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U.S. Loses PR War in Mitch Relief

November 14, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ The United States has been upstaged by its southern neighbor in the eyes of Hondurans digging out from the storm that killed an estimated 10,000 people across Central America.

While Mexico’s swift response to the disaster has been lauded, the large but slow aid package offered by the U.S government is seen as little more than the duty of the world’s richest country.

Last week, President Clinton called for a global relief effort for Central America and gave orders boosting U.S. emergency aid to $70 million. Then, Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, announced an additional $10 million.

No other country has given more, but Honduras was not impressed.

``Of course we expect more from the United States. We have a right to. Every Honduran would expect in a crisis to count on Washington,″ said Moises Starkman Pinel, the minister of international cooperation.

Mexico, meanwhile, was quicker off the block. Within days after Mitch hit two weeks ago, Mexicans sent helicopters, cargo planes, ships, rescue teams and a convoy of tractors and other heavy machines.

``People were overwhelmed by the size of the response from Mexico, with all its limitations,″ Starkman said. ``They were not helping with what was extra. They were helping with what they really have.″

Underlying the seeming double standard is Honduras’ perception of itself as a U.S. dependent.

The coffee and banana industries, the country’s two biggest revenue sources, depend on U.S. customers. The third-largest source is money sent home by Hondurans living abroad _ mostly in the United States.

``We are part of the American empire, this is the reality,″ said Delmer Urbizo Panting, minister of government and justice.

Part of the problem was that Washington seemed slow to react. Mitch stalled over Honduras in late October, and by Sunday, Nov. 1, it was clear that a catastrophe had occurred.

On Monday, the Clinton administration pledged $2 million in food, medicine, water and other emergency relief supplies, plus some $1.5 million for aircraft to help deliver it. Hondurans expected more.

``The impact of Mitch was not perceived properly in Washington, probably because of the elections,″ on Nov. 3, minister Starkman said.

Europeans and Asians also were on the scene quickly. Japan flew in teams to rebuild bridges. France and Spain offered debt relief. Germany, England, the Netherlands and other countries also were present.

The Americans stepped up the aid _ and the battle for the media spotlight. The government sent down Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, who shoveled mud for the cameras and slept in a tent. Hillary Rodham Clinton is coming next week.

``We got the pilgrimage of personalities and announcements of aid, but little action,″ said Thelma Mejia, editor of the respected newspaper El Heraldo. ``The perception is that Mexico and Europe care about the people, and the United States cares about politics.″

Honduran officials don’t want to seem ungrateful. Even if Washington lost the public relations battle, its support is indispensable.

``The U.S. came through, it just took them a while,″ said Starkman.

He paused. This wasn’t over.

``At least, they came through on the assistance side,″ he said. ``The rebuilding side is another story.″

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