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Imperialism deepens tsunami toll

Deaths not just act of nature

Socialist organization & planning can save lives

By Fred Goldstein

The enormity of the disaster that has befallen the peoples of the Indian Ocean region can only be comprehended in terms of the fundamental contradiction of the modern age: the antagonism between the enormous productive forces unleashed by stunning scientific-technological advances and the outmoded social system of capitalist exploitation. This technology, which holds the capability of alleviating and eliminating the age-old burdens afflicting humanity, is owned by a capitalist class that utilizes it to pursue profits, and the result is an increase in human misery.

No amount of technology, of course, could have prevented the powerful undersea earthquake or the resulting mega-tsunami that struck 27 countries. But humanity has progressed to the point where a combination of technology and social organization is capable of vastly mitigating such a disaster. Through education, training and preparation, early warning, rapid mass mobilization for evacuation and full-scale social coordination to deal with the aftermath, tens of thousands of lives, at the least, could have been saved.

Only governments with the interests and welfare of the masses as their primary concern could have made the preparations and taken the actions to do what was necessary. Cuba is such a country. It is poor, and its situation has been made far more difficult by the U.S. blockade and the collapse of the USSR and other socialist trading partners. Nevertheless, it is the internationally acknowledged leader in dealing with natural disasters, including devastating hurricanes.

In September 2004, Cuba endured Ivan, the fifth-largest hurricane ever to hit the Caribbean, with sustained winds of 124 miles per hour. Cuba evacuated almost 2 million people--more than 15 percent of the total population. One hundred thousand people were evacuated within the first three hours. An incredible 78 percent of those evacuated were welcomed into other people's homes. Children at boarding schools were moved. Animals and birds were moved. No one was killed.

The International Federation of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent Society, the United Nations, Oxfam and other institutions in capitalist society that concern themselves with minimizing the effects of natural disasters have been compelled to study and praise the Cuban government. But none dare say that it is because Cuba is socialist.

The journal Public Administration and Development (Vol. 22, Issue 5) in December 2002 published a highly lau da tory paper by Holly Sims and Kevin Vogelmann entitled "Popular Mobil i zation and Disaster Management in Cuba." (

Oxfam, which is decidedly pro-capitalist, issued a 68-page report in 2002 entitled, "Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba." It cited Cuba's Civil Defense force, early warning system, well-equipped rescue teams, emergency stockpiles and other resources.

But the report went on to make the most telling point. "Such tangible assets are impressive, but if they were the only determining factor, then other wealthier countries such as the United States would have lower disaster death tolls. (The U.S. spent $13 billion for the Florida hurricane and had higher casualties than Cuba.) Thus, it is equally important to consider the role played by other 'intangible' qualities in making the Cuban system work so well. These include community mobilization, solidarity, clear political commitment to safeguard human life and a population that is 'disaster-aware' and educated in the necessary actions to be taken in the event of a disaster. Together, these tangible and intangible elements create a seamless effort that incorporates disaster preparation, response and recovery."

Cuba's achievements flow from the fact that its socialist government is fused with and has the confidence of the workers and peasants. The fate of the masses in the Indian Ocean region, by contrast, was in the hands of the imperialists as well as their own capitalist governments. This is what magnified the loss of human life to untold and unnecessary numbers.

Is Pentagon humanitarian?
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It is important to view this disaster within the framework of contemporary class relations. The predominant aspect of the crisis is that it occurred in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal--a region of a billion and a half oppressed people living in countries that are under the domination of imperialism. There are no imperialist countries bordering the Indian Ocean except the minor sub-imperialist Australia, whose sparsely populated west coast can be exposed to Indian Ocean tsunamis.

The fact that the Bush administration made a great media event out of raising its promise of aid from $35 million to $350 million is pathetic. The same goes for the aid pledged by the European and Japanese imperialists. The entire amount is a few billion dollars.

