PRINZAPOLKA – On rainy nights, Gregorio Amador wraps his children in plastic bags to insulate them from the downpour falling into the roofless structure he still calls home.
Ten months after Hurricane Felix swept through his poverty-stricken, isolated community in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), taking with it the roofs and tree cover that protected homes from torrential rainfall, Amador is one of thousands who have yet to receive the zinc roofing panels promised by the government.
In the week following the Sept. 4 hurricane, President Daniel Ortega visited parts of the destroyed northern Caribbean coast and promised residents the government would act swiftly and decisively to repair damaged roofs and rebuild homes so that they would be “better than before.” But as time passes, that promise rings hollow for many desperate residents who are still without basic shelter as the rainy season picks up again.
“What do you do with wet children trying to sleep at night? There’s illness,” Amador said, adding that he fears an epidemic as the rains intensify.
Amador’s neighbors are already reporting an increase of diarrhea and flu symptoms from being exposed to the elements.
In a region where nearly half the residents already were living in extreme poverty before the Category-5 hurricane hit last September, pockets of isolated communities like Amador’s – a 10-hour hike to the nearest sizeable city, the mining town of Rosita – say they’ve been forgotten in the wake of disaster.
In some cases, hurricane victims allege government aid is only arriving to those who support the ruling Sandinista Front and the Liberal Constitutional Party, which together hold sway over Nicaragua’s government thanks to a power-sharing pact between President Daniel Ortega and former President and convict Arnoldo Alemán.
In other cases, storm victims say government help was simply non-existent.
Many of the estimated 200,000 hurricane victims laud international groups such as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Accion Medica Cristiana and foreign governments such as Norway, Catalonia and the United States for relief efforts that included new housing materials and seeds for planting.
But victims say little relief has come from the regional government, and the central government’s efforts have been politicized. Nicaragua’s two dominating political parties, which control the Supreme Electoral Commission (CSE), have disqualified several minority parties from upcoming elections – including the RAAN-based Multiethnic Indigenous Party – and have postponed until January the municipal elections in seven municipalities in the RAAN.
By moving the election date, critics say the two parties are trying to buy more time to make up for the haphazard government approach to relief aid following the storm. As the elections near, victims like Amador say the government is now trying to win votes by dangling relief as a carrot incentive in front of people desperate for help.
“If you’re from my party, if you’re my friend, I’ll give you aid. That’s how (government) aid is being distributed. It’s only arriving to Sandinista and Liberal party members,” Amador said.
The Storm After the Storm
The politics of the relief efforts have been nothing less than explosive. Last November, hundreds of mostly indigenous rioters took over the Puerto Cabezas airport, ransacking the storage warehouse for food and supplies amid allegations that the Sandinista Fronthad been distributing aid only to party loyalists through their controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs).
In April, an outbreak of violence left more than a dozen injured and one dead as rioters protested the government’s efforts to postpone the elections. Supporters of the indigenous party YATAMA – which is allied with the Sandinistas – held three Liberal lawmakers hostage on their airplane in Puerto Cabezas during the protests (NT, April 4). But the National Assembly’s recent decision to reschedule the municipal elections in the RAAN suggests the Liberals and Sandinistas have decided it’s in both parties’ interest to buy more time to win votes from a desperate Caribbean constituency.
A group of community leaders, including Amador, claim to represent some 20,000 rural poor people whose homes and lands were ravaged by the hurricane but still haven’t received roofing, food, chainsaws to clear fallen trees and other basic resources the government has pledged to provide.
Amador and four other community leaders from an area known as Risco de Oro recently took a two-day bus ride to Managua to file a complaint against government neglect with the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH). The group showed The Nica Times documents signed by regional officials agreeing to bring roofing and other materials, which they’re still waiting for.
Politicians downplay the complaints over relief efforts.
Miskito legislator Brooklyn Rivera, an ally of the Sandinista Front, told The Nica Times that the hurricane-relief effort has had “no major distribution problems.”
Politics and Geography
The precarious plight of the Risco de Oro community has exposed the complications that arose in trying to organize a relief effort in a part of the country that is both politically divided and geographically dispersed.
In many storm-affected areas, the ruling Sandinista Front employed their CPCs – Sandinista community groups – to survey damaged areas to determine where aid was needed. In some cases, the CPCs were also directly in charge of distributing aid, leading to complaints that relief aid was being handed out in a partisan nature to win votes for the upcoming municipal elections (NT Nov. 7, 2007).
