Hurricane Mitch Devastated Nicaragua, But Helped Improve Relations With the U.S.
Slow-moving, coast-hugging Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua in October 1998. The United States organized a massive disaster response, and President Clinton and a host of other dignitaries visited to see the results. Our aid improved military-to-military ties and helped Ambassador Lino Gutierrez pursue better relations twenty years after Nicaragua’s bitter civil war. A Category 5 hurricane, Mitch was reputedly the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1780.
Lino Gutierrez, American Ambassador to Nicaragua when Hurricane Mitch struck, recalls that the storm claimed the lives of 4,000 Nicaraguans, washed away villages, and destroyed infrastructure. Gutierrez helped organize initial disaster assistance efforts, from distribution of food, water and other basic human needs to helicopter rescue missions. The disaster assistance also produced the first military-to-military cooperation with Nicaragua since the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. The U.S. response helped Amb. Gutierrez improve relations with Nicaragua, despite Sandinista claims that the assistance was setting the stage for future U.S. military intervention.
Lino Gutierrez’s interview was conducted by David Greenlee on July 26, 2007.
Read Lino Gutierrez’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Mary Claire Simone.
“Things were moving reasonably well until the fall of ’98, when Hurricane Mitch struck.”
Hurricane Mitch: Hurricane Mitch took place in 1998, two years into my tenure. . . . [Before then, Nicaragua was continuing] to make progress. The economy was recovering. Nicaragua signed an agreement with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). With our help, they were approved for the HIPC (heavily indebted poor countries) initiative, under which much of their massive external debt accumulated during the Sandinista years was forgiven. Things were moving reasonably well until the fall of ’98, when Hurricane Mitch struck. . . . At first it seemed like just another hurricane. We were in Managua, many miles away from the Atlantic coast, so we had no idea of the devastation caused by the incessant rain.
“Hurricane Mitch was not a typical hurricane… Mitch was a hurricane that lingered for four or five days.”
Not a Typical Hurricane: Hurricane Mitch was not a typical hurricane, which usually blows through a country in a day or two, wreaks devastation, and departs quickly. Mitch was a hurricane that lingered for four or five days, stationary off the Atlantic coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, and poured historic amounts of rain into Honduras and Nicaragua. Given the fragile infrastructure that exists in these countries, thousands of houses were swept away and many people were killed. There was a Nicaraguan village called Posoltega where over a thousand people were buried in a mudslide…. There were nearly 4,000 dead in Nicaragua.
“What they really needed was helicopters.”
Mobilizing an American Response: We immediately bought boots, water bottles, and shelter materials for people who had lost their homes. Then OFDA (Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance) provided plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, and some of the things they bring from the warehouses in Costa Rica and other places, so we were able to provide some initial relief. But what they really needed was helicopters, because there were a lot of people who had become stranded by the flooding. There were people on rooftops awaiting rescue. Homes and whole communities were flooded. These people had to be rescued right away. The Nicaraguans had their own Soviet-built helicopters but they didn’t have enough to cover all the territory that needed to be covered to help people. . . . Unfortunately, for the first few days we did not get any helicopters; Honduras got them all. This was understandable, since Honduras took the greatest hit from Mitch.
I remember that one morning a few days after the hurricane, Nicaraguans looked up at the sky to see U.S. helicopters overflying Nicaragua; they thought help had arrived. As it turned out, these were U.S. helicopters from Panama on their way to Honduras. Many Nicaraguans had their hopes were dashed when they realized the helicopters not landing in Nicaragua. But a couple of days later, General Wilhelm was able to find some helicopters and dispatched them to Nicaragua.
In addition to the devastation Mitch caused and our efforts to help, the hurricane raised our profile in Washington, and we went from being another sleepy Central American country to being the flavor of the month as far as U.S. official visits were concerned…. Some people were calling Hurricane Mitch jokingly “Saint Mitch,” because it brought in a tremendous infusion of aid into the country.
“Since 1979, over 19 years since the Sandinista Revolution had taken over . . . there were no official military-to-military contacts. It took Hurricane Mitch to normalize relations.”
