Earthquake in Haiti - a natural disaster against the backdrop of a social disaster

From Lutte de Classe #126 - March 2010 (published in Class Struggle #87 - Britain)
March 2010

The earthquake which hit Haiti on 12 January claimed at least 300 000 dead, probably more. Tens of thousands of others were injured, many of whom will have permanent disabilities as a result. Several cities were almost destroyed, including the capital, Port-au-Prince. Six weeks after the catastrophe, 1,300,000 people were still homeless, living in precarious conditions, in open spaces, where they would not be threatened by cracked houses collapsing as a result of on-going after-shocks.

This natural disaster, one of the most severe of the past years, was just waiting to happen. Geologists who knew about the presence of a tectonic fault underneath the island had been warning against this risk for a very long time. But their warnings had been ignored, both by the island's authorities and the international authorities.

While this natural disaster was predictable and predicted, the resulting social catastrophe was even more predictable. In the past, other countries than Haiti have experienced earthquakes of similar magnitude. But the consequences in rich, industrialised countries like California or Japan, although always dramatic, are in no way comparable to what they are in Haiti.

It should be recalled that Haiti is the poorest country of the American continent and one of the poorest in the world. In this country, it takes only a tropical storm, or simply a heavy downpour, to cause the death of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people - because there are neither the means of prevention nor the means of rescue available and because the poor population, the overwhelming majority, builds its homes as and where it can, using poor materials.

Some journalists were stupid enough to speak of a "curse hanging over Haiti", a phrase which they apparently liked. But the only curse that ever hung over Haiti stemmed from its having been France's richest colony. Over two centuries France imposed on Haiti the insane exploitation of sugar cane, but above all, the insane exploitation of the slaves it brought from Africa.

Eventually, against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the slaves rebelled. Having taken over the island, they forced the army of Napoleon Bonaparte back into the sea and proclaimed their independence. Haiti became the first state ever to emerge out of a victorious slave uprising. But the French state did not resign itself to its defeat. After having imposed an economic blockade on its ex-colony and having won the co-operation of the island's small ruling layer, France forced the population to compensate the former slave owners for their losses. And, over the next 8 decades, while in France governments and even regimes changed - from the monarchy to the reign of Napoleon III and then to the Republic - Haiti kept on paying.

It kept on paying a debt which, with its accumulated interest, strangled the country, or more precisely the overwhelming majority of its population - farmers and poor city dwellers, who were subjected to a shameless exploitation in order to fill the coffers of the big French banks, including some which are, or are directly connected with, present-day household names.

Then, during the following centuries, the USA, whose army occupied Haiti during part of the 20th century, joined France in looting the island. Still today, while the owners of the few existing industrial sites - most of which are in Port-au-Prince's industrial zone - have diverse nationalities (including Haitian), this industrial zone works for big US retail chains. And despite being so close to the US coast, Haitian workers earn in a month more or less what US workers earn in a day!

Some of the victims of the earthquake may well have been members of the elite or capitalists. The presidential palace itself may well have collapsed. But the overwhelming majority of the victims are among the poor and they were killed by poverty far more than by nature itself.

For several days, stupid tales were peddled by the media, focusing on so-called "looting" and on the US and French "humanitarian" interventions. But those whose lives were saved owed this primarily to the population itself, to their neighbours, to people who may have been close to them or total strangers. In an extraordinary show of solidarity, people used their bare hands to try to free those who were trapped under the ruins. And they did this, in particular, during the first two days, when helicopters - from the US in particular - confined themselves to flying over Port-au Prince, in order to prepare the landing of planes and soldiers who were meant to take over control of Haiti's airport.

While the world's TV channels were flooding viewers with footage of the big powers' well-wishers who had come to save a few dozens lives, the intervention of these countries was (and remains) derisory compared to their resources. Moreover it is a carefully targeted intervention: while Haitian capitalists were leaving the country, fleeing the threat of the earthquake's after-shocks and possible pandemics, many poor districts had neither food nor drinking water.

The big powers were absorbed by their rather indecent rivalry (in which the winner was, of course, the most powerful among them) and were primarily concerned with pushing their respective diplomatic and military pawns. For instance, the USA sent in far more soldiers than doctors and nurses. And despite Clinton's performance in front of the TV cameras as self-appointed head of the humanitarian effort, the homeless still did not have enough tents to shelter under by the beginning of the rainy season.

Let us make a few comparisons. Obama had promised $100m in aid, which may eventually be increased to $300m - but to save the bankers, the US government forked out $1,000 billion!

For its part, France talked about providing 300m euros in aid. But the total value of the debt with which France bled Haiti for decades, is estimated to be equivalent to 600 billion euros, in today's currency!

