Central America: Earthquake Poses New Threat to Development

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

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.

AMP Section Name:CorpWatch