The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Haiti:
Hurricane Jeanne
– A Natural Phenomenon, but a Predictable Catastrophe

Sep 24, 2004

Disaster-Stricken Gonaives

The Artibonite Valley was completely inundated and Savane Désolée was nothing but a vast sea. The town of Gonaives, between sea and mountain, was the most severely hit: every single house was flooded, thousands of people were killed or wounded and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.

Three days after the catastrophe, the only news available consisted of aerial views of Gonaives showing a town transformed into a marshland, with people on the roofs of the houses that still stood up. No contact had been established with the population and, in Port-au-Prince, the authorities did not have the slightest idea about the fate of the inhabitants of LaTortue Island.

The president is currently in the United States, delivering diatribes in front of the United Nations Assembly, while the number of victims continues to increase. He has declared a three-day national mourning, but has asked people to "go about their business" – whatever that is supposed to mean! He has also declared a state of emergency in Gonaives, but this is just another meaningless decision that was not accompanied by any concrete measures. Meanwhile, the people in Gonaives are dying of thirst and hunger.

Reports describe distraught survivors, dragging themselves in putrid, muddy waters that carry animal carcasses and human bodies, in a town with no drinking water and no electricity.

The first rescue teams arrived five days after the storm. They were sent by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Doctors of the World and Doctors without Borders, and have expressed their helplessness in front of this tragedy. One seasoned NGO member declared that the situation was worse than anything he had seen in areas hit by war or by an earthquake! People could not even cook the food they were given by the early rescue teams. The flood was so big, the first rescue trucks ended up in the ditch as drivers could not see the road.

Five days later, a good deal of Gonaives is still flooded, since water cannot drain out. The town is a huge open sewer with all kinds of detritus floating around. The town is paralyzed. People wander the streets, desperately seeking water and food. They have lost everything. Some are wounded, others have broken bones. Their feet are swollen from constantly being in the water. But there is no medical care. Providence Hospital has been devastated. Most of its 300patients and staff members are dead.

In what is left of the hospital, there are bodies piled up in a courtyard, under the hot sun. There are more putrid, reeking bodies in houses that have not yet been opened, either out of fear or because they are buried in mud. This is the horrendous situation in Gonaives. The number of victims is not known, either in Gonaives or any other town. In the north of the country, entire villages have been wiped out. The bodies of people who lived in Port-de-Paix have been washed away by the sea to the shores of LaTortue Island. But that is not the end of it: the NGOs expect another catastrophe, as all the area's springs have been polluted, notably by the overflow of latrines, which have leached into people's drinking water. They fear an epidemic of dysentery or cholera, especially given the weakened state of peoples' health.

A Natural Catastrophe That Exposes the Ongoing Social Catastrophe

Hurricanes are natural phenomena that return each year in the same period in the Caribbean Islands. However, the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Jeanne – which was not exceptionally powerful – is not at all natural. (On a scale of oneto five, it was a one.) The conditions prevailing in Haiti played a major role in the disaster. Poor peasants have deforested the hills seeking charcoal, their only means of survival. Bare mountains no longer retain water; the rivers are never drained; the canals are never cleaned out. Because of the country's unplanned urbanization, houses are built anywhere, including in gullies, and there is no infrastructure. The state does nothing either to protect the people or the environment. People are abandoned to their misery and distress; they manage as best they can – sometimes at the expense of the environment. During the 1992-1994 embargo, the peasants died of hunger, and there was terrible deforestation. Meanwhile, Haiti's bourgeoisie enriched itself on the black market! They are the ones to blame for the catastrophe! They are the ones who have kept Haitians in utter destitution. They pay starvation wages, empty the coffers of the state and permanently ask for more without giving anything in exchange. The bourgeoisie's representatives at the head of the state merely confirm its decisions – and take whatever is left in the till. In the end, there is no money left for the common good, not even for the most basic infrastructure that would benefit everyone. One of the priorities should be to drain the rivers and canals in and around Gonaives in order to evacuate the stagnating water and decontaminate the town. Another should be to make sure that the providers of drinking water provide sanitary water. But being rotten to the core, the state does nothing, except ask for international aid. In fact, it has already set up a Provisional Committee for "receiving and coordinating national and international aid." But it has not taken a single concrete measure to help the survivors.

Hurricane Jeanne was not responsible for the devastation so much as the national and international bourgeoisies who have bled and ruined the country, leaving it completely helpless in front of bad weather. The wealthy landowners, called the "grandons," systematically deprived the poor peasants of their piece of land, impoverishing them. In the Caribbean Islands, poverty kills more people than do tropical storms. The same is true in the United States, where most of the victims of recent hurricanes were poorer people who, lacking money, lived in mobile homes.

After us the heavens can fall! This is the motto of the bourgeois class, as was sadly exemplified in Haiti by the catastrophe of Gonaives and other cities on the northern part of the island – a tragedy that should set off the alarm for other Haitian cities, including Port-au-Prince.

As for the big powers, in particular France and the United States, their cynicism is properly revolting. They both have a huge responsibility for the past and present destitute situation in Haiti. But that does not prevent them from boasting about their "aid." In fact, they only hand out a few small crumbs. Even a minute fraction of the money spent by the United States for the war in Iraq could answer Haiti's most urgent needs: food, shelter and sanitation. Haiti is not even on a different continent. It is only a few miles away from the United States. But nothing doing! Truly, the capitalist organization of society, which they dare call the best possible system, is rotten to the core.

If the government really wanted to face up to the emergencies, it would requisition all the necessary means and funds. They are to be found where they have been accumulated: inside the private companies and in the safes and bank accounts of the wealthy. It should also requisition the food stocks lying in the warehouses of import dealers, wholesalers and those shopkeepers who cater to the wealthy. As for those who dare speculate and sell at a higher price, it ought to expropriate them. Of course, this is not to be expected from the present government because they are a cowardly, helpless bunch and, above all else, because they are at the service of the wealthy.

Now, beyond the emergency measures, another question can be asked: how many catastrophes like those of Mapou, Fond-Verette and Gonaives will be needed before the problem is dealt with at its root? The problem is the capitalist organization of society in which wealth goes to a handful of rich people here and even more wealth goes to a few hundred big companies that plunder the earth and ruin, kill or starve hundreds of millions of human beings.

Yes, society needs a new war of emancipation against modern slavery, which has replaced the slave's shackles with hunger and poverty as ways of forcing people to accept or even demand their own exploitation. In order to rid itself of today's slave masters, the world needs a powerful social struggle, extending way beyond the borders of Haiti. There is no other future for today's proletarians. And those of Haiti have a role to play in this struggle. It is literally a matter of life and death.