Self-interest may push the U.S. to give early and give often: "When people have been left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, there's very little keeping them here," says Padgett. "If you think the U.S. has a problem with immigration from Central America right now, just wait until the refugees from Mitch start heading north." As Haiti and Cuba showed, nothing sways U.S. foreign policy faster than a sudden influx of tired, poor and huddled masses.
It's going to take a lot more than food and medicine to save Central America. For starters, the governments of Honduras and Nicaragua suggested Monday, their combined foreign debt of $10 billion ought to be discounted, and then they'll need a few billion more to rebuild the region in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. "These countries have suffered an infrastructural apocalypse," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim Padgett. "With damage equaling more than 60 percent of the two countries' combined GDP, emergency aid won't be enough -- it will require a long-term commitment from the industrialized world to save the region."