Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 209 | Diciembre 1998



How Managua Saw the Passage of Hurricane Mitch

How have people in Managua perceived and experienced the catastrophe brought by Mitch? Have the actions of the government and other sectors corresponded to what such an unexpected and grave event requires?

Envío team

How have people in Managua perceived and experienced the catastrophe brought by Mitch? Have the actions of the government and other sectors corresponded to what such an unexpected and grave event requires?
In search of an answer to these and other questions related to the emergency situation and its consequences, IDESO, envío's recently created institute of surveys and opinion samplings, interviewed 950 residents of Managua, Nicaragua's capital, in a door-to-door survey on November 28-29. We asked our questions of housewives, students, professionals, employed and unemployed people, in income categories that ranged from under 500 córdobas ($45) to 6,000 córdobas ($540) a month, all men and women over 16 and therefore eligible to vote.

As in our September poll, we selected a representative sample of people from Managua's urban population, which represents 41.8% of the country's urban population and 21% of the total national population, rural as well as urban. Also as in September, we asked the question, "Do you sympathize with any political party or organization?" which 39.6% answered affirmatively. The following breakdown of those who provided their specific party sympathy shows the relative weight of the cross-referenced answers by political leanings in the questions below: FSLN- 66%; the governing Liberal Alliance plus its largest party, Constitutionalist Liberals (combined below as one category) - 29.3%; Christian Way 1.6%; Conservative Party 1.0%; all others 2.1%.

One of the greatest debates as the tragedy was occurring had to do with the government's forecasting ability. The question formulated to those interviewed was: "Do you believe that the government warned the population in time about Mitch?" A notable majority (76.4%) responded "No." The message is unmistakable: those interviewed believe that the government did not take the necessary precautions, that there was a lack of prevention, of caring, of responsibility. That opinion is slightly higher among those with secondary schooling or some university studies than among those with lower education levels. The proportion of sympathizers with the opposition FSLN who believe that (76%) is almost identical to the overall figure, while only one-fifth (19.7%) of those who back the governing Liberals agree.

The National Emergency Committee engaged in a variety of tasks throughout nearly all of November: evacuation, food distribution, needs identification, attention to international visitors and the like. To the question "How do you assess the work of the National Emergency Committee coordinated by Vice President Bolaños Geyer?" the interviewees gave a wider spread of answers than in the previous question. Grouping together "very good" and "good," the favorable response was 36.8%, which was a bit higher than the "mediocre" response of 32%, and significantly higher than the 19.2% "bad" response, although those who did not know or did not respond reached nearly 10%.

Crossing opinions with the interviewees' party sympathies revealed a similarly wide spread. Of the population that claimed no party leanings, 56.1% answered either "mediocre" or "bad," whereas fewer of those who sympathized with some party had an unfavorable opinion of the committee (48.8%). As was to be expected, sympathizers with President Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) made up 65% of the favorable opinions, though a significant portion (22.7%) came from FSLN sympathizers, 4.3% from the Christian Way and close to 3% from the Conservative Party.

To whom was the incoming aid distributed? How were priorities established? Was there a scale of priorities? Some media reported that there was partisan or sectarian handling of the aid, and further charged that parties, organizations and even religious groups were using the opportunity to multiply their clientele.

We asked two questions about this. The first was: "Do you believe that the aid is being distributed equitably across party lines? A relative majority (40.5%) of the Managuans polled—who know about the distribution mainly through the media, since the capital was virtually unaffected—believe that there was political discrimination in the provision of the humanitarian aid. But a significant number stated that it was equitably distributed "in all places."
Of those who have no sympathies with any party, 44.8% leaned to the view that it has not been evenhanded, whereas only 38% of those who sympathize with one party or another share that view. At the level of concrete sympathies, the differences became even clearer. Of those who think that the distribution has been unfair, 84% are FSLN sympathizers and only 11.1% sympathize with the Liberals. Just over 57% of the latter state that the distribution was equitable in all places, and a significant minority (38.7%) of the FSLN sympathizers agree.

The second question on this same issue was formulated as follows: "Do you believe that the aid is being distributed equitably across religious lines?" Here the bulk of the answers were almost exactly the inverse of those to the previous question, and in similar percentages. In this case the relative majority (42.5%) believed that it was equitably distributed everywhere while the significant majority (32%) gave an unequivocal "No" answer. Another 17.7% took the middle road, recognizing that there were some cases of discrimination and others in which equity prevailed.

