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Death by Earthquake: Collateral Damages of Neoliberalism: Why Did the Earthquake Do So Much Damage in Haiti?

Every Wednesday evening at Casa Juan Diego we celebrate Mass in honor of our guests’ arrival in the United States. It is our tradition to ask one of the recently arrived immigrants to tell the story of his journey.

Often these are harrowing stories, and usually it is very difficult for the storytellers to put their experience into words, so I have learned not to focus so much on the words themselves. I listen to their tone of voice, trying to imagine the experiences that cause their voices to break. I watch their facial expressions and the efforts they make to fight back tears. At particularly difficult moments for the speaker, I see the men and women in the congregation giving their support, non-verbally, usually, but sometimes out loud. They know the suffering that the speaker is struggling to express. They know it in their bones. The suffering of the speaker is their suffering.

At Casa Juan Diego we are sensitive to the plight of the global poor because we know them and we share in their personal struggles. While our work is mainly with migrants from Mexico and Central America, the earthquake tragedy in Haiti struck all of us hard. Our experience with the dispossessed of Latin America helps sensitize us to the massive suffering in Haiti, and our analysis of the causes behind the suffering of our guests helps us to understand the causes of the massive loss of life in Haiti.

I believe that both the mass migration from Latin America to the U.S. and the mass deaths in Haiti are rooted in the same economic and political institutions. To put it bluntly, the homeless at Casa Juan Diego and the dead in Haiti can be considered collateral damage of neoliberalism: a globalized economic system that worships profit at the expense of human beings.

Strong words, I know, and they seem to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that it was a very strong earthquake, 7.0 on the Richter scale, that killed all those people in Haiti. Clearly, people are going to be killed when a strong earthquake strikes a big city. But, by and large, 7.0 earthquakes are very survivable events.

The Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay area during the World Series of 1989, a 7.1 on the Richter scale, killed 66 people, not 200,000, or 270,000, or whatever the final toll in Haiti will be; so vast a difference in results cannot be explained by minor differences in seismic activity or other natural causes. The earthquake itself was a natural event, but most of the Haitian deaths were preventable.

The difference between the death toll of the Haiti earthquake and the one in San Francisco is to be found partly in geology, but mainly in economics. The earthquake in Haiti hit a very poor country, a country without the resources to insist upon the construction of safe buildings, rescue the trapped, provide medical care to the injured, food to the hungry, or sanitation to the masses. It is a country so poor that the jobless and the penniless were crammed together into shacks in Port-au-Prince, targets for disease, crime, starvation, and death. The poor of Port-au-Prince were dying of their poverty before the earthquake, during it, as their hovels collapsed upon them , and after it, and it is their poverty that is killing them now.

San Francisco, on the other hand, is part of a rich country that easily can afford to promulgate and enforce building codes and to provide services after disasters hit. Basically, if you are going to be in an earthquake, you are much better off in a rich country, in the same way that if you want a job with a living wage, you are much better off in a country where such jobs exist. Even now, in the worst economic situation in living memory, the median household income in the United States is about $50,000. In Haiti, it was about $1,600.

In the poorest countries, where there are almost no jobs that pay enough to feed a family, people migrate. Of course. Those that do not leave slowly starve, or die of what should be easily prevented diseases, or die in “natural disasters,” the reoccurring famines, floods, earthquakes, etc. that might kill a handful of people in rich countries, but kills thousands or tens of thousands in poor nations. What poor people are dying of, in the last analysis, are not so much the natural disasters themselves. It is their poverty that kills them, poverty associated with an international economic and political system they had no voice in creating and have no ability to change.

My research has concentrated on the factors contributing to unauthorized mass migration of workers from rural Mexico to the U.S. I naturally look at what has happened to the Haitian economy through the lens of what has happened to the economy of rural Mexico. While Mexico is a far richer country than Haiti, the plight of the individual farmer is much the same. The social, political and economic changes that globalization has forced upon subsistence farmers have destroyed a way of life that was old when Columbus landed in the New World. The current world-wide economic crisis has caused the standard of living for many of the rural communities and people I have interviewed in Mexico over the past four years to get even worse, meaning they continue to migrate, even though they are well aware of the economic crisis in the U.S. and the consequent difficulty of finding work.

While “free trade” policies are part of the reason Mexico as a whole has gone from the 26th largest economy in the world to the 8th, the growth has been both uneven and unjust. As the rich have gotten richer, inflation-adjusted wages for workers has declined by about 20% during this period (Sernau, 2006). Researchers at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) found that farming families, in particular, have lost 44% of their purchasing power in the last three years. Imports, mostly from the U.S., have driven Mexican farmers out of the market and off their land. Local, small-scale farmers, whether in Haiti or Mexico, simply cannot compete against gigantic agribusiness corporations subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer (McCarty, 2008).

Not surprisingly, as income decreased, emigration from rural Mexico has increased, by 40% in the last 6 years. As of May 2009 there were more than 33 million people living in rural areas in Mexico, but only 8.5 million were still dedicated to farming and ranching (El Universal, 2010).

