Earthquake Exposes Fault Lines In Costa Rican Governance

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About six months ago, on January 9, 2009, Costa Rica experienced one of the greatest natural disasters to have ever hit it. The 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck 20 miles north of capital San José caused more than 30 casualties, displaced 2,200, and affected more than 120,000 people in all. In hindsight, a picture of the current health of Costa Rican society may be painted through the analysis of the public, private, and non-profit sectors’ responses to the disaster. Although the catastrophe exposed inefficiency and disorganization in President Oscar Árias’ administration, it also demonstrated the solidarity of the Costa Rican population and the strength of civil society in a country that lately has been criticized for becoming increasingly individualistic and self-minded.

A quick initial response
Initially, the Costa Rican government’s response to the earthquake was both timely and comprehensive. On the same day the disaster occurred, the National Commission of Emergencies (CNE) issued a press report claiming that government officials would visit the affected area and respond to the population’s individual needs.6 This institution is charged with responding to emergencies and is known throughout Central America for the exemplary jurisdictional and legal framework that surround its operations.7 Rescue activities began the following day, assisted by Colombian and American personnel and equipment, and the government promptly announced that it would use all available funds to provide humanitarian aid for those affected by the earthquake. Additionally, it issued a call for national solidarity, and proceeded to set up the necessary financial and material channels for the countries, agencies and citizens wanting to dispatch assistance to the victims.8 President Árias also urged the Costa Rican Congress to approve a $65 million World Bank loan, originally intended for disaster prevention, and now to be used for rebuilding infrastructure.9

The President also declared that financial help would be provided to those who had lost their material possessions, houses and tourism-dependent livelihood in the disaster.10 Emergency shelters were set up, families were allocated food, clothing and medical care, while government officials visited hundreds of houses to assess the damage.11 The Mixed Institute for Social Help (IMAS) was asked to help cover the rent that displaced homeless families now had to pay, as well as to create plans to build subsidized permanent housing projects in order to relocate the families in distress.12 In the days following the earthquake, the CNE, which was coordinating the rescue and humanitarian efforts,13 appeared to be living up to its idealized image of an effective inter-institutional overseer.14 The strong social safety net, which the country prides itself on, seemed to be providing results.

Disorder, stagnation, and lack of accountability
Weeks later, however, national newspapers began to investigate the earthquake’s aftermath and published some of the complaints being voiced by its victims, mainly against the quality of the census process, the emergency assistance, and the long-term reconstruction aid. Over the next few months, these complaints began mobilizing civil society, as the media, NGOs involved in the reconstruction efforts, and the population at large joined the victims in voicing their disapproval of the government’s response, or lack thereof.15 Although the unprecedented nature of the disaster might have accounted for a certain amount of the disorganization that emerged, the inefficiencies of the government’s plan of action were unacceptable, and demonstrated a persistent problem with the functioning of Costa Rica’s political processes. The usual pretext for lack of action –a typical trait in the Central American country’s political life– is a lack of funds. This time, however, funds were plentiful, but not put to efficient use.16

An official report published by the CNE on January 12 maintained that “not only are [government employees] going from house to house, they are also taking a census of the families currently situated in 21 shelters.”17 In reality, however, this crucial prerequisite to providing aid efficiently appears to have been carried out in a haphazard manner. The National School of Engineers and Architects conducted part of the census, but later misplaced much of the information it had gathered. “Many of the families we worked with told us that they had been assessed, but when they went to the governmental centers, they were told that their evaluation form did not exist,” disappointedly recalls Patricio Morera, director of the non-profit Un Techo Para Mí País Costa Rica (UTPMP-CR, A Roof For My Country Costa Rica), recalls disappointedly.18

Comparable situations were exposed in a wealth of newspaper articles: victims complained the census officials had never visited them,19 or that subsequently the state had completely ignored them.20 On February 20, the IMAS issued a response: “We do not know how many families still need help; when we did the census many had left. Now they have returned,” and promised to carry out another round of evaluations.21 The disorder and lack of coordination noted here, as well as the irregularities in aid distribution, were found to have been partially caused by the executive branch’s interference. The panelists at the conference that took place on June 12 (Public Policies and Civic Initiatives: Costa Rica and the 2009 Earthquake Emergency) explained how the central government had decided to supersede the CNE’s actions, leaving this organization’s role unclear. The CNE criticized the government’s plans for not having been undertaken by professionals familiar with the disaster site and the local social infrastructure.22

