Quake: no act of god

Millions around the world were appalled at the death and devastation in Haiti. James Turley puts the calamity into context

As readers will know, just before 5pm local time on January 12, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti. Its epicentre was very close to Léogâne, a well-populated town not far from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The tremor is estimated at 7 on the seismic moment magnitude scale (which is similar to but more precise than the old Richter scale). Seismologists recorded no less than 33 aftershocks, themselves reaching about 5-6 on the scale. Soon, Haiti was descending into almost biblical chaos.

An earthquake this powerful would have caused significant infrastructural damage in a first-world metropolis, and probably some loss of life too. In Haiti, however, things are of a qualitatively different order. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere; its buildings are not state-of-the-art, reinforced concrete constructions, but built on the cheap or - in the case of the many large and overpopulated slums, including the infamous Cité Soleil - on no budget at all. The hospitals are not well equipped, well maintained medical centres typical of the global ‘north’ - and in any case, all those in the capital collapsed during the quake. There is, needless to say, no equivalent to the American Federal Emergency Management Authority waiting to step in and re-establish control.

As such, the devastation is horrifying; it is a humanitarian disaster on a scale not seen at least since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 230,000 (triggered, of course, by another earthquake). Over 80% of the buildings in Léogâne were destroyed. The shaky infrastructure of the country has been shattered, and the relevant government agencies - however feeble their efforts could only have been in any event - now lie in ruins.

Amid the debris, what benefits of civilisation that had not already been sabotaged by a predatory global capitalism evaporated. Survivors had no choice but to sleep in the streets or otherwise exposed to the elements - only the open air is guaranteed not to fall on your head in the event of another aftershock. Medical care in the immediate aftermath reverted effectively back to the stone age; but a bigger problem than treating the 250,000-odd injured was presented by their less fortunate compatriots. The sheer volume of corpses - combined with damage to roads, communications and the rest - rendered disposal a logistical nightmare. Estimates as to the death toll start at 100,000 and go up to 500,000 or even higher: 5% of the total population.[1] The government has confirmed, at time of writing, that 70,000 corpses have already been buried in mass graves, but they will be clearing the rubble for some time yet.

Mati Goldstein, the chief Israeli aid worker in the country, even found himself uttering the ‘H’ word - “Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air. It’s just like the stories we are told of the holocaust - thousands of bodies everywhere. You have to understand that the situation is true madness and, the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension.”[2]

Goldstein’s is one of a great number of nationally sponsored aid efforts, with countries from the United States down to Botswana pledging money, missions or material support. The US and the World Bank top the table in monetary terms, with around $114 million promised by Barack Obama’s government and an emergency grant of $100 million from the World Bank. (Exactly how much of this cash actually reaches Haiti, and how much negotiates the notoriously corrupt official structures when it gets there, is another matter.) There are, needless to say, a not-so-small army of aid workers on the ground now, and conditions have stabilised to a point.

NGOs and even that den of thieves quaintly known as ‘the international community’ are, of course, reliable up to a point in delivering frontline aid in the throes of a disaster. Indeed, many such efforts in such extraordinarily difficult conditions (according to a UN spokeswoman, the worst disaster her organisation has ever faced) are genuinely heroic. Yet bureaucratic inertia, as well as the logistics of getting people into a country with a wrecked airport from thousands of miles away, assures that most help does not arrive until ‘the worst is over’ - and when the time comes to rebuild the resultant presence of so many dubious imperialist interests makes accepting emergency relief, however necesssary, a poisoned chalice (the US has a history of meddling in Haiti, as we shall see).

Certainly, we should have no truck with another iteration of the most depressing pattern in disaster coverage - the running battle between saintly aid workers and malicious, conniving locals. It was not long until the headlines were filled with lurid tales of looting and sundry barbarism among the local population. For once, Britain’s gooiest liberal daily, The Independent, was united with the American crypto-racist slavery nostalgia outfit, the Council of Conservative Citizens, in running shock headlines about “thugs.”[3]

Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s infamous American cable news network - whose coverage’s fantasy-to-reality ratio is currently somewhere between those of the Sun and Der Stürmer - could barely bring itself to cover Haiti. “All eyes are on the Massachusetts Senate race,” said solipsistic Fox commentator Sean Hannity, in the immediate aftermath of the quake; nothing like the tedious spectacle of bourgeois politics for a distraction from a mountain of corpses. His buffoonish colleague, Bill O’Reilly, used the happy occasion of a couple of hundred thousand deaths to attack Barack Obama, for not taking the necessary steps to prevent aid money from falling into the hands of a sinister and ever-so-slightly enticing criminal demi-monde full of extortionists and “voodoo priests”.

