Learning lessons from Hurricane Mitch 

Nearly a year after the fury of Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America, leaving more than 10,000 dead in its wake and devastating the economic, environmental and social infrastructure of the region, human rights advocates in El Salvador and the United States continue to voice harsh words of criticism for the Salvadoran government for its failure to adequately address the root causes of Mitch’s effects.

To make their case, Dr. María Julia Hernández, director of the Legal Aid Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of El Salvador, will be touring cities in the United States—including Missoula on Oct. 28—to solicit international help in urging the Salvadoran government to live up to its promises of reconstructing areas devastated by Hurricane Mitch, as well as implementing measures to prevent similar destruction from occurring in the future.

Dr. Hernández’s goal is to put pressure on international donor agencies who provide economic aid to the Salvadoran government, and to force the implementation of flood prevention measures in areas that continue to suffer from flooding. With the approach of the rainy season, Salvadoran communities are being forced to evacuate due to rising floodwaters that are exacerbated by the government’s failure to even warn communities before opening floodgates and submerging their towns.

Dr. Hernández, a vocal critic of the Salvadoran government, is hardly a neophyte to the international stage. Appointed to her position nearly two decades ago by then-Archbishop Oscar Romero to address the growing number of human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Salvadoran military during that country’s bloody civil war, she continues to carry on the Archbishop’s work, even after he was assassinated while delivering a mass on March 24, 1980.

Hernández has also been a outspoken opponent of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas based at Ft. Benning, Ga., where many Latin American military leaders have undergone training in methods of combat, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics. Graduates of the School of the Americas have been linked to some of Latin America’s worst human rights abuses, including the El Mozote massacre of more than 1,000 Salvadoran children and adults. Hernández herself provided leadership to a forensic team that unearthed the remains of that massacre, which both the United States and Salvadoran governments denied as early as 1981.

The reception for Dr. Hernández in Missoula is being sponsored by the Missoula-based Friends of Ellacuria—San Ignacio de Ellacuria was a city hit hard by the 1998 hurricane—as well as by SHARE, a San Francisco-based human rights and social justice group, and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. A potluck dinner for Dr. Hernández will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the University Congregational Church.

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