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Remember the good ship Vasa

Following is an abridged version of a speech given by Pierre Schori, Sweden's minister for development cooperation, during the May meeting in Stockholm of the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America. The speech was delivered in a new museum that houses the Vasa, a 371-year-old ship.

The most modern Swedish warship of its time, the Vasa, sank at the start of its inaugural voyage in 1628.

Before crowds of spectators, the ship set off on its first and only voyage, passing before the Royal Palace of Stockholm and firing off proud salvos from its brand new cannons. Then, after it had covered barely 1,300 meters, a strong gust of wind caused the ship to list on its side, and water began to pour through the cannon hatches. The Vasa sank less than a kilometer from where we stand today.

Who was responsible for this catastrophe? Although a royal commission was formed to investigate the disaster, the guilty party was never identified. In fact, the Vasa was top-heavy. After the ship sank, its master builder said that he had tested the ship's stability before launching it, by making 30 men run across its deck from port to starboard. The third time they did so, the ship listed so sharply to one side that they had to stop the test for fear that it would sink.

The logical response would have been to cancel the voyage. But who would give the order? A very influential admiral remarked: "If only His Majesty were here!" But King Gustav II Adolph, who had ordered the ship built, was at that time leading his army to war in Prussia, and did not learn of the disaster until two weeks later. Nobody had the authority needed to prevent the debacle. Later, when the question of who was to blame was raised in the investigation, one of the ship builders replied: "Only God knows!" In this way, both God and the king had a role in the catastrophe --and both were infallible!
We do not have to exaggerate to find parallels with our times. One parallel could be the need for greater transparency in the aftermath of a disaster. Another would be the importance of accountability and decentralization of decision-making power. The Vasa might never have been lost if the mid-level authorities and professionals had possessed the authority to cancel the inaugural voyage when they discovered that the ship was not seaworthy. Better oversight of the public budget and greater transparency in public spending probably would have halted the construction of this top-heavy ship.

We cannot rewrite history, but we can learn the lessons that history teaches us. José Eduardo Gauggel, president of the Justice Tribunal of Central America, has spoken on the need for transparency and good government in the process of reconstruction and transformation after the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. There has been much talk about the importance of decentralization and strengthening local governments, and of reducing environmental and social vulnerability.

Twelve years ago, Central America arrived at a crucial juncture. After having lived for decades with war, dictatorship and underdevelopment, the five presidents of the region met in Esquipulas, Guatemala, under the leadership of Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica at the time. There they agreed on a joint regional platform based on the peaceful solution of conflicts, democracy, human rights and the fight against poverty. In their joint declaration, the presidents said they had found a solution for achieving peace, but they needed the support of the rest of the world to put their objectives into practice.

Since then, much has been accomplished. Peace has been achieved throughout Central America, all of the countries have adopted democratic systems of government, and their economies have been moving forward. But that was before the terrible catastrophe of Mitch.

Now, Central America finds itself at a new turning point. Just as the presidents meeting in Esquipulas asked for help from the rest of the world to achieve sustainable peace, their successors today are calling on the international community to help rebuild and transform Central America. Given the strides we have made so far, we have every reason to be optimistic about our ability to meet the challenges of the future.

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