When things go badly, Mexicans commend themselves to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's patron saint, for help and deliverance. Slow and inefficient at best, she was particularly inefficient last week. Mexico was struck by the worst natural disaster in its recorded history and received the latest installment in a seemingly never-ending succession of economic bad news.
Saudi Arabia leaked to the press -- and privately made it known to Mexico -- that it was increasing its petroleum exports to around 4 million barrels per day, thereby ensuring a new drop of $2 or $3 per barrel in the price of oil. Every one-dollar reduction implies a $540 million drop in Mexico's yearly hard-currency earnings. After two price cuts during the past nine months, the country can ill afford another one. Most likely, such a move would make interest payments on its $96 billion foreign debt exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
To complicate matters further, on Thursday -- the day of the earthquake -- the International Monetary Fund tactfully announced that it was revoking its loan agreement with Mexico, freezing the pending disbursement of $900 million in loans. More than the money itself, the IMF's decision will affect Mexico's already battered credit rating, making its attempt to obtain fresh funds on the world market practically hopeless.
Despite the ominous implications of these economic and financial calamities, they are clearly dwarfed by the destruction and misery wrought by last week's earthquake. The dead, the maimed and the injured are yet uncounted but will certainly run over 10,000. Property and economic damages are massive if incalculable. Worst of all, the harm done to the psyche of the capital's 17 million inhabitants may take years to mend. Mexico City ceased to be a pleasant, healthy or safe place to live years ago, but, because of the quake, all of its ills and drawbacks will multiply many times over for years to come. Moreover, since Mexico City is the economic, political and cultural heart of the country, the catastrophe's effects will reverberate throughout the nation.
This is the bad news. The good news is not yet in sight. It can, nonetheless, be hoped for and, though Mexico's wish list today is infinite, it does have priorities. Obviously first among them is humanitarian aid from abroad -- and from the United States. It is needed, will be welcomed and accepted, but on Mexico's terms.
Requirements have not yet been ascertained, although some help has already begun to arrive. France and other European countries have sent planeloads of supplies and specialized rescue equipment. The government of the United States has offered assistance; it will undoubtedly be useful. The international community, and the United States in particular, should, however, work in close cooperation with Mexican authorities and institutions in choosing and channeling the aid to avoid overlaps, bruised feelings and conditionality of any sort.
Under present circumstances, Mexico's pride is one of its most precious assets. It should be handled with care and, above all, with tact. With phone lines down, friends and relatives out of touch and television screens filled as never before with scenes of Mexico and its people, Americans could perhaps reflect on how close and how relevant Mexico is. It is a clich,e to say that only tragedy brings attention and interest, but it is also, in this case, a tragic irony. If Mexico City's earthquakes of Sept. 19 and 20 mark the beginning of a new American awareness of Mexico's problems, promise and reality, they will have generated something positive -- however minimal.
Finally, the earthquake could offer the country's creditors -- governments, banks and international agencies -- an opportunity to ease up on Mexico. For some time it has been clear to many that Mexico would soon have to stop sacrificing its long-term economic development to meet interest payments on its foreign debt. If the earthquake makes this fact easier to realize, live with or justify, then once again the international financial community will have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. The economic costs of reconstruction will be enormous. But the political costs of not helping to rebuild the devastated areas of Mexico City could be far greater.
If there ever was a time when a country needed a break, the time is now, and the country is Mexico.