A Tale of Two Earthquakes?

The world’s tectonic plates are always in motion, but in the past two months, they seem to have struck more dramatically than usual.

On January 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing as many as 300,000 people and leaving more than 1.5 million people homeless. Then, on February 27, another quake hit southwestern Chile, killing hundreds and leaving more than 2 million people homeless.

One Haitian family, the Desarmes, tragically endured both diasters. After the earthquake struck Haiti, Pierre Desarmes, a Haitian musician based in Chile, where he performs with his band, the Reggaeton Boys, brought his father, mother, two brothers and their families to live close to him in Santiago. They were there when the second quake hit Chile.

“In Haiti, they got me out from under the ruins of a house, and I felt lucky to have survived,” Pierre’s father, Joseph, told the BBC. “To come to Chile and go through the same situation, you can’t imagine how I felt–how powerless I felt. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Their story invites comparison of the two earthquakes–and indeed, the mainstream media made much of the natural and social differences that separated the two countries’ experiences.

While the magnitude of the earthquake in Haiti measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, it hit eight miles below the earth’s surface, and its epicenter was close to the country’s main population center, the capital of Port-au-Prince. It therefore caused far more severe ground shaking and brought down many more buildings. Disaster experts estimate it will cost $14 billion to rebuild Port-au-Prince alone.

In Chile, by contrast, the earthquake was 500 times more powerful at 8.8 on the Richter scale, but its epicenter was 22 miles below the surface and much further away from major population centers. As a result, the degree of ground-shaking and consequent destruction of housing and infrastructure was less extensive.

On the other hand, because the epicenter was in the Pacific Ocean, it caused 50-foot tsunamis that leveled villages up and down the southern coast of Chile.

Moreover, despite early claims that the Chile’s building codes protected the country from devastation on the same scale of Haiti, it has become increasingly clear that the quake caused massive damage to the country’s second largest city, Concepción, as well as roads and bridges elsewhere. About 500,000 homes were left uninhabitable by the quake and tsunamis. It will cost an estimated $30 billion dollars to rebuild the country’s housing and infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the level of death and devastation in Chile wasn’t as severe as in Haiti–and this has nothing to do with plate tectonics, fault lines or epicenters. The real reason for the difference is social and historical.

Haiti, as the press has repeatedly reported, is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with over 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line.

The U.S. government is largely responsible for this situation. It has backed predatory dictators, undermined attempts at social reform, and imposed neoliberal economic plans that destroyed peasant agriculture and drove people into Port-au-Prince, where U.S.-sponsored sweatshops could not absorb them.

As a result, they were left indigent in giant poorly constructed slums. The US also incapacitated Haitian state, which controls little of what happens in the country. Therefore the Haitian government does not even have building codes even in its capital, Port au Prince, which sits on a fault line. Because of this history of American imperialism, Haiti was already a social disaster ever more vulnerable to natural ones.

By contrast, Chile is one of the wealthier countries in Latin America. Its per capita GDP is $14,700 compared to Haiti’s $1,300.

But such statistics can obscure the massive social inequality in the country–again, the product, in large part, of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. backed the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew the reform socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973, murdered thousands of activists and unionists, and imposed free-market economic policies at gunpoint.

Pinochet undermined many social reforms and vastly expanded social inequality. But he couldn’t erase all of Allende’s accomplishments–for example, the country’s famous building codes. As author Naomi Klein wrote in the Nation:

Chile’s modern seismic building code, drafted to resist earthquakes, was adopted in 1972. That year is enormously significant because it was one year before Pinochet seized power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup. That means that if one person deserves credit for the law, it is not Friedman or Pinochet, but Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist President.

Pinochet was never able to privatize the country’s copper industry, which produces a third of the world’s supply. As a result, the Chilean state is flush with resources that it could use to reconstruct the country.


While the mainstream media made much of the differences between the two disasters, the similarities are striking. In both cases, the behavior of the countries’ rulers and governments–not to mention the role of the U.S. government–has exposed the priorities of a system that puts corporate profits and law and order over human need.

In both countries, neoliberalism exacerbated the impact of the natural disasters. U.S. neoliberal policies weakened the state and destroyed the economy in Haiti, making it peculiarly vulnerable to disasters and incapable of responding to them.

In Chile, Pinochet’s neoliberalism created vast pools of poverty, deprived of basic social services before the earthquake. As Naomi Klein notes, Pinochet’s free market policies “caused rapid deindustrialization, a ten-fold increase in unemployment and an explosion of distinctly unstable shantytowns.”

