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In El Salvador, Preparation Saved Thousands of Lives
The Washington Diplomat / January 1999

By Larry Luxner

El Salvador, Central America's most densely populated country, didn't take a direct hit from Hurricane Mitch -- though its punishing winds and rains left 250 Salvadorans dead and another 84,000 homeless or displaced by the storm.

René A. León, the country's ambassador to the United States, says the human toll could have been much worse.

"El Salvador had in place an effective emergency system, the Comite de Emergencia Nacional, that allowed us to save many thousands of lives. We had been preparing ourselves for managing natural disasters like this one for four years," he explained. "We were quick to evacuate literally thousands of people where, if no help had been provided to them, they would have died."

León says direct damages to El Salvador's infrastructure come to $130 million, including damages to schools, bridges, highways and electric utilities. The main destruction was in the eastern departments of Usulutan and San Miguel, mainly because of the flooding of two rivers, the Río Grande and the Río Lempa.

"We are expecting heavy losses in our main agricultural products, especially in sugar cane, which is an integrated activity that creates jobs for more than 150,000 people. We'll lose at least 40% or 50% or our total sugar-cane production, amounting to over three million tons," said the 38-year-old diplomat, who was El Salvador's deputy minister of trade before taking up his current post in August 1997. "This will affect not only the peasants but also the sugar-cane mill workers and intermediate people in one of El Salvador's most critical agricultural activities."

Coffee, another crucial Salvadoran export, will suffer about $100 million in losses, representing up to 40% of the country's total coffee production. "The coffee trees are there, but they have nothing," he said. "Coffee is a product which is not harvested at sea level but on higher ground. That's why the main damage came from trees losing their fruit and the fruit being washed away."

León says he's asking the Inter-American Development Bank for $2.2 billion in loans that would finance infrastructure and development projects over the next 25 years.

"What we have been actively proposing is first of all, in order for our countries to surpass this extremely difficult situation, there should be an economic recovery initiative for the Central American countries," he said. "It should be based on a regional approach, and should be sustained on medium and long-term objectives in four areas: immigration relief, economic investment opportunities, debt forgiveness and reconstruction funds."

León says El Salvador and the rest of Central America would have a much better shot of recovering from Mitch if it had unfettered access to the U.S. consumer market for its manufactured goods. In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, León wrote that "a rapid and sustainable reconstruction will be impossible unless our trade and investment opportunities are expanded. As a region, we are asking the United States to increase the benefits of the Caribbean Basin Initiative so that our exports are able to enjoy favorable treatment. We see this as a stepping stone to the negotiation of a free trade agreement for Central America."

Giving CBI nations the same benefits Mexico enjoys under NAFTA would not only provide Salvadorans a disincentive for emigrating to the United States, he explained. It would also have a beneficial effect on the U.S. economy by creating jobs linked to the expansion of factories and increased trade throughout Central America.

"We are constantly going to Congress, to explain the situation threats and opportunities that can be drawn out of this tragedy. We are building upon those meetings," he said. "Logically, the other critical factor for us is immigration relief for the Central Americans who live in the United States and send back to the region $3 billion a year."

In fact, El Salvador's chief source of foreign exchange is the $1.3 billion in remittances sent each year by immigrants in the United States. That amount -- roughly 10% of the country's Gross Domestic Product -- would shrivel if the U.S. government goes ahead with plans to deport thousands of Central American refugees. An estimated 1.5 million Salvadorans live here -- with hundreds of thousands in the Washington area alone -- a legacy of El Salvador's long civil war that killed 75,000 people during the 1980s and bankrupted the nation's economy.

Nevertheless, León said he has no idea how many Salvadorans are living in this country illegally. When asked what percentage of the total are illegal immigrants, the ambassador replied: "This isn't the point. If this flow of money is cut, the instability of the region will get worse, and the families that receive this money as their only source of income will suffer."

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