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Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005: Cuban and Mexican Leaders Critiques of the Disaster Response to Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma

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IntJPolitCultSoc DOI /s x Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005: Cuban and Mexican Leaders Critiques of the Disaster Response to Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma Raymond Taras
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IntJPolitCultSoc DOI /s x Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005: Cuban and Mexican Leaders Critiques of the Disaster Response to Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma Raymond Taras 1,2 # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015 Abstract Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma caused massive destruction in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, but circum-caribbean countries responded differently to the storms in terms of hurricane preparedness and disaster management. What accounts for these dissimilarities, and are the roles expected of governments and societies to mitigate loss of life and physical devastation different across political systems and countries? This article examines etiologies of hurricane destruction advanced by political rulers and public opinion leaders in Mexico and Cuba. Reports in the Spanish-language printed media provide evidence of the types of critiques made by Mexican and Cuban leaders of the USA s mismanagement of disaster response to hurricane Katrina. How they assessed their own country s management of hurricane Wilma s destruction is also analyzed. A key theoretical question which the article addresses is whether the effectiveness of hurricane responses depends on the state s capacity, including social capital, public policy priorities, social values, and quality of leadership. Explanations are offered and factors identified as to why a state with massive resources and broad legitimacy like the USA responded ineffectively to Katrina while the Cuban government with limited resources and much less legitimacy performed effectively in managing Wilma. In turn, how did the first post- Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) government in 70 years with limited experience and neoliberal values manage its hurricane Wilma crisis? Keywords Natural disasters. Hurricanes. Emergency management. Media. Press. Mexico. Cuba. New Orleans. Political legitimacy. State capacity. Capitalism. Race. Disaster management. Katrina. Wilma. Public policy. Social values. Ideology. Emergency response. Political institutions * Raymond Taras 1 2 Department of Political Science, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA , USA Sussex Centre for Migration Research, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9SJ, UK Taras Studying Disaster Cultures In the final days of 2004, an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a powerful tsunami that swept across a dozen countries. It claimed over 225,000 lives and caused massive destruction to infrastructure and environment in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and elsewhere. It was a bolt from the blue, a catastrophic event, and defining trauma that generally did not elicit the question what could have been done to prevent it. Far away 8 10 months later, the two most destructive hurricanes of an exceptionally turbulent 2005 storm season in the Western hemisphere were Katrina, which caused close to 2000 deaths in New Orleans and its outlying areas, and Wilma, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. 1 The first caused massive devastation along the US Gulf Coast, the second did the same in Mexico s Yucatán region and the coastline of Cuba. The loss of life and property caused by hurricanes, like tsunamis, are linked to natural disasters. But there is invariably a human element as well which politicians, community activists, journalists, and academics subsequently debate. Nothing could have stopped Katrina from making landfall so close to a large vulnerable metropolitan area as it did a decade ago. Indeed one explanation for why it took so many lives is that meteorologists had Bgot it right^ 5 days before landfall, accurately predicting its storm track. Residents of New Orleans living 80 miles upriver from the Gulf had become accustomed to Bwobbles^ in hurricane tracks as they approached the Mississippi river delta, coastal waters, barrier islands, and wetlands, regularly diverting a storm the all-important miles in a direction away from New Orleans. 