On September 7 this year, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the southern Pacific coast of Mexico. The epicenter was 120 kilometers off the coast of the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, the poorest region in Mexico; in 2012, Chiapas’s Human Development Index (HDI) was the lowest in Mexico at 0.667, and Oaxaca’s was 0.681. At least 55 people died in Chiapas and Oaxaca as a result of the quakes and 1.85 million lost electricity as locals shared images and videos of buildings falling down and people seeking help. In Mexico City, 600 miles northwest, people felt shaking. The destruction to Mexico’s poorest states was devastating.
Then, on September 19, another extremely high magnitude earthquake struck even closer to the capital in Mexico City. CNN reported 154 deaths in Mexico City alone, and 138 in other states. Millions went without power, school was cancelled indefinitely, and the country held its breath for 3 national days of mourning as rescue workers pulled people from rubble. This past Saturday, on September 23, the earth shook again: a 6.1 magnitude aftershock struck Oaxaca again.
On Thursday, before Oaxaca’s aftershock, a Washington Post article reported that “a sense of terror shifted to a spirit of solidarity as friends, neighbors, relatives and often complete strangers came to one another’s aid, transcending Mexico’s usually rigid class divisions.” Mexico City is home to 27 billionaires, but it is extremely unequal and divided. According to Mexico’s own National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), 46% of Mexicans live in poverty, while 76% of Chiapans and 67% of Oaxacans do. Extreme wealth from telecommunications, industry, trade and raw materials benefits the very wealthiest of society, anchored in the urban megalopolis of Mexico City, while poor rural communities see little change.
In any natural disaster, just like Katrina, Harvey or Irma, those members of society who already face stigma and marginalization due to race, class, gender or ability always face the most extreme challenges in recovering. It’s comforting to see different members of society come together in the immediate aftermath to clear rubble, but we all ought to be wary of headlines like the Post’s that champion solidarity before the real work has even begun.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera reassured the country that Mexico City was up and running, with hospitals operating, city services reviewing hydraulic facilities and civil patrols monitoring neighborhoods without electricity. He has yet to make an announcement regarding long-term recovery. Mexico’s President, meanwhile, announced “PlanMX” to put the military to work bringing assistance to victims in Mexico City and travelled to Oaxaca this Saturday to evaluate damages there.
He has some work to do: local 70-year-old woman Crimilda Marcelina told ReliefWeb what hurt most was the lack of attention from authorities, who visited Oaxaca but “did not come [to the people]. Here I am waiting, a week like this and I don’t receive anything from them.” She complained about the high cost of repairing her ruined home, and the emptiness of Mexican authorities’ responses to the disaster in a poor, rural area.
Mexico sits atop one of the most tectonically active regions of the world, and its capital city rests on what was once a lakebed in the country’s vast central valley. The city requires widespread reconstruction efforts which necessitate rigorous regulation that can prevent the failure of shoddy concrete structures that recently collapsed. However, the country cannot forget about its poorest citizens, who are harmed as much by remoteness, lack of commercial interest and governmental disregard as they are by recent devastating earthquakes. The disaster helped to “shed some light on the historical neglect of Chiapas and Oaxaca,” and now state aid for reconstruction ought to be concentrated in these poorest areas and among the poorest, often indigenous individuals, who cannot draw upon an up-and-coming technology sector or the generally greater wealth of Mexico City to rebuild their lives.
But Mexico needs help from the international community as well. Last week, a prominent leftist politician from the radical Journalism School of National University of La Plata, Argentina, tweeted “all my solidarity with Mexico, a country hit by neoliberalism and these earthquakes which cause such pain.” This incendiary statement may not instill a great deal of trust in that institution, but it raises an important note that we all ought to consider when thinking about what we can do for those suffering.
The United States shares a border with Mexico, is one of its greatest trading partners and we experienced a significant increase in quality of life thanks to cheaper products brought on by a trade deal which was extremely harmful to Mexico’s most vulnerable. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mexico sent troops to serve 170,000 meals, distribute 184,000 tons of supplies and conduct 500 medical consultations. After Hurricane Harvey, the offered to do it again, but had to rescind the offer when the extent of the damage of their own natural disaster became clear.
We cannot sever ties with Mexico by ignoring their struggle, even in light of our own. We ought to make a concerted effort to extend disaster relief services beyond our borders to help one of our closest trading partners, and especially to help those poor rural citizens of Oaxaca and Chiapas who were devastated by NAFTA. The U.S. owes those citizens a commitment to sustainable development that was never guaranteed in NAFTA, and if we want to improve U.S.-Latin American relations in any meaningful way in the 21st century, we must start by showing that we care about our allies’ citizenries, regardless of the proximity of U.S. commercial interests.