Unfulfilled relief

The undeniable confusion surrounding the census led to considerable exasperation, as governmental promises of satisfactory emergency aid and long-term housing solutions did not materialize. In both cases, the processes were hampered by disorganization and a lack of accountability. Many households in need did not receive aid as they either did not appear to be on the official records,23 or were not living in the shelters and thereby were told the daily provisions did not correspond to them.24 Victims and volunteers also voiced complaints regarding the quality and quantity of the aid that was actually distributed.25 This dissatisfaction culminated in several street protests, the first on February 15, in which earthquake victims demanded the government provide greater accountability and a better allotment of the aid.26

Considering the 3,150 million Colones ($5.5 million) nationally donated for the earthquake victims, the de facto situation was truly unacceptable, and vastly surprised the media and population at large. “Oscar Árias came from the government, but only to talk, because results were not seen; where is the money they donated, because the Costa Rican people helped us,” complained earthquake victim Evelio García on February 20.27 Indeed, more than a month after the disaster, the government had only used 11 percent of these funds, which had been particularly intended for emergency relief.28 The Minister of Coordination explained that this was simply because the primary response to the earthquake had been financed by the CNE’s funds, which at the time were thought to be sufficient.29 This reasoning allows the government no excuse for having ignored the needs of the more remote communities also been terribly affected by the earthquake.

It was only 44 days after the disaster that a group of ministers, vice-ministers and high governmental officials met and published a report on the amount and specific uses of the funds that had been raised.30 Confusion prevailed over the next few months as official reports concerning the use of funds turned out to be contradictory: authorities at first claimed they were to be used for houses and schools,31 but later maintained they were going to be mainly dedicated to new road infrastructure.32 One of the fund’s initial purposes –to satisfy the affected population’s basic daily needs– was generally omitted from these declarations.33 “The government publicizes large expenses, however, we worked in more than 8 communities, distributed across 4 districts and 2 provinces and the families’ response was always the same; they knew nothing about governmental help. Now it is not that [the government] did not do anything, but not what was required” proclaimed Patricio Morera, director of UTPMP-CR.34

New homes for the homeless?

Long-term solutions have been particularly focused on providing permanent housing solutions to the nearly 800 families whose dwellings had suffered irreparable damage from the earthquake.35 After complaints started appearing in late January in La Nación, Costa Rica’s foremost national newspaper, the authorities promised to provide timely solutions to permanently rehouse the affected population. A month later, however, they had still failed to adequately address the issue. Marco Vargas, the Minister of Coordination, claimed that what the public was misconstruing as an excessive delay was instead a systematic act of prudence regarding the future seismic risk different geological locations might pose.36 This risk assessment was of course crucial, but the government was also criticized for failing to use the immunity, granted by the state of emergency declared on January 12, as a means of accelerating the construction process.37

On June 15, La Nación published that governmental authorities had only built 7 percent of the housing needed to fill the housing deficit created by the earthquake. Although a committee finally put forth a permanent housing plan, the 14 projects it proposed focused exclusively on relocating the 200 families that became homeless in Cinchona, a village almost completely destroyed by the earthquake. The article makes no mention of any governmental schemes to address the hundreds of other houses destroyed in alternate locations.38 Although authorities claim solutions will be provided within a year,39 the challenges faced by the earthquake victims do not seem to be fading away any time soon. Carlos Picado, a risk specialist who focuses on Central America, confided at the Public Policies and Civic Initiatives conference that the Costa Rican government was currently looking for international donors to fund its reconstruction projects, which denotes the government’s apparent lack of interest in funding the projects itself.40 The National Bank is also reluctant to release the donations earmarked for reconstruction that are being kept in its vaults, due to a concern that the funds might fall into the wrong hands or be misused.41 These preoccupations may be tied to the yet unresolved corruption charges raised against the CNE’s former president, Daniel Gallardo. In an interview with Patricio Morera, the director of UTPMP-CR synthesizes these sentiments:

