Sep 18, 2017
The following article was translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the French revolutionary workers’ group of that name.
Hurricane Irma was the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in living memory. But it didn’t affect everyone equally. The damage it inflicted most cruelly affects the poor and powerless, and this can be seen very clearly in the two French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
Many billionaires have homes on Saint Barthelemy, starting with Donald Trump. In Saint Martin, opulence and wealth are neighbors with extreme poverty. Paradise for billionaires, vacation refuge for famous French or American singers and actors, these islands, above all Saint Martin, are a hell for the workers, the unemployed, and the poor in certain neighborhoods. Saint Martin has a large number of immigrant workers. Dozens of nationalities are represented, though the majority are Haitians fleeing the extreme poverty of their country.
Irma revealed these inequalities very starkly. Victims of the hurricane say“the whites got priority evacuations to Guadeloupe,” and “black people were not allowed onto the planes.” These sentiments reflect the reality of life and a common attitude among the poor population of Saint Martin.
It is true that the rich are white, and the great majority of the powerless are black. For the black population, the word “white” also means “privileged.”
It shocked people that, for example, an evacuation ship from Saint Martin unloaded in Guadeloupe in the night, like a secret operation, with essentially just American tourists and only three black people from Saint Martin. And that on the ship there were open berths.
Even six days after Irma passed, evacuations were made very sparingly. The distribution of aid and of drinkable water also came only in drips and drabs. A large part of the population is still waiting for emergency help for water, for food, for everything. There is nothing in Saint Martin – no water, no food, no gas, no medicines.
The impatience and anger of the population is understandable. The government has done next to nothing. But the emergency services knew days in advance that Irma was coming towards these two islands and that it would be extremely dangerous. It would have been possible to make millions of gallons of water available on the nearby island of Guadeloupe, ready to be sent immediately to different parts of the islands after the hurricane passed. Aerial evacuations and disbursements of supplies could have been planned. But relief didn’t start until days after the hurricane passed.
As for the looting that the media made a big deal about, for many people, it was a question of survival. Of course, some people took stereos, but the majority is so poor that you can understand why they would want to take advantage of the windfall.
We see “looting” in all countries when there are disasters. The scandal is not that people loot; it is the permanent existence of this poverty! It’s much easier to rail about “looters” than to explain the slowness of aid, easier to reinforce the presence of the military, saying they must secure the island before giving out any help.
But the workers and poor showed that they know how to mobilize and demonstrated an immense solidarity like we saw after the earthquake in Haiti. This solidarity is a force, and it is a positive sign for the future of the working class and poor on these devastated islands of the Caribbean.