Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 March 2010
Issue No. 988
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Odd couple

Eight hundred vs 250,000 dead. Chileans moved on all fronts to cope with catastrophe while Haitians fight for their survival a month after a disastrous earthquake, writes Gamal Nkrumah

A panorama of utter destruction remains after Saturday's earthquake and the ensueing tsunami that killed some 800 people, in Pulluhue, south of the Chilean capital Santiago.

How far is it from Haiti to Chile and which countries lie on the way? You pass on the way through Venezuela and Columbia -- South American countries which have taken radically different paths to development in recent years. Chile and Haiti have opted for much the same neoliberal model and yet could not have arrived at more radically different results.

Nerves were fraying in the Chilean capital Santiago after one of the world's worst earthquakes ever, just as dazed Haitians were in their capital Port-au-Prince after a far less severe, but nonetheless devastating force majeure. Shelter for the homeless is now a pressing need in central Chile, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it still is in Haiti. And ironically enough, the worst affected communities in Chile appear to be the indigenous Mapuche.

Does disaster single out the poorest of the poor? The Chilean government is currently assessing the damage done to the country and the needs of the survivors. Chile is not even rushing to beg for international aid as did hapless Haiti where thousands of survivors languished in ill-equipped hospitals until they died of their injuries. Even now many Haitians are sleeping rough.

And, the two countries are multi-party democracies. Of course, Haitian democracy came later in the historical sequence. Chile has been a thriving democracy for the past two decades. It is the world's largest producer of copper, and accounts for a third of global supply. With booming wine, fruit and forestry industries, Chile, with a gross domestic product per capita income of $14,700 in 2009, is one of the wealthiest nations in South America and has the strongest credit rating in the continent. Last month it became a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Against this backdrop of political stability and economic growth, Chile was able to cope with a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions. "The government's effort is to ensure that aid reaches the people more effectively," stressed Chilean Finance Minister Andres Velasco. According to Chilean government statistics, some two million people -- an eighth of the Chilean population -- have been directly impacted by the devastating quake.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, some 800 people were reported dead. The billionaire president-elect Sebastian Pinera is scheduled to be sworn-in on 11 March. He had a rude introduction to the darker side of Chilean social realities.

The devastation in Haiti is certainly not the result of the despotism of the current Haitian government. It is as if Haitians are "natural slaves" in the Aristotelian sense.

Improbably, there is no Haitian plan to design more resilient housing to protect residents from earthquakes, hurricanes and landslides. The coming months are unlikely to see much change. Indeed, the onset of the hurricane season has already resulted in massive flooding.

According to the World Food Programme, while food aid is piling up in the airport, it is not being distributed to those who need it the most, partly because the US military has given beefing up its presence priority over the provision of humanitarian assistance. Indeed the Pentagon seems to have used the calamity that has befallen the island to boost its military presence to the level of occupation, much to the dismay of neighbouring countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, and it's a reminder of Washington's 2004 orchestrated coup that ousted and exiled Haiti's left-leaning democratically president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The outpouring of international aid is hard to spot; it is quite literally a drop in the ocean. Maintaining social stability in the country is now a top priority. Top on this hit list is the presence of 20,000 US troops plus sundry French and Canadian, supposedly coordinated by Brazil. Aristide, who could rally his disheartened people, is being carefully corralled in distant South Africa.

In contrast, in Chile, the situation is far from bleak. The reason why Chile actually turned down international humanitarian assistance is precisely to avoid the situation that Haiti is in where it virtually loses its sovereignty at the expense of foreign powers dabbling in domestic politics.

To read much of the commentary about the earthquake last Saturday that hit the central coastline of Chile, one could not help but compare the situation to penniless Caribbean nations like Haiti. Chile's record is impressive by any standard.

Haiti needs to start looking like Chile. What most concerns us here, however, is why Chile coped far better than impoverished Haiti in spite of the fact that the Chilean earthquake was far stronger than the Haitian one. There are many reasons for the far higher Haitian death toll. The epicentre of the Haitian quake was in the vicinity of the Haitian capital crammed with some three million desperately poor people.

How to turn a least developed country into a middle income economy? Again we come to the fault line -- Venezuela vs Columbia, both of which, like Chile, are well-established multi-party democracies. Haiti's experience is nascent and fragile. Chile was well prepared for the earthquake and Haiti was overwhelmed by the shock. The quake that hit Haiti claimed the lives of a quarter of a million inhabitants. International aid brought only temporary reprieve as no long-term solution to the country's predicament can be found. Poverty eradication is a prerequisite if Haiti is to recover in any conceivable sense of the word.

The earthquake that whacked Chile was a massive 8.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. The epicentre of the earthquake was just north of the city of Concepcion, Chile's second largest urban centre, and the heart of the country's forestry area. The difference between 7 and 8.8, the respective Richter readings for Haiti and Chile, is tremendous. The Chilean quake released between 500 and 900 times the energy of the Haitian quake. Haiti has experienced more than 60 aftershocks. The first Chilean aftershocks were felt this week but the authorities have been prepared to cope with them.

"The catastrophe is enormous," warned Chilean Social Democratic President Michelle Bachelet. Half a million houses have been made uninhabitable. Most of the copper mines, the country's most lucrative industrial venture, have escaped the worse of the disaster almost unscathed. And, with copper prices soaring to an all-time high, Chile has a buffer that Haiti hasn't. Chile, known as the Switzerland of South America, can in a matter of month put things back where they were at the height of the boom.

Haiti, on the other hand, is a study in paralysis. The country has a reputation of being virtually ungovernable. Pity, it was once a pre-Columbian paradise, then the richest French colony albeit built on slave labour, but then was penalised precisely for becoming the world's first black republic, a living symbol of the anti-colonial struggle.

Recent Chilean history, too, has been marked by cycles of repression and liberalisation. The turning points were invariably marked by political crises. Politics in Chile under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet was just as thuggish as it was in Haiti not long ago under the Duvaliers.

Sweeping changes are underway in the Americas. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Chile and donated satellite phones for the disaster, assuring her hosts that her country was "ready to help in any way possible".

Haiti has a history of venal, prosaic voodoo priest-politicians. The Duvaliers were reputedly celebrated sorcerers. Aristide, on the other hand, was a Roman Catholic priest in the celebrated Latin American tradition of liberation theology.

With its unique spiritual heritage, both good and bad, Haiti stands poised to join the other nations of the Americas in their quest for democracy and development. The difficulties facing Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake expose the two big failures at the heart of Haitian experience. The first is a failure to institute democracy in spite of abject poverty. This is a tremendous challenge, few countries can undertake.

The second, and more overlooked, is why was socialism never regarded as a serious option for development in Haiti as it was in both its neighbour Cuba and Allende's Chile? Well, it was. And it suffered just as much or worse. Just as Washington subverted Chile's socialist experiment and has done all in its power to destroy Cuba's, it did away with Aristide.

The current melodramatic turn of events in the two countries, however, invites another question: if the Cuban experience is too complex for Haiti, what about democratic socialism Venezuelan-style, or even Brazilian-style? Does Haiti represent the proverbial failed state? It needn't be.

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