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  • Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America
  • Gregory Knapp
Aftershocks: Earthquakes and Popular Politics in Latin America. Edited by Jürgen Buchenau and Lyman L. Johnson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 230. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $29.95 paper.

This collection contains seven case studies of earthquakes: Lima (1746), Venezuela (1812), Valparaiso (1906), San Juan, Argentina (1944), Managua (1972), Guatemala (1976), and Mexico City (1985). All of the essays are by historians who are well qualified to write on their respective topics. In general, the authors show that earthquakes have played an important role in Latin American politics and political culture. Stuart McCook convincingly shows that earthquakes contributed to the collapse of Venezuela's First Republic and the political and economic crises of that country for decades after Independence. Mark Alan Healey describes how the Argentina earthquake contributed to the rise of Perón, whose first major task was coordinating the relief effort. Paul J. Dosal shows how the state reaction to the Managua earthquake helped expose the corruption of the Somoza regime, and ultimately supported political movements leading to its collapse. The Guatemala earthquake is shown by Virginia Burnett to have contributed to the acceleration of revolutionary movements and violent repression, as well as to the rise of new religious movements. Louise E. Walker points out that the Mexico City event is related to the rise of middle class political activism and civil society, and the decline of the PRI. [End Page 137]

In some cases, for example Venezuela, the destruction of infrastructure and selective mortality played a major role in political change, but more commonly the failure of the state and other authorities to effectively respond to the humanitarian needs of the population led to popular discontent and mobilization. Often, the poor suffered most due to the fragility of home construction and lack of access to support networks. However, one of the virtues of a comparative historical volume is to point out the deviations from the expected patterns. Official responses in Lima, Valparaiso, and Argentina were imperfect but did not lead to political upheavals threatening the state (although, as Charles F. Walker (2008) documents, the Lima earthquake did involve a series of religious visions by nuns that had a powerful political impact). Guatemala best exemplifies the truism that the poor normally receive the brunt of disaster impacts. However, Samuel J. Martland shows that in Valparaiso, the wealthy were most effected, living in landfill and sandy flat areas that were especially risky in a temblor, and in buildings that, due to poorly thought out fire codes, were uniquely hazardous in earthquakes. Also, in Mexico City, much of the damage was experienced by middle-class dwellers in the massive Tlatelolco apartment housing projects created by the government for the growing bourgeoisie. Walker suggests that historians have neglected the significant impact of these events on the middle class and its support for the state.

Construction methods also have varied widely. As noted, modern building codes actually made structures more hazardous in Valparaiso (the mandated masonry fire walls easily tipped over in an earthquake). In Mexico City, much of the damage took place in modern buildings constructed by the Mexican state, which did not comply with building codes due to corruption. Elsewhere, adobe was often associated with damage. Although usually the construction method of the poor, in some cases (Argentina) the wealthy also used this hazardous technique. In fact, many of the poor in Argentina were living in houses made of quincha (wattle and daub), which was earthquake resistant.

The 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have reminded us of the impacts of hazards and disasters in Latin America. These include not only casualties and the destruction of buildings, but impacts on society, politics, economics, and religious culture. Moreover, the differing political and cultural repercussions in Haiti and Chile suggest the importance of regional and historical context. The study of hazards is a vast field, but this timely volume shows that historians have much to contribute.

Gregory Knapp
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas


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pp. 137-138
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