2 Hurricane Katrina was perceived less as a natural disaster than an engineering disaster: the levees broke, pumping stations failed, and canals overflowed. But many identified human error, seen in particular in catastrophic disaster planning and emergency response, as the main cause of the scale of Katrina s destruction. In research on a disaster in which natural and human factors are interlocked, a first step is to acknowledge that both the subjects and objects of research bring in their own perspectives. Thus, BSociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have focused on the immediate effects and the long-term impact of disasters on individuals and societies Anthropologists and literary critics explore connections between catastrophe and identity, while geologists and climatologists concentrate mainly on the natural causes of catastrophe^ (Mauch 2009). To be sure, a unifying professional culture of disaster management has evolved requiring use of certain templates, programs, and sequences in emergency situations. But natural catastrophes Bare not simply problems to be solved. Individual cultures have devised particular answers to the questions of prevention, emergency aid, and reconstruction. Over time, societies confronted with recurring disasters have developed local strategies to minimize and manage their impact^ (Mauch 2009, p. 13). 1 Thirteen hurricanes, including four category 5 (the strongest) ones, were recorded during the extraordinarily tempestuous 2005 season. Five major hurricanes are referenced in this article: (1) Dennis, in July, hit Cuba and Florida; (2) Katrina, in late August, struck the Louisiana Mississippi Gulf Coast; (3) Rita, in late September, made landfall near the Louisiana Texas border; (4) Stan, in early October, hit the Yucatán and Guatemala; and (5) Wilma, in mid-october, made multiple landfalls, including in the Yucatán and south Florida. Also of note is tropical storm Alpha which brushed Cuba in early October. 2 The author has lived in New Orleans since 1984, and prior to Katrina, evacuated the city several times on what proved to be Bfalse alarms.^ Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 An assumption of this article is that emergency planning and disaster response measures were inadequate to mitigate Katrina s impact in New Orleans. But they were effective in Mexican and Cuban responses to hurricane Wilma which passed along their coastlines nearly 2 months later. All three cities which were, to a different extent, under water following these storms New Orleans, Cancún, and Havana were accustomed to dealing with tropical storms. How relevant, then, is geoscientist David Alexander s concept of disaster cultures to explaining their different reactions to the 2005 hurricanes? For this author, BCulture shapes the collective and individual reaction to the threat, risk and impact of disasters.^ Accordingly Bculture is a fundamental determinant of vulnerability and socioeconomic impact of disasters^ (Alexander 2000). As in the cases of New Orleans, Cancún, and Havana, then, Chronic and well known threats are assimilated into the local culture and lead to predictable interpretations and reactions. Thus, we end up with a disaster culture, a model of individual action and reaction in relation to disaster. Its roots may be religious, political, social or, even conceivably, scientific, and it represents a form of consensus in society. (Alexander 2000, p. 86) The consensus in one disaster culture may differ from that in another although, arguably, vulnerable communities will develop over time comparable defense and coping mechanisms. What is likely to make a greater difference to disaster responses by similarly at-risk communities are exogenous factors outside these communities control. The role of central government is usually pivotal as are political and social values dominant in the country. In this article, I present evidence in support of this proposition. Instead of reexamining well-known American narratives on how the disaster unfolded, I review the different normative, conceptual, and ideological frameworks reflected in Mexican and Cuban cultures which assessed US hurricane preparedness for Katrina. Then, I consider how these two countries themselves responded to a destructive hurricane threat posed by Wilma. How did political rulers (presidents, government ministers) and public opinion leaders (op-ed writers in the major print media) in Mexico and Cuba evaluate the effectiveness of government responses to Katrina and Wilma? In their view, which factors had the greatest impact in managing and mitigating the natural disasters? To what degree did they regard the part played by political authorities decisive in the successes or failures which followed? Were different sets of political and social values in these three countries perceived as critical in shaping effective, or dysfunctional, responses? Did these perceptions reflect the differences existing among multi- and two-party democracies and a one-party communist state? Was the organic, or anarchic, nature of society cited as instrumental in the kind of emergency responses given? Political and public opinion leaders in Mexico and Cuba offered varied interpretations of the events and explanations for what went right or wrong. 3 Their statements in Spanish-language print media provide the empirical basis for gauging which factors they regarded as most important to disaster management: the roles played by government, state capacity, national resources, public policy priorities, or other 3 This article does not deal with critiques in the USA of government responses to Katrina and Wilma. An informative chronology is BKatrina timeline,^ An illuminating starting point for reviewing American critiques of the Katrina response is: of_government_response_to_hurricane_katrina Taras factors. 