Earthquake Olympics

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles

The survivors of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are still scrambling to deal with the damage. Here, however, pundits are still scrambling to explain the dramatic difference in impact. Haiti’s quake on January 12 came in at 7.0 on the Richter scale, leveled the capital city, and left more than 200,000 dead. Chile’s earthquake on February 27 registered a magnitude of 8.8, which means it was 500 times more powerful than the Haiti shock. But fewer than 1,000 Chileans died, and the damage to buildings was considerably less.

This significant disparity in impact has generated a thousand theories. The proliferation of theories has established a kind of competition between the two countries in which Haiti must suffer twice: by comparison as well as by earthquake. Here are three of the more unlikely arguments for why Chile fared better than Haiti in the Earthquake Olympics:

Chile was saved by democracy. Because it has a “working democracy,” well-functioning legal and regulatory systems, and leaders that “have to take voters’ concerns into account,” Chile better withstood the earthquake and “will return to normal faster than Haiti,” writes Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. We utilitarian Americans so badly want democracy to be robust, to be more than a wan exercise of vote-casting or a dispiriting display of partisan rancor. And what can be more robust than a democracy that’s a bulwark against not only tyranny but natural disasters as well?

Chile was saved by the free market. “With no exaggeration,” writes Investor’s Business Daily, “Saturday’s earthquake shows that Chile’s choice to unabashedly embrace capitalism, made decades ago, has saved thousands of lives.” According to this free-market argument, greater wealth in the private sector created a larger tax base with which the government could “afford better earthquake preparation in building codes and disaster education for the public.” Where pundits of an earlier era might have identified the saving hand of God, Investor’s Business Daily thanks the invisible hand of the market.

Aha, Chile was indeed saved by God. I shouldn’t assume that only writers of past centuries look to divine intervention. In his comments after the Haitian earthquake, Pat Robertson indulged in a fanciful history lesson when he said that the Haitians swore a pact with the devil to escape French colonialism and have suffered under a curse ever since, with the quake being only the most recent of their punishments for turning away from God.

The real reasons for the disparity between the effects of the two quakes are considerably more prosaic. The first obvious factor was seismological. The earthquake that struck Chile occurred twice as deep beneath the surface than the one that hit Haiti, which meant that the earth absorbed more of the impact. In addition, the epicenter of the Haitian quake was only 10 miles outside of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, compared to the epicenter in Chile, which was 70 miles from the city of Concepción. And of course, Haiti hadn’t suffered an earthquake of this magnitude since the 18th century, while Chile endured nearly two dozen major jolts in the 20th century, including the greatest earthquake ever measured, the 9.5 behemoth of 1960. With limited resources, you prepare for what you expect, and earthquakes weren’t the foremost threats on the minds of Haitians.

The second obvious factor was wealth. Chilean citizens enjoy an average income 10 times that of Haitians. Fully 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, compared to fewer than 20 percent of Chileans. Is Chile’s economic development a result of its unabashed embrace of capitalism? In 1970, Chile’s gross national income per capita was also 10 times that of Haitians. To say that Chile has prospered over the last several decades because of its economic choices is really to say that the country began the race three-quarters of the way toward the finish line, while Haiti had barely left the starting block.

The key here isn’t individual wealth. In Port-au-Prince the National Palace collapsed, so even the prime minister is staying with friends. In Chile, meanwhile, the urban and rural poor suffered the most from the earthquake. The difference between the two countries is the degree to which money has been invested in the common good, such as sound infrastructure, decent services, and proper regulations. Greater wealth in the private sector doesn’t necessarily lead to more government tax revenues or proper government investments, so nix the free market argument. Chile, for instance, established its much-admired building code not during the capitalist go-go days of Pinochet but in 1972, under a socialist administration. And although Haiti has experienced some profound democratic movements, high voting percentages and enhanced accountability don’t magically produce the capital necessary to earthquake-proof a country, so nix the democracy argument.

