Last week's earthquake in Chile, which was followed by a destructive tsunami, was 500 times as powerful as the one that hit Haiti on Jan. 12. Yet, although Chile suffered extensive material damage and over 700 deaths, the destruction is far less than in Haiti, which suffered over 222,000 fatalities. The population of Chile is about 16 million and that of Haiti about 9 million.
The difference is easily explained by the relative poverty of the two countries. The annual per capita gross domestic product is $1,500 in Haiti, and $10,500 in Chile. Chile's greater wealth has enabled it to prepare better, with more strongly and scientifically constructed buildings and better communications, coordination and emergency response systems. Haiti has not been able to afford these things.
Another factor is that earthquakes are frequent in Chile but until this January, Haiti had not had a strong quake in 200 years.
Yet some on the right twist history to draw specious conclusions. Echoing the late right-wing economist Milton Friedman, they claim that Chile's relative wealth is due to its years under the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, and ruled with an iron hand until 1991. In reality, Chile has been one of Latin America's wealthier countries for a long time, and has had a strong political left which has fought for protections for workers and the poor. Under Pinochet, although foreign and Chilean capitalists prospered, the gap between rich and poor increased greatly and has not yet been reversed. This has led to actions by hungry people who have been removing food and other necessities from wrecked markets and warehouses. Outgoing left-center President Michelle Bachelet has sent troops, over the objection of the Chilean Communist Party.
Our responsibility is to help with the Chilean relief effort, without flagging for a moment in our assistance to the Haitian people, who now face tropical storms on top of the earthquake damage. Politically, we need to press the point that protection from natural disasters requires a society based on human solidarity. We saw the effect of a lack of solidarity following Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the Latin American nation that copes best with natural disasters is socialist Cuba, where such solidarity has become the norm since the 1959 revolution. Cuba has not had major earthquakes recently, but it has been terribly battered by hurricanes. Yet each time a hurricane hits, at most a handful of Cubans die, and Cuba has provided emergency aid to numerous other countries in distress.
This, and not the free-market nonsense of Milton Friedman, is the lesson.