El Salvador staggered by cost of quake relief. Disaster takes high human, economic, and political toll on nation

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``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.

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.

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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.

``The government has a bad image at the moment because of economic hardships and the continuing war with leftist guerrillas,'' one European diplomat comments. ``It wants to hide behind a fa,cade of national unity, to send the message that the government is more than just the Christian Democratic Party.''

That message has been heavily underlined by the prominent role the Army is playing in relief efforts. The government's entire effort is being coordinated from the military's general staff headquarters, and the Army has been key -- in providing inspection of damaged sites, communications, transport, and security -- since minutes after the earthquake.

``Duarte has taken this as an opportunity to shore up the somewhat uneasy triangular relationship between government, business, and Army,'' says one diplomat. ``He is using [the earthquake] politically.''

But government opponents on the left and right would seem equally well placed to make political capital from the way the current crisis is handled, officials say. The authorities' decision to leave the homeless where they are is fraught with risk, they say. The plan, says San Salvador Mayor Antonio Morales Erlich, is to supply people who have lost their houses with the materials to build new ones on the ruins. ``That is not a bad idea,'' comments Jacques Lebas of Doctors of the World, a French emergency relief group. ``But its success depends on being able to ensure supplies.'' Temporary refugee camps, he fears, may too easily become permanent, once the relief momentum drops off, as has occurred here before.

Given the enormous scale of the crisis, the government's ability to supply building materials is in doubt. ``We have to move fast,'' says a senior government official. ``But no matter how fast we are, it will still be too slow for someone who is living in the street.''

In San Jacinto, people are surviving on on food handouts, and on hopes of more lasting assistance. ``Just give me the materials, and I'll build my house somewhere. I'm waiting,'' said Angel Escalante, a 61-year-old construction worker.

But many victims' expectations are dimmed by fears that aid money might be diverted before reaching them. ``It would be better if the people giving aid came and handed it to us personally,'' says Mrs. de Torres. ``You have to be frank: If they give it to the government, it may not all get passed on.''

The potential for discontent, if the homeless are left on the street for weeks, is clearly enormous, Duarte's close adviser acknowledges. ``Existing economic problems alone could create the objective conditions for the guerrillas to exploit, he warns. ``And now. . . .''

Although a unilateral truce has been declared while emergency relief operations are underway, officials are quick to point out that this is unlikely to result in any progress toward peace.

``This is a very risky time, and decisions made now could have long-term repercussions,'' one Western diplomat warns. ``Earthquakes in this region are such cataclysmic events, they always have political dimensions.''

The regional precedents, he adds, are not encouraging for Duarte. It was Anastasio Somoza Debayle's massive misappropriation of aid after a 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua that marked the beginning of that dictator's end. And, the mishandling after last year's quake in Mexico ``focused discontent [with the government there] more sharply,'' the Western diplomat says.

``It is not easy for a president to come out looking good from an earthquake.''

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