The Guardian

The Guardian November 21, 2001

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Saving lives and good governance

Earlier this month Russia, China and Vietnam sent aid to socialist Cuba 
after the devastation from Hurricane Michelle. The Russians sent two planes 
loaded with 49 tonnes of canned meat, rice, other food products, and 

Michelle struck Cuba with its full force near the Bay of Pigs (the place 
inadvertently made famous by the CIA). The hurricane left thousands 
homeless and inflicted economic damage across more than a third of the 

But the Cubans, it turned out, were as successful in combating Michelle as 
they had been against the CIA's rag-tag army of emigres in 1961.

With winds of 216km/hr, Michelle was the worst hurricane to hit Cuba since 
1944. Despite its ferocity, and the extent of the devastation it caused, 
only five people were killed.

US disaster expert Dr Ben Wisner, writing in the British liberal bourgeois 
weekly The Guardian, credits this lack of fatalities to "an 
effective risk communication system, a historical memory of past disasters 
actively encouraged by the authorities, neighbourhood-based organisations 
capable of mobilising labour and trust [in the authorities] on the part of 
the general population".

Wisner, from Oberlin College, Ohio, is also a visiting research fellow at 
the Development Studies Institute at the London School of Economics. As 
long ago as 1978 he was postulating that socialism as a system saved lives 
in natural disasters (or, in the appropriate jargon, "mitigates the human 
impacts of extreme natural events").

In the case of Cuba and Hurricane Michelle, Wisner points to a number of 
factors inherent in the socialist system that contributed to preventing 
loss of life.

"The most important factor seems to be timely evacuation. Roughly 700,000 
people were evacuated out of Cuba's 11m population."

He comments, "this is quite a feat", made possible "only because of advance 
preparations and planning, a cadre of local personnel, trust in warnings 
given and cooperation with the Red Cross.

"In Havana the electricity was turned off to avoid deaths or injuries from 
electrocution, and the tap water supply was turned off in case of possible 

The people were mobilised in the streets to clear rubbish and other debris 
which could become airborne in strong winds. The state television system 
broadcasts included warnings reminding people of the death toll in previous 
hurricanes (330 in Havana in 1944, more than 3,000 in 1932).

Wisner is no socialist, but it is easy to see why he points to socialism 
for effective disaster mitigation: the elements he considers desirable are 
virtually all basic to socialist systems.

His list includes "self-help and citizen-based social protection at the 
neighbourhood level, trust between the authorities and the population, 
[and] investment in basic needs and social capital such as the training of 
neighbourhood activists".

Further elements are "investment in capable and transparently operating 
government institutions for prevention and mitigation of disaster risk 
[and] investment in scientific capacity such as Havana's weather institute 
and public health services".

Presumably to fend off criticism that he is just a closet socialist, Wisner 
postulates that "it may not be socialism that has provided Cuba with the 
ability to save lives in hurricanes. It may be more complicated than that."

He then goes on to effectively answer his own doubts, by pointing to the 
number of people who die of hypothermia each year in Scotland under the 
"minimalist welfare apparatus left in Britain" as a result of Margaret 
Thatcher's assault on the welfare system, a state of affairs that Blair's 
New Labour has done nothing to change.

He contrasts the Scottish hypothermia death rate with the substantially 
lower rate in Finland, where social welfare spending, although not nearly 
as high as in a socialist country, is still significantly higher than in 

Wisner reiterates his 1978 call for disaster experts to study the disaster-
mitigation effects of socialism.

"If further systematic comparative study shows that public expenditure on 
human needs (health care, education, public housing, utility subsidies for 
low income people) and infrastructure does save lives in extreme events, 
this is an important finding. I don't care whether it's called socialism or 
good governance."

* * *
Where's the evidence? Ask most people about the September 11 hijackings and they will tell you that it was the work of Osama bin Laden and his "network", that the US authorities have "the evidence" and that some of "the terrorists' accomplices" have in fact been arrested. Two out of those three are definitely not true. In the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the FBI and other US police services arrested roughly 1200 people. That's right: 1200. That's not a terrorist cell; that's a small army. Just what sort of group were they looking for? In fact, far from having the "terrorists' accomplices" under arrest, US authorities now concede that the Justice Department has failed to build a case against a single prime US suspect. Four thousand agents have investigated every conceivable aspect of the 1200 arrested people and come up with zip. That hasn't stopped the US authorities, three months later, from still keeping about 600 of those arrested in detention. Even the four highly-touted prime suspects, identified by the FBI as "co- conspirators" and one even as "the twentieth hijacker", are now revealed to be in prison with no evidence to justify their detention. This being the US, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that on November 16 the respected "Los Angeles Times" reported that "some observers outside the government have suggested the US should consider torture as a means of ensuring cooperation" on the part of the detainees who seem unwilling to confess to something they apparently did not do.

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