Haiti & Chile: Natural Disasters & Neoliberal Politics

Armando Chaguaceda

Recently, in a discussion with some Latin American colleagues I stressed the need to consider the social disasters resulting from the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile as outcomes of the neoliberal experiment.

More than disagreeing with my argument, some colleagues instead highlighted the profound causes and the prolonged duration of the problems of the Caribbean island and that southern country.  They proposed that the matter be seriously discussed.

Though the capitalist system (and its multiple center-periphery relationships) has indeed been shown guilty for a major part of the problems of our region, I’m taking a few minutes today to explain (and share with the readers of Havana Times) the basis of my assessment.

A focus on neo-liberalism

Clearly I don’t believe the Haitian disaster (or the hypocritical rhetoric coming from the West about the “bankrupt State”) is the exclusive consequence of three decades of neoliberal policies and programs. My references to neo-liberalism do not ignore the impact of the historical and structural deficiencies of the Haitian State —a victim of colonial governance in every way— as well as the blame shared by local elites and successive foreign powers.

However, what I am highlighting is how in the last few decades international organizations have insisted on concrete policies and programs —typical of structural adjustment packages— that, for example, annihilated the country’s food sovereignty and small-scale production, as well as forcing even further reductions in public personnel and programs.

Since the early 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank forced Haiti to remove protections on rice production, which was why the nation had to import the grain and why masses of farmers emigrated to the already overflowing capital of Port au Prince. For identical reasons, cement began to be imported from the US at the end of that decade; this meant that most impoverished families had to build their homes using precarious materials, which explains in part why thousands of houses collapsed in this recent disaster, resulting in the high toll of preventable deaths.

In recent years, in the terrain of social organization, along with combative community movements, certain modes of the neoliberal project have been imposed (the triage of services, the homogenization and professionalization of social actors) at the hand of international aid organizations and agencies of the United Nations system, which have been set up in that impoverished nation. A French colleague told me, enraged, that the substantial operating expenditures paid to officials and aid workers by a centralized authority could have resolved the pressing problems of water supply, drainage and infrastructure of the capital city.

The case of Chile

Like a cruel joke, the forces of nature also hit Chile, the showcase of regional neo-liberalism.  In that southern country —where features of the neoliberal model coexist with other historical vestiges, such as social conservatism, authoritarian tradition and powerful party-rule that absorbs practically any autonomous organization of civil society— the imprint of the disaster is no less evident.  There have been hundreds of deaths, two million injured, one million and a half houses destroyed or damaged, and economic losses calculated at $30 billion.

Here the panorama for assessment is complex. What’s certain is that in the “Chile of Consensus” the number of poor has been sharply reduced, macroeconomic stability exists, its companies export half of their production around the world, and the government shows a stable balance of payments.

However, the disaster demonstrated that the social fabric of Chile’s undeniable economic development does not extend to cover everyone, and that much of it is an ideological myth. Wealth in that nation is growing, but it continues being one of the countries with the worst distributions of income in the world. Moreover, it constitutes a society disciplined by dictatorial terror that opened the way to the extended neoliberal road.

The response of the government, which out of pride initially scorned offers of international aid, was late and poorly coordinated – demonstrating the fateful cost of providing basic services through private hands. Confronted with the surprising absence of an effective State (not only technocratically efficient), a society weakened by thirty years of neo-liberalism exhibited its inability to sustain the order required in the face of a disaster such as this one.

Having privatized most of its services, it appealed to business charity, but there was a lack of capacity (or will?) to take control of certain privatized companies and services and to reorient them according to the needs of the situation.  The armed forces, one again, took the leading role.

Sources of social crisis

The social crisis resulting from these catastrophes can be interpreted in many ways, but two recurring assessments flooded the major media in the hours following both earthquakes. One was instantaneous, identifying the force of nature as being responsible for the disasters, while the other pointed to people for their “incivility.” Both reactions, in my opinion, are erroneous and perverse.

If we accept the idea of mere deficits of institutional administration or community “empowerment,” without attacking a deep change in the model, we won’t solve anything…and with the next earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, the tragedies will be repeated.

If the capacities of the State are not reinforced (and controlled by the citizenry) as a regulating entity, the provider of universal public assets and the guarantor of rights; and if there is not a strengthening of autonomous civil society —championing politics of decentralization and participation— this whole drama will evaporate into oblivion.

We are facing not only natural cataclysm, but social catastrophe as well.  If we recognize that the world system is governed by the logic of capital (that the current progressive governments are only trying to administer in an alternative manner) and that its policies have designed the realities of our countries, little can be done without advancing toward a post-neoliberal economic project (and therefore social and political ones), which is to say socialist.

The culprit must be called by its name, put on the stand as the accused, especially to prevent the impunity of the self-correcting market and the example of the “State as gendarme” to continue acting against coexistence and the development of our civilization. In this way, let us tell neo-liberalism to go to hell.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.