Monday, February 15, 2010

Earthquakes and politics

Glenn Garvin at The Miami Herald writes a lengthy and very worthwhile article about the 1972 Nicaragua earthquake, raising some points I just made in class last week, including this critical one:

Since the early 1960s, a small band of Marxist college students calling themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front had been stumbling around in the jungle, continually betrayed by the hostile peasants they hoped to lead in revolution.

But the widespread animosity toward the government following the earthquake provided the Sandinistas with an immediate infusion of money, guns and troops. Within two years, the Sandinistas had brought their war into the cities; within seven, they had toppled Somoza.

There are many differences between Haiti and Nicaragua, but the central point is that the response to natural disasters can have critical long-term consequences.  That seems obvious, but in the immediate term tends to get ignored.  Somoza took economic advantage of the earthquake, and made poor decisions on rebuilding to boot.

When Nicaraguans talk about Haiti, as they often do these days, they feel a little bit like the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol, warning about shadows of things that might be if their warnings aren't heeded. The most important, they all agree, is that corruption is potentially poisonous, coloring every public perception. ``Even a little bit will grow giant in the public eye after a disaster,'' says broadcaster Sacasa.

It would be interesting to see an analysis of the political impact of natural disaster response.  We tend to focus on the negative cases (even Katrina) but in what ways have successful responses bolstered a government or even democracy itself in the longer term?  I think measuring the positive effects would be much more difficult.


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