Successive center-left coalition governments that have ruled Chile from 1990 until 2010 have done little to redress this inequality, and have in fact continued the neoliberal policies of the dictatorship. The impoverished were thus the most devastated by the quake, and also those quickly demonized as “looters” for breaking into stores to survive.

Moreover, as many homeless Chileans can attest, the construction industry observed the country’s widely heralded building regulations more in the breach than the observance. As the Chilean revolutionary group, Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucinaria (MIR), reports:

The old highways and bridges made by the state resisted the quake. The new highways in the capital, no. The highways that were privatized under the coalition government, which were propagandized as public-private investment, did not stand up to any seismic movement and are destroyed.

In spite of millions in government subsidies, in spite of contracts, in spite of the daily fees from users, all the bridges, pedestrian passages have all come down, killing people and wounding many more.

The quake also exposed how the housing industry evaded the building codes. “Residents of a collapsed 15-story apartment building in Concepcion, opened just months ago, were outraged that it had been so badly damaged and were convinced that contractors had not complied with building codes that require buildings to be able to withstand tremblors,” the New York Times reported. “Already, there was talk among residents of taking builders to court once the emergency was over.”

As the MIR concludes, “In real estate capitalism, the business is not in building, but in accumulating capital, which means lowering the quality of construction, lowering the quality of the materials, falsifying reports and bribing the tax collectors.”

In both disasters, the government was, in fact, slow to respond to the crisis. In Haiti, the country’s government is powerless–the real governmental power is the United Nations occupation, backed up by the U.S. As has been amply documented, most recently in a new report by Refugees International titled “Haiti: From the Ground Up,” the UN and the U.S. failed to respond to meet people’s needs in a timely or coordinated fashion.

In Chile, the outgoing center-left government of Michelle Bachelet failed to respond as well. With almost criminal neglect, the Chilean Navy, which is tasked with alerting the country to the threat of tsunamis after earthquakes, failed to warn coastal villages of the impending waves.

“Nobody showed up around here to warn us,” a resident, Alejandra Jara, told the BBC. “We fled on our own because we know that when there’s a big earthquake, you have to leave everything and take off.” Untold numbers of people didn’t flee and are either dead or missing.

Moreover, just as in Haiti, the Bachelet government failed to quickly get food, water and shelter to the 2 million homeless people. “The government has been very slow to respond,” Victor Perez told the New York Times, as he stood by a tent that he and his girlfriend were living in, outside their ruined Santiago apartment building. “We have no water or lights, and most of the stores nearby are out of food.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported that deprivation was much worse in the Maule and Bio Bio regions–the areas closest to the epicenter. “Really what people need is water, non-perishable food, warm clothes and medicine,” Daniel Agredano told the paper. “Help is arriving, but only a bit at a time. It should have come more quickly. That’s why people go so desperate and started looting the supermarkets.”

In both countries, the international media’s initial sympathy for victims of the disaster has shifted to the demonization of desperate people as “looters” for taking food and water from supermarkets.

This has served as justification for massive military deployments. In Haiti, the U.S. government deployed 20,000 troops under the cover of providing relief; they actually policed desperate people and surrounded the country to prevent any refugee seeking sanctuary in the U.S.

In Chile, Bachelet buckled under pressure from the right wing and business interests, which were terrified at what they called “looting” of supermarkets in Concepcion, and sent 14,000 troops to protect corporate property and impose an 18 hour-a-day curfew. After deploying the troops, she warned, “We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated.”

In both countries, quake victims had to rely on themselves to survive. Deprived of government aid, Haitians and Chileans both formed local committees to organize themselves, distribute food and water, and assist one another in organizing shelter for the homeless.


As the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Bill Quigley and other eyewitnesses in Haiti have documented, without aid, Haitian victims of the earthquake have had to turn to one another to help with food, water and shelter. In Chile, local committees have sprung up among quake victims, especially in remote coastal villages, to provide similar services.

The story of international assistance is also remarkably similar. Just as in Haiti, the response of capitalist governments around the world to Chile’s earthquake has been laughable.

The “international community” offered a pittance to Haiti. The U.S., for example, only put up $100 million, a sum that pales in comparison to Obama’s $650 billion military budget or the $3 trillion it will have spent to occupy Iraq and kill 1 million Iraqis.

Similarly, after Bachelet finally called for international assistance for Chile, countries around the world again offered only tiny sums. For example, the European Commission has already approved $4 million in emergency aid for Chile, Japan has pledged $3 million, and China $1 million. This is not humanitarian aid, but public relations stunts–designed not to help victims, but to secure international alliances and win domestic political support.

