To say that Santiago, Chile, looks far better today than Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is of no comfort to the people of Chile. It will not rebuild their ruined houses, nor will it bring back their dead. It will not reconstruct the damaged airport or mobilize the field hospitals and emergency supplies needed to keep the death toll from rising further. It will not inspire charitable donations from around the world.
Yet the comparison is unavoidable, which is why so many people have already made it. After all, two large and unusually debilitating earthquakes have just struck not far from the capital cities of two Latin American countries within a very short period of time. In both countries, political leaders were left struggling for metaphors to convey the extent of the catastrophe. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the earthquake “an emergency unparalleled in the history of Chile.” Haitian President René Préval compared the destruction in Haiti “to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days.”
But the effect on the two respective populations is clearly not going to be identical. An earthquake always comes out of the blue, and in that sense, it is always a piece of bad luck in the geological lottery, as David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post in January. Yet the short- and long-term aftereffects of an earthquake—the extent of the damage it wreaks, the speed with which the population reorganizes itself and rebuilds—have nothing to do with luck. Those who study famines have long argued that they are created by bad politics and bad economics as well as bad weather: There is always food somewhere, so if a particular country doesn’t have any, there must be an explanation other than “It was very hot last summer.”
A society’s ability to recover from a natural disaster is also a reflection of its economic and political culture. There will be “looting” in Chile this week as people struggle to survive in the ruins, but the Chilean army and police, not the U.S. Marines, will control the situation. There will be weakened apartment blocks that abruptly collapse, but there will be inspectors on hand to help assess which ones might be safe.
Before the quake, Chile also had regulations in place that required contractors to construct all new buildings to earthquake-resistant standards. Not every structure met the standards, but many did. And residents of those that did not will have some recourse: In the city of Concepción, residents of a new building that collapsed completely are threatening to take their builders to court, according to one report. The fact that they are even discussing this option implies that these apartment owners believe they have a court system that works, a legal system that could force builders to pay compensation, and a building regulatory system that is generally respected. Haiti has none of the above.
Though it is not especially fashionable at the moment to note these things, Chile, unlike Haiti, is also a working democracy. In recent elections, the center-left ruling party lost to the center-right opposition for the first time in two decades. Power is expected to change hands without incident when the new president, Sebastián Piñera, is inaugurated next week. Although Piñera is a billionaire, he directed his campaign at small-business owners, promised to sell off some of his assets so as to avoid conflicts of interest, and has just appointed a Cabinet that includes a number of independent and even center-left ministers. Of course, we don’t know what kind of president Piñera will ultimately turn out to be, but it is clear that in order to become president, he had to appeal to millions of people and not just to a wealthy, partisan elite.
In the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, this matters: To call Chile a democracy is another way of saying that Chile is a country whose political leaders have to take voters’ concerns into account. Chile’s earthquake response will have to reflect the same values as Chile’s famed pension system (designed by the president-elect’s brother, Jose Piñera), which is intended to assure ordinary workers a decent retirement income. In the coming months, the state may not be able to help all of the poor citizens who have suffered, but it cannot ignore all of them indefinitely either.
Disasters have no logic, and no political significance, either. But the recovery process that follows a disaster is always deeply political. Despite a stronger earthquake and more damaging aftershocks, Chile will return to normal faster than Haiti. Luck has nothing to do with it.