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Response Tepid to Managua's Aid Plea

Hurricane Emergency Compounds Indications of Economic Crisis

By Julia Preston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 8, 1988; Page A21
© The Washington Post

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- The Sandinista government has received a lukewarm response to its calls for international aid to repair the ravages of Hurricane Joan, increasing the prospects of a dire financial crisis that many officials and economists expect here in coming months as a result of the storm.

The hurricane that tore up towns and croplands in a swath across central Nicaragua Oct. 22 has underlined the predicament of the Sandinistas in the 10th year of their revolution: neither the West nor the Soviet Bloc is willing to adopt and underwrite their experiment in revolutionary socialism, even in the wake of a bruising natural disaster.

"The world is beginning to get tired of Nicaragua," commented a European diplomat.

Damage reports continued to trickle in all week from crippled government agencies and villages that were cut off from the capital by washed out roads and communications. The electric company alone suffered $2.5 million in losses, officials said, including 620 miles of downed lines. A multimillion-dollar port under construction at El Bluff, a massive Bulgarian project on the east coast, was damaged substantially, according to reports reaching diplomats in Managua.

More than 80,000 people remain homeless, and losses in coffee, bananas and other export crops are valued at as much as $50 million, economists said. Nicaragua may earn less than $200 million from all its exports this year, a sum that will cover only about a quarter of its already severely restricted import needs.

Reynaldo Teffel, head of the National Emergency Committee that handles the international hurricane aid, described it as "really insufficient" for the scope of the problem.

Cuba, Mexico and pro-Sandinista community and church organizations in the United States led the list of donors of food, medicines and other emergency items, totaling about 2,500 tons. Canada, Sweden, West Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have promised to support small reconstruction projects with about $2 million each. The U.S. government provided no aid.

Soviet Ambassador Valeri Nikolayenko said there will be "some increase" in the Soviet Union's planned economic assistance for 1988, now equal to about $300 million. The Soviet Union, battling its own economic hard times, has sought to avoid rises in its aid commitments here.

Since 1985, as Nicaragua's political isolation has grown, worldwide foreign aid has declined from $700 million to about $500 million this year.

The storm caught the Marxist-led government just when it had undercut its own position for more foreign help, western diplomats said. The 38 opposition activists arrested July 10 amid violence at a demonstration in the town of Nandaime remain in jail. Many European governments view the Nandaime arrests as open defiance by the Sandinistas of the regional peace process championed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.

In July, the government further defied the peace process by closing the news program of Catholic Radio. Last Tuesday it shut down another news hour, "Six on the Dot," one of Nicaragua's most widely heard independent news broadcasts.

"I don't think even the tremendous impact of the hurricane will alter the current displeasure in Europe with the Sandinistas," one diplomat from that region said. Spain, West Germany and other European nations are waiting for the peace process to culminate in a formal accord between the government and the contra rebels before considering aid increases or investments.

In addition, in mid-October the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly raised doubts about aid delivery when it passed a law barring humanitarian groups here from receiving any U.S. aid from nonlethal assistance being sent to the contras. This year's contra aid bills included $22.5 million for medicines and care for child victims of the war.

Only days before the storm, the government ordered Catholic Relief Services in New York to take back a shipment of medicines it sent to Managua. The Sandinistas launched a campaign of insults against Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo because he received part of $10 million in U.S. funds earmarked to assist him as an observer in peace talks between the government and the contras.

After Joan, Nicaraguan Sandinista officials called on the Catholic Church to provide medicines and other relief items.

The government's urgent appeals for hurricane recovery aid were "like the letters little children write to God," one Nicaraguan businessman observed.

The effect of Joan's destruction is increased because Nicaragua's economy was already a disaster, diplomats and economists said. "They don't have any kind of cushion," said a diplomat.

"You can't design a policy for economic recuperation because you don't really have an economy," said an ambassador from an industrialized nation. Inflation is running around 10,000 percent a year. A fierce recession has caused the output of Nicaragua's few industries to drop by an estimated 30 percent since February.

Basic wages cover only about a third of what a poor family needs just to eat, according to government figures. For the first time in Nicaraguan history, poor people -- who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the Sandinista revolution -- are going hungry.

Richard Stahler-Sholk, an American economist at a progovernment think-tank here, said, "Most of the world seems to think this was just another average natural tragedy in some remote corner of the globe. But it was a very serious economic blow to Nicaragua."

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