natural disasters have contexts

by tobybee

It’s always easy, when there’s an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a tsunami, to forget that these natural events/disasters occur within historical and political contexts. And these contexts create the conditions which determine how many people will be affected by the disaster, and how the recovery will happen. There has been a great deal written about this in the past, in particular by Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (and her website has a range of articles on the recent earthquake in Haiti).

It’s important that we understand these conditions which create the effects and response to natural disasters, as they are a part of a world-condition of capitalism and colonialism: it’s not a question of politicising what has happened (as Jon Stewart naively labelled it the other day), but rather of understanding the politics behind what has happened. Because this is a context in which we are all implicated.

On The Zeleza Post the other day there was an excellent post about by the editor about the earthquake in Haiti and some of the political, economic and historical context. Here’s an excerpt (it’s long, but worth the read):

Cry, the Beloved Country: The Tragedy of Haiti

The world has been horrified by the images of colossal devastation coming out of Haiti. Its capital, Port-au-Prince brutally devastated by a massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake, lies in ruins, a tomb of corpses, the wounded, and suffering. The ghastly pictures of the dead and dying, the desperate and decrepit, of buildings and infrastructure reduced to rubble, dust-covered and dazzled men and women and children looking for loved ones, shell-shocked survivors wandering the crammed streets or scrounging for the bare necessities of water and food and shelter, are almost incomprehensible in their biblical agony. The state, already severely weakened by years of instability, neo-liberal doctrines of limited government, and external subjugation, has virtually disappeared in the destructive wrath of the earthquake.

The scenes from Haiti present a grisly replay of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami. This is a gruesome reminder of the lethal combination of natural and social catastrophes, how ravages of nature are socially determined, that is, natural disasters reproduce social disasters as much as social disasters reinforce natural disasters. As one commentator puts it so aptly, it was not simply the geological faultline, the shifting tectonic plates underneath the island that produced the disaster of the earthquake, but the faultline of imperialism and postcolonialism, Haiti’s long history of subjugation to U.S. imperialism and corrupt leadership.

This is simply to note that the earthquake has a social history. As even a conservative columnist from The New York Times reminds us, “On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.” Unfortunately, if rather predictably, he proceeds to offer simplistic diagnoses of Haiti’s poverty and ending world poverty.

Estimates indicate that 3 million more people have been hurt or are homeless, and Haitian President Preval said as of today 7,000 have already been buried in mass graves. Nobody really knows. Disaster figures can acquire a pornographic quality, as one writer notes wryly with reference to reporting by Wolf Blitzer of CNN who “acts like he’ll be sorely disappointed if it [the figure of the dead] doesn’t exceed 100,000.” As with Katrina, foreign correspondents are beginning to get fixated on shootings and lootings and they carelessly talk of refugees, rather than the internally displaced, and how chaos is hampering well-meaning international relief efforts.The complicity of this same international community in Haiti’s disaster of poverty and misrule is hardly ever raised.

The Haitian government is paralyzed, foreign governments are scrambling to help, and the Haitian diaspora is mobilizing to rescue their much-maligned country. The potential symmetry between Katrina and the Haitian earthquake may not have been lost on President Obama, the first U.S. African diasporan president, who seems anxious to avoid making President Bush’s pitfalls and turn this into his Katrina moment. Many applaud the Obama Administration for rising to the moment by offering Haiti immediate help of $100 million, thousands troops, and promises of more to come as dozens of countries from China to Brazil to South Africa, and international organizations from the World Bank to the United Nations, which has suffered its worst loss of personnel, send money, rescuers, medical equipment, food, shelter, and other supplies.

The real test will come when the appalling images of the earthquake have receded from the television screens and the celebrated social media, which they will as the feckless media goes in chase of another tragedy, terrorist threat, or petty celebrity scandal. The challenge for all those of us watching Haiti’s nightmare from the comfortable distances of space or empathy is not to feel pity for Haiti as bleeding liberals tend to, let alone condemn it for its misfortunes as the rightwing lunatics and racists are doing, led by that notorious duo Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh who blame the earthquake on the pact Haitians made with the devil in freeing themselves from French slavery and accuse President Obama of cynicism in expressing support for Haiti, but to try to understand it. Haiti’s misfortunes are neither natural nor irredeemable. They are products of a very particular history, a history that is at the very heart of the history of the Americas, the cruel and heroic histories of slavery and revolution, underdevelopment and imperialism.

Haiti embodies both the triumphant and tragic story of Africans in the diaspora. It is a sad tribute to the debilitating effects of historical amnesia that Haiti is mostly known for its material poverty, not its heroic revolution two hundred years ago, which altered the history of the Americas. The historical debt the U.S. and Latin America owe Haiti is immeasurable. All too often, Euroamerica forgets its role in Haiti’s plight, in manufacturing Haiti’s misery together with the country’s own crass, corrupt, unimaginative and unpatriotic elites. The intersection of interests between these two internal and external forces, the debilitating neo-colonial webs of dependency and imperialism, are at the heart of Haiti’s long history of impoverishment and disempowerment, its enduring vulnerabilities to political disorder, economic underdevelopment, social violence, and natural disasters.

