In Earthquake Rubble, Political Aftershocks May Hit Mexico

The devastating earthquake in 1985 upended politics in Mexico. Could last month's deadly disasters do the same?

In Mexico City on Oct. 1
In Mexico City on Oct. 1
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — Crises bring out the best and worst in us, both in society and government. The earthquake that struck central Mexico on Sept. 19 revealed a society that was already organized, and able to react immediately and focus on essentials. It showed the presence of mind of a committed and active body of citizens, but also a government that could respond and react immediately, in a plausible and decisive manner. This unspoken partnership saved the day.

Not that society waited for government to act: It took control of the public space and within hours, supply centers were literally saturated. Young people went to affected areas, doing what they could to help rescue victims, though they clearly lacked the efficiency, experience and discipline of professional teams. Here there was stark contrast with government, whose experience and equipment were undermined by the distrust and contempt it arouses among the public, and its limited ability to channel and sustain social mobilization. At least in the capital, society and government each worked in their own space, each giving the best it could.

There were also less commendable facets. There was no drop in muggings. We returned to our old habit of trying to manipulate public emotions. And bureaucratic rivalries hampered the immediate involvement of other government agencies or technical teams, especially those from abroad. All of that meant an unnecessary loss of lives.

The first stage of the crisis is giving way now to a second phase, with new political realities. The efforts made by volunteers was striking, but now they've returned to school or work. The government too is going back to its usual business. It assumes it's done its duty, that all it needs to do now is administer to the quake's consequences. Both may think things have changed, though not as they might have imagined

It is commonly said that the 1985 Mexico City quake changed Mexican politics by boosting civic awareness and exposing the government's incompetence in the face of an immediate crisis. There may be some truth to that, but what also changed Mexican politics were the secondary crisis of housing for the quake's survivors. That is where political actors reached agreements — and not always honorable ones — and built coalitions that changed the capital and finally, the country.

Something similar may be in the making now among thousands of families who survived the quake, but were left homeless. And unlike in 1985, many of the people affected are apartment owners who not only lost their homes but most of their assets. The crisis, in other words, has barely begun.

From a legal standpoint, this is not really the government's problem, as every person is responsible for his or her belongings. People who failed to insure their apartments took a risk, and now they're paying the price. And yet, in times like this, people still turn to the government for answers, for resolution, and so politically, the authorities can expect to come under significant pressure.

The crisis, in other words, has barely begun.

The way this and other crises are resolved will likely take shape in the coming weeks and months, and prove absolutely decisive in next year's presidential elections, for the government of Mexico City, led by the leftist PRD party, and for the federal government as a whole. Both levels of government should anticipate complications and find effective solutions to avoid larger schisms. There are also opportunists and cynics, on both sides of the political spectrum, keen to exploit miseries.

The quake and its immediate consequences are over, and we are back to politics as usual — bloodless wars, as Chairman Mao used to say. But the quake has also shifted the relative positions of political players, and given both local and national governments an opportunity to do something to be proud of.

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