An exact calculation will never be made of the human and material damage caused by hurricane Mitch in Central America. But the worst hit countries - Honduras and Nicaragua - may have lost a generation or more of economic progress. An enormous amount of humanitarian and reconstruction aid is needed, and there is no reason to delay its prompt arrival.
It is important to ask, however, whether this aid will be used only to rebuild bridges to the past. Before the hurricane, the countries of Central America were extremely poor and suffered from a grievous disparity of income between a small number of the very rich and millions of the very poor. Although all governments of the region now have elected civilian governments, Central America's history of civil wars, revolutions, foreign interventions and dictatorships has left these new democratic regimes extremely feeble. Governmental institutions remain ineffective and riddled with cronyism and corruption. Civil society is weak.
The modest private sector, as in a hall of mirrors, reflects the public sector's incompetence and corrupt practices.
The backwardness of Honduras and Nicaragua are the result of natural and historical catastrophes. The different catastrophes are related. Even though the first kind can't be averted, the second magnifies their consequences. In 1972 an earthquake destroyed Nicaragua's capital. In 1975 Hurricane Fifi devastated Honduras. Humanitarian and reconstruction aid was also available then, but it didn't improve the condition of either country.
The current tragedy may represent an opportunity to prevent another return to the way things were. Or it could sow the seeds for greater tragedies in the future.
The former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza said that the earthquake that laid waste his country's capital represented a "revolution of opportunity." Aid for that crisis ended up in the pockets of Somoza and his cronies, and another kind of revolution erupted seven years later, leading to civil war, American and Soviet involvement, and two decades later, a GNP per capita that had dipped to the levels of 40 years ago.
This time, international aid must be used to break the cycle of historical and natural catastrophes.
Courage and new ideas are needed to guide reconstruction efforts.
For example, given that massive deforestation is to blame for a major part of the damage, the international community should consider a supervised prohibition of timber exports until plans are devised for the future sustainable exploitation of the forests. External assistance might be massively directed to projects that conserve nature and restore natural ecosystems.
Despite the emergency situation, efforts must proceed apace to strengthen democratic institutions, especially watchdog agencies and judicial systems, which are so important for establishing order, maintaining security, and building confidence.
The worst possible outcome would be the inefficient or corrupt management of international aid, leading to a further erosion of citizens' confidence in their own governments.
International reconstruction efforts must be focused on the needs of poor neighborhoods and communities. It should not be administered indiscriminately or benefit families with the means to help themselves. The governments should use the opportunity to introduce sorely needed elements of social justice.
For the first time in their history, the Honduran and Nicaraguan armed forces answer to civilian governments. But the armies of these countries mostly possess weapons - like tanks - that neither serve democratic societies nor regional security needs. The armies don't have bulldozers or transport vehicles needed to deal with natural disaster. This is the time to provide useful aid to the armed forces, and training in how to use it, which would prepare the countries for future emergencies and offer them the means as well to protect their natural resources. It may also help in the management of one of the most sensitive aspects of the transition to democracy, the status and role of military forces.
Finally, international aid could help to promote economic and political integration of the Central American republics. The hurricane has shown just how interdependent they all are. The fallen bridges in Honduras and Nicaraqua have devastated commerce regionwide. Poverty will surely propel massive flows of migrants - not only toward the United States but also to Costa Rica.
Why not take advantage of the moment to create regional agencies with real authority to manage inter-linked development projects and to solve common problems?
Like the ideas behind the European Coal and Steel Authority, which turned out to be the origin of the European Union, Central America needs a similar vision.
A way must be found to turn today's tragedy into tomorrow's opportunity.
* Edmundo Jarqun, a former member of the Nicaraguan legislature, is a senior official at the Inter-American Development Bank, in Washington, D.C.