Jan 18, 2010
Officials put the death toll from the earthquake in Haiti on January 12 at anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people. No one will ever know for sure how many were killed, trapped under poorly constructed houses and workplaces that pancaked upon themselves. The impact of the earthquake was made worse because it was centered near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s largest city. Haiti’s Red Cross now estimates three million people are injured or homeless.
Yes, it was a powerful earthquake, with a number of aftershocks. But the impact is made far worse by the extreme poverty of the country.
Ever since Haiti’s birth, in the world’s first successful slave revolt in 1804, first France and then the U.S. have been sucking the wealth out of Haiti. Then the U.S. occupied the country from 1915 until 1934, and has been propping up corrupt dictatorships there ever since. Those dictatorships have allowed U.S. corporations to make huge profits from the labor of poor Haitians.
As a result, 70% of the population lives on less than two dollars per day. Government services are so nonexistent that more than 10,000 “non-governmental organizations” – charities – were operating in Haiti before the earthquake.
Buildings in Haiti reflect this poverty. They are often shabbily constructed and not engineered to withstand earthquakes.
Scientists who study earthquakes report that in poor countries, the damage from earthquakes is typically 100 times higher than in rich countries – because construction does not use advances in engineering dating all the way back to the 1950s. Compare the devastation in Haiti with what happened in San Francisco in 1989. That earthquake was the exact same magnitude of the Haiti earthquake: 7.0. But in San Francisco, only sixty-three people were killed – many thousand times fewer than are estimated to have died in Haiti.
Today the media focuses on how Haiti is presently being flooded with supplies and relief workers, but that the country’s collapsed infrastructure is making it difficult to get the aid to people.
But roads, access to electricity, clean water and other services in Haiti, were abysmal even before the earthquake hit. There weren’t enough doctors, hospitals, hospital supplies, backhoes to dig out victims, to begin with. And today, neither the airport, the port, nor the roads that exist are usable. All of this is why survivors of the initial quake now die from the lack of access to basics like food, drinkable water and medical care.
And yet the media are shamelessly outraged by the rising anger of the population and the “risk of looting!” The colonial and imperialist looting of Haiti for centuries, however, is never even mentioned.
The immense majority of Haitians, whose life expectancy is 20 years less than in richer countries like the U.S., live a daily catastrophe whose name is “capitalism.” This is what is turning this latest natural disaster into a social catastrophe of massive proportions.
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Those of us active with the Spark have friends in Haiti who have stood on the side of the poor and working class for many years. The earthquake certainly makes their work more difficult, yet all the more crucial. Our concern and our hopes are with them.