an MCC ranking, Honduras failed 10 or 20 standards, including control of corruption, rule of law and government effectiveness.
The Honduran government also faces accusations that it mishandled emergency funding for the covid-19 response, including a scandal over a $48 million contract this summer for seven mobile hospitals purchased from Turkey.
Critics of the government say president Hernández has favored political loyalty over experience. In October he appointed Max Gonzáles, a former reggaeton rapper who went by the name ‘Killa’, as head of the national emergency management office ( COPECO).
On Thursday, president Hernández said that Honduras was experiencing an unprecedented crisis. "This is the first time that a pandemic and two storms of this type come together and we are only going to be able to move forward together, it is not a matter for the government, but for everyone," he said.
Hernández tried to offer a positive perspective on international aid to rebuild the country. "I am convinced that ... with multilateral banks, with aid workers, with friendly countries, with friendly NGOs, all Hondurans holding hands we are going to rebuild this country," he added.
Despite the corruption allegations, the Trump administration has maintained close ties with president Hernández as part of its efforts to control a spike in asylum seekers from Central America. But non-profits have struggled since the Trump administration cut funding for social programs as well as human rights and pro-democracy projects to Honduras in 2019, focusing instead on security and immigration issues. To its credit, USAID has maintained funding for anti-corruption efforts in Honduras, despite the political risk of ofending Hernandez government.
The Trump administration has stemmed the migrant flow with its draconian border policies that have come in for sharp criticism from social justice and human rights groups. But that could change under a new administration faced with a likely new wave of migrant caravans.
In the years after Mitch, thousands of Hondurans migrated to the U.S. and were later granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), allowing them to live and work in the country legally. Droughts, poverty and political upheaval in Honduras have continued to provoke more migration in recent years.
Last year alone, 253,000 Hondurans were apprehended at the south-west US border, more than double any previous year.
Many who lost their homes and livelihoods due to the combined effects of the covid-19 economic lockdown, and now the hurricanes are already considering migrating.
The Trump administration has sought to terminate TPS, though experts say the election of Joe Biden, combined with the twin blows of Eta and Iota, is likely to lead to an indefinite extension of the program.
Starkman warned that with elections looming next year in Honduras, the Hernández government would likely try and maintain its political control of economic recovery funds, making foreign governments more “reticent” to provide assistance.
Unless the White House conditioned its foreign assistance on respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law, Honduras would continue to be a problem. “With this situation it's foreseeable that you will see a lot of social pressure from people who will want to go to the United States,” he added.
A U.S. Senator since 1973, Biden is intimately familiar with its history, including the U.S. involvement in the civil wars that wracked the region in the 1980s. “Biden does know Central America,” Lisa Kubiske, the former U.S Ambassador to Honduras (2011-2014), told Univision.
But she said Biden would have hands full with a divided government in the United States and a hefty deficit. Biden was also deeply aware of the corruption issue. “Clearly there’s a problem. Government has to work better. They have to invest in people and invest in government systems and they need a kind of consciousness about public resources and the role of government,” she said.
“I tried to work on that when I was there, but they haven’t got as far as they need to get,” she added.