The positive or negative opinion regarding religious prejudices in the distribution is rather clearly related to the creed of those polled. An absolute majority (54%) of the Catholics stated that there had been no discrimination, compared to only 15.9% of the Protestants and 15.3% of those who said they had other religions. Nearly half (45.2%) of those who said they were non-believers were of the opinion that there was discrimination in the aid distribution based on religious motives. It is likely that President Alemán's decision to put Catholic bishops at the head of the Departmental Emergency Committees—a measure he justified on the grounds that the Catholic Church has "two thousand years of experience"—contributed to the perceptions we detected.

Party representatives and leaders, particularly of the PLC and the FSLN, showed up in various disaster zones with aid and messages. Those polled responded in diverse ways to the question, "How do you view the participation of the political parties in the help to the affected zones?" Only 35% saw the parties as playing a positive role of some degree, just a bit more than those who viewed it as mediocre.

Looked at from the perspective of party sympathizers, 10.4% of the Sandinista sympathizers viewed it as "very good," 24.4% as "good," 38.4% as "mediocre" and 22% as "bad". Among those who identified with either the Liberal Alliance or more specifically the PLC, 11% considered the party role as "very good," 38.5% as "good," 27.5% as "mediocre" and 13.7% as "bad."

The National Army actively participated in the operations to rescue the stranded victims and distribute aid to otherwise inaccessible zones. A massive 88.6% answered either "good" or "very good" to the question, "How do you evaluate the role of the National Army in the aid to people affected by Mitch?"
Of those with political leanings, the opinions of the FSLN and Liberal sympathizers were surprisingly close to each other, given that the army is still generally identified as Sandinista. For example, 66.1% of the Sandinista supporters and 60.3% of the Liberal supporters viewed the army's role as very good; 26.2% and 24.6%, respectively, as good; and 4.4% vs. 7.7% as mediocre. By the time it came to "bad," however, not even the combined opinion of all interviewees identified with any party (0.8%) reached the overall 2.2%, but most of that insignificant percentage was Liberal.

To the question, "What has been Mitch's greatest impact on you and your family?" far and away the largest group selected the rise in prices on the accompanying list of options, with unemployment a distant second.

Of the 800 people in the sample who revealed their income levels, 34.5% receive under 500 córdobas a month (about $45) and 37.9% receive between 501 and 1,500 córdobas, for a total of nearly three-quarters of the universe of Managuans surveyed. In the lowest-income stratum, 71.7% listed price increases as having the greatest effect, while 68.3% in the second stratum did the same. But to illustrate how easy it is to manipulate questions and data interpretation, we must also reveal that 65% of those who earn 6,500 córdobas a month (the highest income disclosed among those willing to answer) gave the same response. The explanation is that, in the main, Managua's population is experiencing only the side effects of Hurricane Mitch. As a result, price rises was virtually the only commonly shared answer. In order to understand the real impact of the price hikes on the different income sectors, we would have had to ask additional, differentiating questions.

The National Assembly representatives presented various bills and some visited the disaster zones. To the question, "How do you view the actions of the National Assembly representatives in response to the Mitch disaster?" almost two-thirds ranked them in the mediocre-to-bad range, and under 17% ranked them as good or very good. An unusually strong 14.1% did not know or did not answer.

Political leanings did not affect these answers much, in that no strongly defined positions differentiated the sympathizers of any given party. FSLN sympathizers were divided as follows: "very good" 3.6%, "good" 13.3%, "mediocre" 31.3% and "bad" 36.9%. The range of answers among Liberal Party sympathizers had only a slightly more positive curve overall: "very good" 6.2%, "good" 21.5%, "mediocre" 27.7%, and "bad" 27.7%.

The most critical opinions came from those with higher formal education levels, and those over 31 years of age, particularly those in the 41-50 age bracket. The under-20 category tended to group their opinions between "mediocre" (36.4%) and "good" (34.1%). Among that younger stratum, only 14.7% defined the legislators' activities in response to Mitch as "bad."

One very sensitive point related to the arrival, management and distribution of the humanitarian aid had to do with the channels through which it should be sent. What is the best counterpart? Does the government have the capacity to distribute so much aid? Approximately half of the humanitarian aid to arrive so far has been channeled through nongovernmental organizations. What do people think of this? We formulated the question as follows: "Many donors have preferred to turn the aid over to nongovernmental organizations instead of the government. Do you agree with that policy?" A clear majority (76.3%) said that it did, while only 17.5% disagreed.

