News | Building from the ground up

McGill professor Catherine LeGrand discusses the problems of post-disaster reconstruction in Latin America and Haiti

In the days following Haiti’s January 12 earthquake, McGill students and faculty have rallied around the ongoing effort to understand and assuage the tragedy. On Tuesday, January 19, Professor Catherine LeGrand gave a talk about past earthquakes and reconstruction efforts in Latin America. LeGrand is an associate professor in the history department at McGill and takes part in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. She sat down with The Daily to talk further about some of the topics brought up at her lecture. LeGrand discussed the earthquakes in Nicaragua in 1972, Guatemala in 1976, and Mexico in 1985. Although these case studies do not present an exact model of what reconstruction in Haiti will look like, LeGrand believes they do prove instructive examples of possible future events.

McGill Daily: An earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale struck Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, two days before Christmas in 1972. What factors led to the destruction that followed?
Catherine LeGrand: Well, [Managua] was located directly over three faults, and it had been destroyed twice before, in 1885 and 1931. So this was the third earthquake, and the city had always been rebuilt on the same site. I would imagine the building was not of great quality. The earthquake destroyed the personal residence of the dictator; the National Guard headquarters; the U.S. embassy. There were fires that engulfed the commercial district within 24 hours. All water lines were severed. [The earthquake] completely destroyed or severely damaged over 80 per cent of the buildings. Ten thousand dead. One hundred and fifty thousand people lost their homes.

MD: You mentioned that the Somoza government was corrupt in the rebuilding process in Nicaragua. What were the major indiscretions?
CL: The Somoza regime was known as a “kleptocracy.” I mean, he did distribute aid to the wounded and the homeless. But basically in the reconstruction, the Somoza family used the aid to accumulate a new fortune. They channelled aid through his own companies, and purchased parts of the city where he planned to undertake reconstruction.

And a lot of middle class people were alienated. Office workers were asked to work overtime for no pay whatsoever in order to help rebuild the country. The idea was, “Everybody must sacrifice to rebuild the country.” But in the meantime the Somoza family themselves were raking it in. This created a great sense that the government was not the government of the people.

MD: There has been coverage of the intense religious response to the earthquake throughout Haiti. Can you describe the religious dimension of the response to the Guatemalan earthquake of 1976?
CL: With these late-twentieth century earthquakes you don’t see people saying, “Well this is the wrath of God,” except in Guatemala. There was one Protestant church in Guatemala City that had almost predicted the earthquake, saying, “The apocalypse is coming.” They had stockpiled provisions and so forth and they apparently responded very well to the earthquake, in terms of distribution.

The foreign missionaries, who were involved in the Liberation Theology movement, and the people they were working with in poor areas, were upset by the government’s priorities in both the rescue and the reconstruction efforts, and were fired up by this sense of injustice. Some people have called it a “class quake.” And the reconstruction endeavours had mostly favoured market interests and private contracting companies and so forth. This led to criticism of the government, and a lot of mobilizing at the local level.

MD: What sort of repression did the Nicaraguan government engage in at the time?
CL: There was a backlash on the part of the military government against civil society organizing, partly stimulated by the earthquake. They massacred whole villages of Mayan peasants. Some say it’s the closest thing to genocide we’ve ever seen in Latin America. Even in the cities there was selective targeting of social activists, activist university professors, et cetera. The government kept saying, “We’re killing guerillas,” when in point of fact an awful lot of civilians were killed.

MD: You said that Mexicans really mobilized on a local level after the earthquake of 1985 in Mexico City. What form did this mobilization take?
CL: You had one earthquake of 8.1 on one day and one of 7.5 on the next day. And it hit the middle of Mexico City. Again: 5,000 people injured, 1,000 trapped under debris, 250,000 people homeless. Somewhere between 10 and 20,000 dead.

It’s interesting: the government at first rejected foreign aid. They were concerned with their international reputation. They actually paid for the earthquake reconstruction by taking out loans. That’s the question in Haiti: is it going to be loans, or is it going to be grants?
The Mexican government was concerned with restoring the services that had been put down: electricity, the telephone service. But people who had lost their homes criticized this, saying, “What about our lives, what about our shelter?”

And so the citizen movement starts, and it’s poor people but also some middle class people. Government accountability became a priority for these popular movements. The earthquake revealed one street where there were 55 illegal garment factories, when the buildings fell down. And the police were sent in with the owners to rescue some of the equipment. And yet there were still injured and dying people in the buildings. I mean, economic recovery does help people, but there is this question of private and capital interests.

Compiled by Eric Andrew-Gee