Mending Relations and Attempted Sabotage: Curiously, when those U.S. helicopters came to Nicaragua in 1998, it represented the first official contact between the U.S. military and the Nicaraguan military in over 20 years. Since 1979, over 19 years since the Sandinista Revolution had taken over, until 1998 there were no official military-to-military contacts. It took Hurricane Mitch to normalize relations. Soon, the total of U.S. helicopters deployed to Nicaragua increased from three to five and then ten. U.S. and Nicaraguan military planners had to sit down and divide responsibility for the country for rescue and relief operations. We would say, OK we will take this area, you take that area, and a relationship of cooperation was created between the U.S. and Nicaraguan military. Cooperation was so good that General Wilhelm and the Pentagon, who were anxious to normalize relations with the Nicaraguan military, offered to bring in more U.S. assets to help. Some of these assets included an engineering battalion that would come in to rebuild some roads, restore some bridges, and rebuild schools.
The Nicaraguan Government accepted our offer, but the Sandinistas were not very happy about the idea and attempted to sabotage the effort. Daniel Ortega warned that U.S. troops were going to bring AIDS into the country. Later he said that the U.S. troops were going to look for military targets in Nicaragua, like they were doing in Bosnia and Serbia, “so they could bomb us later.” He started a public relations campaign in the media against the presence of U.S. troops in Nicaragua.
We decided to fight back in the press. After accepting our offer, the Nicaraguan government was nervous about Sandinista-led protests about the presence of U.S. troops. I remember the day before the engineering battalion landed, headlines in the Sandinista press were “The Marines are coming!” evoking the ghosts of interventions past. These reports augured badly for our effort. In consultation with the U.S. military commanders, we devised a plan to win over the Nicaraguan people to our side. The first thing we did was to ensure that the arriving U.S. troops would not carry their weapons — the weapons would arrive separately in crates. We assured our military that there would be no problem if they were to get off the plane unarmed.
. . . What the Nicaraguan TV viewers saw were unarmed U.S. troops getting off the plane. Then we persuaded the military commanders to allow the Nicaraguan military to provide force protection. At first our military resisted: their first instinct was to provide their own force protection for their troops, and they did not have a relationship with the Nicaraguan military. After some mil-to-mil discussions, both sides agreed that the Nicaraguan military would provide perimeter security for our troops. The other thing we did was to make the troops available to the press, so the reporters could see for themselves that the people we were bringing in had come to help. The Nicaraguans were expecting gigantic blonde and blue-eyed gringos who spoke no Spanish and looked menacing. What they found instead when the press started interviewing our troops, was quite a diverse lot. Many of the soldiers were reservists who came from civilian jobs. Many were women, and there were quite a few Hispanics and other minorities. Many spoke to the press in Spanish. The TV images of the interviews went a long way toward shattering all the Sandinista-proclaimed myths that our troops were invaders, the heirs of the U.S. troops who had fought against their national hero, Augusto César Sandino. Nicaraguans saw that our troops were people just like them who wanted to help. The interviews did the trick: we had tremendous amount of goodwill after that. Ortega soon stopped the public relations campaign against the soldiers because he knew it wouldn’t get him anywhere.
“We went from an embassy that was not on most of Washington’s radar screen. . . to the “flavor of the month” as far as official visits were concerned.”
Special Visitors: Once the relief effort began, and with the presence of U.S. soldiers and national guardsmen in country, we started getting our collection of high-level visitors coming to the country. All of a sudden we were receiving visits from members of the executive and legislative branches. One of the first was the second lady of the United States, Tipper Gore, who came to Central America on a tour. She was followed by First Lady Hillary Clinton and a few months later, President Clinton. There were also countless Senators and Congressmen. Cardinal Law of Boston came — I remember Senator Kennedy called me to ensure that we took care of him. Former President Carter came. Nicaraguan major league pitcher Dennis Martínez. Mick Jagger’s former wife, Bianca, who was born in Nicaragua. And many more…. The visitors usually visited a number of countries. Honduras had the most damage, so they were the number one stop. We were second and Guatemala was third as far as the damage. That was really an interesting time for us. We went from an embassy that was not on most of Washington’s radar screen (except for some Congressional staffers) to the “flavor of the month” as far as official visits were concerned.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Political Science, University of Alabama 1972
MA in Latin American Studies, University of Alabama 1976
Joined the Foreign Service 1977
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic- Political/Consular Rotation 1977-1979
Washington, DC Nicaragua Desk Officer 1981-1983
Port-au-Prince, Haiti Chief of Political Section 1983-1985
Nassau, Bahamas Deputy Chief of Mission 1990-1993
Managua, Nicaragua Ambassador 1996-1999