The untimely death of Felicita Zeledón, a member of the National Assembly, recalls the tragedy that hit the rural area of Posoltega on the morning of Oct. 30, 1998. Zeledón, then mayor of the small town on the León-Chinandega highway, became the central figure in dealing with the biggest humanitarian crisis to hit Nicaragua since the 1972 earthquake.
After weeks of heavy rain brought by Hurricane Mitch, the saturated flanks of the nearby Casita Volcano collapsed. The treeless mountainside offered no resistance to the flow of mud and water and the resultant mudslide destroyed hundreds of small settlements, killing some 2,000 people.
Incredibly, Zeledón’s appeal for help to the government of Arnoldo Alemán was initially dismissed as a “locura,” even though for days afterwards people were still clinging to trees in a sea of mud and the town was completely cut off. International help began to arrive, and Zeledón appealed directly to President Bill Clinton, who both sent assistance and five months later made a personal visit to the town.
I was able to visit Posoltega a few weeks after the disaster and talked to the mayor. She was surprisingly measured in her criticism of the government’s response. As the aid agencies had begun to withdraw, her urgent needs were for food aid and the resources to build 1,500 homes for the people displaced by the mudslide, which not only obliterated homes but made the landscape unrecognizable. We couldn’t do a lot to help, but we mobilized people in Masaya to provide sacks of rice and beans, and Christmas toys for the orphaned children, filled a pick-up and delivered them to her a few days later.
A year later I went back to see if Posoltega had started to recover, and spoke again to the mayor. We saw the housing project then under construction for the hundreds who had been camped in the school or under plastic sheets on our first visit. But she explained that while people would now receive houses they no longer had work – they needed jobs, the devastated local economy was paying little in taxes to the town hall, she’d received no additional government funding and was struggling to meet people’s expectations.
The government’s bizarre proposal to declare the disaster site as a national park had pushed up land prices and done nothing to help displaced small farmers buy the small plots of land they urgently needed.
I managed to track down a woman called Inés Vanegas, whom I’d met a year earlier after she’d lost 12 members of her family. She was still living in a shelter of plastic sheets, although had been promised one of the new houses. But, as she explained, she urgently needed work to provide food for the remaining children, and didn’t know how she could find it as the new settlement (built by international agencies) was far from the town and an expensive bus ride from anywhere with jobs. Ironically, the bus service had been one of the few aid items provided by President Alemán, but he’d gifted the bus to an individual rather than the community, which meant everyone else had to pay high bus fares.
Felicita Zeledón was born in Posoltega and, if the town had any luck at all on that morning in October 1998, it was that she was mayor and bravely took charge of dealing with the disaster as best she could. Her response over the following weeks earned a nomination to the national assembly in 2002, where she served until 2007 and again from 2012 until her death. Earlier this year she received the Herrera-Arellano-Toledo medal, the government’s highest honor for a woman who served her community with maximum distinction.