If democratic choices, market forces, and religious apostasy are not the determining factors in the scores that Chile and Haiti notched in this grim competition, what’s the answer? Forget loaded terms like “democracy” and “free market” and “God.” Instead look at more mundane indicators, such as national income equality, marginal tax rates, and number of government building inspectors. In other words, neither politics nor economics alone determined outcomes but, rather, political economy: the way political structures and actors interact with economic forces.

Both Chile and Haiti face important post-earthquake choices in this realm of political economy. Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Andre Vltchek was recently in Chile surveying the scene after the physical earthquake, which was followed by the political earthquake of a new right-wing president replacing Michelle Bachelet’s socialist administration. “We have excellent infrastructure and we are prepared for natural disasters because of Bachelet,” he quotes a demolition crew member from Curico in Postcard from…Chile. “We still have to see what the change of the new government brings to Chile. Everybody is watching closely.” Some analysts, like Raúl Zibechi, see deterioration in social solidarity in Chile and the potential for the new government to drag the country back to the days of Pinochet’s neoliberal militarism.

Haiti faces an even starker choice: It can continue the dependency of the last several decades or follow a different economic model that can pull it out of the hole. Tomorrow, an international donors’ conference takes place at the United Nations, an opportunity for what Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calls “a wholesale national renewal.”

Such a renewal requires much more than money, writes FPIF contributor Nikhil Aziz in Ghosts Threaten to Return to Haiti. “It would require a reversal of policies that run counter to healthy, sustainable development. The Haitian government should resist outside efforts to pry open the economy to imports and to balance Haiti’s budget by cutting health and education spending. In the agricultural sector, Haiti needs to emphasize environmentally friendly food sovereignty so that Haitian families can eat food they grow in fields that hold soil. A virtuous circle of support can allow both the governmental and non-governmental sectors to grow strong together. Most importantly, this work must be led by Haitians themselves.”

Let’s hope the Earthquake Olympics don’t roll around again any time soon. But in the interim, it’s important to help Haiti prepare. If a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members, as Gandhi famously said, then the greatness of the international community too is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

Colombia, Cuba, Burma

The United States and the UN have both praised the congressional elections that took place in Colombia in the middle of March. But FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen, who visited the country as part of an international team of pre-electoral observers, saw something very different take place.

“The results of Colombia’s elections raise serious doubts about the quality of that country’s democracy, especially in the light of past and present violence,” she writes in Colombia’s Elections: Under the Gun. “The Electoral Observation Mission reported that 35 candidates elected to the 102-seat senate are direct heir-apparents to congress-members identified by the courts as linked to paramilitary groups. Widespread dirty tricks reported during the pre-electoral period include vote-buying, voter intimidation, disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations such as the displaced, threats to opposition candidates, and illicit funding of campaigns.”

Relations between Cuba and the United States remain strained. But beneath the surface, Cubans and Cuban-Americans are building powerful links. “Every year more Cubans arrive from the island, quickly apply for resident status (within three years) and then citizenship (five years), and they are the ones who have built a bridge going back and forth,” poet Virgil Suarez tells FPIF senior analyst E. Ethelbert Miller. “They are called mules within the community because they take lots of goods back to their families, which their families can sell or trade for other things like meat, etc. The mules take medicine. Lots and lots of medicine — which was really not discussed in Michael Moore’s film Sicko.”

Finally, for those who missed journalist Mac McClelland’s FPIF presentation in DC last week, she talks with FPIF contributor Michael Busch about her time on the border between Thailand and Burma.

What was the most surprising thing she learned during her time there with Karen refugees? “The genocide,” she tells Busch in Genocide in Burma. “The genocide that I had never heard of, that most people have never heard of because people are afraid to label it a genocide. It’s too complicated, too politically charged. To realize that something of that scope, at that level of horror, was happening and that it’s not widely reported — despite the fact that it has been documented to death — was stunning to me. I mean, to every single thing that came out of the mouths of these guys that I was working with my response would be, ‘Really?!?‘ They would show me videos, and pictures, and I would get interviews, just endless stacks of shit, and with all of it, in every case, my response was, ‘No, that’s news to me. No, that story doesn’t exist in my media. No, I don’t know what you are talking about.’”

FPIF, March 30, 2010

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