Picture 1: The 1976 February 04 09:01 UTC Magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Guatemala City was caused by the Motagua fault that runs roughly east-west from a point about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of Guatemala City eastward probably as far as Puerto Barrios near the Gulf of Honduras.
Picture 1: The 1976 February 04 09:01 UTC Magnitude 7.5 earthquake in Guatemala City was caused by the Motagua fault that runs roughly east-west from a point about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of Guatemala City eastward probably as far as Puerto Barrios near the Gulf of Honduras.


The 1976 Guatemalan Earthquake
Social Change in an Emerging Country in the Aftermath of a Disaster


At 3:04 a.m. on February 4, 1976, Guatemala was truck by devastating earthquake. It destroyed most adobe type structures in Guatemala City and adjacent provinces and townships. The death toll was estimated to be more than 23,000 and injured more than 70,000. Additionally, the estimated homeless were over one million; this was about 1/6 of the country’s population[1]. In many cities and towns the food, water, electricity, and communication were significantly affected and diminished. Transportation was very difficult and some road reconstruction took years to be restored. The USGS reported that the fault that was the main cause of the Magnitude 7.5 earthquake was the Managua fault. This fault runs about 15 miles from the north of Guatemala City eastward and the breakage was more than 100 miles along the stretch of the fault (Picture 1). The tectonic boundary of the Motagua fault is a left lateral strike-slip between the Caribbean plate and the North American plate with the Cocos plate pushing against the Caribbean plate as well. This forms a subduction zone that is known as the Middle America Trench.

external image GuateQuake1976HotelTerminalA.jpg

This is a photograph of the direct devastation from the 7.5M earthquake that struck Guatemala.


Like in any other disaster of this scale, the attention, relief, and reconstruction efforts of the Guatemalan earthquake demanded, and naturally received, global notice. Also, like in any other disaster, particularly one that hits an emerging country; interests can go beyond the immediate restoration and efforts to return things to normal. Inevitably, this can attract entities and other organizations with perhaps a hidden agenda to come to the aid with a broader vision than the victims may have anticipated and thus create, perhaps unconsciously, significant social changes that reshape the history of the country. In the case of Guatemala, the changes did not come through political activism alone, as this was already in motion prior to the earthquake. Political activism had been prominent in Guatemala since they declared their independence from Spain in 1821 and continued through the 1950’s which marked the commencement of a 36-year long revolutionary war.

The Guatemalan population was already in a civil war when the earthquake hit in 1976. Radicals had been active in revolutionary efforts since 1954 when the then President Arbenz had launched a campaign against foreign companies that were profiting from the country's natural resources. Among these companies was the United Fruit Company which by the 1950s, owned a considerable amount of land in the rural areas of Guatemala. President Arbenz, in efforts to gain back much of the land that had been taken away from the indigenous peoples and sold to the American company by preceding administrations only to benefit themselves, made numerous policies changes and tax increases that he hoped would restore the land to the Guatemala natives. Some Guatemalans believe that, in an effort to maintain their financial interest, the American government accused President Arbenz of being communist and began to infiltrate in Guatemala politics as they started a campaign to remove him from office. The CIA was given the task by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower to remove the president from power by, among other means, an organized small force of Guatemalan refugees and mercenaries to take over[2]. But when the Guatemalan president realized that he was taking on a force much larger than he intended, he resigned from office. No one could have predicted that this single event would have launched a civil war that lasted more than 36 years.

Aside from the interest of the United Fruit Company, the United States and also influenced the Guatemalan culture through religion. Protestant evangelical movements in Guatemala were largely imported from American religious groups which had established roots in the rural areas of Guatemala for quite some time. The earlier evangelical missionaries allied themselves authoritarian liberal governments. But the newer fundamentalists and Pentecostal churches came to rise after the earthquake. The majority of the earthquake victims were in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. These areas were the most impacted both financially and by the number of lost lives. These areas were also the most neglected by the Government as they were considered Zones of Conflict sanctioned by guerilla warfare. The first days after the earthquake, the government joined with international and private groups that came to the aid of the victims with the idea of analyzing what could be done in terms of supplying water, medical care, food, blankets and other necessities. The government began to assign different relief groups to different areas of the country. Then they directed the military to administer these groups. The military organized a group called the National Reconstruction Committee (NCR) to oversee the reconstruction. But as time went on, it became evident that the government’s reconstruction efforts would further benefit the power of the wealthy and the military itself.

The turning point came through the organizations that emerged after the earthquake. Together with the many relief groups, evangelical as well as non-interest groups, both progressive and reactionary movements followed a surge of activism uniting to help a population in need. One could argue that the revolutionary movement was already set in motion, but as the earthquake brought more poverty to an already poor nation, these radical organizations began to take a more aggressive approach. On the other hand, the evangelicals gave the masses hope as well as aid. Social change came in the form of evangelical radicals and churches that also provided housing, food, and medical aid to victims. Religious organizations provided necessary aid to victims with the goal of evangelical conversion [3] and the indigenous peoples did not resist them; Guatemala was already a dominantly Catholic nation. The infiltration of the evangelical organizations were slow and almost null prior to the earthquake, they were a minority almost too small to notice. But with the general idea that God punishes inequities being preached to the masses, a natural disaster was seen by the Guatemalan population as God’s punishment to the country. Another important factor made a great impact was the way the distribution of such aid was controlled, as these organizations gave priority to their own members and those seeking to join them. Virginia Garrard-Burnett claimed that evangelical churches grew and unprecedented fourteen percent after the earthquake [4] and began to be respected by the Guatemalan population as they preached change. The Evangelical reformers were also a key to the revival of the liberations movements as well. The country had been riddled with a revolutionary war for more than 20 years by this time and, after the earthquake, they intensified. Such was the case of an organization called Tierra Nueva that started a movement in which they mainly invaded unoccupied lands in the name of the church and began to construct temporary housing to dwell in. Eventually their numbers grew in the hundreds. Initially, the military and those who followed the military’s benefited the most from the quake. Leaders of Tierra Nueva and the military’s CNR quickly became involved in skillfully negotiating the occupation’s legalization, and it got the state’s national housing bank to arrange loans for more long term construction projects. So the “leftist” community gained from the protection of its worst enemy[5]. But its popularity may not have been as significant to the masses if not for the new evangelical reform that had gained momentum after the devastated disaster hit.



[1] Rogers, David L. Mass Emergencies. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1978.
[2] The History Channel. This Day In History July 8, 1954: Colonel Castillo Armas Takes Power in Guatemala. Internet Website <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/colonel-castillo-armas-takes-power-in-guatemala > Accessed 8 March 2010.
[3] Reed, Kenneth. Holy War in Central America. The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1990.
[4] Garrard-Burnett, Virginia. Protestantism in Guatemala: Living in New Jerusalem. University of Texas Press, 1998. Excerpt from the book obtained form the internet webpage <http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/garrpro.html>. Accessed 8 March 2010.
[5] Leveson, Deborah. Reactions to Trauma: The 1976 Earthquake in Guatemala. International Labor and working Class History. No. 62, Fall 2002. Boston College.