In the aftermath of the quakes will come what Naomi Klein has called the “shock doctrine.”

In Haiti, the U.S. is taking advantage of the disaster to implement former World Bank researcher Paul Collier’s plan to exploit the country’s “comparative advantage”–its impoverished workers–in mango plantations, the tourist industry and sweatshops.

In Chile, incoming center-right President Sebastian Pinera–a billionaire businessman and supporter of Pinochet’s brand of free-market economics–has railed against the “looters” and pressured Bachelet to deploy the military.

While he promises to continue the center-left economic policies of previous governments, Pinera will be under pressure from his Pinochetista supporters on the right for a turn to further free-market economics. He will also use the precedent of Bachelet’s deployment of the military to justify further policing of the growing ranks of the poor.

As for the U.S., it is using both disasters to attempt to recover ground it lost throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It faces regional challengers from several left governments that have come to power in Latin America–most significantly, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Chávez has spearheaded the formation of the regional economic organization ALBA and the new regional political formation established at Rio Summit in Mexico that includes all the countries from the region, but for the first time ever excludes the U.S. and Canada. On top of that, many of these countries are forging political and economic bonds with other regional powers like Iran, as well as the U.S.’s main international competitor–China.

The U.S. has used the cover of humanitarian intervention in Haiti to assert its role as the boss of the region, taking control of the country in a de facto colonial seizure of state power–as when it took over the airport, diverting aid flights from other countries and taking emergency power from the quisling government of René Préval.

Barack Obama has sent Hilary Clinton on a tour to build relationships with the region’s right-wing governments, including a stop in Chile, where she met with Pinera and Bachelet. In an expression of “generosity,” she delivered a grand total of 25 satellite phones to aid in the coordination of disaster relief.

The U.S. wants to cultivate relationships with right-wing government to split the various regional blocks and international compacts with China and Iran that threaten its historic dominance of the region.


The disasters in Chile and Haiti should be a cautionary tale. We will confront more natural disasters of this sort, which the economic system and its governments will fail to respond to in a manner that puts people first.

We aren’t facing more earthquakes; there is no demonstrable increase in natural tectonic activity.

Instead, we are vulnerable to killer earthquakes for social reasons–vast cities have been built in areas to take advantage of natural features conducive for economic development, like the intersection of rivers, which tend to lie atop fault lines.

Such killer quakes will be a particular threat in the Third World, where neoliberal agricultural policies have driven millions of peasants from the countryside into vast urban slums, ruled by neoliberal states that provide no social services and enforce no building regulations. As Seismologist Roger Bilham told Democracy Now!:

I forecast that it is possible now to have something that has never happened in earth’s history: an earthquake killing perhaps a million people. And how can you make such a ridiculous prediction? The answer is that never before have had such large populations at risk from earthquakes, cities of 12 million.

There are many cities like this, and several of them, like Istanbul and Tehran, have a history of damaging earthquakes, and we may well see the effects of corruption and building practices revealed only after these earthquakes have struck.

On top of that is climate change, a new phenomenon caused by capitalist development, that will force whole areas to flee rising water levels and that confronts the whole world with more and more devastating killer storms.

The disasters in Haiti and Chile will fade from the headlines. But as the U.S. knows from the tens of thousands of refugees from Hurricane Katrina, that doesn’t mean the crisis is over. Thus, Haiti is dropping out of the U.S. news, but Ophelia Dahl from Partners in Health warns:

More than seven weeks after the earthquake, there remains an urgent humanitarian crisis. The situation is very bad and getting worse. We witnessed hundreds of thousands of people living in makeshift temporary shelters; spontaneous settlements made of scraps of cardboard and plastic bags. What little people have is soaked, because they’re sleeping in the rain, and the makeshift shelters are already breaking down and dissolving.

The conditions for the homeless and displaced people are absolutely inhumane and getting worse every single day.

No doubt the same fate will befall the impoverished victims of the disaster in Chile. Thus, while on the surface, the story seemed to be a tale of two different earthquakes, the reality in both cases is remarkably similar. Capitalism–in advanced countries, or industrializing ones, or the poorest nations–puts profit and stability over people, even amid disaster.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at ashley05401@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Ashley.

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  1. Stephanie said on March 12th, 2010 at 6:49pm #

    Thanks Ashley. I depend on people like yourself to provide me with information that cannot be easily found. Both Haiti and Chile have an enormous task in front of them. One can only hope that profit is not the first thing on the agenda. I have to ask myself, when will man start helping without thinking of the silver lining in his pocket?