4 A comparative analysis of their critiques of disaster management of Katrina and Wilma can tell us how important for them Bobjective^ factors were compared with Bsubjective^ ones. In addition, critiques by leaders of two circum-caribbean countries like Mexico and Cuba which are vulnerable to and experienced in dealing with hurricanes that is, constructing a disaster culture can be particularly insightful. Holding the factor of hurricane preparedness relatively constant across three cases permits better measurement of the impact of other variables which distinguish Mexico and Cuba from each other and each from the USA. As described below, the three vary markedly in terms of size of government, economic resources, public policy, as well as social values, ideology, and statist interventionism. This article assesses, then, whether Cuba s Bbig government^ or strong state was perceived by leaders as having helped save lives in contrast to the USA where the American preference for limited government allowed many lives to be lost. In turn, was the response of the Mexican state to Wilma and other 2005 storms regarded by its leaders as robust, demonstrating the importance of expansive government (statism), or inadequate, reflecting limited economic resources? Measuring State Capacity Table 1 identifies six primary resources which make up state capacity. It also provides 2005 data for the three countries under study. 5 These indicators may be as close as we get to having objective measures of state capacity; subjective assessments are found in leadership discourses examined below. The USA clearly ranks far ahead of Mexico and Cuba in the per capita Gross Domestic Product index. It also ranks higher in the quality-of-life dimension measured by the Human Development Index. The USA leads the world in terms of its fiscal resources, the financial capacity of the state measured in terms of revenue. Enormous American advantages in these three areas suggest that the USA has all the means needed to mitigate natural disasters more effectively than the circum-caribbean states of Mexico and Cuba. But state capacity involves more than just these indices. I include three others in my analysis. Human capital comprises the technical and managerial skill level of individuals within the state and its component parts. State legitimacy is the strength of the state s moral authority: the extent to which the populace obeys its commands out of a sense of allegiance and duty rather than coercion or economic imperative. State reach reflects the degree to which the state is successful in extending its ideology, socio-political structures, and administrative apparatus throughout society, both in its territorial span and in the depth of its socio-economic structures, notably civil society. 4 For an insightful introduction to the role of the press in disasters, see Cottle On television coverage, see Dynes and Rodríguez This is a more parsimonious framework than the one presented in the BProject on State Capacity,^ library.utoronto.ca/pcs/state/keyfind.htm Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 Table 1 State capacity indices for the USA, Mexico, and Cuba in 2005 Per capital GDP in US$ Fiscal resources HDI rank Human capital State legitimacy State reach USA 39,883 High 8 High High Medium Mexico 6518 Medium 53 Medium Medium Low Cuba 4000 Low 50 High Medium High Sources: Human Development Report 2006; CIA World Factbook 2006; Project on State Capacity, library.utoronto.ca/pcs/state/keyfind.htm How do the three countries compare in terms of human capital, state legitimacy, and state reach? Using educational achievement and health standards as indices, Cuba approaches the USA in terms of human capital. With its large agrarian population and urban poverty, Mexico lags behind. In turn, I code state legitimacy as high for the USA but moderate for Mexico and restricted for Cuba. This should not be a contentious calculation, and in the specific case of Mexico, while freer than during the oneparty-dominant era of Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the fairness of its recent elections and the legitimacy of its declared winner have been seriously questioned. The revolutionary Cuban state is regarded as legitimate by the over half-million members of the ruling Cuban Communist Party (PCC) though skepticism has increased among PCC members and the over ten million other Cubans alike. As for reach, the Cuban party-state apparatus intrudes into nearly all spheres of society an unwanted phenomenon except perhaps when disaster strikes. By political choice, the US federal government s reach is more circumscribed though after 9/11 technical surveillance and securitization may be approaching and even surpassing Cuban-style invasiveness in citizens lives. Finally, Mexico s sprawling party state dominated by PRI has gradually been dismantled beginning with the election of a neoliberal President in No better evidence of the limited reach of the contemporary Mexican state