The immediate challenge is to provide massive relief to the victims of the earthquake and rebuild the devastated infrastructure. The long-term challenge is to put Haiti on a path to true independence, sustainable development, and democracy. History offers both hope and caution. Hope rooted in Haiti’s revolutionary history, and caution from its neo-colonial history. What can hardly be in doubt is that after the cameras have left, the so-called international community and Haiti’s ruling class will not usher a new future for this most traumatized and tenacious of nations of the African diaspora. That power lies in the ordinary people of Haiti reclaiming their progressive history and future.

As I have watched the scenes of destruction in Port-au-Prince, I recognized many of the devastated places from my memorable visit to the island in 2007. I spent three weeks there as part of my global research project on the African diaspora. Below is an entry from my last full day in the country.

July 24, 2007

This is my last full day in Haiti. It’s been a remarkable three weeks in this most fascinating, complex, and unfulfilled of countries. Lorete* came by around eleven. She looked rested and happy. She is a sweet young woman, always smiling, always trying to help, eager and anxious to do a good job. We began reminiscing about what had been achieved. She talked about how much she had learned about her country from the interviews we had conducted and places we had visited; how grateful she was to me for giving her this rare opportunity and her brother, Pierre*, in Chicago who had introduced me to her.

We had one last interview today with the economist we missed last week. The interview was at 2 p.m. but I had asked Lorete to come early so that we could work on the administrative aspects of the project – payment, transcripts – as well as for her to take me shopping for paintings and maybe gifts. By the time we finished with business, it was already noon. Lorete didn’t feel like eating anything, neither did I since I had taken a heavy breakfast that morning.

Every day on our way to and from the hotel we pass through a post with armed guards who are supposed to protect the Villa Creole, another adjacent hotel called El Rancho, and a high class gym nearby, or so I presumed. Next to the post are rows of paintings hanging off the walls shielding adjacent buildings from the road. That’s where we first stopped. This was street art, tourist art, quite formulaic, depicting predictable scenes – marketing women, men on fishing boats, rural landscapes, idealized faces, nothing terribly original, but vibrant, energetic, inviting, even impressive nonetheless. The paintings came in all sizes and with varied levels of artistic accomplishment. If I could not afford a Tiga or a Doddard, at least I could afford one of these paintings, I joked to Lorete, to remind me of Haiti’s vivacious artistic scene, where paintings light up grim street corners, where creativity lends beauty to the ugliness of subsistence survival.

Two paintings in particular caught my eye, both large canvasses, perhaps 4-5 feet in length and 3 feet wide; one representing contorted, semi-abstract, elongated figures of men and the other of market women. They were striking, loud in a subdued sort of way, and subtly evocative of communal bonds, the conviviality of male and female solidarities among ordinary working folks. The vendor wanted US$300 for both of them. Lorete protested vigorously, but he would not budge. He thinks you are a tourist or with the UN and you have a lot of money, she said. I understood, and we walked away. But the two paintings remained in my mind as we walked round Petion Ville checking out street art. There was no point in going into the numerous art galleries, some of which we had previously visited, for I did not have art gallery money.

The search for paintings had not succeeded by the time we went to meet the economist at his consultancy firm. I could not have wished for a more befitting conclusion to my research visit to Haiti. Jean Phillippe* was simply brilliant. His knowledge of the Haitian economy is encyclopedic, his commitment to the development of his beloved country simultaneously anguishing and uplifting in its passion. He restored my faith in Haiti’s possibilities, that with people like him the future can happen. He reminded me of my friend Madalitso*. They actually looked alike physically, the above average height, the expressive face, the intensity often broken by a mischievous laugh. His hair was graying, but I reckoned he was younger than me.

His presentation, which was entirely in English, had the systematic delivery of a well-researched lecture. He presents a weekly radio program on the Haitian economy. He is committed to raising the levels of financial literacy among ordinary Haitians who tend to be attracted to politics and the public sector while the economy is controlled by the tiny mulatto elite. His consultancy is only one of 3 controlled by black Haitians, he observed ruefully.

He began with a synopsis of the current economic situation in Haiti. The facts are familiar, but he gave them life, indignation: 4 million Haitians lives on less than $1 a day; 7 million out of 8 million people in the country live on less than $2 a day. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It wasn’t of course always so. Haiti was once, in the days of plantation slavery, the richest island in the Caribbean, the bedrock of the French economy. Then independence came and Haiti was encircled and punished by antagonistic powers fearful of the Haitian example: the French demanded a huge, crippling indemnity, the U.S. imposed an embargo, and the beleaguered new republic was forced to focus its energies on preserving its independence which undermined development, a situation aggravated by the limited vision and capabilities of the country’s quarrelsome and myopic leaders.

