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Central America: Earthquake Poses New Threat to Development

by Nfer MuozInter Press Service
January 15th, 2001

SAN JOSE -- The earthquake that left behind death and destruction in El Salvador last Saturday has imposed new obstacles for the development of all Central America, just as the nightmares caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 were beginning to dissipate.

The most recent natural disaster, with a victim count that rises hour by hour, hit El Salvador with an intense 7.6 on the Richter scale, jeopardising the country's role as Central America's most stable economy.

As of Monday, more than 500 dead, hundreds of disappeared and thousands of homeless represented the balance of an earthquake whose epicentre was just off the Salvadoran coast, but was felt in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

''El Salvador will need at least three years to recover from this earthquake,'' said Miguel Carmona, vice-president of Red Cross International and coordinator of emergency plans when natural disasters occur in Latin America.

Carmona told IPS that the advances achieved in health and social services in El Salvador during recent years had been undone, a fact that represents a major setback for Central America as a whole.

The after-shocks of the earthquake have made it difficult for Red Cross workers to provide assistance and there has been severe damage to water and electrical infrastructure throughout the country, the official added.

President Francisco Flores decreed a ''state of emergency and of national calamity'' and requested aid from other countries in the form of medicine, water and materials for temporary housing.

El Salvador's rescue authorities opened two bank accounts to receive financial assistance from institutions and individuals from around the world (account number 024-54-0020989 for any Salvadoran bank and account number 303-002002-3 at the Banco Agrcola Comercial).

One of the hardest hit areas was Las Colinas neighbourhood in Santa Tecla, 12 km west of San Salvador, where an entire hill collapsed and buried more than 200 homes and their occupants.

The temblor caused death, massive panic and landslides that toppled houses, bridges and buildings, bringing back memories of Hurricane Mitch, which hit the region in late October and early November of 1998.

As a result of Mitch, 18,300 people died or disappeared, and more than 3.5 million Central Americans felt the impact of the destruction, directly or indirectly, especially in Honduras and Nicaragua.

El Salvador largely escaped damage from the hurricane because the path of the storm was on the Atlantic side of Central America, where this country has no coastline.

Saturday's earthquake shook up a region that is in full economic recession and in the early stages of strengthening its democratic institutions.

El Salvador has been the Central American country with greatest economic stability, maintaining an exchange rate at 8.75 colons per dollar over the last few years, and international reserves of two billion dollars.

''El Salvador's economic losses are in the millions and affect the social and productive infrastructure of the entire country,'' Salvadoran economist Alberto Arene, president of the non- governmental Central American Foundation for Sustainable Human Development, told IPS.

Arene predicted that the tragedy will have repercussions for the whole region because of the interconnectedness of the Central American economies.

But the crisis in El Salvador will be mitigated to the extent that it receives rapid and effective international support, not only in recovering the dead and aiding survivors, but also in rebuilding the country, stated the economist.

The quake occurred 13 days after the nation began the ''dollarisation'' process, a measure considered key for El Salvador's economic recovery.

Since Jan 1, the international community has been attentively watching this Central American country to see how it handles the dual currency situation, as both the dollar and the colon now circulate there freely.

Following the earthquake, El Salvador's Congress, which held sessions in a library due to damage to the congressional building, authorised municipalities throughout the country to use their full monthly budgets to pay for immediate necessities.

''We are facing a true disaster,'' affirmed Manuel Melgar, a legislator for the Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front (FMLN), in a conversation with IPS.

Congress also decreed three days of national mourning and adopted measures to facilitate rescue efforts.

Amid the commotion, delegates from Central American governments are preparing for a previously scheduled meeting, later this week in Madrid, of the Regional Consultative Group, an international forum created to attend to the region's problems after Hurricane Mitch.

It was expected that President Flores, as acting president of the Central American Integration System, would present a development plan, on behalf of the region, before the representatives at the meeting this Thursday and Friday.

But Flores announced on national radio and TV that he had called off his trip to Spain in order to better handle the issues arising at home as a result of the earthquake.

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