La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

« Previous Post | La Plaza Home | Next Post »

Floods could be Calderon's triumph or undoing

November 9, 2007 |  2:57 pm

Disasters have a way of making or breaking the reputations of public officials. The recent devastating flooding in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas will prove a crucial test for Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

CalderonMexico's commander in chief has seen his popularity slide this year over his handling of the economy, according to a recent poll by the national daily El Universal. Some cartoonists have lampooned him for offering flood victims more time to file their income taxes when many of them have lost their homes and their livelihoods.

Yet others say Calderon has shown savvy political instincts. Unlike President Bush, who waited nearly a week to visit New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Calderon has visited Tabasco four times already and canceled a trip abroad. Images of Calderon filling sandbags and hugging bedraggled flood victims have filled television screens. He has promised millions in federal aid and has urged Mexicans to dig deep with private donations. Meanwhile, his popular and photogenic wife, Margarita Zavala, has been shown cradling babies and comforting seniors in shelters.

Calderon "has been Johnny-on-the-spot and doing all the right things," said Mexico expert George Grayson, a professor of comparative politics at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Grayson also gave high marks to Tabasco's governor, Andres Granier, in contrast to some of his corrupt predecessors. Granier has allowed the manicured grounds of the governor's mansion in Tabasco's capital, Villahermosa, to be turned into a round-the-clock relief center where thousands queue up daily for food and medical aid. Pavilions that once hosted parties for dignitaries now shelter hundreds of homeless.

"He's not a miracle worker, and the problems are enormous," Grayson said of Granier, "but I think you have a governor who has a social commitment ... and that's rare in Tabasco."

Disasters have a history of precipitating political crises in Latin American countries. Evidence that the ruling Somoza dynasty pilfered rebuilding funds after Nicaragua’s devastating 1972 earthquake fueled the unrest that sparked the Sandinista revolution.

The 1985 earthquake that flattened parts of Mexico City and killed 10,000 people exposed the ineptitude both of local authorities and the one-party-dominated federal government and led to the rise of a multiparty political system in Mexico.

Only time will tell whether the 2007 floods prove to be a high-water mark or a quagmire for the Calderon administration.

Posted by Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson in Mexico City

Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon helps residents in Villahermosa.
Credit: Alfredo Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images