A new economic period started with the American occupation during which some modern economic infrastructure and institutions were laid. The 1940s and 1950s marked the best time for the country economically. The US occupation had ended. There was political stability. Investments flowed in. But this did not last.

The country virtually stagnated between 1985 and 1990. Coups became notoriously frequent and governments changed every few months. Under such circumstances investments dried up. Aristide came to power but within seven months, in October 1991, he was overthrown in a military coup. For the next four years, an international embargo was imposed against Haiti. By the time Aristide was reinstated in 1995, GDP had contracted by 20%, while the population was growing steadily at an annual rate of 2%. The result was growing unemployment and deepening poverty. Inflation and public deficits skyrocketed, while public services deteriorated. Only 30-40% had access to electricity; 50% had access to schools; and 1% of the active population had a university degree.

The gross underdevelopment of human resources was exacerbated by rising brain drain as the middle class educated elites fled rising insecurity and falling living standards. There is a joke in Haiti that there are three types of Haitian emigrants: the boat people who flee on rickety boats, the feet people who walk into the Dominican Republic, and the Boeing people who have visas to enter the developed countries including the US and Canada. The problem facing Haiti during this period was not confined to the incompetences and incapacities of the public sector, the private sector lacked vision and commitment to long-term investment and development.


The political, private, and social, sectors, local and international forces often work at cross purposes. Domestically, the domination of the economy by the mulattoes – who constitute 1-2% of the population but control 50% of the GDP is both unproductive and unsustainable and one of the reasons for the country’s instability. The black majority need to be more economically involved and more financially literate. As for the international dimension, Haiti is now a member of CAROCOM, but this is little economic benefit, even if it is politically good, for CARICOM is composed of small countries and weak economies.


It was a fascinating interview. He lived up to the advance billing offered by Lucille* and Lorete who listened to him on the radio regularly but had not met him in person until today. Towards the end of the interview, Jean called in a Haitian student studying for an MBA at Columbia, who seemed to provide a living embodiment of Jean’s thesis that Black Haitians needed to develop financial literacy. The student, a young man in his mid-twenties, beamed and nodded as Jean expounded on the Haitian economic situation and ways it might be resolved.


On the way, we ran into a vendor selling music CDs and we bought a dozen CDs of Konpa music from him. Lorete did the selections, saying she chose old and new Konpa recordings to give me a good sample of this genre of Haitian music. I also decided to indulge myself a little having my shoes polished. I was getting a little anxious about the bundle of Haitian money I was carrying and wanted to spend it as much as possible for it would be hard to change it back into US dollars or take it with me to the US.

Lorete suggested we take a tap tap and resume looking for art works on the road going downtown. I wanted us to try our luck one more time with the art vendor on the way to hotel. I enjoy haggling; it makes shopping a convivial social activity rather than a purely commercial transaction, a cold exchange of cash and commodities. And the vendor was a good haggler. We went back and forth between his original $300 and my offer of half of that amount. In the end, he got $250, but I got four extra paintings in the bargain, in addition to the original two I had selected earlier. It was a slow, playful exchange, which we both seemed to enjoy. We both thought we got a good deal.


I spent the evening packing and reflecting on the visit while channel surfing the TV. It has been an incredible visit, arousing unusually powerful emotions, both positive and negative, much as I feel and react to Africa. In this sense, Haiti for me does indeed embody Africa, not only in the Africanness of its people, but in the painful trajectory of its modern history, in the triumph of its struggles and tragedies of its sacrifices, in the unfulfilled promises of its independence from the European barbarism of slavery and colonialism, combined with the myopic crassness, corruption and incompetence of its rulers.

In this mood of somber reflection, I did not feel like going to the restaurant and watch the customers made up mostly of UN officials and local Haitian elites, and a sprinkling of white tourists and missionary do-gooders. And so I ordered room service for my last supper in the land of L’ouverture, the great Ibo-descended military and political strategist, perhaps one of the greatest diasporan Africans of all time, whose revolution not only liberated Haiti, but changed the history of the Americas from the United States which acquired Louisiana in the aftermath of the French defeat and began its westward expansion, to Latin America that was to be liberated by Simon Bolivar who was inspired and financed by Haiti’s independence.

But were he to rise from the dead, L’Ouverture would surely be deeply disappointed at the unfulfilled promises of the nation born out the heroic revolution he led, now mired in the depths of underdevelopment, fostered by the incendiary interpenetration of the unproductive interests of a bankrupt ruling elite and the unforgiving imperial vengeance of Euroamerica.