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 glass. 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 country. 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 contamination." 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 Scotland. 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.