Among those who said Yes, 72.7% are FSLN sympathizers and 22.5% support the governing party. This significant minority of Liberal backers who agree with such a policy is curious, suggesting that they recognize the NGOs' positive and autonomous role and feel more comfortable with it than the government appears to. It is also probable that within all these answers is an expression of the surveyed population's recognition of governmental limitations in being able to handle all the aid that has been coming into the country from around the world.

Central America, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua, became front-page world news again with the catastrophe caused by Mitch, and that attention translated very quickly into various forms of material solidarity. We asked this question: "It is calculated that Mitch caused $1.5 billion in losses. Do you feel that international aid has been generous, not very generous or not at all generous?" The unequivocal option "generous" received an overwhelming 86.6% of the responses, while the similarly unequivocal option "not at all generous" only got 1%.

In response to the hurricane, the international community seems ready to pardon a significant part of Nicaragua's foreign debt. This could open up some new economic possibilities for the country, since the freed-up resources could be invested in social programs and projects for economic development. It is also possible, however, that the resources will not be used well and the population in general will perceive no real benefits from the write-off. What do people think might happen? The question was formulated as follows: "Do you believe that if the debt is pardoned the government will reinvest all that money in projects for economic development and social benefit?" Almost 59% indicated that they have no faith in this positive scenario, while just over 26% believe that the government will take advantage of the debt pardon to make these kinds of investments.

The FSLN sympathizers are the most dubious, with an 82.6% No vote; only 14.7% of them think the government will invest the recovered resources in development projects. Among government supporters, 63% believe that these funds will be reinvested to benefit the people and only 12.6% do not. Half of the Conservative Party supporters said they do not believe that the government would reinvest the freed-up resources well, while another quarter does. Among those identified with the Christian Way, 83.3% do not believe that the government would make good use of the opportunity opened up by a debt pardon.

With respect to age categories, the responses were widely distributed, though the inclination among those between 21 and 50 years old to believe that the government would not invest the savings from a debt write-off in economic progress and social benefit was higher (77.8%) than the overall average.

Another sensitive issue has been the question of honesty and openness in the management of international aid coming into the country. For the international community, the issue has a historically transcendental aspect. Nicaragua set an indelibly negative precedent in the eyes of the international community in 1972, when huge quantities of aid received in response to the earthquake that flattened Managua were diverted or misused. That memory has led relatives, friends, foreign government and international NGO officials, and all others involved in collecting aid for Nicaragua to express in one way or another their concern that the aid "get to those who truly need it and not be sidetracked on the way." The concern is equally strong inside Nicaragua. We formulated this question to our survey sample: "Who do you believe is managing the aid with the greatest transparency?" The largest percentage, just over 39%, said that they thought the NGOs were, while 24.7% named the Catholic bishops. Only 15% stated that the government is being the most transparent in this task.

Using as a cross factor the level of schooling of those polled, the illiterate population leaned slightly more in favor of the government (31.8%), although 29.5% of them named the NGOs and 13.6% the Catholic bishops. As academic levels rose, so did the proportion that put the NGOs in first place and the bishops in second.

Among Liberal sympathizers, only 16.2% believe that the NGOs are managing the aid most transparently. Of this same group, 30.6% named the government in first place, though 38.7% gave the Catholic bishops their share of credit. FSLN sympathizers are the most strongly inclined (83.2%) to grant the greatest credibility to the NGOs. Interviewees who identify with the Conservative Party divided into two equal groups: one siding with the NGOs and the other with the bishops. Christian Way sympathizers largely favored the NGOs.

Taking religious creed as a cross reference, even more Catholics put the NGOs in first place (36.8%) than gave that recognition to the bishops (31%). The overall 24.7% that the bishops received was divided as followed: 73% from Catholics and 19% from Protestants. As with the previous question, the percentage of those who did not know or did not respond was again high (11.4%).

The ongoing clashes between the offices of the Executive and the Comptroller General continued even amid the crisis generated by Mitch. Among them was the President's decision to hire a foreign company to audit the international aid and thus guarantee its accountability, knowing full well that this activity constitutionally falls to the Comptroller's office. What do Managuans think about this? In response to the question: "Do you agree that the government should contract foreign companies to do the work of the Comptroller's Office?" an absolute majority of 60% said it was opposed to hiring foreign companies, while 29.3% expressed agreement with the idea.

