Chile’s 8.8 earthquake has left nearly 2,000,000 homeless, at least temporarily, but the death toll currently stands at just over 700. While this is likely to rise in the coming days, already it is clear that the loss of human life will be substantially below Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude quake of January 12, 2010, in which an 217,000 people perished.
According to reports, Chile was better prepared for such an event and, indeed, though reports show many collapsed and damaged buildings, many newer buildings were able to withstand the temblor. Expectations of earthquake resistance can be seen in that the builders of one apartment building likely face a lawsuit from displaced residents who expected better construction.
A second reason, according to the Wall Street Journal is,
Chile’s large cities were also farther away from the epicenter than was Port-au-Prince…The Chile epicenter was about three times deeper: about 22 miles compared with about eight miles.
[See that article as well for a good explanation on how energy magnitude is calculated.]
As might be expected, smaller and coastal towns, where codes may not be as well enforced or were near areas of tsunami onslaught, received major destruction. Though prepared for an earthquake, the government failed to issue a tsunami warning in the hours that followed, a decision Defense Minister Francisco Vidal called “a mistake” at a press conference.
The economic disparity between Chile and Haiti also cannot be overlooked. Estimated 2008 per capita income of Chile stood at an estimated $14,900 (nearly 1/3 of the US’ $47,000 ) while Haiti’s was a recorded $1,300, not even 1/10 of Chile.
Even to a casual observer it is immediately noted that Haiti is significantly more poor than Chile and that by a substantial amount. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But, why?
As recently as the year 2,000 adult illiteracy was at 85% and many could only read and write in Creol. As the official language of the country is French and with all official documents, including birth certificates, being written in French, functional illiteracy was also high (perhaps included in the preceding number.) Unemployment is also a huge issue running as high as 70% in Haiti while 2008 figures showed a low 7.8% for Chile.
My review of the book Travesty in Haiti told how the trade policies of the U.S. and other western agri-industrialized countries had collapsed the peasant economy of Haiti by flooding their market with subsidized rice, corn and other products.
Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is either a messiah or a manipulator depending on who you ask. His book Eyes of the Heart recounts two specific happenings in recent history that have contributed to Haiti’s national poverty. The accounts can be verified elsewhere; I quote from his book for convenience:
In Haiti in 1986 we imported just 7,000 tons of rice, the main staple of food of the country. The vast majority was grown in Haiti. In the late 1980s Haiti complied with free trade policies advocated by the international lending agencies and lifted tariffs on rice imports. Cheaper rice immediately flooded in from the United States where the rice industry is subsidized. In fact the liberalization of Haiti’s market coincided with the 1985 Farm Bill in the United States which increased subsidies to the rice industry so that 40% of U.S. rice growers’ profits came from the government by 1987. By 1996 Haiti was importing 196,000 tons of foreign rice at the cost of $100 million a year. Haitian rice production became negligible. Once the dependence on foreign rice was complete, import prices began to rise, leaving Haiti’s population, particularly the urban poor, completely at the whim of rising world grain prices. And the prices continued to rise. (pg. 11, 12)
A similar result happened with the porcine ethnic cleansing of Haiti’s Creole pigs.
Haiti’s small, black, Creole pigs were at the heart of the peasant economy. An extremely hearty breed, well adapted to Haiti’s climate and conditions, they ate readily-available waste products, and could survive three days without food. Eighty to 85% of rural households raised pigs; they played a key role in maintaining the fertility of the soil and constituted the primary savings bank of the peasant population. Traditionally a pig was sold to pay for emergencies and special occasions (funerals, marriages, baptisms, illnesses and, critically, to pay school fees and buy books for the children when school opened each year in October).
In 1982 international agencies assured Haiti’s peasants their pigs were sick [Swine Flu] and had to be killed (so that the illness would not spread to countries to the North). Promises were made that better pigs would replace the sick pigs. With an efficiency not since seen among development projects, all of the Creole pigs were killed over a thirteen month period.
Two years later the new, better pigs came from Iowa. They were so much better that they required clean drinking water (unavailable to 80% of the Haitian population), imported feed (costing $90 year when per capita income was about $130), and special roofed pigpens…
One observer of the process estimated that in monetary terms Haitian peasants lost $600 million dollars. There was a 30% drop in enrollment in rural schools, there was a dramatic decline in the protein consumption in rural Haiti, a devastating decapitalization of the peasant economy and an incalculable negative impact on Haiti’s soil and agricultural productivity. The Haitian peasantry has not recovered to this day. (pg. 14, 15, emphasis mine)
Well prior to the negative effects of unchecked globalization, Haiti had already had numerous encounters with American foreign policy. In his book Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky notes that President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in Haiti “left the country in ruins.” FDR felt:
Haitians were ‘little more than primitive savages’…[Roosevelt] claimed to have rewritten the Haitian Constitution during Wilson’s military occupations–so as to permit US corporations to take over Haiti’s land and resources after its recalcitrant Parliament had been sent packing by the marines. (p. 65)
Perhaps it is fitting that, when asking about the sad state of affairs in Haiti, we do not overlook the long shadow cast over that island nation by Capitol Hill.
Haiti’s death toll was exacerbated by their poverty. Homes are too often thrown together with no reinforcements and little sufficient building materials to start. Some would not withstand a hammer assault from an angry neighbor, much less the shake, rattle and roll of Earth’s tectonic plates.
Positively, for Haiti, a recent change may help. NPR reported last year:
Haitian political leaders and businessmen are hoping that trade legislation passed by the U.S. Congress last fall will be the engine for tens of thousands of new jobs. The trade incentive, called HOPE II, allows Haiti to export most of its manufactured goods to the U.S. without paying tariffs. That includes products that are assembled in Haiti from parts or materials that are made in other countries.
‘No other country has the opportunity to do that,’ says Georges Sassine, the president of the Haitian Association of Industries. ‘You bring all your raw materials into Haiti, transform them into garments and whatever, and come into the U.S. without paying duty. For jeans, for instance, it’s a 32 percent savings.’
Perhaps after years of bad policy, our congressfolk are getting around to policies that will benefit our small neighbors rather than exploiting them.