Nature and politics

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Is it possible for nature to be benevolent to some nations and ruthless with others? Judging by the way that a hurricane devastated Haiti some years ago, the answer would appear to be obvious. But that’s not the one that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith provide in a book that not only probes into the very entrails of power, but also that is entitled “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics”. For these authors everything abides by the political structures of a society and not to Mother Nature. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena are daily events worldwide. What’s not evident, say these authors, is that natural disasters –the effect of the physical phenomenon- disproportionally hit the poorest most underdeveloped countries.

This question has always intrigued me. In 1978, when I was studying in Boston, there was a brutal snowstorm that paralyzed the city for nearly a week and destroyed hundreds of homes along the coast. However, the capacity of the governmental response was impacting: the speed with which they cleaned up the streets, saw to the victims and reconstructed the homes –now with a new construction code so it wouldn’t happen again-, and made it possible for the city to go back to normal quickly. The devastation was enormous, but the government’s performance was spectacular. The way the Mexican government conducted itself after the terrible explosion at San Juanico (San Juan Ixhuatepec) or during the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City was brutish. No one can avoid natural phenomena or accidents, but the essence of the governmental structure and its relation with the society made a huge difference once these had taken place.

The argument of these scholars stems from the principle that the structure and strength of the institutions on which a society relies exerts an exorbitant impact on the result. Of course incidents occur; what varies is the form (and capacity) of the response. The theme returned my thoughts to the recent explosion of a dual tank gas truck in San Pedro Xalostoc. While one could extrapolate the argument of these authors to the regulations that standardize, permit or impede the transport of this type of fuel, accidents of this kind are no novelty in Europe, Japan or the U.S. A short while ago a fertilizer factory exploded in Waco, Texas, killing dozens of people. Three years ago there was an accident in a nuclear plant in Japan, but a year later all of the inhabitants of the region had thoroughly sorted out their lives.

Tragic events, those caused by nature as well as those materializing as the result of industrial accidents, are part of life. What differentiates some nations from others is the governmental capacity of response and, above all, it is the functionality of day-to-day governmental management that make it possible for the impact or consequences of this type of events to be of such different magnitudes. And that, say the authors, has everything to do with the nature of their political system.

For those who remember the 1985 quake in Mexico City, the government was taken by surprise much as the proverbial deer frozen in the headlights of a car. There were no established procedures, the most important rescue operation was carried out by volunteers, brigades of disaster specialists from places such as Italy with their canine units trained for this type of circumstances were much in evidence and there were notable efforts by individuals like Plácido Domingo who came to search for their relatives in Tlatelolco. What wasn’t there was the government. Worse: the earthquake evidenced the virtual inexistence of government: it had not been present when the building permits were issued nor was it present when the conclusion of those buildings was authorized, when the disaster itself came or when it was required to act in attending to victims as well as to reestablishing a semblance of order in the functioning of Mexico City.

The 1985 quake in the Mexican capital is a good paragon of the before and after because, in retrospect, from that there arose a political watershed perhaps greater than that of 1968. The government responded to the grisly events at Tlatelolco (1968) with a strategy that was dire for the economy but its political logic was impeccable: it brought about the inclusion of a population that had been excluded in the political process without losing control of the system. In contrast, the quake marked the beginning of the collapse of the old system: not only had the government gone broke a couple of years earlier (1982), but also it now revealed that it did not possess the capacity to act and respond. It was from that time that what ended up as a key component of the PRD was born.

Above all, since then a process of political and economic reform began that changed (transformed would be an excessive characterization) the country. Not the least doubt remains that the country has improved since 1985, as illustrated by the spectacular response capacity that has been constructed in the case of hurricanes that, we must recall, even made it possible for a Mexican military contingent to be deployed to the U.S. when Katrina struck New Orleans.

The Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argument can be summed up in one idea: a government or a leader will exercise all of the power it/he has and will employ it for self-preservation. If that power is not delimited by means of institutional mechanisms (the authors cite in particular transparency, accountability and checks and balances), its/his proclivity for abuse is infinite. Thus the authors conclude why countries like Haiti are much more vulnerable to hurricanes than other neighboring islands; that the existence of vast resources (such as oil) augurs well for autocratic regimes; that the salaries of lesser authorities tend to be extraordinarily high in underdeveloped countries; and that the stronger the concentration of power, the greater the temptation to hinder the development of checks on their power which, note the authors, is what differentiates the way the German government responds to an accident or an act of nature from what the Bangladesh government does about it.

In colloquial terms, governments and leaders act within the power framework afforded them, that is, when they abuse this they do so because they can. The experience of Mexico from 1895 on is of clear institutional strengthening but, as instanced by the rampant criminality, there’s much more lacking than that in which headway has been made. All things considered, what there’s no doubt about, as Ecatepec recently brought home, is that the response capacity is growing and improving. Next in line come the police and the judiciary…

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).