Not that there has been any shortage of meetings, conferences and summits between heads of states, under the pretext of helping Haiti! There has been no shortage either of visits to Haiti by heads of states - among which Sarkozy's ultra-short trip, only flying for a few hours over Port-au-Prince in order to be able to boast of being the first French president to visit Haiti, was one of the most contemptible.

In the meantime, part of the population of the capital fled the pestilential smells, the threatening pandemics or simply the shortage of food and drinking water. They left for rural villages which did not have much more food, or in any case not enough to feed all these internal refugees.

But, as a graphic illustration of the workings of this society, while the town was in ruins, the industrial zone had been spared by the earthquake, thanks to its strong and lightweight structures, and it resumed operations. So, the textile and engineering workers of Port-au-Prince's factories now enjoy the dubious "privilege" of having to walk through the rubble of the town so as to be exploited for 3 or 4 dollars a day.

What is the situation today, at the end of February, 6 weeks after the earthquake? Here are some extracts from the testimony by our comrades of the Haitian OTR (Revolutionary Workers Organization) :

"On Thursday, February 25th, the Civil Defence Organisation raised the alert level to orange throughout the country. Indeed, the sky was black with clouds. The rainy season was about to start. Panic overtook the hundreds of thousands who were homeless or living in makeshift shelters, usually made with rags or blankets, which were inadequate to protect them from the sun, let alone the rain. Panic always sets in when the weather is bad and the rain is about to start - as was the case that afternoon, because the tents and temporary shelters are unable to resist the rain. On Monday February 22nd, at 4h36 am, there had been an after-shock of magnitude 4.7 on the Richter scale. The following day 23rd, there had been another of the same magnitude, 1h26 am. These after-shocks had injured dozens among the homeless who had fled the rain by taking shelter inside the damaged houses. The state's failure to provide the tents which had been demanded for over a month, mainly by the homeless population of Port-au-Prince, exposed, once again, its disarray and bankruptcy. Since January 12th, the homeless had staged 5 demonstrations to demand tents and food. In response, the government had stated that it relied on the World Food Programme and USAID to provide the hungry homeless with food and on the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) to provide tents. The government complained that it had only received about 23,000 of the 200,000 tents promised a month before by the IOM. But how and to whom were these thousands of tents allocated? The main question that people were asking in the homeless camps was what had happened to the government's 90 million gourdes budget for the carnival? There had not been any carnival. Why was not this money used to provide the homeless population with tents? Were the public coffers empty? What had happened to the billions of gourdes in taxes collected by the Haitian government? The government was proving incapable of feeding and sheltering temporarily the few hundreds of thousands made homeless by a castastrophe which had claimed over 300,000 dead, let alone the 9 million-strong population of the country.

Talking about figures

On Sunday February 21st, while visiting Playa del Carmen as part of a regional summit between Mexico and the Caribbean countries, Haitian president René Préval announced that the death toll of the January 12th earthquake may reach 300,000. "The most urgent task today is to protect the million and a half people who are living on the street and are subjected to the bad weather", went on the Haitian president, who wanted to use this summit in Mexico to collect funds. According to a report by the Civil Defence Organisation, the number of homes which have been destroyed or severely damaged could be as high as 300,000.

As far as loss of human life is concerned, the official figures certainly understate the reality. More than 80% of school and university buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. In most state secondary schools, the number of students ranges between 4,000 and 8,000, split in two shifts (morning and evening). The earthquake took place around 4h53 pm. At the Daniel-Fignolé school, for instance, where the majority of the evening students had already been sent home for lack of electricity, 1,020 dead bodies were found. Imagine what happened, therefore, in the schools that were operating at full capacity when the earthquake occurred!

The aid mountain is reduced to a derisory molehill in the homeless camps

The US authorities said officially that, even before the end of the first month following the earthquake, they had spent $800m on their own in Haiti. Big international organisations like the Red Cross, UNICEF, the IOM, USAID, etc., received colossal amounts to help homeless families. The UN has already collected around $2bn for the reconstruction of Haiti. About 40 days after the earthquake, more than two thirds of the homeless population still had no tents. The majority of the camps complained they had received nothing except water for some and a one-day food ration for others. Since the start of the aid operations, just after the earthquake, 2,678 humanitarian flights had landed in Port-au-Prince, according to the situation report covering the period 15th to 21st February 2010, published by the Civil Defence Organisation. And this does not take ships into account. The French government organised many "humanitarian" flights, such as that of February 1st from Martinique, which carried 3 passengers and a dozen of boxes of food, in a 100-seat aircraft! As one can see, aid is flooding into Haiti!

