Haiti and Chile are still scrambling to deal with devastating earthquakes while pundits discuss the profound differences between those two natural disasters. Haiti’s January 12 quake was reported as magnitude 7.0, leveled the capital city, and killed more than 200,000. Chile’s February 27 earthquake measured an 8.8, or 500 times more powerful than the one that slammed Haiti. But Chile’s buildings suffered considerably less damage, and fewer than 1,000 Chileans died. Why? Here are three unlikely arguments:
Democracy. As a “working democracy” with leaders that “have to take voters’ concerns into account,” Chile better withstood the earthquake and “will return to normal faster than Haiti,” writes Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. We utilitarian Americans so badly want democracy to be robust and more than an empty vote-casting exercise. What’s more robust than a democracy battling natural disasters?
God. Other folks credit divine intervention. After Haiti’s earthquake, Pat Robertson blamed Haitians for making a pact with Satan to escape French colonialism 200 years ago. The quake is only the most recent punishment for turning away from God, he said.
The free market. “With no exaggeration,” writes Investor’s Business Daily, “Saturday’s earthquake shows that Chile’s choice to unabashedly embrace capitalism, made decades ago, has saved thousands of lives.” Accordingly, a thriving private sector created a larger tax base with which the government could “afford better earthquake preparation in building codes and disaster education for the public.” Where Robertson sees God’s saving hand, Investor’s Business Daily visualizes the market’s invisible hand.
The truth is simpler. The first obvious factor was seismological. The earthquake that struck Chile occurred twice as deep beneath the surface as Haiti’s, so the earth absorbed more impact. Haiti’s epicenter was only 10 miles from Port-au-Prince. Chile’s epicenter was 70 miles from the city of Concepción. Haiti hadn’t suffered an earthquake of this magnitude since the 18th century, while Chile endured nearly two dozen major jolts in the 20th century. With limited resources, you prepare for what you expect. Nobody expected an earthquake in Haiti.
Another obvious factor is wealth. Chilean citizens enjoy an average income 10 times that of Haitians. Fully 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line, compared to fewer than 20 percent of Chileans. Is Chile’s economic development a result of its unabashed embrace of capitalism? In 1970, Chile’s gross national income per capita was also 10 times that of Haitians. To say Chile is prospering because of its economic choices over the past four decades is really saying the country began this race three-quarters of the way toward the finish line.
It’s not about individual wealth. In Port-au-Prince the National Palace collapsed, so even the prime minister has had to stay with friends. The key difference is the degree to which money has been invested in the common good in both countries, such as sound infrastructure, decent services, and proper regulations. Greater private-sector wealth doesn’t necessarily generate more tax revenues or proper government investments. Nix the free market argument. Chile, for instance, established its much-admired building code not during the capitalist go-go days of Pinochet but in 1972, under a socialist administration. And although Haiti has experienced some profound democratic movements, high voting percentages and enhanced accountability don’t magically produce the capital necessary to earthquake-proof a country. Nix the democracy argument.
If democratic choices, market forces, and religious apostasy aren’t determining factors in the scores that Chile and Haiti notched in this macabre contest, what is? Forget loaded terms like “democracy” and “free market” and “God.” Look to the mundane indicators: national income equality, marginal tax rates, and the number of government building inspectors. We need to consider the way political structures and actors interacted with economic forces because neither politics nor economics alone determined outcomes.
Regardless of why Haiti fared so much worse than Chile, we should help Haiti not just recover but prosper. If a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members, as Gandhi famously said, then the international community, too, must be assessed by the same yardstick.
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