Bad as the current economic situation in rural areas may be, Mexico is a relatively prosperous nation with a functioning, if imperfect, democracy. They have the ability to offer some resistance to the pressures of international capital and have a seat at the table when economic treaties are negotiated. Haiti, on the other hand, with an economy massively in debt and a dysfunctional government, has no seat at any table – they have for many years been at the tender mercies of investment banks and international lending institutions.

It is a familiar story in the Global South: after World War II, as the old colonial structures fell away, rich men in rich countries found methods even better than colonialism to keep their profits from the “third world” flowing. What Global South nations call “neoliberal-ism” and we call “globalization” is an interconnected system of loans, forced privatization of governmental services, “free” markets, and treaties that restrict the ability of participating nations to regulate transnational corporations. All this operates through international organiza-tions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, and is backed up by the threat of economic isolation, bankruptcy and even landing the Marines, if it comes to that. Neoliberalism has for more than forty years insured that formerly colonized countries such as Haiti would play their part in making the rich richer, on the backs of the poor.

The economic situation got even worse for Haiti and for the Global South in general in the 1980’s. A global recession produced a debt crisis in Haiti and many other previously colonized nations. With debts so massive that they could never be paid back except by taking out even more loans at even higher interest rates, Haiti, and much of the rest of the Global South, was on a treadmill to disaster. In return for rolling over the loans, the World Bank and IMF imposed “structural adjust-ments” – privatization of gov-ernmental services, deregulation of markets, reduction of trade barriers, decreased govern-mental spending on health, social services and education (Hutchison, 2008). Although about 2/3rds of the accumulated debt has been forgiven, Haiti still owes around $700 million dollars, and today, on the website for the World Bank, Haiti has loan payments scheduled until 2044 – if they magically never borrow another dime.

The irony is that the conditions forced on Haiti to recycle the loans prevented government spending on the very goods and services that are necessary to economic development: education, health care, social services. Until last year, Haiti was paying $1.6 million in interest every month to the World Bank alone, money that could have been supporting agriculture, paying teachers and constructing buildings that would not collapse on top of the people. Like a family in a credit card debt death-spiral, the economy of Haiti went from very bad to unbearable as indebtedness increased. And perhaps the saddest part of this story is that at least $504 million of the $844 million of the original loans, rather than being used for economic development, went instead into the Swiss bank accounts of the long time dictators Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc (Klein, 2010). Both dictators, being “anti-communists,” were supported by forty years of U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.

Though the Duvaliers are long gone, the problems remain. My prediction is that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will never solve the problems of Haiti. Top-down interventions cannot undo the damage to either county, because the whole process is fundamentally flawed. The neoliberal idea that what poorer countries need is full participation in a dog-eat-dog global “free trade” economic system, where the only goal is profit, has not worked out very well for the Global South, certainly not for Haiti. The economic arguments are technical, but the bottom line seems to be that capitalism works fine for those with capital, not so well for those without.

I believe that the needed change will not come from governments, or inter-national lending institutions, much less investment banks. Change will come from rethinking what is important, and what is not. People are important. Huge profits, massive consumption of goods and services, ever increasing GDP, these things are not important– if anything, they get in the way of relating to human beings as human beings, not as consumers or producers.

To me, a magnificent resource for rethinking economic matters is the social teachings of the Catholic Church- the dignity of the human person, the importance of community and of the common good, the preferential option for the poor. Here at Casa Juan Diego, we try to live out these teachings through living in community and through voluntary poverty. As the Zwicks have often said, no one draws a salary here.

But there are many ways to live out the teachings, and many ways of interpreting them. However, I believe in my heart that no honest interpretation of the social teaching of the church would tolerate the current world economic system; a monster that destroys both local economies and the economies of whole nations, that forces people to leave their homes and separate from their families, then criminalizes their attempts to survive.

Recently a couple from Central America arrived at Casa Juan Diego late in the evening. The woman had been disfigured and disabled during her perilous journey to the U.S., and they had been sleeping for several days in the streets of Houston. When I helped show her to her simple room at our women’s house, she shrieked and jumped for joy, literally, at her great fortune. An actual bed! With sheets and blankets! In that instant I fully recognized the great chasm of global privilege that lay between us. In the things that the world insists are important, we could not have been more different. I could not have been more advantaged; she could not have been more disadvantaged.

For some time afterwards, like the men giving their talk at the Casa Juan Diego mass, I had trouble putting this experience into words. Although this woman no longer lives in the house, I see her weekly, resulting in what is best described as a painful emotional experience for me. The results of our economic system on real people, though, must be seen, must be remembered, if we are to find the courage to follow our teaching and to love our neighbors as ourselves.


Aronowitz, S. (2003). Global capital and its opponents. In S. Aronowitz & H. Gautney (Eds.). Implicating empire: Globalization & resistance in the 21st century world order (pp. 179-195). New York: Basic Books.

Hutchinson, E. D. (2008). Dimensions of human behavior: Person and environment. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Klein, N. (2010, February 11). Haiti: A creditor, not a debtor. The Nation,http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100301/klein .

McCarty, D. (2008). The impact of NAFTA on rural children and families in Mexico: Transnational policy and practice implications. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 1(4), 105-123.

Sernau, S. (2006). Worlds apart: Social inequalities in a global economy (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Sin poder comprar básicos, 28 millones del campo. (2010, January 6). El Universal,http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/649879.html

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 2, March-April 2010.