El Salvador staggered by cost of quake relief. Disaster takes high human, economic, and political toll on nation
``We are living in the street. We have no house, no clothes, no money, no nothing.'' Yolanda de Torres stands amid piles of rubble and sums up her shattered life. Around her, the remains of Paraguay Street in poverty-stricken south San Salvador lie in ruins. Block upon block of the San Jacinto neighborhood were reduced to chunks of adobe and plaster by last Friday's earthquake.Skip to next paragraph
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Most relief efforts are now concentrating on finding any remaining survivors. International relief agencies, backed by emergency funds and medical supplies from foreign governments and private individuals, are working to aid the injured. But an estimated 200,000 residents have been largely left to fend for themselves after the quake, amid the ravages of El Salvador's rainy season.
At time of writing Monday, the death toll stood at 890. But officials say it could climb to as many as 2,000. The plight of homeless survivors such as Mrs. Torres, poses a stiff challenge to the US-backed government's political and economic future, Western diplomats and local observers say.
There is some concern that if relief operations are mishandled, the government's leftist rebel opposition will attempt to exploit public discontent. But the greater worry is the toll that reparation will take on an economy that has already been devastated by seven years of civil war.
Although President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's suggestion of a $2 billion damages bill is no more than a guess, ``there is no doubt that the damage was very considerable,'' says Planning Minister Fidel Angel Ch'avez Mena. ``With the economic situation already so difficult, this is bound to aggravate our problems.''
Mr. Ch'avez Mena points out that, fortunately, the country's economic infrastructure was left mostly unscathed by the earthquake. Few farms in the countryside felt the quake, and few factories appear seriously damaged. But housing reconstruction costs will clearly be extensive, and Ch'avez Mena fears that foreign aid, once earmarked for development, will have to be spent just to recoup Friday's losses.
And, among the most serious losses caused by the earthquake was the destruction of Ch'avez Mena's Planning Ministry itself. ``We lost everything,'' he laments. ``Our economic information, all our plans, all our records of foreign aid. I don't know how we will ever recover that.''
The government is taking some novel approaches to the disaster relief effort. The President has, for example, handed over responsibility for foreign aid to private businesses and decided against any attempt to provide emergency shelter for those left without a roof.
The defense minister, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who has played a key role in the government's relief plan, has praised the decision to let the private sector handle aid. In a country where fraud and official robbery of emergency aid has become a tradition, ``This shows donors that the money will be treated with total honesty,'' the general said.
Others, however, see more political motives behind President Duarte's handling of the crisis. One of Mr. Duarte's closest advisers points out that the President's relations with the private sector have never been good, and they have deteriorated in recent weeks over his imposition of a ``war tax'' on businesses and wealthy individuals. Asking businessmen to look after the aid, the adviser suggests, is a gesture of good faith and confidence that Duarte hopes will be returned.