The current swine flu crisis will have a negative impact on
Mexico, a neighbor whose democratic health and political stability
remain vital to the interests of the U.S. A Mexico seriously
weakened by fears of pandemic, economic meltdown, or drug violence
will adversely impact U.S. domestic politics and this nation's
capacity to demonstrate leadership in the Americas and around the
The recent spread of the swine flu virus that appears to have
originated in Mexico also demonstrates the interconnected and
transnational nature of global challenges facing the U.S. The
current outbreak recalls previous infectious disease crises,
notably the SARS outbreak in 2003, and more recent avian flu
incidents. Pandemic scenarios and fears of possible bio-terrorism
attacks demonstrate the unending need to provide adequate resources
and authority to the Departments of Homeland Security and Health
and Human Services to handle a wide range of disease-driven
Previously challenged by drug and economic issues in Mexico, the
Obama Administration must keep a steady hand on the tiller if it
wishes to successfully navigate current and future challenges in
Origin of an Outbreak
The flu-like symptoms now diagnosed as swine flu were first
reported on March 9 in Vera Cruz, Mexico. The first swine flu
fatality reported to the Mexican government occurred on April 13.
It was not until April 23, however, that a Canadian laboratory
confirmed the presence of the new strain of flu, the H1N1 virus.
The Mexican government maintains it did not have adequate
laboratory facilities at the time to conduct a full
investigation--hence the need for Canadian assistance. Once the
H1N1 virus had been confirmed by Canadian scientists, the Mexican
government rushed into action--but not before the flu had begun to
spread inside and outside of Mexico.
Critics of the Mexican health system's performance point to the
valuable time lost between the initial detections of the flu that
triggered a comprehensive investigation and the subsequent
emergency response. Future policy attention will be given to
Mexico's broad but weak public health and hospital system.
The Calderon Government's Response
On April 24, President Felipe Calderon's government launched
sweeping measures to contain the flu's spread. These measures
included the closing of schools, first in a limited area around
Mexico City but later throughout the country. The government also
ordered the closing of numerous public places as well as
restaurants in the capital for all but take-out service. The
government has tapped emergency credit supports from the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank for masks, medicines,
and other needed medical equipment.
President Calderon will continue to exercise emergency executive
powers for as long as the virus threatens Mexican and international
health. He has promised a strategy of transparency and openness in
response to the crisis.
President Calderon's critics will now look closely at his
handling of the swine flu situation and public support could
evaporate if the crisis worsens. Calderon faces critical
legislative elections this summer that will be interpreted as a
referendum on his leadership. In the handling of the flu crisis,
Mexico City's leftist daily La Jornada argued that, "the
government's discourse has been characterized by imprecisions and
fooleries that, like it or not, created confusion, uncertainty and
anxiety in the public."
A Trifecta of a Crisis
The current swine flu crisis promises to impact Mexico's already
faltering economy, its tourism industry, and its war against the
Increasing Economic Woes. Mexico is being severely
affected by the global economic crisis. Its economy is already
struggling as production falls, jobs losses increase, and U.S.
demand for Mexican exports such as cars and home appliances
plummets. GDP shrank 1.6 percent in the fourth quarter and probably
contracted another 4.2 percent in the first three months of this
year. The fall in the price of oil has also hurt
the Mexican government, which depends on oil giant PEMEX for
approximately 40 percent of its operating budget. Mexico's Finance
Minister Augustin Carstens warned that there is a "high potential"
the swine flu outbreak will damage the economy.
Hurting Tourism. In 2008, Mexico's tourism industry
generated more than $13.3 billion in revenue and was the third
largest source of foreign income after petroleum and remittances.
Keeping the door to tourism open will be vital to the overall
health of the Mexican economy.
War Against the Drug Cartels. The ongoing battle against
the drug cartels has shown some signs of improving in recent
months, largely due to the liberal deployment of the Mexican army
in highly violent areas such as the state of Chihuahua,
particularly in the drug gateway city of Ciudad Juarez. This
struggle cannot take a backseat to the swine flu issue. Therefore,
the Obama Administration must move forward with commitments made in
both the Merida Initiative and in recent meetings between senior
U.S. and Mexican officials to coordinate actions to stop the
northbound flow of drugs and immigrants and the southbound flow of
arms and cash.
The swine flu crisis is placing an additional heavy strain on
Calderon and the Mexican government. This health crisis will
require further monitoring and a steady and helpful hand from the
U.S. It does not at this time appear to require a border closure
strategy that would have serious disruptive effects on Mexico's
economy and the psychology of its citizens.
In the days and months ahead, the Obama Administration needs to
develop a comprehensive, cabinet-level strategy for dealing with
Mexico's multi-dimensional crises of drugs, violence, economic
recession, and public health. It must continue developing effective
border security strategies and move quickly to place a U.S.
Ambassador in Mexico City.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for
Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign
Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage