Bhopal, Chernobyl, BP & the Gulf of Mexico

Dmitri Prieto

Cubans wonder whether the BP oil spill will reach their coasts. Photo: Elio Delgado

Childhood impressions are probably the most precise, the most lasting, the clearest in life.  On December 3, 1984, I learned of the Bhopal tragedy through “Today in the World,” a program on Soviet TV that broadcast on the primary channel a little before 7 pm.

I was always a “political kid,” and I liked to watch that program, though many of their analyses were patently boring.

A cloud of poisonous gas had escaped from a factory owned by the US corporation Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, a country that had been a friend of the Russia.  The commentator revealed the horrendous images of the tragedy: men and women running, children dying in the arms of their desperate mothers, streets full of dead bodies.

The medical data were even worse than the images: gas had consumed the lungs of its victims, while the lungs of children could no longer grow, condemning them to unspeakable agony.

The commentator referred to the tremendous evil of the modern capitalist system as leading to catastrophes like that of Bhopal.  Particularly dangerous were said to be the transnational corporations of imperialistic countries that operate in underdeveloped countries.  In a socialist country that would never happen.  I recorded those conclusions in my mind, and today I continue to reflect on them.

A year and half later, in April 1986, I was home alone watching “Vremia,” the stellar news program of Muscovite TV that was broadcast (and still is) by on its main channel at 9 p.m.

The broadcaster, in a calm unflustered voice, spoke of a “breakdown” at a nuclear electric generator in Ukraine.  The situation was “under control,” however, and was being effectively dealt with.

The world began to learn how the Ukrainian word “Chernobyl” was pronounced as the last battle of the socialist Soviet state began.

Months later, my family flew to Cuba (for the end of my father’s assignment, though this had no relation to the Chernobyl catastrophe).

From the V.I. Lenin pre-university high school in Havana, where I began studying, I remember a controversial point in my geography class.  The teacher asked us if the potential for ecological damage in an economy was conditioned by the “productive forces” (the level of the country’s human and technological development) or by the “relations of production” (the type of social-political system: capitalist or socialist).

I responded saying that these experiences indicated that any system that uses dangerous industrial technologies faced the risk of major industrial catastrophes.  Surprisingly, there was no debate, though our books said the opposite (i.e. that “capitalism caused disasters…”). It seems Soviet perestroika had begun to change our way of seeing things.

Recently, BBC reported that a group responsible for the Bhopal tragedy had been declared guilty by an Indian court.  The sentences will range to up to two years in jail.

Also according to the BBC, the total death figure resulting from the Bhopal tragedy is 15,000, of which “officially” 3,000 people died the first few days and more than 600,000 were affected.   The data related to the Chernobyl disaster are still the object of controversy.

Meanwhile, close to Cuba, a transnational corporation (British Petroleum, or BP) – from a former imperial power operating off the coast of today’s imperial superpower– continues trying to manage a damaged undersea oil well that is spewing raw crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama recognized that the most powerful government in the world doesn’t have the ability to stop the leak, while BP announced that the rupture would probably continue discharging petroleum until August.

For years, there had not been a technological catastrophe comparable to those of Bhopal or Chernobyl.

Thank God.

Because, unfortunately, if we humans do not change the organization of our productive forces and our concept of consumption, the danger will continue – lying in wait.

5 thoughts on “Bhopal, Chernobyl, BP & the Gulf of Mexico

  • Thanks Dimitri,

    The reason I found your piece was because someone left a boycott BP message on the entrance of our building. Being reasonably informed on this and having heard an interview with author Peter Maas:
    I googled “oil spill, Nigeria” to check up on Maas’s claim that each year in Nigeria as much oil is spilt as the Exxon Vaderas (Mobil) lost in Prince William Sound.

    I agree with your unfortunate conclusion; only now will the USA start taking an oil company to task. Of course, like their corporate welfare for banks, they will only let one or two players fall. Sorry I’m wrong – oil companies run the USA, they are too mighty to fall. For the rest of the industry it is “business as usual”.

    The corruption is endemic and we are all tainted, even in our ignorance. What can never be said in the mainstream media is; superpowers love dictators. They are happy to bank-roll dictators on every continent. Dictators are corrupt and easy to control and they are good for the superpower’s business partners. One says we love democracy, yet they mock it by exporting what I can only be call “Demonocracy”. They stamp out democracy where ever they find it. The other emerging superpower doesn’t pretend to love democracy, but appear as equally brutal at stamping it out.

  • If you have any doubts about what is happening in regards to the Gulf of Mexico BlowOut;
    Check this web-site’s article out:
    [“”””the relief wells are the best answer to control the blowout. But if not contained, the flow of oil and gas could continue for years.” If the relief wells don’t work, BP is considering a nuclear blast to close the hole. This however could just as easily make the situation worse. It is possible that the Gulf seabed has already been fissured and that oil and gas is now escaping from multiple locations.”””]

  • Referring to the above comment; So, what is the answer then? If private/public investors (The People) cannot be trusted to safely manage a production and neither can the State, then who can? The problem is not the Who, the problem is the What! The system at hand does not hold accountability at a very high standard and can only throw money at potential problems/set-backs/disasters. It is the inevitable corruption of an empire that has caused these disasters. When any system (relations of production) is run purely on a profit margin there will be corruption and the checks and balances will be no longer. Greed and pride are the outstanding motivators in this new-world-technologically-advanced-second-coming of the industrial revolution. At this level of corruption, the worship of money well surpasses the well being of the worker or the Earth! The only way to restore safe standards to industry and production is to restore accountability and the system of checks and balances. The root word, in latin, for sufferage means vote. Currently our sufferage is still votable, and this is the infalliable system that allows us to maintain accountability. Democracy, not Capitalism, is the catalyst for fixing this problem. Vote the crooks out. Stop allowing a corrupt government to suppress vital information from it’s citizens. Demand the right to know and educate ourselves, so that the ‘system’ is held accountable for it’s actions. At some point the public and it’s citizens must put it’s own government on trial… this, my friends, is the only way to Change!

  • And I hope the impact on the Cuban coastline is not disastrous for you.

    Incompetence, stupidity and a lack of personal and operational responsibility happens everywhere in every political system, surely? ‘It’s not my fault, guv…’

  • It’s a fairly naive socialist who argues that it is the relations of production, and not the production itself, which causes disasters. It is that kind of obvious philosophical naivete which led to the downfall of the USSR. That said, the relations of production exacerbate dangers already there, and it is right to say that capitalism, overall, is more dangerous because it gives incentives to run ridiculous risks.

    I think it is important, most of all, to not only have collective ownership over the means of production, but an honest and open debate about the dangers of these devices, as well as open auditing and absolute safety standards. It’s no secret that the USSR, BP and Union Carbide failed miserably, and lied about it in the process and the lead-up to the disaster. They did that because there were specific economic and political interests (in the State and the private shareholders) which gave those groups excellent short-term incentives to cut corners, minimize the risks to outside observers, and lie once the disaster occurred. The truth is, we need to adopt new means of production, but it is absurd to have these new means managed either by private stakeholders or an unaccountable state when the public risk is so high. And to believe private investors, or an unaccountable state insisting that this is “safe” after closed-door “discussions” on the risks.

    I only hope Cuba doesn’t make the same stupid mistakes now that it is looking for deep sea drilling to boost the economy.

Comments are closed.