Radix - El Salvador earthquake of 13th February 2001

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A New Earthquake in El Salvador, and an Old Problem: Neoliberalism
by Ben Wisner

From CISPES (13 February 2001) "Governmental intransigence in response to disasters"

Toward a National Dialogue on Sustainable Development in El Salvador. Public actions at the local or regional level. Oxfam UK, 15 February 2001, excerpted from Reliefweb: http://www.reliefweb.int/

A New Earthquake in El Salvador, and an Old Problem: Neoliberalism
by Ben Wisner (bwisner@igc.org)
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Yesterday at 8:30 a.m. a seismologically distinct earthquake of between 6.1- 6.6 magnitude hit El Salvador, killing at least 237 more people at first count, injuring and displacing thousands more. Among the dead were children in a mud brick school (see RADIX links for more descriptive details).

Agence France-Presse reports (14 February 2001, see Reliefweb link), that the January 13 quake killed more than 800 and left at least 2,000 missing and some 4,500 injured. Almost 250,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in that quake, resulting in one billion dollars in damage.

This additional tragedy will add to the difficulty of recovery efforts. Roads are again blocked by landslides, all government buildings were evacuated waiting further inspections.

Some are playing at an "numbers game". I have been told recently that "the world will soon forget El Salvador in the light of such enormous suffering in Gujarat." This is wrong headed.

First, for the victims and their families, loss and suffering is unitary and incomparable. Human beings are suffering in both El Salvador and Gujarat.

Second, for a small economy such as El Salvador, the cost of recovering from three shocks (hurricane Mitch, the 13 January earthquake, and now this second one) may be proportionately as great or greater than that which India faces.

Third, India has much stronger institutions. Following its terrible civil war, El Salvador had barely begun to build accountable civilian institutions since 1992. One must be very mindful of the pressure of these events on brittle institutions.

Below I have reproduced an extract from an update by the Committee Working in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) [http://www.cispes.org/]. Reading it, one sees that for the reasons I have mentioned, the government of El Salvador, lead by the very conservative ARENA party that was in power during the civil war, is reluctant to engage in a national dialogue about recovery and the direction of development.

Following hurricane Mitch, civil society in Nicaragua DID succeed in articulating a new vision of sustainable development in that country (http://www.ccer.ipeople-international.com/). For so-called "recovery" to be anything more than the reestablishment of the status quo ante that make people, schools, hospitals vulnerable in first place, there must be a broader development vision. Business as usual will only reproduce the pre-conditions for yet more disasters.

What is the vision of the future from the El Salvador government's point of view?

Interpreting the report from CISPES, it seems nothing more than "business as usual"-- a neoliberalism that has opened up the region to low wage sweat shops owned by foreigners, has cut public budgets that could have been used to strengthen schools and hospitals, and produced a "pro business" atmosphere in which developers of luxury homes could go to court and get building restrictions waived. This last was one of the precursors to the landslide in Santa Tecla, outside San Salvador, on 13 January, that buried 400 homes.

The government has forced the early retirement of seven-eights of its public works employees in order to clear the way to give contracts to private contractors to do the work of repair and reconstruction of damaged and destroyed infrastructure.

Imagine the captain of a life boat ordering its occupants to throw their oars overboard because, on there horizon, he thinks he sees a powerful boat coming to tow them to safety! It is neither certain that this private sector tow boat is capable of the task, nor even sea worthy. Nor is the direction in which it might tow the whole society certain. Privatization can bring many surprises, as California has discovered to its cost as it's energy utilities struggle with a $12 billion debt following electricity privatization and as Great Britain has seen with the disastrous state of its privatized railways.

In any case, this move is more extreme than the wildest dream of any one in the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank. What ever happened to the mantra, "private public partnership"?