Also testimony to this aid flood were the NGOs' fleet of brand new vehicles, causing traffic jams on the streets of Port-au-Prince - the misfortune of some can make others happy.

The industrial zone

Very few subcontracting plants have been damaged by the earthquake. This is why, after less than two weeks, they proceeded to resume work in order to meet their uncompleted orders. The return to work was very hard. As if they knew nothing about what the workers had just lived through, the bosses pushed up the production speed to a crazy level, in order to make up for the large number of workers who were missing, either because they had fled to the rural areas or because they had been killed or injured.

In addition, the bosses were trying to make millions using the pretext that they had experienced huge losses. Some of them, like Apaid, received food aid meant for their workforce, but workers never received anything.

The foreign troops' massive and useless presence

The American government sent in 20,000 troops after the earthquake. There were around 9,000 UN troops and many French soldiers as well. At a time when what was really needed was medical staff, the country was invaded by soldiers.

The health situation

Many cases of malaria and typhoid were diagnosed in hospitals and health centres. Given the living conditions of the homeless in their makeshift camps, there was a likely threat of pandemics"

This is the context in which the comrades of the OTR had to resume their militant activity. They resumed their work towards the workers of the industrial zone. In addition, another activity was naturally thrown up by the circumstances, within the camps themselves, where hundreds, sometimes thousands of internal refugees - women, men and children - lived in makeshift shelters, concentrated in public squares.

The OTR's intervention in the camps was aimed at popularising - verbally and, when possible, in writing - the following ideas:

  • that both during the earthquake and afterwards, the state and all its appendices had disappeared completely
  • that, therefore, it was of no use at all with regards to the population except as an instrument of repression
  • and that it could be replaced by the population using its ability to organise itself

The OTR started from the statement of fact that the official authorities had failed, that they had proved totally incapable of facing up to the consequences of the catastrophe, that they had been quite simply absent, that the population had found itself not only deprived of material resources, but also without any plan, direction or co-ordination with regards to what needed to be done.

Hence the conclusion drawn by the comrades of the OTR:

"Those whose lives were saved owe their survival to the population itself and its solidarity. It is this solidarity which constitutes our strength. In order for this solidarity to be effective, it needs to be co-ordinated. We must elect our own leaders. In these catastrophic times, in each courtyard and makeshift camp, we were able to test all men and women among us. We must choose our leaders among those whom we have come to value through these events. - Wherever possible, we should create "survival committees", which will take responsibility for assessing our real needs and allocating the resources which are necessary for our survival - water, medicines, food, sleeping arrangements. We should trust people from our own ranks, people that we will have elected and who will remain under our scrutiny. There is no reason for us to tolerate that certain individuals should divert necessities to fill their pockets, while we are under threat of death, from thirst or hunger. - We cannot trust the police any more than the various occupation forces. We must protect our security ourselves. Protecting peace and security for all is a task that should be carried out by men and women coming from our ranks, under our control. - Our recent experience has been that we cannot rely on anyone. By organising ourselves, we will need no-one. The vital tasks of the moment are to organise ourselves, to elect our leaders and to make our voice heard collectively. These tasks are within our means and it is vital that they should be carried out. - All stocks of food should be requisitioned - whether they belong to the big import companies, to the supermarkets or to well-off individuals - together with the stocks of sleeping gear and cooking utensils and all the equipment that could be used to clear rubble. In a collective catastrophe, private property becomes irrelevant and cannot be used as an obstacle to the survival of human beings. It must be suspended, all the more so because many rich individuals fled the country in the first evacuation flights, taking with them their lives and heavy suit cases. The inventory of these stocks should be carried out collectively, together with their requisition. And if required, they should be redistributed under the control of our elected leaders in each community. Individual looting can and should only be stopped by the discipline decided by a community which is able to make decisions about its priorities and to prevent redistribution from being determined by the law of the jungle. - In the same way, the supplies brought in as part of international aid should be redistributed. Not only is the fact that this redistribution is overseen by heavily armed troops an insult to our dignity, but it does not stop anarchy and the law of the jungle from prevailing - because those who redistribute these supplies have no idea as to the real needs and priorities. Enforcing its own discipline should be the responsibility of each community. - The national authorities have reappeared, now that they have proved how useless they are. But the reality of power is exercised openly by the international troops - that is, mainly, US troops. All these authorities will only respect our needs and demands in proportion to our ability to make ourselves heard. And making ourselves heard is, first and foremost, showing that we are organised and that the leaders we have chosen are massively supported by the poor population."

The future will tell whether and to what extent the poor masses devastated by the earthquake identify with this message. But in any case, it was necessary that this voice should be heard.