In general, political party sympathies or lack thereof did not have a strong impact on the responses. Among all those answering "No," 58.7% had some political affinity, while the remaining 41.3% claimed no sympathy for any party. At the level of specific sympathies, however, the scene changes. Among FSLN supporters, 74.6% oppose hiring foreign auditors and only 17.9% are in favor. A full 100% of those sympathetic to the Conservative Party say they oppose the idea, while 50% of those who back the Christian Way oppose it and 33% are in favor. The issue also divided Liberal backers, with 54.4% in favor and 37.5% opposed.

These percentages found among government party sympathizers on such a specific issue mean that President Alemán does not have full backing from his base for his "war" against the Comptroller's Office and its current head, Agustín Jarquín. The FSLN leadership would appear to have even less grassroots support for its collusion in this war, although generic nationalist sentiments and opposition to spending lots of money on transnational firms are motives that could have played a part in many of these answers.

Once the first moments of the disaster had passed, the pre-Mitch political maneuverings between President Alemán and FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega to hammer out a bipartisan pact got back on track. We formulated this question to the survey sample: "Violeta Chamorro rejected the invitation by Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega to participate in the National Reconstruction Council. Are you in agreement with Doña Violeta's decision?"

Just over half said they disagreed with the former President's decision not to accept the invitation, although a significant minority (36.4%) supported it. Of the "No" opinions, 42.7% claimed no party sympathies. Of the 57.3% who admitted having them, 63.9% were Sandinista sympathizers, 31.7% were Liberal supporters, 1.4% Conservatives and 1% Christian Way. Of those who sided with Chamorro, 67.4% sympathized with the Sandinistas, 27.2% with the government party and 2.3% with Christian Way. It is interesting to note that a significant minority of both the Liberal and the Sandinista base agreed with her decision to decline the invitation, even though the question made clear that it had been extended directly by their respective party heads: Ortega and Alemán.

The tragedy caused by Mitch and the way it was or was not dealt with could affect the popularity of national and local political leaders and influence voters' future choices. With the aim of recording a very early pulse of the best known possible candidate on today's political stage, we formulated the question: "If the election for President of the Republic were held today, for whom would you vote?" The hands-down winner, with 36.2% of the vote, was "None" of the names on the list we presented, followed by Daniel Ortega with 20.2% and Arnoldo Alemán with half that. This explains the FSLN's strong interest in eliminating the second round of voting from the Electoral Law, which currently sets 45% of the votes as the minimum a candidate must get to be elected in the first round.

The greatest proportion of interviewees who declared their sympathies with some party are loyal to the FSLN (66%). Of those, only a bit over half (55.6%) declared their intention to vote for party general secretary Ortega. Within this same group, 3.6% favored Violeta Chamorro, 9.5% Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín and 6% current army chief General Joaquín Cuadra.

Among those who sympathize with the governing Liberal party, only 50.8% would vote for Arnoldo Alemán, while 7.7% would vote for Violeta Chamorro and 6.2% for Agustín Jarquín. This suggests that the leaders of the two parties who got the largest number of votes in the 1996 elections are pretty well spent. Almost half of those who sympathize with these two parties are beginning to prefer other candidates to their own best-known leaders, or at least to have serious doubts about their voting preference. It also indicates that, with well over two years to go before the presidential elections, there is as yet no dark horse beginning to inch up along the fence and close the gap.

It is worth reiterating here that a hefty majority (60.4%) of those asked if they sympathize with any political party or organization said they do not, which suggests a generalized disenchantment with party politics in Nicaragua.

Mitch's Lessons

Hurricane Mitch has revealed a new side to our country's vulnerability. The way each state institution or civil society organization responded in the early days of the crisis, as well the measures each continues to take to help rebuild the country, will serve to either improve or worsen its image in society's eyes. Some institutions have gained recognition and others have slid even further downhill.

The government has shown limited capacity to respond to emergency situations and disasters such as the one we are living through right now. It lacks the ability to effectively centralize decision-making much less to become a single, but active and streamlined channel for aid to those affected.

Mitch also revealed that other sectors do exist with a greater capacity to successfully deal with situations of this type. Furthermore, they enjoy credibility and have earned the image of honesty and accountability that public opinion has of them. The National Army, the NGOs and the Comptroller General's Office have all held onto the recognition, respect and backing that diverse strata of the population, including governing party sympathizers, previously gave them. The public in Managua, as in the rest of Nicaragua, is demanding commitment, responsibility, transparency and honesty. What was not achieved during Mitch must be achieved at the very least during the arduous post-Mitch reconstruction.

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