What is needed in El Salvador is:

  • A recovery effort that involves the whole society, the whole economy, and a balanced private public partnership.
  • A national dialogue about sustainable development in El Salvador. This should involve all sectors including civil society, business, professionals and universities, government and all political parties. It should be rural and urban. Recovery planning that incorporates vulnerability reduction and increased societal resilience can only be done in such a context.
  • In the short run there needs to be a focus on inspection and low cost repair and reconstruction of homes, schools, health care facilities. The experience after the Mexico City earthquake in 1985 is that this could also be a major short term employment opportunity for people who have lost their livelihoods. Neoliberalism, however, does not look kindly on "public works" taking the place of private contractors. Is a compromise possible for the good of the whole society?
  • The schools, especially, are important. The first earthquake made one-fifth of the nation's schools unusable. How many more are now damaged? A large part of a whole school cohort is in danger of suffering long term interruption in its education. The future social consequences of such a thing are NEVER calculated in the numbers reported, tabulated, and discussed as the "cost" of a natural disaster. To avoid this outcome, a major school repair program could be mounted that involves students, teachers, parents, and local contractors and artisans. In this way, the students can be taught even as they help to repair and strengthen their schools. Lessons in math, science, art, mechanical drawing, geography, and health could be integrated into this process at all grade levels.
  • The rich experience of other Central American as well as Andean countries in low cost strengthening of adobe buildings and other structures should be shared and focused on the reconstruction process in El Salvador.
  • Health infrastructure including hospitals and clinics, must be repaired and reconstructed using the accumulated regional knowledge that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, http://www.paho.org) has systematized for nearly two decades. There is no reason why as single hospital or clinic or diagnostic laboratory should be damaged beyond use in future earthquakes.

See PAHO Report SPP 30/6 (1998) - Disaster mitigation in health facilities. [http://www.paho.org/English/GOV/CE/SPP/doc207.pdf] The present document analyzes the experience in disaster mitigation currently available in some of the countries of the Region, ranging from basic vulnerability studies for new hospital construction to the structural reinforcement of existing hospitals. It also analyzes disaster mitigation measures in the structural, nonstructural, and functional components of hospitals.

Other PAHO material includes multimedia packages:

Earthquakes and Hospitals 1: Emergency Effects and Measures

This slide set provides general information about earthquake effects in terms of human loss and property damage. (29 slides; available in Spanish only; US$25.00.) (24/Aug/2000)

Earthquakes and Hospitals 2: Risk Reduction

This set of slides shows measures designed to mitigate risk of earthquake damage in hospital structures. (28 slides; available in Spanish only; US$25.00.) (24/Aug/2000)

Hospital Safety
This set of slides outlines safety measures for hospitals and health facilities in times of disaster with guidelines for initiating a hospital safety plan. (44 slides; available in Spanish only; US$25.00.) (24/Aug/2000)

Hospital Drills
These slides include the essential elements and aspects to be considered in developing disaster drills in hospital settings. (40 slides; available in Spanish only; US$25.00.) (24/Aug/2000)

Also on line from PAHO: Earthquake in El Salvador - Inventory of damages to health infrastructure [http://www.paho.org/English/PED/ElSalvador-infraestructura.htm] An inventory prepared by the Ministry of Health with information on damages suffered by health units and hospitals, in the aftermath of the recent earthquake (18/Jan/2001)

Finally, from PAHO, a major summary work called Natural Disasters: Protecting the Public's Health (2000). [http://publications.paho.org/paho/english/item.icl-itemid=750]

El Salvador could emerge from this tragic period in its history a stronger country, more resilient against the earthquakes and hurricanes that, inevitably, will come again. San Salvador could emerge as a more disaster resistant, sustainable city. However, this is only possible if the hard line government opens up the recovery process to the creativity of the Salvadoran people.

From CISPES (13 February 2001) emphasis added:
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"Governmental intransigence in response to disasters:

"The response of the Salvadoran government to today's earthquake and the January 13th disaster has been to close ranks. President Francisco Flores intransigently refused to open the process of relief and reconstruction to dialog among various social sectors. The FMLN made a proposal to work jointly with the ARENA government on a reconstruction plan. FMLN coordinator Fabillo Castillo even offered to put the FMLN under the direction of the government, with the conditions that a single reconstruction plan and team to implement it be created, to work on the reconstruction plan, but President Flores refused the offer.

