Honduras and Nicaragua Have Been Hit By Some of the Worst Natural Disasters in Decades
If Biden gets the response right, he could put the region on better footing for years to come.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America, killing more than 11,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damage in one of the worst natural disasters in Atlantic history. Amid the devastation, Honduran President Carlos Flores Facussé issued a stark warning. Without foreign assistance, he said, migrants would go “walking, swimming and running up north.” In short order, U.S. President Bill Clinton took to the radio to promise that the United States would “spare no aid to the people of Central America,” who he called “our fellow Americans.” The international community likewise responded with billions of dollars in assistance for the region.
This November, two major hurricanes again hit the region in the span of about two weeks. It was one of Central America’s worst natural disasters since Hurricane Mitch, affecting roughly 7.2 million, including hundreds of thousands who lost everything when their homes were damaged or destroyed. Yet outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has neither expressed any kind of solidarity with the people of the region, nor mobilized the support of the international community.
“If the U.S. does not lead in this effort to provide support, I think we will see the impact of that inaction and we will see it at our southern border,” California Democratic Rep. Norma Torres, who is one of the leading voices in Congress on issues regarding Central America, said in a November interview. Even before the hurricanes, experts were predicting a future uptick in migration from Central America due to widespread job loss during the pandemic. Now, with hundreds of thousands more expected to lose their jobs, and so many having lost everything they own, the economic pressure that has been the primary force driving migration from the region in recent years could become stronger than ever.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make Central America a priority, and has expressed his concern for the region following the hurricanes. On the campaign trail, he even presented an ambitious development aid plan for Central America that includes a billion dollars in funding over four years.
But the global economic recession caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the highly partisan environment in Washington make it unlikely that the region will receive the level of aid it needs to rebuild. “The world is a very different place right now than it was in 1998,” Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, said in November. “Amid this worldwide economic downturn, donor countries are facing difficulties to find the money to cope with internal struggles.”
If a pandemic and partisanship weren’t enough, the presidents of the two countries hardest hit by hurricanes Eta and Iota, Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, are among the region’s most controversial and scandal-plagued.
Last year, a brother of Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking in a New York court. The president himself was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, whom prosecutors accused of receiving millions in bribes from drug traffickers. At home, Hernández and members of the party he represents have been embroiled in near-constant corruption scandals, including recent allegations surrounding misuse of COVID-19 relief funds.
Ortega, for his part, became an international pariah after hundreds of protesters were murdered in 2018 by police and other forces loyal to his authoritarian regime. And the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned multiple high-level Nicaraguan officials, as well as several members of Ortega’s own family, for corruption and ties to drug trafficking.
Biden’s plan for Central America contains a strong focus on anticorruption initiatives, which under the Trump administration’s watch suffered major setbacks, including most notably the international anti-impunity commissions in Honduras and Guatemala, which saw their mandates expire after support for a renewal from the United States, the primary funder of the commissions, evaporated. Aid. then, would have to be “carefully calibrated to ensure that it meets emergency needs and does not line the pockets of unscrupulous bureaucrats and those who are politically and economically powerful and privileged,” Eric Olson, director of policy for the Seattle International Foundation, noted last month.
One way to do that, interviewed officials and analysts suggested, would be the creation of a regional body comprised of international and national experts in development and other relevant fields that would coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts as well as provide accountability. “Oversight, transparency, and anti-corruption mechanisms should be built in from the start,” Adriana Beltrán, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, wrote in an email. The new body would also have to focus on infrastructure and housing, since many roads and bridges that were rebuilt after Hurricane Mitch were washed away, again. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable due to the destruction of levees that protected them from flooding.
To be sure, such ambitious plans would require funds, something the Biden administration would have a hard time securing when he takes office in January. He could try to offer more emergency response funding, which doesn’t require congressional approval and of which a bit more than $17 million has been allocated to date. In the weeks following Hurricane Mitch, though, the United States allocated the equivalent of roughly $200 million in emergency funding in today’s dollars.
Spending big makes sense, both from a humanitarian perspective and in terms of immigration. “I was around for Mitch,” Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder of the nonprofit Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, said in an interview, “and I was astounded when I went and interviewed people during and after reconstruction about the power of having a new house and how that made people want to stay.” There’s tremendous power, he concluded, in giving “the people getting a house, or hoping to get a house, a reason to stick around.”
Following Hurricane Mitch, the international community made the ambitious goal to not just rebuild the region, but to transform it for the better. Funding poured in, supporting the reconstruction of crucial infrastructure, creating jobs, and promoting economic growth. However, a broader transformation—including efforts to improve governance and fight corruption—never came. Migration from the region grew in the ensuing years, boosting remittances that helped rebuild as much as any foreign aid. It is clear that the region needs aid once again in the wake of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. This time around, it will be up to Biden to make sure the good it does lasts for the long term.
Correction, Dec. 3, 2020: Kurt Ver Beek is a co-founder of the nonprofit Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. A previous version of this article misstated the name of the organization. Also, the two hurricanes that hit Central America in November were named Eta and Iota. A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of the latter storm’s designated name.