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In Nicaragua, healing is hampered by bickering
The scars from Hurricane Mitch, which ripped apart much of Nicaragua, have started to heal.
Vegetation is creeping over the huge gash left on the side of the Casitas volcano, when its rain-filled crater collapsed, unleashing an avalanche that buried more than 3,000 people.
The highway nearby and all the bridges that were washed away nearly two years ago also have been rebuilt to far better than their original condition, thanks to massive amounts of international aid.
Foreign donors ought be pleased with the pace of the reconstruction.
They are not. A spiraling dispute is pitting donors, particularly European countries, against Nicaragua, over charges of corruption.
"Donors expected to transform Central America ... but you can't transform a country in two years," said Mary J. Conway, director of CARE Nicaragua.
In May 1999, seven months after Mitch, the donors, led by Germany, Canada, U.S., Spain and Sweden, had met in Stockholm and set lofty goals for the transformation of Central America. They pledged about $1 billion in aid and outlined a list of expectations, among them reducing poverty and inequality.
But the toughest challenge for Nicaragua was to replace its traditional politicking with transparent and well-run governance.
For the United States, the overriding worry was a repetition of the debacle following the 1972 Managua earthquake. There was rampant theft of American aid by then dictator Anastasio Somoza and his cronies, including even blood donations.
"In 1972, most aid money was stolen and neither us nor the Congress was going to let that happen again," a State Department official said.
At a follow-up meeting in Washington, D.C. last May, the Stockholm group slammed Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman for his scandal-ridden administration.
Aleman's reply on July 14 was a terse "buzz off."
"(We) are grateful for the aid the international community is bringing to the government and people of Nicaragua, but at the same time we reject the notion that such aid allows it to become involved in the internal politics of Nicaragua," said an official communique.
The dispute also may jeopardize Nicaragua's participation in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, which could help slash the country's $6.3-billion foreign debt.
The billboard at a refugee camp near the Casitas volcano, by the dirt-poor town of Posoltega, hints at the extent of international aid.
The donors list is so long -- at least 15 countries and organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, CARE, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Taiwan and the city of Madrid -- that it looks like the credits after a horror movie.
Elsewhere, a myriad plaques and signs acknowledge other donors: Bridges built by Japan and Chile, roads by Sweden, ambulances from the American Red Cross, a truck from Korea, a water tank from a provincial government in Spain.
Hurricane Mitch hit on Oct. 26, 1998 with winds of up to 180 mph, mostly in the northwestern part of the country. But it was the torrential rains -- several feet in some places over a four-day period -- that did most of the damage.
They destroyed most agricultural production in the affected areas, and turned lazy streams into raging torrents that wiped out or badly damaged 86 bridges and about 1,100 miles of roads.
In addition to the 3,000 dead, most of them around Casitas, about 870,000 people were affected throughout the country, according to Nicaragua's National Emergency Committee.
An estimate by USAID put Nicaragua's losses at $1.5 billion, or 70 percent of the country's 1998 gross domestic product.
Direct U.S.-government emergency relief aid to Nicaragua immediately following the hurricane totaled about $22 million, mostly food and shelter. Non-governmental organizations also raised money in the United States. The American Red Cross collected $51 million and Catholic Relief Services $25 million.
This time, almost all American aid has bypassed the Nicaraguan government and gone directly to the NGOs, mostly U.S.-based organizations with an established presence in Central America.
USAID's obsessive tracking of funds has led to a triple auditing process -- by a private audit consulting firm, the Government Accounting Office and USAID's local office -- that has some groups grumbling about the meddling.
"It's almost a perpetual auditing process," said Snyder.
What threatens continued international aid at the moment, though, is the clash between expectations of "transparency" and Nicaragua's historically murky politics.
"The reconstruction was defined as a 'transformation,' a visionary turning-of-the-corner, with accountability and a strengthening of democracy in Nicaragua," said Carlos F. Chamorro, son of former president Violeta Chamorro and now editor of Confidencial, an investigative magazine. "That simply hasn't happened."
Arnoldo Aleman, of the right-of-center Liberal Party, was elected in 1996, but the Sandinista National Liberation Front won many of the municipal offices -- coincidentally most of those in areas that hardest-hit by the hurricane.
Outright corruption and malfeasance, combined with political maneuvering by Aleman to stay in power have made politics in Nicaragua anything but transparent.
Newspapers like La Prensa and El Nuevo Dia, regale readers with daily fodder about official shenanigans or the latest threat by an international donor to cut off aid.
Early in 1999, the Aleman government fired, and then jailed, Comptroller General Agustin Jarquin, who had investigated official corruption. Following protests by the international donors, Jarquin was freed and the charges dropped.
More recently, the country's chief tax collector, and political confidante of Aleman, was accused of embezzlement.
At the center of these scandals is a political pact between the Liberals and the Sandinistas to essentially divide the government among themselves. Following this gentleman's agreement, the ousted comptroller was replaced by a "college" of comptrollers, made up of three Liberals and two Sandinistas.
The net result, critics say, is that the office has been changed from a bulldog into a lap dog.
"Aleman has politicized the institutions of government, doing precisely what the international donors did not want to see happen" Chamorro said.
Leading the list of complaints were the widespread corruption, the stifling of political parties and candidates and the authoritarianism of the Aleman administration.
But while European donors, particularly Scandinavian countries, have protested, threatened and in some instances halted aid, U.S. response has not been nearly as hard-hitting.
"The politicking in Nicaragua smells like a dead fish and is clearly worrisome, we just haven't gotten to the point of publicly calling it a dead fish," said a State Department official. "We don't see as appropriate for us to make unilateral comments. We'd rather let the Group of 5 speak for us."
Diplomatic sources in Managua also insist that the U.S. ambassador has expressed his concerns repeatedly -- but privately.
Confidencial magazine's editor Chamorro said the United States in fact has different priorities, with compensation for American properties confiscated by the Sandinistas, illegal immigration and the growing narcotrafficking on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, trumping the finer points of transparency.
Tensions between the two countries have been exacerbated by the introduction of a bill in the House by Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) that would cut off aid to Nicaragua unless it settles the claims of American citizens.
And if Aleman tampers with the constitution to buy himself another term in power, or with the political system to undercut the opposition, Nicaragua runs a serious risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in international relief aid.
If anything, Nicaragua may become a textbook example of how much easier it is to dig wells and rebuild bridges and roads than transform a country's ingrained political habits.