Hurricane Mitch's Silver Lining
The enormous sow was the picture of contentment, lying on her side under a gazebo-like structure that protected her from the intermittent tropical rain. What’s her name? Nine-year old Xavier Laguna, the unchallenged director of the tour, was too well brought up to say so, but his face indicated clearly that the gringo padre had asked a very dumb question indeed, and had lost any points he might have gained from scampering up the side of a terraced mountain farm.
No name. Of course not; you don’t give names to things you might be going to eat. But that prospect was far from the placid mind of the pig, which could easily have given the Empress of Blandings a run for her money in the Shropshire Fat Pig contest so beloved of P. G. Wodehouse.
But we were not in the English midlands, nor even middle-America. We were in Central America, in the commune of El Carrizal, in north central Nicaragua. Less precisely, we were in the middle of a jungle. Several miles from the main road, we had come to an agricultural community of 60 families who had lost everything in the way of material possessions and means of earning a living in the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.
Those days seemed far off to the children of the Laguna family, who may have been too young to remember the precise details of the tragedy. José-Luís and María Laguna remembered all too vividly. The hurricane was more what we North Americans call a northeaster. It moved in and settled over the east coast of Central America, and it rained for days. The Laguna family had a well constructed adobe house, built on a flat break in the mountainous terrain. But as the rain continued, the adobe began to absorb the water slowly. Time to get out, but with nowhere else to go, since all the neighboring houses were of the same material.
By the time the rain stopped, the commune was a collection of destroyed dwellings, ruined farms and washed out roads and was under threat of further damage from mudslides. The scars on the landscape are not yet gone. They resemble ski-slopes on a mountainside once the snow has melted. But the healing process is far along for the people of El Carrizal, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the Catholic Relief Services of the United States Catholic Bishops.
Hurricane Mitch caused the eyes of the world to be focused on Nicaragua in a way not seen since the days when the Contras confronted the Sandinistas. Relief efforts had to be massive. The nations of the European community and the United States played a large role in this assistance, but they were joined by Taiwan and Japan.
The tragedy was so great and the suffering so widespread that the aid agencies had to coordinate and focus their efforts. The Catholic Relief Services emergency response team, in cooperation with the Agency for International Development and other nongovernmental relief organizations, decided on a three-pronged approach, each one with a hoped-for cadence effect. The three goals were: the immediate distribution of food along with reconstruction of the infrastructure, an agricultural rehabilitation program and a program to promote reconciliation in cooperation with the local diocesan justice and peace commissions.
In late October 2000, two years after Hurricane Mitch, a group of observers was invited by Catholic Relief Services to come to Nicaragua to see the initial results of these efforts. The visit to El Carrizal was part of that tour. On the long trip north from Managua, the country director for C.R.S., Mark Snyder, explained the process that brought about what we would see. This dynamic father of three had worked for years in Peru and brought vast knowledge of the complexities of life in Latin America to this challenging undertaking. He told me one story about himself that put his approach into context.
Some months ago his older son was selected to represent Nicaragua in a swimming competition in Honduras. His wife was to go along as one of the chaperones. But the weather turned bad, very bad, as it often does in the tropics, and Mark had to do the hard-guy dad thing and call off the trip. No parent reading this needs further elaboration on what ensued: disappointment, broken heart, guilt and all the rest of the day-to-day stuff of living in a loving family.
But the story has a happy ending, sort of. The weather got worse, and the bus that was taking the group to Honduras was unable to complete the trip, and the swimmers and their chaperones were stranded on the south side of a washed-out bridge for a day and a night. So the hard-guy dad became a hero.
That is the kind of man needed to undertake a series of projects such as those in Nicaragua. His approach combines care, caution and firmness, even about small thingsseat-belts always to be worn, no driving at night, flawless automobile maintenance, no taking chances. And his approach has worked. His team has done a remarkable job, and they remain modest about working what seem to be real modern miracles. We were shown several of them.
Perhaps the easier part of the rebuilding was the bricks and mortar portioneasy if one puts aside the bureaucracy of import restrictions, liason with foreign workers, including our own U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the complications of directing construction projects. The particular generosity of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was crucial in bridge-reconstruction in the north of the country. The project director for that undertaking is Marcel Bigue, a graduate of St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, and as capable a manager as could be imagined. Combining the wit of a stand-up comedian (performances in Spanish, French and English) with the clear eye of a construction engineer, he undertook and completed a Herculean task with enthusiasm and boundless energy.
Bricks and steel are easier to manipulate than ideas and attitudes, though, and it was the agricultural rehabilitation project that seemed to be more fraught with potential problems. In small agricultural enterprises, it is always hard to make changes. One of the necessary changes in Nicaragua was the introduction of new crops and new methods of farming, crops and methods that would be more resistant to the vagaries of the climate.
When asked if they encountered resistance to change, Mark Snyder became very reflective. No, not really. The devastation was so great everyone realized that something different had to be tried. And it went further than just the approach to farming. After the Sandinista/Contra conflict, the people are tired of strife, and they see that a real change of heart is required.
That may be the silver lining of the hurricane’s dark cloud. So gradually, with the restoration of the infrastructure, the importation of new plants, the introduction of new crops and the development or new irrigation methods, as well as the rebuilding of houses and public buildings, El Carrizal is well on the way to economic recovery.
