The Spark

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

Earthquake in Haiti:
A Natural Disaster against the Backdrop of a Social Disaster

Feb 27, 2010

The following article was translated from an article and reports first appearing in issue #126 of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the political journal of comrades in Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle) in France.

The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th claimed 300,000 victims – and probably more. Tens of thousands were injured, many of whom will experience serious aftereffects. Several cities were largely 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, in order to avoid damaged houses collapsing as a result of on-going aftershocks.

This natural disaster, one of the worst in recent years, was a disaster 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, its resulting social catastrophe was even more predictable. Countries other than Haiti have experienced earthquakes of comparable magnitude in the past. But their consequences in rich, industrialized countries like the U.S. state of 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 even just a heavy shower, to cause the death of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people – because there are neither means of prevention nor means of rescue available and because the poor population, the overwhelming majority, build their homes where and how they can, using poor material.

It took the stupidity of some journalists to speak of a "curse hanging over Haiti," a phrase which they apparently liked, repeating it several times. But the only curse that ever hung over Haiti stemmed from having been France's richest colony. For two centuries France imposed slavery on Haiti, together with a vicious exploitation of sugar cane and, above all, of the slaves brought from Africa who cultivated it.

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 defeat. Having imposed an economic blockade on its ex-colony and won the co-operation of its small ruling layer, France forced the country to compensate the former slave owners for their losses. Over the next eight decades, while governments and even regimes changed in France – from the monarchy to the reign of Napoleon III and then to the Republic – Haiti was forced to keep 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 well-known, present-day banks, or those directly connected to them.

Then, the United States, 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 U.S. retail chains. And despite being so close to the U.S. coast, Haitian workers earn in a month more or less what U.S. 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 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 U.S. and French "humanitarian" interventions. But most of the lives saved were owed to the population itself, to neighbors, to people who may have been close to them or may have been 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, in the first two days, during which helicopters – from the U.S. 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 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 the lives of a few dozen, the intervention of these countries was (and remains) ludicrous compared to their resources. Moreover it is a carefully targeted intervention: while Haitian capitalists were helped to leave the country, fleeing the threat of aftershocks and possible pandemics, many poor districts had neither food nor drinking water.

The big powers were absorbed in an indecent rivalry, primarily concerned with putting in their respective diplomatic and military pawns. For instance, the United States sent in far more soldiers than doctors and nurses. And despite Bill 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 at the beginning of the rainy season.

Let us make a few comparisons. Obama promised 100 million dollars in aid, which may be eventually increased to 300 million – but to save the bankers, the U.S. government forked out nobody knows exactly how many trillions.

For its part, France talked about providing 300 million 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 with the pretext of helping Haiti! Neither has there been a shortage of visits to Haiti by heads of states. 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 that did not have much more food, or in any case not enough to feed all the refugees from Port-au-Prince.

But – as a graphic illustration of the workings of this society – while Port-au-Prince was in ruins, the industrial zone was spared the earthquake's destruction, thanks to its lightweight structure, and it resumed operation. 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 in order to be exploited for $3 or $4 a day.

What is the situation today, at the end of February, six weeks after the earthquake? Here are some extracts from reports by comrades of the OTR (Revolutionary Workers Organization), active in Haiti.

On Thursday, February 25th, the Civil Defense Organization raised the alert level to orange throughout the country. Indeed, the sky was black with clouds. The rainy season was about to start. Panic took over 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. The fact that tents and temporary shelters are unable to withstand the rain was the reason for this panic.

On Monday February 22nd, at 4:36 a.m., there had been an aftershock with a 4.7 magnitude on the Richter scale. The following day, the 23rd, there had been another of the same magnitude, at 1:26 a.m.

These aftershocks had injured dozens among the homeless who taken shelter inside damaged houses in order to avoid the rain.

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 five demonstrations to demand tents and food. The government responded that it relied on the World Food Program and USAID to provide the hungry with food and on the International Organization for Migration to provide tents for the homeless. The government complained that it had received only about 23,000 of the 200,000 tents promised a month before. 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 [Haitian currency] budgeted for carnival? There had not been any carnival. Why was this money not 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 catastrophe which had claimed over 300,000 dead, let alone the nine-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 might 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 bad weather," continued the Haitian president, wanting to use this summit in Mexico to collect funds. According to a report by the Civil Defense Organization, the number of homes that had been destroyed or severely damaged could be as high as 300,000.

As far as losses in human lives are 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 to 8,000, split in two shifts (morning and evening). The original earthquake took place at 4:53 p.m. 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 Pitiful Molehill in the Homeless Camps

The U.S. authorities officially declared, even before the end of the first month following the earthquake, that they had spent 800 million dollars in Haiti. Big international organizations like the Red Cross, UNICEF, the IOM, USAID, etc., received colossal amounts of money in donations to help homeless families. The U.N. itself has already collected around two billion dollars for the "reconstruction" of Haiti. Nonetheless, 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.

In the first five weeks of the aid operations, 2,678 humanitarian flights had landed in Port-au-Prince, according to the situation report published by the Civil Defense Organization. This does not take ships into account. BUT, many of the "humanitarian flights' were like the one organized by the French government on February 1st from Martinique, which carried three passengers and a dozen boxes of food, in a 100-seat aircraft! This is how aid is "flooding into" Haiti!

Testimony to this aid flood is also shown by the charitable organizations' fleets 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 were damaged by the earthquake. 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 for their workforce, but these workers never received a thing.

The Foreign Troops' Massive and Useless Presence

The American government sent in 20,000 troops after the earthquake. There were around 9,000 U.N. 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 centers. Given the living conditions of the homeless in their makeshift camps, there was a likely threat of pandemics.

This Was the Context in Which the Comrades of the OTR Resumed Militant Activity:

They resumed their work toward the workers of the industrial zone. In addition, another activity was naturally thrown up by the circumstances, within the camps themselves, in which 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 popularizing – verbally and, when possible, in writing – the following ideas:

that both during the earthquake and afterwards, the state and all its institutions had disappeared completely;

that, therefore, the state was of no use at all to the population, used only as an instrument of repression;

and that it could be replaced by the population using its ability to organize 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.

Conclusions 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 the 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 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 some individuals diverting 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 provide 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 organizing ourselves, we will need no one. The vital tasks of the moment are to organize ourselves, to elect our leaders and to make our voices 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 equipment 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 to prevent the survival of human beings. It must be suspended, all the more so because many rich individuals fled the country on 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 be stopped, but only by the discipline decided by a community that 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 about the population's 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, U.S. troops. All these authorities will respect our needs and demands only as much as we can make ourselves heard. And making ourselves heard is, first and foremost, showing that we are organized and that the leaders we have chosen are massively supported by the poor population.

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