The truth is - shall we say - a little more complicated. It is unsurprising that in the midst of such pandemonium, some resort to theft and intimidation to get their basic necessities. It is unsurprising, moreover, that cynical criminal organisations should take advantage of the confusion to advance their own interests (the US government, for instance). Disasters very often have the opposite effect, however - people realise that they will survive better by banding together. Shattered communities are reported to have taken policing into their own hands, organising ramshackle militias with the tacit cooperation of an organisationally crippled police force. An American general insisted that Haiti was less violent after the earthquake than before it - probably true, and in fact exactly what you would expect, were you not pushing basically colonial discourses about savages and their voodoo rites.

As is typical, such stereotypes - the Haitian-as-savage and the Haitian-as-powerless-victim - are recycled in a total historical vacuum. And Haiti’s history is, despite its modest condition today, a proud one. Hispaniola, the island it shares with the Dominican Republic, was colonised first by the Spanish in the 16th century. The invaders did not find it easy; rebellious indigenous peoples put up sturdy military resistance, only finally overcome over a decade after Christopher Columbus first founded a settlement. Later, under French rule, the colony became - like many others - the destination for African slaves. The Code Noir, apparently intended by Louis XIV to mitigate conditions among the colonial slaves, ended up putting the official seal on brutal methods of ensuring ‘labour discipline’.

A century later, revolution broke out in France - and the repercussions were to reach the periphery of its empire. A first, unsuccessful revolt - which did not attempt to free the slaves - was defeated by the colonial authorities. In 1791, the slaves decided that enough was enough - a call to arms was issued by a Vodou (not “voodoo”) priest, and the revolt spread rapidly. Over the next 13 years, unstable political accommodations with revolutionary France slowly disintegrated, and war reached a brutal pitch after Napoleon, having been informed that to restore order on the island would require him to re-establish slavery and “destroy 30,000 negroes and negresses”, ordered increasingly desperate acts of savagery.

It came to nothing - on new year’s day 1804, the new country of Haiti declared independence. It was the first independent state in the Caribbean or Latin America since its colonisation, and the first post-colonial country anywhere in the world under black rule. The remaining whites, previously tolerated by the revolutionaries, were massacred by an insurgent majority fresh out of patience. Haiti’s first ruler, Jean Jacques Dessalines, was unrepentant: “We have repaid these cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage.”

Like all Latin American countries Haiti’s more recent history has been a catalogue of shadier imperialist interference, of the type for which the US can be thanked for systematising into foreign policy. It occupied the country for almost two decades from 1915, at which point it was a German semi-colony; the US has since sponsored various dictatorships in Haiti, and continues to persistently interfere in its politics. A particular thorn in America’s side has been Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-populist who has been deposed twice in US-supported coups. The result is two centuries of political turmoil, during which Haiti has been divided and reunited several times and dogged by brutal regimes and the revolts that overthrew them; this history - heroic and tragic in equal measure - brought it to January 12 2010, crippled and impoverished.

There are two major lessons here. Firstly, the idea that the bourgeoisie is a ‘democratic’ class is complete bunk. The Haitian revolution was resisted to the hilt by the newly founded republic (and then empire) of France, still drunk on the insurrectionary atmosphere of 1789. It was isolated by its neighbours, the US refusing recognition until the southern secession due to pressure from slave-owners; it also, of course, beat America to the abolition of slavery by over six decades. Even the new Latin American republics that formed in the Haitian revolution’s inspiring wake were troubled by the slave question, and Haiti was excluded from the first conference of such countries in 1826. This is because it was the slaves and oppressed indigenous peoples that made, and led, the revolution, not the bourgeoisie.

The latter’s most radical representatives produced works of historic importance, from which the Haitian insurrectionaries took no small inspiration, it is true (as an aside, it was an even more powerful earthquake in Portugal that led Voltaire to cast his most barbed attacks on church dogma, and Immanuel Kant to formulate the first serious theory of seismology); but it was not the French or American bourgeoisie that internalised that democratic spirit, but brutally exploited colonial chattel - and later, the nascent working class in Europe.

Secondly, as many on the left have pointed out today, this is not simply a natural disaster. Haiti’s parlous condition has been engineered by an imperialist state system that super-exploits the subordinate states in order to reproduce the military-economic hegemony of the US, and thereby the global conditions for capitalist production. Capitalism has demolished Haiti’s cities, and buried its population in their rubble.

Slavery, occupation, massacres - none of it was enough for this system, and as its decline sharpens and its logic disintegrates, nothing will ever be enough. Communism is the true heir to the Haitian revolutionaries.


  1. www.shanghaidaily.com/article/?id=426219.
  2. http://jta.org/news/article/2010/01/17/1010200/israeli-medical-rescue-workers-help-haitians.
  3. http://cofcc.org/2010/01/haitian-thugs-fight-like-vultures-over-looted-goods.