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Remarks in a Roundtable Discussion With Las Casitas Volcano Mudslide Survivors in Posoltega

March 08, 1999

[President Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua opened the discussion by presenting four survivors of Hurricane Mitch and directing them to tell their stories and express their needs for assistance.]

President Clinton. Could I just say one word? This is Senator Graham, who is from the State of Florida in the United States. First of all, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know it must be hard to relive your story. But I think it is very important for us to be able to go home to the United States having seen not only the President, who is my friend—I enjoy that— but also the people who have lived personally through this terrible tragedy.

It is also important for the health of Nicaragua's democracy that he and I, when we respond to this terrible tragedy, respond in a way that helps you the most and that is consistent with your wishes. So I would like it if, in your own words, you could just tell us a little about what happened to you and your family and what would help most going forward.

[Survivor Ricardo Santeliz thanked the President for his visit and for the assistance from U.S. and international relief organizations. He described Hurricane Mitch and the resulting mudslide down Las Casitas Volcano as a tragedy which devastated his community and altered its future. Mr. Santeliz described his family's experience attempting to flee from harm and said that he had lost 22 relatives and his wife had lost 45. President Aleman asked Mr. Santeliz about the death toll from Posoltega and El Porvenir, a neighboring community, and Mr. Santeliz said it must have been about 4,000. President Aleman asked about the experience of a little boy, Juan Pablo Montoya, who was present. Mr. Santeliz described finding the boy beneath enormous tree branches and said that Juan Pablo lost his parents, but two of his brothers survived.]

President Clinton. So he has two brothers now?

Mr. Santeliz. One is 13, and one is 21.

President Clinton. And are both of them living with him—he's living with both of them?

President Aleman. Are you going to school, Juan Pablo?

Juan Pablo. No.

President Aleman. Why not, sweetie? You were going to school back in——

Juan Pablo. No.

President Aleman. No? Didn't you go to school back in—but there was a school there, wasn't there?

Juan Pablo. Yes.

President Aleman. Is your other brother going to school?

Juan Pablo. Tonio.

President Aleman. Tonio, is he the one going to school?

Juan Pablo. No, he's not.

President Aleman. And how many of your brothers and sisters died?

Juan Pablo. Three.

Mr. Santeliz. And his mother died.

President Aleman. And you have uncles and aunts?

Juan Pablo. No.

President Aleman. Did your father have any brothers or sisters? What about your mother?

Juan Pablo. One.

President Aleman. And where are your uncles and aunts? Did they die?

Juan Pablo. Yes, the whole family.

President Clinton. So now it's you and your two brothers?

Juan Pablo. Yes.

President Clinton. And you have to stay close with them.

Juan Pablo. Yes.

[Survivor Olivia Cortes, from neighboring Rolando, explained that during the hurricane she was away at a clinic for an operation and was consequently spared; however, she lost most of her family and relatives in the tragedy. She described the danger and difficulty her surviving children experienced in searching the mud for family members. President Aleman asked how many survived in Rolando, and Ms. Cortes estimated 2,000 to 2,500. She stated that a lot of surviving residents were in Costa Rica seeking work at the time because the crops in Rolando were finished. President Aleman asked her for Rolando's death toll, and she estimated there were 3,000 between Rolando and El Porvenir. Ms. Cortes thanked the U.S., the Red Cross, and Save the Children for relief efforts and added her concern for people's need for shelter and work in the wake of losing their livelihoods. Survivor Esperanza Morales thanked the President and described being buried in the mud for 3 days. She said in spite of everything, she held out hope that she'd be able to find her family, but she never did. She said she lost 25 family members.]

President Aleman. No one from your home was saved, my dear? No one?

Ms. Morales. My sisters were saved because they had gone to work in Costa Rica. But the people who were living there, who were still there from my family, I'm the only one who survived.

President Aleman. And where were you?

Ms. Morales. In El Porvenir.

President Aleman. And that's exactly where the mudslide went through?

Ms. Morales. When it came through, it was a terrible noise of helicopters. My husband went out, and he shouted at me, "Sweetheart, run." And I grabbed my little girl, and I ran out. But when I ran out, the house had been destroyed, and I was dragged by the water. I lost my little girl, and I never found her again.

President Aleman. And your husband died, too?

Ms. Morales. Yes. And my little girl was shouting at me, asking me to save her, but the water was dragging me away, and I couldn't do anything. I was struggling to try and stand up again, but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't see anything.

President Aleman. And who rescued you?

Ms. Morales. I was rescued by people from the Red Cross who were there and some people from the area. Two people from the area were there, as well. They found me. I was terrified, and they were able to get me out. They were able to dig me out of the mud. I was there stuck for 3 days.

President Clinton. So what are you going to do now with your life?

Ms. Morales. I still have problems with one knee. I want to get well, and I want to fend for myself, because now I have nothing and no one left. All I want to do now is work to survive and just get by.

President Aleman. She said, "I just want to work until my day comes to go."

Ms. Morales. That's all I'm waiting for.

