Neoliberalism and Hurricanes: Death Toll Rises in Caribbean

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As Hurricane Jeanne ravages the Caribbean, we’ll look at the role neoliberalism and globalization play in the crisis with veteran Jamaican journalist John Maxwell. [includes rush transcript]

As Florida is devastated by yet another hurricane, the death toll in the Caribbean continues to rise. On Saturday, the Bahamas was hit hard by Hurricane Jeanne, knocking out electricity and causing flooding in some areas of the country. In nearby Haiti, the situation remains dire with more than 1,500 people dead and more than 1,000 people missing. On Sunday, Haitian officials said more bodies were recovered from debris in Gonaives. Meanwhile, the United Nations is deploying more peacekeepers to Haiti to curb looting that broke out in the wake of the devestation.

The General in charge of the UN operations in Haiti said many people were suffering from diarrhea while others, many of them children, were contracting gangrene. He said amputations were being performed under horrendous conditions. Most injuries being treated are gashes from collapsing roofs or pieces of zinc roof hidden by the mud that still covers the city, where most survivors walk barefooted. The World Food Program said relief agencies were working around the clock trying to get food to victims, amid fears that many people remain in danger of starvation.

  • John Maxwell is a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years. He is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He joins us on the phone from Kingston.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by John Maxwell. He is a veteran Jamaican journalist, has covered the Caribbean more than 40 years, and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He joins us on the telephone from Kingston. Welcome to Democracy Now!, John Maxwell.

JOHN MAXWELL: Good morning, Amy, how are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the effects of these hurricanes on the Caribbean?

JOHN MAXWELL: Well, we find that we are — we have always been hurricane-prone. This is where the hurricanes end up after crossing the Atlantic. So, you know, we expect — once upon a time, when I was a child in Jamaica, you used to say we had a hurricane every seven years. That’s not exactly correct, but the forecasters, professor William Gray and company in Colorado have predicted that we are entering a period of even more intense hurricane activity. That’s more hurricanes. The hurricanes are going to be stronger, more intense, more dangerous, more damaging. At the same time, with the whole globalization liberalization privatization, you know, the whole new capitalist program, there are a lot more poor people a lot more displaced people, people living on hillsides and gullies, on land that nobody else wants, and that is a recipe for disaster, because they are living in places which are subject to flooding, or landslides or just the effects of the wind alone and their houses are flimsy. So, they cannot put up any — their homes — they don’t give them any protection against the wind. So, you can expect in all of the Caribbean, but particularly in Haiti, because that is the poorest of the poor, you can expect a lot more of these disasters over the next few years. Of course, the point about these disasters is that — the hurricanes are one part of it — but that the conditions under which people are forced through there is a major part of it and that creates the disaster when people are put in harm’s way and cannot defend themselves. In the case of Haiti, where the American policies over the last eighty years or so, have made Haiti defenseless. It has stripped Haiti of its vegetation, not only were the trees chopped down during the American occupation, so they could plant other things, but the poverty of the country is directly caused by the fact that the Americans have never allowed Haiti to govern itself and have reneged on promises to Aristide. They have built a civil defense. It means that the people are completely defenseless. So, my feeling is that if there are 3,000 or 5,000 dead, first of all, you would never really know, and we’re going to get some incredible disasters in Haiti and in the rest of the Caribbean in the quite near future.

JOHN MAXWELL: Part of this global warming making the Caribbean even warmer and that means we’re going to attract bigger hurricanes because the warmer the surface, the more — you produce low pressure areas resulting in the hurricanes as they come across the Atlantic.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking about the twin hurricanes, of weather and poverty and what happens when they combine into one. We quoted The New York Times earlier, on aid worker in Port Au Prince saying we’re having trouble organizing the distribution because there is no authority existing in the town, government is absolutely not responding. Can you talk about the political context here and how that can feed into the devastation, the further devastation of this population that is being hit so hard by the hurricane in Haiti?

JOHN MAXWELL: Well, the thing to remember is that when Aristide was deposed by the American action in the end of February, the people who took over under the protection of the U.S. Marines were a ragtag group of thugs and bandits, convicted murderers, rapists and just, you know, bad types. These people didn’t go in there to set up any administration. They went in there to get money, and they have — nothing has been set up in the administration. But beyond that, they went out and attacked the Aristide party, the people who supported the Aristide, the Lavalas, which was the glue that held the society together. The leadership, the community leadership, which would provide an early warning system or a rescue system, an emergency management system, has been totally destroyed because the people who — the Lavalas people have been hunted like dogs. Many of them are dead, some of them are in prison, and a lot of them are in hiding. So that what you have is a decapitation of the Haitian society. It doesn’t have a head or a nervous system anymore. You only have the people with their guns standing around, looking important and talking about “we are the government.” In a situation like that, nothing is going to — the people from outside are to have to organize everything. In Jamaica, they have a government and they have an office of disaster management, and this is true right through the Caribbean. We have this going on and we can go in and get the food it people and we can keep order. We can get medical services. We can get water to them. In Haiti there is no clean water to start with. And then you have a disaster like this you talking about an epidemic of dire proportions, to use the word that you used earlier in the program.

AMY GOODMAN: Very briefly, John Maxwell, the rest of the Caribbean, the particular islands hardest hit.

JOHN MAXWELL: Grenada has been really flattened. Part of the reason for that is that Grenada is not used to hurricanes, so they don’t build for hurricanes. And Hispaniola, sorry, the Dominican Republic was also hit and in Barbados there’s some damage, but basically Jamaica is worse set apart from Haiti. We are having our problems too, because we don’t any money. The state has been pauperized, and we have to depend on the kindness of friends. But we have a functioning government which is quite different from what happens in Haiti. So —

AMY GOODMAN: John Maxwell, I want to thank you for your report. That was John Maxwell speaking to us from Kingston, Jamaica, a veteran Jamaican journalist, who covered Jamaican affairs for forty years, and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. Thank you for joining us.

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