Compared to the untold wealth that these governments and the ruling classes behind them have taken out of the region during centuries of colonialism and imperialism--super-profits based on cheap labor and stolen resources--the amounts mentioned are less than a bandaid.

Furthermore, it is the enforced underdevelopment and consequent impoverishment of this whole region and the imposition of capitalism that has made the masses so vulnerable to excessive suffering during natural catastrophes. The coastal communities around the Indian Ocean that perennially suffer from earthquakes and typhoons are densely populated and poorly housed.

To make matters worse, Washington and the Pentagon are now using the disaster to strengthen their hand in the region by sending in the military and posing as benefactors. They are dropping aid parcels into Aceh and Sri Lanka in the name of humanitarianism even as the number of Iraqi civilians they have killed in their efforts at colonial conquest grows to 100,000.

Was it unexpected?

But the fact that the tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused so much loss of life is of supreme importance. A tsunami warning system has existed for the Pacific since 1965. The U.S. developed a more sophisticated and accurate tsunami early warning system in 1995. It was widely deployed in 2001, but was restricted to the Pacific Ocean, which is dominated by U.S. and Japanese imperialism. With one exception. The U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was on the Pacific Ocean alert list.

The system, called the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART), consists of devices that can measure a change of as little as one centimeter in the earth's crust at the bottom of the ocean. They immediately send a signal to a special buoy at the surface that then sends the information to a satellite, which can broadcast the information. This all happens in minutes. This information can then be used to not only assess the earthquake but, with the aid of surface gauges, to model the tsunami and warn the threatened regions. This system has been deployed on the west coast of the U.S. and near Japan. The monitoring center is in Hawaii.

All the capitalist media have been saying that the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, generated by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, was entirely unexpected and that is why there was no warning system. This is completely false.

Scientists at the National Oceano graphic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S., in charge of dealing with tsunamis, presented a paper in March 2003 entitled "Real-Time Tsunami Reporting from the Deep Ocean." The paper stated that: "National awareness of the tsunami hazard has been heightened by eight tsunamis generated around the Pacific Rim in the last four years." This self-serving formulation is then immediately contradicted by the list. Of the eight tsunamis cited, three were in Indonesia and one, the Java tsunami of June 1994, is described as "a devastating tsunami ... that attacked the south coasts of Java and Bali islands, killing at least 300 people and destroying hundreds of homes."

In fact, the Java tsunami was generated by an earthquake in the Java Trench just southwest of Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific. Furthermore, it was well known by seismologists that the area where the recent tsunami began was a suspect region. The New York Times blurted out on Dec. 27, the day after the tsunami and before everyone got the line straight: "Seismologists with the United States Geological Survey said the area west of Sumatra and the island chains to its north was a hot zone for earthquakes because of the non-stop collision occurring there between the India plate beneath the Indian Ocean seabed and the Burma plate under the islands and that part of the continent."

Buried in another lengthy account in the Dec. 31 New York Times was a quote from Dr. Kerry Sieh, an earthquake expert at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Most of his associates were busy with the Pacific. But Dr. Sieh was "consumed with what he could learn about the dynamics of the earthquake factories called subduction zones. But the archives he mined existed only in the coral off Sumatra. 'It's tucked away in a corner of the world that just doesn't have much scientific traffic,' he said." A subduction zone can produce very powerful tsumanis.

The Australian capitalists have begun to develop oil refining on their west coast, so they started worrying about tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. According to The Age newspaper, one of their scientists, Phil Cummins at Geoscience Australia, delivered a paper in October 2003 and again in September 2004 pinpointing the danger right in the region where the recent earthquake occurred. He was only concerned with Australia, however, and his recommendations only included safeguarding the Australian coast. But the danger off Sumatra was widely known.

The bottom line

The plain truth is that the imperialists were looking after their own interests and could not concern themselves with the fate of South Asian governments or the mas ses. The DART devices cost $250,000 a piece, a petty price for a government to pay and, considering the potential for the loss of life, a pittance. That nothing has been done speaks volumes about both the imperialists and the capitalist governments in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thai land and elsewhere throughout the region.

