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Harpers: The Uses of Disaster

In this month’s Harpers — The Uses of Disaster contains a passages that rings bells, post-Katrina:

You can see the grounds for that anxiety in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which was the beginning of the end for the one-party rule of the PRI over Mexico. The earthquake, measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, hit Mexico City early on the morning of September 19 and devastated the central city, the symbolic heart of the nation. An aftershock nearly as large hit the next evening. About ten thousand people died, and as many as a quarter of a million became homeless.

The initial response made it clear that the government cared a lot more about the material city of buildings and wealth than the social city of human beings. In one notorious case, local sweatshop owners paid the police to salvage equipment from their destroyed factories. No effort was made to search for survivors or retrieve the corpses of the night-shift seamstresses. It was as though the earthquake had ripped away a veil concealing the corruption and callousness of the government. International rescue teams were rebuffed, aid money was spent on other programs, supplies were stolen by the police and army, and, in the end, a huge population of the displaced poor was obliged to go on living in tents for many years.

However, there’s a happy ending there:

That was how the government of Mexico reacted. The people of Mexico, however, had a different reaction. ‘Not even the power of the state,’ wrote political commentator Carlos Monsivás, ‘managed to wipe out the cultural, political, and psychic consequences of the four or five days in which the brigades and aid workers, in the midst of rubble and desolation, felt themselves in charge of their own behavior and responsible for the other city that rose into view.’ As in San Francisco in 1906, in the ruins of the city of architecture and property, another city came into being made of nothing more than the people and their senses of solidarity and possibility. Citizens began to demand justice, accountability, and respect. They fought to keep the sites of their rent-controlled homes from being redeveloped as more lucrative projects. They organized neighborhood groups. And eventually they elected a left-wing mayor — a key step in breaking the PRI’s monopoly on power in Mexico.

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