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.
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.