A great deal of recrimination is undoubtedly going on behind the scenes. The failure to have a workable early warning system is a growing scandal. All the regimes in the region and the imperialists themselves are now talking about putting an early warning system in the Indian Ocean--and possibly in the Caribbean. Such a warning system should have been in place, should immediately be implemented, and the imperialist regimes that have plundered the region should be made to foot the bill.

But while such a system would undoubtedly improve the situation, it will take more than early warnings to save the people from the effects of tsunamis, tropical storms, volcanoes and other natural disasters.

The capitalist scientific establishment has developed ingenious means to detect, assess and warn of earthquakes deep under the ocean. But without pre-plan ned, highly coordinated, village-based mass mobilization, the effectiveness of early tsunami warnings will be limited at best. In the capitalist countries such duties are mostly left to the police and other repressive state organs.

The fumbling of all the capitalist governments in the region, of all the imperialist-sponsored aid agencies in the face of the disaster, cannot be solved by early warn ing systems. The problem goes much deeper.

A Thai newspaper has reported that "One of the four officials in charge of monitoring earthquakes confirmed ... that the [Meteorological] department was aware of what had happened minutes after the quake struck at 7:58 a.m. Bangkok time. The official said that they were discussing the likelihood of a tsunami, but did not issue a warning out of concern for tourism and the department's own interests."

The official, who has since come under government investigation for his honesty, told the reporter, "The important factor in making the decision was that it's high [tourist] season and hotel rooms were nearly 100-percent full. If we had issued a warning, which would have led to an evacuation, [and if nothing happened], what would happen then? Business would be instantaneously affected." (The Nation, Bangkok, Dec. 31)

Compare this to a statement by Presi dent Fidel Castro, quoted in the report about Cuba's mass mobilization and disaster management: "We will overcome this problem no matter how big the damage. For us victory means having a minimum loss of life."

The tsunami center scientists in Hono lulu did not know who to call in the Indian Ocean governments or have relevant phone numbers, yet the Indian ruling class has nuclear weapons. After the disaster, the governments in New Delhi, Colombo and Bangkok were caught flat footed and the suffering people waited days for assistance. The Indonesian military, with 40,000 troops in Aceh, used the occasion to continue its war against the secessionist movement.

With such regimes, early warning is not enough. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, carried a comprehensive report on the tsunami. It described how "on the Maikhao beach in Thailand, a 10-year-old British girl, Tilly Smith, recognized the signs when the tide rushed out and boats on the horizon began bobbing violently. She told her mother she had just been studying tsunami in geography at school and that they should leave the beach. Her parents warned others on the beach and so this was one of the few areas where no one was reported killed.

"One of the few populations that evacuated before the tsunami hit was that of the small Indonesian island of Simeulue, very close to the epicenter. Initial reports state the residents were warned by island folklore recounting a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1907 and fled en masse to inland hills after the initial shaking and before the tsunami struck."

Every single adult and schoolchild in Thailand should have known what the 10-year-old British girl happened to know by pure accident. Every coastal village resident should have known what those Indo nesian islanders knew about something that happened a century ago. Indonesian authorities, along with Japanese and U.S. delegations, visited the tsunami sites at Flores Island in 1992, Java in 1994 and Irian Jaya (West Papua) in 1996. Further more, Indo nesia and Thailand were among the countries that received the early warning. The Indonesian authorities were thoroughly familiar with three recent tsunamis.

Nothing was done about it. The wealth of Indonesia goes to the corrupt military, the local bourgeoisie, the imperialist oil companies, the sweat shops and other exploiters.

A disaster of this magnitude requires the collaborative effort of all the governments of the region. But these are not just governments, not just administrations--they are states, instruments of class oppres sion. The police, the military, the civil service bureaucracy spend 365 days a year working on behalf of the exploiting classes. They live in a permanent state of antagonism with the masses of people. No natural disaster, or threat of one, will transform them into a humanitarian, cooper ative force that puts the lives of workers and peasants at the center of attention.

