In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mexico extended its first-ever military aid to the United States (AP). Following the devastating floods (NASA) in Mexico’s Tabasco state last week, the United States has yet to reciprocate. Thus far, it has offered $300,000 in aid (Reuters), though more might be coming. But the truth is, even setting aside historic sensitivities regarding U.S. troops, Mexico may not need military assistance. This is not to say Mexico would spurn aid generally, and as CFR Fellow Shannon O’Neil says in this interview, a $1.4 billion counterdrug initiative is quite likely to be passed by Congress this year.
The Mexican government’s reaction to its recent floods has been strikingly proactive, and may foreshadow a shift in the long-standing trend of substantive U.S. disaster relief to the region. In contrast to the U.S. response to Katrina, marked by what a U.S. House investigation deemed a “failure of initiative,” the Mexican government’s reaction to its recent floods has been strong and well coordinated. Thousands of soldiers and federal police were already in Tabasco before the worst flooding hit, and more than sixty helicopters were conducting rescue and relief missions when the banks of the Grijalva River burst. Volunteers from across the country have mobilized to help (CSMonitor). “If there were not such a fast and wide-scale response, the human cost of this tragedy would have been much higher,” Helena Ranchal, regional head of the European Commission’s emergency relief fund, told TIME magazine. Some critics, however, charge that state and local officials mismanaged funds (LAT) meant for flood protection.
The cost of the disaster, which Mexican President Felipe Calderon called one the worst in the country’s history, is still unclear, but will be substantial. Nearly all of the state’s crops are destroyed, and approximately one million people are homeless. The Mexican Red Cross has warned an outbreak of cholera or other water-borne disease is possible (Bloomberg). According to a report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Mexican government has announced a $18.5 million reconstruction package for Tabasco state as well as a fiscal amnesty. It has also requested the support of the United Nations.
In a region known for its anti-American sentiment, a strong disaster relief response is one of the few tools the United States has to improve its image in Latin America. In the past twenty-five months, U.S. Southern Command has supported a dozen disaster relief missions in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also active with humanitarian assistance following disasters (VOA). It has provided over $30 million since 1998 to build a network of disaster aid experts in the region. “There is a tremendous amount of ‘good’ the U.S. does in the region,” writes Admiral Jim Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly, “But often we do not tell our story well enough, particularly in a way that can help counter the image that the U.S. does not pay enough attention to the region.”