The Washington Diplomat / January 1999
By Larry Luxner
Honduras, one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, was just starting to pull itself out of poverty when the worst disaster in its history -- Hurricane Mitch -- struck in late October.
Edgardo Dumas Rodríguez, the country's ambassador to the United States, says numbers alone cannot express how devastating the storm was, though the numbers are quite shocking: 6,748 dead, 11,998 injured, 8,373 missing and over 3.5 million homeless. Out of the country's 18 departments, the most seriously affected were Choluteca, Colón and Yoro.
Meanwhile, direct and indirect losses to the Honduran conomy are estimated at $3.64 billion -- including housing ($1.02 billion); health ($934.4 million); infrastructure ($511.7 million); agriculture ($1.66 billion) and manufacturing ($212.1 million).
"Before the hurricane, the economy was moving ahead. We didn't have much unemployment, and things were OK," says Dumas. "But now, we have 1.5 million people doing nothing. You need at least 18 months to start again with bananas, and bananas were hit the worst -- Chiquita estimates around $400 million in damages. And at least 40% of the coffee crop was destroyed."
The Honduran tobacco industry has also taken a direct hit, with 1998 cigar production likely to be far less than the 26 million cigars exported in 1997, or the 22 million cigars exported the year before.
Dumas, who was not in Honduras when the storm struck, has one of the toughest jobs in the Washington diplomatic corps today: urging the U.S. government as well as multilateral institutions like the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the IMF to come up with the $5 billion he says is necessary to rebuild the shattered country.
In a lengthy interview last month at the Honduran Embassy -- located in the ultramodern Intelsat building on Tilden Street -- the 67-year-old envoy says his country's Gross Domestic Product will show a 25% contraction this year as a direct result of Mitch.
"Nature was bad to us, and this gives us an opportunity to do something," he said. "We have to take advantage of the situation instead of sitting down and crying."
Dumas, who became ambassador to the United States in May, only half a year ago, is a lawyer and journalist from the northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula who earned a law degree in 1954 from the National Autonomous University of Honduras and has done post-graduate work at New York University, MIT and Harvard.
He's a columnist for La Tribuna, the daily newspaper of San Pedro Sula, and he's vice-president of the Freedom of the Press Committee for the Miami-based Inter-American Press Association. No stranger to the diplomatic world, Dumas has served Honduras in a dozen foreign nations including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Romania, Greece, Finland and Yugoslavia.
But nothing was enough to prepare Dumas for the catastrophe that destroyed his country over a period of three days and nights.
"This was our worst disaster," he said. "The losses were terrible. At one point, the embassy was receiving 1,000 calls a day from relatives asking what had happened. All the communications lines to Honduras were down."
He adds: "We are not accustomed to dealing with that kind of damage. We've got thousands of people still living in shelters without sanitary facilities who need a place to live. But it's not easy to build 10,000 homes."
Following the devastation, Tegucigalpa, the nation's bustling capital, is only a ruined shadow of its former self, he said, while the Bay Islands -- a major Honduran tourist attraction -- were almost completely destroyed along with nearby coral reefs.
Dumas says one of his priorities is getting the 400,000 or so Hondurans living in this country to help their communities back home, as well as soliciting donations from charitable organizations from across the United States. He recently traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri, "because a church there gave us a lot of help," as well as to Cleveland, where a Salvation Army chapter donated the funds necessary to ship 40 containers of emergency relief supplies to Honduras. The embassy has also received help from the D.C. Fire Department, as well as from local doctors, nurses, flight attendants and corporations.
On a much larger scale, Honduras and Nicaragua will together receive about $1 billion in new interest-free credits from the World Bank's International Development Association. The bank has also announced a new Central America Emergency Trust Fund to help Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala meet their debt service on existing debt owed to multilateral institutions, and has pledged to work with the IMF and the IDB to assess the possibility of making Honduras eligible for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. In addition, the World Bank will open a resident mission in Tegucigalpa to strengthen the bank's technical support on the ground.
"We feel grateful for the response of the whole international community," said Dumas, who has appealed for help via programs aired on local TV stations as well as CNN and other networks. "The demonstration of human solidarity was something you don't expect."
But that's not enough.
"We have to take heroic measures," he said. "Our government has moved quickly in Congress to eliminate the law that says foreigners can't own land with 40 kilometers of the coast. They've also reduced the number of holidays in the calendar."
Interestingly, Dumas says Mitch won't delay the planned privatization of Hondutel -- the state telephone monopoly -- or interfere with other policies aimed at reducing government bureaucracy and sparking foreign investment. "For instance," he says, "there's no way small investors can repay loans at 30% a year. I am proposing new and creative ways of giving loans to these people."
Dumas also says the United States could be far more helpful by increasing his country's sugar quota, providing more C-130 cargo aircraft to transport donated goods to Honduras, and by expanding Central American access to the U.S. consumer market.
"Hopefully, we're going to get help from the Senate bipartisan committee on that issue," suggests the ambassador, adding that "we need a little bit more intensive pressure on Washington."