They are not interested in the Cuban method, which is the marvel of the world. They are incapable of mass preparation and mass mobilization. They lord it over the people on a daily basis. There is hostility and distrust. It is in the interest of the ruling classes that the people remained disunited, scattered, helpless, uninformed, isolated and alienated.

The only forms of mass organization that the bourgeoisie is interested in are the organization of the masses into the military to fight for capitalist interests and the regimenting of workers in the factories, mines, fields and offices for exploitation. This is inherent in the capitalist system, both in the imperialist countries and in the oppressed, underdeveloped countries ruled by capitalism.

The vast storehouses of wealth, the social surplus, is desperately needed in times of such great crisis. But it exists as capital, as private property by and large, as a means of making a profit. Attempts to mobilize this surplus for the population are hampered at every turn by capitalist property relations.

In Cuba, the social surplus is owned by society and distributed by the socialist regime in accordance with the interests of the people, whatever they may be at the present moment. This surplus is available in a crisis as social property.

Capitalism is outmoded

Science and technology under imperialism are at the service of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, the FBI, the CIA, the drug companies, and all manner of corporate exploiters who use it for profit and oppression. Science and technology are primarily used to make people work for less money, at more onerous tasks, longer and faster to intensify exploitation. Space-age technology is being used in the U.S. to push the working class back into the 19th century. All attempts to use science for the benefit of the people run against the capitalist stream.

Socially conscious scientists the world over concern themselves with how to use their science and technology to improve the lot of humanity, be it in environmental, medical, disaster mitigation or other progressive endeavors. But in imperialist and capitalist society, under the state of the bourgeoisie, these scientists' political, social and economic influence is miniscule. They beg for funds. They implore the capitalist politicians and bureaucrats to have their proposals read. It is only when one of the proposals happens to coincide with the interests of big business, or when there is a huge struggle, that it gets a hearing.

Cuba has a socialist regime. Its leaders are totally immersed in the struggle to protect the population against natural disasters. In Cuba the scientific community is melded with the government and the people and operates solely on behalf of bettering the life of the Cuban people and people all over the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Scientific knowledge, the collective product of all humanity, is put at the service of progress.

The revolution abolished capitalism, expelled U.S. imperialism, set up a workers' state and thus cleared the way for true social, cultural and all-around human development of the people. It has insured a basic livelihood for all, including free education, healthcare and a quality of life that is socially superior to anything under the cutthroat system of capitalism. This produces a relationship of mutual confidence between the leadership and the people and class solidarity among the people themselves. No government can fully combat natural disasters without eradicating capitalist relations.

Natural catastrophes that occur at important moments in history can have an influence in pushing things backward or forward, depending upon the circumstances. In 1755 a giant earthquake devastated Lisbon, Portugal, the fourth-largest city in Europe at the time and the seat of a vast empire--and also a bastion of the Inquisition and religious conservatism associated with feudalism.

The destruction was so massive, with 80,000 killed, that it became a pivotal event in the struggle for enlightenment. It was grist for the mill in the debate over whether people must suffer their fate under god, and therefore pay allegiance to the feudal-minded church authorities who were the ideological prop of the landlords and the monarchy, or should free themselves from slavish passivity. The revolutionary interpretation of the event helped to undermine feudal ideology.

The event fed the debates of the times just as feudalism was becoming rotten ripe for overthrow in Europe. It was only a generation later that the French Revolution took place.

Imperialism and capitalism are pre sently rotten ripe. They bring only increased suffering, poverty and exploitation. Since the collapse of the USSR, the question of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a socialist society has receded from the agenda of the world movement.

This catastrophe and the role of capitalism in multiplying needless deaths in the tens of thousands requires the revival of the profound truth of Marxism--that capitalism is outmoded and an obstruction to the forward progress of humanity. It must be destroyed and replaced by socialism.

Reprinted from the Jan. 13, 2005, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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