Relief agencies, including some linked to churches, have criticized the El Salvador government's response to the earthquake that devastated this Central American nation January 13, killing at least 700 people.

In a January 22 update on the effects of the disaster, the Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) office in El Salvador criticized the "inefficient, publicity-oriented, preferential and political manner in which bilateral government [aid] has been received, coordinated and distributed."

"While seismic aftershocks following the earthquake of January 13 have become less frequent, the political aftershocks promise to increase in intensity for some time to come," the report said.

There have been numerous complaints, both by aid groups and by survivors of the earthquake, that the national government, headed by the conservative ARENA party, has in some cases favored its supporters in the distribution of assistance. This, observers said, was one of the unfortunate legacies of a bloody and polarizing decade-long civil war that ended in 1992 and resulted in 75,000 deaths.

"The situation here is one of polarization", said Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, LWF's representative in El Salvador. Because of understaffing and an inability to reach some communities, the government was relying on help from aid agencies.

Bueno de Faria told ENI that the LWF and other agencies had had good co-operation with the government. But, he said, despite "good intentions", the government had poor disaster-response systems in place. A week-and-a-half after the earthquake, some communities had not received any assistance. This had prompted the National Emergency Committee (COEN) to change distribution systems and begin channeling aid through local government bodies.

"The government cannot respond to a disaster of this magnitude," Bueno de Faria said.

The government has been sharply criticized for, among other things, its failure to implement a national emergency plan before the earthquake. The region is particularly susceptible to natural disasters. El Salvador experienced a devastating earthquake in1986 that killed 1,000 people, and in 1998 was one of the nations hit by Hurricane Mitch.

By most accounts, this month's earthquake hit a much bigger area than the 1986 quake, but the extent of the damage of the recent quake was not clear at first. At least 700 people have died, and as many as 1,200 people are believed missing from a landslide that buried the suburban neighborhood of Las Colinas, just west of the capital, San Salvador.

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As is often the case in a large-scale emergency, fatality and damage numbers have varied widely, but the government itself has issued contradictory statistics. At one point, COEN and President Francisco Flores offered two different sets of statistics about those displaced. Flores said the figure was 750,000 (12 percent of El Salvador's population), while COEN gave the figure of 573,609. The LWF office said in its update that the subsequent confusion, coupled with the other problems, meant aid agencies had to work in a "troubling political context."

The initial response had put additional pressure on aid agencies to "join in solidarity with those suffering the effects of the tragedy", the LWF report said, "doing whatever is possible to diminish their suffering and help them re-establish dignified living conditions."

The LWF office here is the coordinating agency of Action by Churches Together (ACT), an international aid network established by the LWF and the World Council of Churches. Through the LWF office ACT has given assistance to 14,550 families in 10 of the country's 19 regions. ACT has support from many of the Salvadorean churches, including the Lutheran Synod, Baptist, Episcopal (Anglican) and Reformed churches, and other agencies.

The earthquake occurred at a trying moment for El Salvador. Though officially at peace for almost a decade, the country is suffering from rising crime and continuing economic uncertainty. The Flores government recently announced it was discarding the national currency in favor of the U.S. dollar in a bid to stabilize the national economy and attract foreign investment. But the action proved unpopular as it was seen as a surrender to neo-liberal economic policies dictated by the United States and international lending institutions.

Protests had been scheduled for the day of the earthquake, and Salvadoreans had begun sarcastically referring to "dollarization" as one of the recent national disasters.

Now, observers said, the earthquake was calling much into question, and the future remained more uncertain than ever, particularly for the nation's poor who have been heavily affected by the natural disaster.

"The poor, as always, face an uncertain future after an event like this," said Jose Rodriguez, of the Anglican-based ecumenical group CREDHO. He pointed out that widespread poverty made a country much more susceptible to the effects of a natural disaster. "The challenge is: how do we make sense out of it and how do we now focus attention on the issue of poverty?" he told ENI. "Unfortunately, natural disasters are one of the few times that any attention is paid to the poor."

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"The nation's wounds are being reopened," said J. Pablo Obregon, assistant Latin American. director for the Division for Global Mission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

El Salvador's churches, particularly the "historic" Protestant churches, had themselves experienced tensions and conflicts in recent years, and church representatives hoped that the earthquake might at least provide a common cause for the churches, as the civil war had more than a decade ago.

"There were strong leaders in El Salvador during past crises," Obregon told ENI as he visited a center for displaced people run by the Salvadorean Lutheran Synod. "Now we need to use that same type of leadership and prepare for something new: a long-term project of rebuilding for the country."

Related Elsewhere:

The Lutheran World Federation's site offers a story about the El Salvador from the LWF news service.

Christianity Today ran a story about the Evangelical Church in El Salvador's Centennial in 1997.

Recent media coverage of aid in El Salvador includes:

International aid for quake victims—News24 (Jan. 29, 2001)

Quake Hits Close to Home for Md. FirmThe Washington Post (Jan. 29, 2001)