When asked why he was excluding the FMLN and other social sectors trying to offer their help in the reconstruction plan, Flores said the process was a not political negotiation.

Last week the Salvadoran Ministry of Public Works (MOP) forced out 7,000 of its 8,000 workers through a "voluntary" retirement plan. Workers were pressured to sign retirement agreements. Many spoke of being to confused as to what they were actually signing. Both today's quake and the one in January devastated El Salvador's infrastructure, especially roads, schools, the health care sector, and the water system. . The ARENA government's plans for dealing with this crisis will be to sell the repair contracts to private businesses. The forced retirement of seven eighths of the ministry's work force when El Salvador's highways and roads lie buried and damaged shows how profits come before people in the ARENA government's neoliberal schemes.

Full speed ahead with dollarization:

In a press conference this afternoon President Francisco Flores announced that his government has no plans to suspend the dollarization of the Salvadoran economy, which started on January 1st. Under this process (officially called the "Law of Monetary Integration"), U.S. dollars are now legally accepted for all commercial and official transactions. The government stills plans to use $435 million dollars in foreign currency reserves to move the dollarization process ahead. These funds could be put to use for relief and reconstruction if the government stopped dollarizing the economy.

Hard-line: pay your debts at all cost:

Flores said the Salvadoran government would not ask for forgiveness of its foreign debts. He said El Salvador has been punctual and disciplined in payments of its debts. The government does not want this fiscally responsible image to be damaged. For this reason, said Flores, El Salvador will not ask for forgiveness of its foreign debts.

RADIX: Toward a National Dialogue on Sustainable Development in El Salvador

Public actions at the local or regional level 
Oxfam UK
, 15 February 2001, excerpted from Reliefweb: http://www.reliefweb.int/
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"FUNDE has published today in the press a citizens' declaration in which they propose different points for the reconstruction and development of the country. In it, they ask that the priorities be focused on: housing and refugee camps, employment and reactivation of the productive apparatus, and on the environmental and social vulnerabilities.


"The Forum of Civil Society for Reconstruction and Social Development has published today in the press a welcoming message to Her Majesty Queen Sofía of Spain in which they request, "that she put forth her best efforts so that in the Consultative Group meeting the funds from international cooperation be aimed at a real process of national reconstruction: with dignity, participation and sustainability."

The six political forces in the Legislative Assembly coincide in that the President of the Republic has not consulted with them any part of the reconstruction plan that he intends to present to the Consultation Group in Madrid."

RADIX editors' note [Ben Wisner]:

FUNDE (National Fund for Development/ Fundacion National para el Desarrollo) is a non-profit organization set up in El Salvador at the end of the civil war, in 1992, as a national forum for alternative thinking about human development and support of regional and local projects. It has a dense, decentralized, nation wide network, and consults these localities as well as other networks (womens', health, etc.) when formulating the kind of Declaration referred to above. Please see the original declaration in Spanish here, on a linked page on RADIX.

NOTE: RADIX needs people who can work rapidly with us to translate documents to and from Spanish and English (other languages later on). VOLUNTEERS, please??

Since 1996, FUNDE has published a long series of articles, studies, reports, and books. FUNDE has partners in many parts of the world, among them a series of the OXFAMs, Swedish Radda Barnen, French Terres des Hommes, Dutch HIVOS, and in the U.S. the SHARE Foundation, Ford and McArthur Foundations, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

FUNDE's books have dealt, among many other topics, with Earthquakes, Landslides, and Floods: Environmental Risks and Sustainable Human Development (Mario Lungo and Sonia Baires, eds., 1996), Sterile Growth or Development (Roberto Rubio,Fabian Jaquin Arriola, and Jose Victor Aguilar, 1997); and The Impact of Adjustment Programs on Salvadoran Childhood (Raul Moreno, Jose Angel Tolentino, and Maria Alicia Ordonez, 2000).

FUNDE has academic cooperation agreements with several universities in different parts of the world.

It is also conducting a program of immediate post earthquake relief in El Salvador. See the bottom portion of this FUNDE web page:


Also of possible interest to RADIX users:



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