I finally got around to scanning some slides I shot ten years ago when I visited Posoltega, Nicaragua, in April 1999, about six months after storms brought in by Hurricane Mitch devastated the area. The photo above is of a refugee camp set up in Posoltega, in the country’s northwest.
On October 30, 1998, torrential rains brought in by Hurricane Mitch filled the nearby Casitas volcano, forcing the slope, above right, to collapse. It produced a massive river of mud, at some points more than a kilometer wide, that swept through the area, ultimately killing upwards of 3000 people. It annihilated several villages and smaller settlements, and displacing several thousand. [A good Mitch summary on Wiki.]
Below are some scattered notes from the visit (some are still in a stash of stuff back in the US), but first some quick background:
Nicaragua dominated much of the foreign policy debate in the US during the Reagan years, so it was somewhat predictable that Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s tirade at the recent Americas summit brought the country back into the headlines.
When he was voted out of power in 1990, media attention on the country more or less vanished until Ortega regained the presidency in close elections in 2006. By then, after setting up a mutual immunity deal with arch conservative Arnoldo Alemán, who was president from 1997 to 2002, he had long since lost support from most senior Sandinista (FSLN) party partners, who left and formed other parties, taking with them countless party loyalists.
During its time in power, the Alemán administration quickly became synonymous with corruption and graft. An opinion poll published during my 1999 visit found that more than half of Nicaraguans viewed him as more corrupt than the former dictator Anastasio Somoza whom the Sandinistas overthrew 20 years earlier, and for whom Alemán worked. (Alemán was charged, eventually convicted and received a 20-year sentence, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court in what most view as part of the deal struck with Ortega.)
So, the widespread tales of corruption that the people in Posoltega (and in Managua) shared didn’t come as a huge shock. At an aid distribution warehouse (pictured above), several of the workers expressed their frustration with the federal government which was doing next to nothing to help the municipality, at the time governed by a Sandinista mayor. Bill Clinton visited the area during a Central American tour in March 1999; just prior to his visit housing construction materials were trucked in, along with 2000 bags of cement, a ‘donation’ from the government. After he left, the materials were hauled away under cover of night.
I spoke at length with Posoltega’s mayor, Felicita Zeledon Rodriguez, who said that after the initial influx of aid in the weeks after the rains finally subsided, nothing had arrived for more than two months. Among the numerous problems she faced was that the aid assistance was being taxed by the Aleman administration. Food was running scarce, she said. “The first harvest is in August, and it’s only April.”
Above is Jose de la Cruz Poveda, 17 at the time, who was one of the refugee camp leaders.
In Posoltega, my translator Tanya and I met Alvaro Montalvan, a reporter for Canal 12, who was investigating reports that much of the international relief aid sent to the stricken areas was actually being sold in various markets in Managua. We joined him and his cameraman as they headed to the Port of Corinto to check on the status of 28 cargo containers of relief aid which had arrived on March 19 from Los Angeles. We tracked down the port’s container operations chief, who eventually admitted that seven of those 40-foot containers couldn’t be accounted for. They simply vanished. And in the meantime, as the stocks in Posoltega’s relief center were dwindling rapidly, the containers above had been sitting port side for more than a month.
I know that there are numerous NGOs working in the region, and that a growing number of travelers are visiting that part of Nicaragua. This is a long since forgotten footnote of the country’s recent history, and I’d love to hear from anyone who’s visited or worked there over the past decade who can share any updates. I’m extremely interested in learning how people in the area have fared.