Still, some have credited the CPCs with helping to coordinate a rapid and effective response to what may have been the largest relief effort in the history of the RAAN.
Sergio Larios, director of the Autonomous Public Agricultural Services (SPAA), an umbrella organization that coordinates public services in the rural RAAN, said the CPCs led “one of the fastest operations” ever in the mining region by surveying hundreds of communities in the 15 days following the disaster.
“The CPC structure is seen as Pro-Sandinista, but it’s not,” said Dionisio Canales, a CPC leader in the mining town of Siuna.
But the perception of the Sandinista party machinery in an area that is traditionally suspicious of outside meddling has also raised some problems.
Marcos Sotelo, representative of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), said he came across hurricane victims who refused to receive aid because the relief effort was being coordinated by the CPCs.
“They’d say, ‘I don’t want those beans. Those are Sandinista beans,’” he said. At one point, Sotelo said he had to get a non-partisan local radio station to announce where food was being distributed so Sandinista opponents would take it.
After the initial relief effort, the Venezuelan government shipped a boatload of zinc laminates and iron beams for reconstruction efforts – many of which are reportedly still sitting in warehouses. Hurricane victims such as Amador ask why an estimated 20,000 donated rebar poles are now rusting away in storage in Rosita and Puerto Cabezas while people are still without roofs.
Lawmaker Rivera, of the YATAMA indigenous party, said the regional government has been using the donated Venezuelan supplies to build and reconstruct public infrastructure, such as schools, health clinics and markets.
“The roofing panels haven’t been lost and they will continue to be used for community projects,” he said. Rivera acknowledges, however, that the rebar is in many cases “incompatible” with the wooden shanties that dot the region.
Without a Roof
In general, Rivera denied that the relief effort has seen “major distribution problems” and said the biggest challenge has been the high cost of transporting materials to isolated communities.
“We are continuing with the effort to relieve hunger and the lack of roofing, though in a more limited way,” Rivera said, adding that less foreign relief is trickling in now.
Residents in more isolated communities say they haven’t even heard about the donated rebar that’s stuck in the warehouses. Many are worried about even more basic problems, like eating.
Raymond Dean, an 86-year-old blind man whose simple home on the banks of the PrinzapolkaRiver was flooded by the hurricane, said the bean seeds he received from the Nicaraguan Agricultural Ministry (MAGFOR) don’t grow. Other hurricane victims have made similar complaints about donated seeds from MAGFOR, which distributed basic crop seeds to help prevent famine after the hurricane, according to non-governmental aid workers.
“We stay here at the farm while the (regional government) does what it wants. We have to listen to them because maybe they’ll help us,” said Dean.
He said he wishes his children, who now live in Rosita and the United States, were still around to help him.
Farther down the PrinzapolkaRiver – which serves as a main artery of transportation in the absence of paved roads – is the riverside town of Buena Vista. On a motorized panga, the isolated municipal center of Prinzapolka is about an hour away from here. But for the residents here, who own only battered canoes, it takes a full day to paddle down the river.
One of hundreds of remote riverbank communities along the waterways that snake through this swampy stretch of the coast, Buena Vista flooded during the hurricane.
Like many communities in the RAAN, Buena Vista’s only line of communication with the outside world is a rusty radio to call local authorities in case of emergency. But making the call is one thing. Receiving a response is another.
Buena Vista residents say they have been forgotten since the hurricane. Town judge Melvis Dickson said municipal police and government officials in boats would “just pass by taking note” of the disaster, but didn’t actually offer any help.
“We’ll take what we can get, but the municipality doesn’t offer anything,” he said, stilling under a coconut tree on a recent afternoon. The community needs a large boat to evacuate flood victims and an emergency shelter at a nearby high point to be prepared for future floods, but doesn’t have the resources, he said.
During their visit to Managua, Amador and his group of community leaders didn’t have the money to pay for a hotel, so the bus driver that brought them from the RAAN let them sleep in the bus. They later wanted to organize a protest in Rosita, but when they asked for police permission, they were told they would have to sign a document agreeing to go to jail if the protests turned violent.
Though they planned to meet with a representative at the U.S. Embassy during their Managua visit, the meeting fell through. Since then, they’ve been persistently calling The Nica Times asking for help.
Now they’re running out of options. “We have nothing. We don’t soap to wash our clothes,” said community leader Noel Rodríguez. “We don’t even have leaves to protect us from the rain.”n