“The government’s intervention never had a clear leadership among the different institutions involved; indeed, everything was quite disorganized. There were also unacceptable abuses, as if the victims had not been psychologically impacted as a result of losing relatives and having their entire financial security be jeopardized. All of a sudden they found themselves without a house, a job, unable to communicate, adding to this [governmental] mistreatment and unjustified inefficiency has made the situation very difficult for them. More than a lack of funds, what was lacking was political will to do things correctly and with affection. No one was interested in involving the families in the reconstruction processes; everything was an arbitrary imposition. In most cases, the situation remains the same. Permanent housing solutions are nowhere to be found and the [region’s] unemployment, worsened by the disaster, has also failed to be addressed.”42

Solidarity and vibrance

Fortunately, the state was not the only actor involved in providing relief and long-term aid to the earthquake victims. More than 70 percent of Costa Ricans,almost the entire amount of the population not living in poverty,43 made financial donations to the victims.44 Private firms and the National Bank also contributed to the fundraising efforts,45 helping raise over 3,000 million Colones in relief aid.

Help was not exclusively monetary, though. A number of non-profit organizations, such as UTPMP-CR, the Foundation for Housing Promotion (Fundación Promotora de Vivienda, FUPROVI), and Habitat For Humanity Costa Rica, were particularly active in the field, trying to offer timely solutions to the temporary and permanent housing shortages resulting from the earthquake. Partnering with private firms and public agencies, they successfully started to fill the gap left by governmental inaction. The disaster also served to further the vibrance of civil society in this field. It provided exposure to these organizations and their causes, and contributed them with new human and material resources.46

UTPMP-CR quickly responded to the earthquake victims’ temporary housing concerns. It proposed to build 200 prefabricated emergency houses, and just one week following the disaster, volunteers from UTPMP-CR arrived on site and started erecting the first structures.47 The NGO successfully partnered up with the University of Costa Rica to recruit college students; enlisting more than 700 volunteers to help construct the houses alongside the affected families.48 Private firms contributed the majority of funding, while the government provided logistical help.49

UTPMP-CR is the Costa Rican branch of Un Techo Para Mí País, a non-profit founded in Chile in 1997 by a group of college students who wanted to fight their country’s poverty in a concrete way. The NGO takes a gradual approach to poverty reduction; their initial step is to build temporary housing for extremely destitute households. In time, they complement this with vocational and educational workshops, eventually constructing new permanent communities.50 Only a decade after being founded, they have become one of the largest organizations of their kind in Latin America, providing more than 40,000 families in 14 different Latin American countries with decent homes.51 Since 2006, UTPMP-CR has built 416 houses with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers.52 Their actions have attracted increasing amounts of public attention by the Costa Rican media to the 10 percent of the country’s population living on less than $2 per day.53

FUPROVI, a private organization created in the late 1980s that works to mobilize resources to increase homeownership in the poorest sectors of Costa Rican society, was also part of a non-profit and businesses alliance to provide alternative permanent housing solutions for the victims.54 To circumscribe the government’s bureaucratic inertia and directly transfer resources to those in need, a committee was created in which the funds it raised would be directly used for the construction of housing. Roberto Atravia, director of this ‘Liaison Committee,’ explained, “We referred to an alternative mechanism, parallel to the process typically used by the government, [as this mechanism] is more efficient, while being within legal boundaries.”55 In April, the Committee had raised enough funds to build 6 permanent houses. Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica and Florida Bebidas, a bottling plant, also partnered to build 13 additional houses “integrated into a sustainable community,” reported the online-news website on February 25.56 The community and the corporation were to collaborate and provide their input during the entire process.57

Back to the government

Although the Árias administration’s response to the January 8 earthquake certainly revealed shortcomings in scope and coordination, its flaws are fewer when compared to the Honduran government’s delayed response to the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck its nation on May 28.58 Indeed, shortly before being expelled from office, then-President Manuel Zelaya waited for three weeks after the Honduran earthquake before declaring a national state of emergency, whereas the Costa Rican president took such measures only 3 days following the disaster that struck his country in January.59 Although lacking by Western standards, Árias government’s emergency response must be given a passing grade for being more comprehensive than that of its Central American counterparts.

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