The following text is an article entitled “Socialism and Storms” by Professor Ben Wisner. It was published in the Guardian on 14 November 2001. Some 10 years on, it remains entirely relevant, particularly in light of the social devastation that is currently being wrought by storms and inequality in much of the U.S. South.
“Hurricane Michelle was a category 3 storm. It hit land at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southern coast, where the ill-fated CIA-backed invasion failed decades ago, with winds of 216km/hr. The storm travelled north across the island, damaging 22,400 homes and destroying 2,800. It damaged agriculture, industry and infrastructure in five provinces in the western half of the island, as well as Havana. It was the worst hurricane to hit Cuba since 1944.
But only five deaths have so far been reported: four from the collapse of structures and one drowning. By contrast, when Michelle traveled through Central America in a weaker form, 10 people died and another 26 are listed as missing. More than 10,000 lives were lost in Central America during hurricane Mitch, a disaster whose fatal effects could have been largely prevented.
How did Cuba save lives? The most important factor seems to be timely evacuation. Roughly 700,000 people were evacuated out of Cuba’s 11m population. This is quite a feat given Cuba’s dilapidated fleet of vehicles, fuel shortage and poor road system. It was 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. Reports say that Havana’s population was advised to store water and food, and that they largely complied. They also helped clear debris which could have become dangerous if lifted by strong winds from streets. Cuban state television broadcasts included references to the 1932 hurricane that had killed more than 3,000.
These preparations point 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 on the part of the general population.
Havana is a city of 2m with a history of deaths due to hurricanes. In 1844, 500 lost their lives in Havana. In 1866 the death toll in the city was 600 and in 1944 there were 330 fatalities and 269 collapsed buildings. But 2001 was not the first time that preparations had saved lives. In 1996 some historic buildings were destroyed due to hurricane Lili, but no one died.
Does socialism help? In 1978 I published a letter in the journal Disasters calling for a systematic comparison of socialist and non-socialist countries’ success in mitigating the human impacts of extreme natural events. I contrasted the small loss of life from drowning or subsequent disease during large floods in the Red river delta of Vietnam with the estimated huge loss of life calculated by the US military planners when they were preparing to bomb the Red river’s levees and dikes. I suggested researchers look carefully at preparedness, mitigation and recovery in socialist countries such as China, Cuba, the USSR, Somalia and Mozambique.
Today three of these countries no longer claim to be socialist; indeed, Somalia is arguably still without a viable central government following years of civil war, and some consider Mozambique to be a ward of overseas donors. I still believe that my 1978 question is relevant to disas ter research. It is not ideological but practical. If further systematic comparative study shows that public expenditure on human needs (healthcare, 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. Comparisons shouldn’t necessarily be among so-called communist states (contemporary or historical studies) and so-called capitalist ones. Indeed, city by city comparisons might also be very revealing. The ideological orientation of the national government may not be the most important factor.
The systematic study would require a careful and precise definition of the elements one is looking for. These are mostly likely to include self-help and citizen-based social protection at the neighbourhood level, trust between the authorities and the population, investment in basic needs and social capital such as the training of neighbourhood activists, investment in capable and transparently operating government institutions for prevention and mitigation of disaster risk, investment in scientific capacity such as Havana’s weather institute and public health services, an effective risk communication system and institutionalised historical memory of disasters.
Cuba may not have all of these and it may not be socialism that has provided Cuba with the ability to save lives in hurricanes. It may be more complicated than that. I’d hypothesise that more people die of hypothermia each year in Scotland than in Finland as rate of population in an age group. This is not because Finland is socialist, but because of the kinds of public spending priorities in Finland associated with European social-democracy rather than the minimalist welfare apparatus left in Britain since the assault on the welfare state began in the early 80s.
Whatever the reasons, Cuba has lessons for the rest of us. What a shame it is officially excluded from the Organisation of American States, and will not be represented at the upcoming Hemispheric Disaster Risk Reduction conference, where experts from the other states will talk about how to save lives.”