One of the factors that made possible this recovery in the economic sphere is the strength of the social structure, which remained intact. The diocesean organization provided a vast network of clergy, religious and lay ministers who play a crucial role in the life of the commune. The lynchpin on which this structure depends is, in each commune, a delegate of the word. Sometimes this person is a deacon, sometimes not, but the delegate is the one who organizes religious services, catechesis, and even presides at the Communion services when a priest is unable to be present. In El Carrizal, the priest is scheduled to come monthly but is occasionally impeded, so he is present only eight or nine times a year. Considering the remoteness of the location and the size of his parish, that is a very good record.
Each weekend there is a service for the children on Saturday evening, and another for the whole commune on Sunday morning. There is a solidly built and substantial chapel, and it is well usedfor the public recitation of the Rosary on the afternoon of our visit, and for communal gatherings at other times. Xavier Laguna insisted that we visit it, and his older and younger brothers hung back as he and his twin sisters, Michaelina and Jacquelina, took us around. Xavier had a proud and proprietary air as he showed off the chapel, just as he had when he demonstrated the new well, the ingenious but simple irrigation system that flowed from it and the dry silo that allows for the long-term storage of grain.
The north of Nicaragua is Sandinista country. We were invited up there to the town of Puebla Nueva for the local equivalent of the Alfred E. Smith Foundation dinner. The day before the American political candidates joined Archbishop Edward M. Egan at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, we attended something similar, though far less formal and possibly more substantial. It was an opportunity for the local candidates for the National Assembly to address the constituency, at the invitation of the Catholic Relief Services and the local justice and peace commission.
The venue was the local parish hall, a brick structure with a metal roof, and the time of the meeting was 9:00 a.m. Although late October is the coldest time of the year, the temperature was already 79 degrees, and the air circulation was not overwhelming. Since political gatherings tend to generate even more hot air, we knew that we were in for an endurance contest.
The organizing committee was efficient in its arrangements. Each of the three candidates had 15 minutes to make a general presentation, and then each one had a further 15 minutes to offer a rebuttal to the other speakers. Then members of the audience were invited to pose questions, five at a time, and each candidate was given time to answer the ensemble of questions. There were to be four rounds of questioning. Each party had observers and moderators, and each party had a video-camera crew.
Some random observations: the entire meeting and debate was of a higher quality than those we saw in another, much larger country to the north in this year 2000. Women played a prominent role in the organization of the meeting. One of the candidates was a woman; the chief moderator, an attorney, was a woman, as were several of the assisting moderators. But when it came to the questions, only one woman rose from the floor. (She asked the most important question of the day, though: What are you, personally, going to do to advance the task of reconciliation nationally?) There was a good attendance. In an agricultural region, where people can set their own schedule, presence at the meeting was obviously a community priority. The group was young. They had both the national interest and local considerations in their minds as they asked questions. Both the mayor and the chief of police were in attendance, both obviously popular members of the constitutional party even in this Sandinista area, where the retiring deputy, a woman, belongs to the Sandinista party. There was widespread support for the chief of police, evidenced by the concern expressed about funding for a new patrol car.
But the culmination of the meeting, and one of the most impressive political actions I’ve ever seen, came at the end. The moderators had worked throughout the meeting, and by the end they had prepared a summary of the addresses, with the promises contained therein, typed it up with carbon copies, read it to the audience and presented it to the three candidates for signature. There was a short discussion, clarification of a phrase, and all three candidates signed as video cameras rolled. And all this under the auspices of the local peace and justice commission, in the local parish hall, with the support of Catholic Relief Services. The lunch of rice and beans with chilled bottles of Coca-Cola that followed was properly festive. We had seen a miracle. But the real miracle is a broader one. It is the hope that has been brought to a country that has suffered civil strife, much not of its own making, and natural disaster. Finally, decisively, the tide is turning, and the work of the American Catholic community is playing an important role.
We were told that the reconciliation we had observed in the political meeting was just part of the work of the local justice and peace commissions. In each parish and in each commune, teams are present to help resolve everything from family domestic disputes to land conflicts. Local people help to work out local problems, from disarmament to settling family problems. Rick Jones, the project director for this aspect of the C.R.S. effort, a Boston College graduate, said that some of the techniques used in U.S. inner cities to combat gang violence have proved helpful in formulating methods of conflict resolution in Nicaragua and elsewhere. He thought that it is only right that we have something to offer to the rest of the world from our own weakness, as well as from our strength.
Some of my own preconceived notions were seriously challenged during this observation tour. The service of faith and the promotion of justice is a priority of the Society of Jesus throughout the world. I had presumed that this had been a matter of some urgency in some places, but less so in others. Watching the actual working out in the field of this priority brought me to a much greater awareness of the universality of this human need, and the possibility that we can all do something about it.
For the past quarter century Jesuits have been thinking and teaching in ways designed to raise the consciousness of their students about the needs of all humankind and about the urgency of these needs. Among the observers, project directors and others I met, I was the oldest by at least 30 years. And all of them had stories to tell about their education and formationat Marquette, at Gonzaga in Spokane, at Seattle University, at S.I. (as we call it), at Boston College or with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Detroit or in Dallas. It reminded me of the observation of a sardonic relative, If you’re going to be a do-gooder, make sure that you actually do some good. In rebuilding, rehabilitating and reconciling, the men and women of the Catholic Relief Services are doing great good, and they occasionally get to see and appreciate the silver lining.