President Aleman. And what's wrong with your leg?

Ms. Morales. I had a cast on this leg, and it wasn't set properly. And so now they have to x-ray it again and see what they can do.

President Aleman. And where are you staying now?

Ms. Morales. I'm over there in the shelter.

President Clinton. You know, the President was explaining to me when we were coming out that the people need not only homes again but homes that are close enough to land which can be farmed again, because a lot of this land which is covered by the mud, even though it's dried out, it may or may not be suitable for crops now. And a lot of trees will have to be replanted to guard against further flooding.

So I think we in the United States have to try to get some financial help to the President to do that. And then you will have to work together to identify the land where the people can farm again, and then the houses can be built.

You were explaining that to me, on the way out, what you have done—find the land.

[President Aleman agreed and said that deeper channels should be dug to avoid future flooding. He inquired about a nearby cooperative farm and suggested that help be given to individuals left without family. He then asked Ms. Morales if none of her children survived.]

Ms. Morales. I had four.

President Aleman. All of them little?

Ms. Morales. The oldest was 13. My little girl was 7—13, 12, 10, and 7.

President Clinton. And how old are you?

Ms. Morales. I'm 29.

President Clinton. You're still young.

President Aleman. So you became a mother when you were 16?

President Clinton. What about you, Juan Pablo? Do you want to say anything to us? Do you want to say anything to your President about this terrible thing?

Juan Pablo. I lost my whole family, and I miss them—my mama and my papa.

President Aleman. Where are you living, Juan Pablo? With his brother?

Juan Pablo. Yes.

Mr. Santeliz. Yes, he lives at the co-op there with his brother.

President Aleman. How many people are in that co-op? Fifty people, they said? And all these new people are coming in? You said that there are 2,500 people in a block. Will they accept them there?

[Mr. Santeliz stated the need for everyone involved, governmental and international organizations and survivors, to sit down together to visualize solutions and discover alternatives. President Aleman said all the co-ops in the El Porvenir sector were destroyed, but a co-op in Posoltega, with 50 people farming about 2,000 acres, survived. He noted the trouble was convincing the 50 to accept 300 survivors from El Porvenir and offer them 3 or 4 hectares per family to cultivate. Mr. Santeliz interjected that he understood the land had been rented to people with money.]

President Aleman. The co-ops themselves are doing that?

Mr. Santeliz. Yes.

President Aleman. We have to sit down and talk with them so we can convince them.

Mr. Santeliz. I think what we need to do there is sit down, as I was saying, to see what points they propose, see what they want to do.

President Aleman. And what about Juan Pablo's brothers? Have they already been admitted?

Mr. Santeliz. No, they're in the same situation.

President Aleman. So you're like squatters?

Mr. Santeliz. No, I'm not there. I was given a parcel, it's 12x20, by an organization from the U.S., as well—in Washington. An Evangelical church gave us a little plot of land, about 6 blocks of——

President Clinton. World Vision, was it World Vision?

Mr. Santeliz. It's managed by the Evangelical Conference of the Assembly of God in Washington.

So since we didn't have anything, we said, "Okay, give me a little plot of land where I can go." And that's where I am. The only thing is that we're all so very much reduced right now and we're under so little plots of land.

President Clinton. How much land did the average family farm before the hurricane and the mudslide?

Mr. Santeliz. About 5 or 6 blocks—what they call blocks, which are actually more like hectares.

President Clinton. Ten acres? So the average family had 10 acres?

President Aleman. Per family, that's what each family had.

President Clinton. And then this block, you say, with the 50 families, they have an average of 25 hectares?

President Aleman. It's like, 100 acres per family—this particular group.

President Clinton. So they could actually sell it out?

President Aleman. And what they're doing is, they're renting out the land that they're not farming themselves.

President Clinton. So it's your proposal for the Government to buy this land on behalf of the other people, if they will accept them?

President Aleman. That would be the ideal situation. The problem is that the co-op with those 50 people—and it's very, very good land; they know that land, very fertile land. This coop got it back in the Sandinista days. So I don't think they're going to want to give it up. They're not going to give it to anyone or sell it. They prefer it, as he was saying, to rent it, to lease it, because it's better business for them. We'll see what measures can be taken. And the discussions we're trying to hold—we'll see how we can change this. Because the other problem we have, Mr. President, is there's land, but not in this area, not on the Pacific side.

President Clinton. Too far away?

President Aleman. This has been traditionally farm land. But we'll see what solution we find. Faith in God.

Juan Pablo, you have to go and study now. Do you promise you're going to study?

Juan Pablo. Yes.

President Aleman. Are you going to study? You promise?

Juan Pablo. Yes.

President Clinton. You can learn a lot and pray to God to take care of your mother and father. And they will know and be very proud of you.

NOTE: The discussion began at 3:45 p.m. in the auditorium at the Cotton Research Center. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this discussion.

William J. Clinton, Remarks in a Roundtable Discussion With Las Casitas Volcano Mudslide Survivors in Posoltega Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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