Chile and Haiti: A look at earthquakes and politics

Soldiers stand guard in the streets of Talcahuano, Chile, on Sunday.
Soldiers stand guard in the streets of Talcahuano, Chile, on Sunday. (Aliosha Marquez/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

To say that Santiago looks far better today than Port-au-Prince is of no comfort to the people of Chile. It will not rebuild their ruined houses, nor will it bring back their dead. It will not reconstruct the damaged airport or mobilize the field hospitals and emergency supplies needed to keep the death toll from rising further. It will not inspire charitable donations from around the world.

Yet the comparison is unavoidable, which is why so many people have already made it: After all, two large and unusually debilitating earthquakes have struck not far from the capital cities of two Latin American countries within a very short time. In both countries, political leaders were left struggling for metaphors to convey the extent of the catastrophe. The Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, called the earthquake "an emergency unparalleled in the history of Chile." The Haitian president, René Préval, compared the destruction in Haiti "to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days."

But the effect on the respective populations clearly will not be identical. An earthquake always comes out of the blue, and in that sense is always a piece of bad luck in the geological lottery, as my colleague David Ignatius wrote in The Post in January. Yet the short- and long-term aftereffects of an earthquake -- the extent of the damage it wreaks, the speed with which the population reorganizes itself and rebuilds -- have nothing to do with luck. Those who study famines have long argued that they are created by bad politics and bad economics as well as bad weather: There is always food somewhere, so if a particular country doesn't have any, then there must be an explanation other than "it was very hot last summer."

A society's ability to recover from a natural disaster is also a reflection of its economic and political culture. There will be more "looting" in Chile this week as people struggle to survive in the ruins, but the Chilean army and police, not U.S. Marines, will control the situation. Weakened apartment blocks will abruptly collapse, but there will be inspectors on hand to help assess which ones might be safe.

Chile had regulations in place before the quake that required contractors of all new buildings to use earthquake-resistant standards. Not every structure met the standards, but many did. And residents of those that did not will have some recourse: In the city of Concepcion, residents of a new building that collapsed are threatening to sue the builders, according to one report. The fact that they are even discussing this option implies that these apartment owners believe they have a court system that works, a legal system that could force builders to pay compensation, and a building regulatory system that is generally respected. Haiti has none of the above.

Though it is not especially fashionable at the moment to note these things, Chile, unlike Haiti, is also a working democracy. In recent elections, the center-left ruling party lost to the center-right opposition for the first time in two decades. Power is expected to change hands without incident when the new president, Sebastián Piñera, is inaugurated next week. Although Piñera is a billionaire, he directed his campaign at small-business owners, promised to sell off some of his assets to avoid conflicts of interest, and has just appointed a cabinet that includes a number of independent and even center-left ministers. Of course, we don't know what kind of president Piñera will ultimately be, but to be elected he had to appeal to millions of people, and not just to a wealthy, partisan elite.

In the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, this matters: To call Chile a "democracy" is another way of saying that Chile is a country whose political leaders have to take voters' concerns into account. Chile's earthquake response will have to reflect the same values as Chile's famed pension system (designed by the president-elect's brother, José Piñera), which is intended to ensure ordinary workers a decent retirement income. In the coming months, the state may not be able to help all of the poor who have suffered, but it cannot ignore all of them indefinitely, either.

Disasters have no logic, and no political significance. But the recovery process that follows a disaster is always deeply political. Despite a stronger earthquake and more damaging aftershocks, Chile will return to normal faster than Haiti. Luck has nothing to do with it.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company