Nature’s Card

     I reported on the aftermath of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985.
     In the course of killing an estimated 10,000 people, the 8.1 monster of a quake had destroyed much of the city’s housing, particularly in the poor neighborhoods where building were cheaply constructed often in corrupt violation of building codes.
     The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, was in absolute control of the Mexican government at all levels, but it had been under increasing attack from both sides, and its control was weakening.
     What the quake did was to create a power vacuum that was very quickly occupied by religious and social groups that began providing food and housing. I interviewed Franciscan fathers in their student-crash-pad-like headquarters, with a few old couches and coffee tables in a vast and open area in a building owned by the Franciscans in the heart of Mexico City.
     The fathers were organizing housing for the poor that had coalesced along mini-neighborhood, or barrio, lines. The father told me with humor and satisfaction of the repartee between a woman heading a barrio housing delegation and the local PRI bureaucrat. She was combative and articulate — in essence, she stood up to the PRI official — something that would have been unlikely and probably unhealthy before the the cataclysm.
     In going with the Franciscan father to visit the housing projects they sponsored, I learned not to accept offers of food.
Because if you said yes, the women of the neighborhood sprang into action, bringing food and pots and pans and, with remarkable industry and teamwork, would whip together a fantastic meal. in a short amount of time.
     And you were there for the rest of the afternoon.
     There was a palpable sense of revolution in the air, an enthusiasm and a spirit that came from the vast regions of the poor taking destiny into their own hands.
     One group I remember was called Nuevo Amanecer del Barrio, translated as the new dawn of the neighborhood. It was headed by a local boxer, a charismatic and barrel-chested young man who worked in a small shoe factory.
     I did not need to call ahead when I went to talk with him. Kids in the neighborhood saw me and ran to get him from work. He would simply show up, shortly after I arrived. The folks in his group lived in small shacks with light bulbs strung up in the common areas for drinking and dancing.
     They had an enthusiasm and momentum that seemed the very essence of life.
     That surge of local groups combined with the realization that dominant party had lost some power further weakened the PRI, mired in corruption and, even back then, showing clear and blatant ties to drug organizations. The party started losing some local elections, then state governorships and ultimately the presidency in 2000.
     What got me to thinking about all this was the flood in Pakistan.
     The political control of the government and the military is quite a bit shakier than was the control of the PRI at the time of the great terremoto of 1985. But the flood in Pakistan has had a similar devastating effect on the housing stock and the food supply for millions of people.
     Militant religious groups have jumped into the vacuum offering meals and, if the pattern holds, they will start organizing housing. From that point, if the analogy is good, the already weak government will slide further away from popular support and political control.
     You could say, and you would be right, that Pakistan is not Mexico.
     But the combination of a weakened political government and a devastating natural cataclysm is similar from one nation in the past to the other nation in the present. What I am waiting to see is the effect the devastating flood will have on the politics of Pakistan.
     And the knock-on effect that will have on neighboring Afghanistan and the unending battle by American troops to push back insurgents steeped in fundamentalist religion.
     Nature has laid down a big card and now we must see how the hand plays out.

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