can be advanced than its ineffectual struggle against drug cartels. Indices of state capacity offer stark contrasts among the three countries, then. When used to serve as predictors of a country s ability to respond to disasters, the empirical evidence in this article suggests some counterintuitive results with the world s greatest military and economic power ranking as a middling. What then were reasons given by Latin American elites for US disaster mismanagement of hurricane Katrina? Deep Structures of the Katrina Tragedy: Mexico s View Shortly after Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans, Mexico s President Vicente Fox Quesada wrote to US President George W. Bush: BIn the name of the people and of the government of Mexico, I assure you of my deepest and most sincere sympathy for the devastating effects caused by Hurricane Katrina.^ This diplomatic courtesy message was not representative of what Mexican leaders really thought about the American response to the disaster. Their view was that its government was more effectively addressing the needs of Katrina victims who were Mexicans than the US government was to those of US citizens. Taras The Mexican government put action plans into place hours after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. 6 Thus, on 1 September, Mexican aid workers set up provisional headquarters in the Houston Astrodome to assist Mexican nationals displaced by the storm; an estimated 100,000 lived in the areas affected by Katrina. Epidemiologists were sent to the affected region to reduce the risks of infections contracted from mosquitoes. Mexicans wishing to return to their homes in Mexico were offered travel money. Mobile Mexican consulates were set up in Louisiana and Mississippi to help their co-nationals. 7 By contrast, no similar effort was made by the US government to assist American tourists stranded in the Yucatan when Wilma hit a few weeks later. On a grander scale, Mexican authorities dispatched naval ships and helicopters to assist in rescue missions: the Papaloapan left the port of Tampico with 389 naval personnel, two Mi-17 helicopters, eight all-terrain vehicles, seven amphibious vehicles, two tankers, radio communications equipment, medical personnel, and 250 t of food on board. On arriving off the coast of Biloxi, it was first turned back by the US Coast Guard 8 ; accepting aid from Mexico had a humiliating character for the USA. But eventually, the supplies on board the Papaloapan were placed at the disposition of the US government. In addition, over 160 t of food transported by trucks through Texas reached Louisiana. A further 200 t of food were to be delivered in five Mexican air force transport planes. The military sent experts in rescue missions to the region affected by Katrina. The most publicized relief effort was the arrival of Mexican army units, totaling 194 people and 45 military vehicles, in San Antonio, Texas. News reports noted the fact that the Mexican Army was operating on US soil indeed in Texas again and in proximity to the Alamo for the first time since the 1846 Mexican American War. 9 Mexican government leaders insisted that assistance to Katrina victims was intended to improve bilateral relations between the countries and not as political opportunism or spectacle. 10 But one of President Fox s political opponents alleged that Mexican government aid was being used as leverage to change US immigration laws in favor of more access and rights for Mexicans. 11 By contrast, Mexico s assistance elicited mixed reactions. Some Americans were proud of Mexico s humanitarian actions but others expressed indignation. American antiimmigrant groups were alarmed that Mexico had gained political leverage. 12 Opinion leaders writing in the Mexican press were for the most part critical of the US government s response to Katrina. As one article observed, more than the forces of nature were involved in this disaster: BDestruction and devastation do not depend solely on the gravity of natural phenomena but also on the capacity and opportunity with which government and society prepare to respond to such emergencies.^13 Both were considered lacking in providing relief to victims. 6 BEl sólo unas horas se organizó la ayuda a EU,^ El Universal, 11 September Translations from Spanish are mine. Parts of these first two sections on Mexican and Cuban critiques of the US response to Katrina are included in my BHurricanes as Mediatized Disasters: Latin American Framing of the U.S. Response to Katrina,^ minnesota review, special issue on Katrina edited by Gaurav Desai, ^Fox: por Katrina EU no detendrá a ilegales,^ El Universal, 3 September BFrenan desembarco de ayuda mexicana,^ El Universal, 9 September BConvoy mexicano llega a San Antonio,^ El Universal, 9 September BRecuerden el Álamo,^ El Universal, 14 September Raymundo Riva Palacio, BUn desastre bienaventurado,^ El Universal, 12 September BDiscrepan por ayuda de Mexico,^ El Universal, 10 September BConfianza ciudadana,^ El Universal, 17 September 2005. Political Storms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 Mexican autho
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