Hurricane Irma: How the US Exploits Disasters to Blackmail the Caribbean

Misión Verdad
Translated by Tortilla con Sal

Natural events like earthquakes and hurricanes facilitate the scorched earth stage of the global State of Siege US corporations hope to bring about.

In the case of the Caribbean, regional solidarity-based, reciprocal initiatives like those promoted by Venezuela, make it possible for self-determination and sovereignty to overcome the “humanitarian” rationale of US led military and geopolitical control.

 Recent events

 Category 5 Hurricane Irma is crossing the Caribbean and has damaged the islands of Saint Martin, Saint Bartholomew and Antigua and Barbuda. Gaston Brown, the Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister has said the devastation is over 90% and that Barbuda may need to be completely evacuated. The winds reached maximum speeds up to 297 Km/h.

For his part, the President of Saint Martin, Daniel Gibbs, told local media he had “never lived through anything like it” and French Minister Gérard Collomb confirmed the hurricane had destroyed the island’s four strongest buildings. The damage from Irma is also known now in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.

A few days earlier, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane affected a large part of the United States leaving behind around 50 dead. Two more hurricanes have formed, Katia and José.

Disaster capitalism

As Canadian journalist Naomi Klein pointed out in her book “Shock Doctrine”, over the last half century, crises have been systematically exploited to promote a radical corporate agenda.

Re-reading the book, one finds allusion to the role of current US Vice President, Mike Pence, shortly after the disaster provoked by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He was president of the powerful Republican Study Committee and pushed for measures such as suspension of minimum wage levels in the disaster area, especially the Davis-Bacon legislation forcing federal contractors to pay fair wages.

Furthermore he proposed making the affected area a tax free zone with a so-called competitive economy, meaning tax breaks and deregulation. After then President George W. Bush announced these and other measures, he was later obliged to reinstate the labor norms, although these were ignored by contractors. Among other things, public education was privatized, replaced by so called “charter schools” accompanied by mass lay-offs

As in the “humanitarian wars”, the juicy benefits of “natural disasters” for big US companies are the reconstruction contracts. After Katrina, a series of well-connected contractors turned the Gulf of Mexico Coast into a laboratory for disaster responses. According to Klein, the companies with the biggest contracts were the same that made money in the Iraq War : Halliburton, Blackwater, Parsons, Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill, got no-bid contracts worth US$3.4 billion. Kenyon, a division of Service Corporation International (a big donor to the Bush presidential campaign) was contracted to recover dead bodies from houses and streets. Later on, the programs implemented were cut back by a Republican majority Congress due to waste and lack of controls.

On this record of fraud and ill-executed contracts, Klein comments, “the poorest people in the US subsidized the contract bonanza twice over : firstly, when Katrina relief was turned over to unregulated corporate contracts, providing neither decent jobs nor working public services and, secondly, when the few national programs directly assisting the unemployed and low-income workers were eviscerated to pay those inflated bills.”

More intervention, debt and cash : natural disasters in the Caribbean

The majority of so-called “natural disasters” like hurricanes Harvey and Irma are attributable to climate change, a stage to which the development model led by great powers and big corporations has brought to the rest of the world. Its social impact is linked to exclusion and population density in the areas affected. The same thing happens with earthquakes, whose causes are natural but whose disastrous social consequences are directly proportional to prevailing levels of exclusion. To confirm this one has only to compare the different consequences between the two earthquakes that occurred almost simultaneously in Chile and Haiti.

According to British researchers Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes, authors of the book “The Secure and the Dispossessed”, the objective of the multinationals “is not to reduce or avoid climate change, but rather to minimize risks to their business operations so as to increase profits, exploiting the crisis caused by environmental disasters”. Their book documents how militaries, corporations and political groups try turning climate change into a business opportunity, all the while deepening the exclusion of the most impoverished, who are the ones that suffer the worst effects of serious environmental crises.

Each disaster event generates dynamics of strategic exploitation to increase economic and geopolitical control and thus, too, already existing levels of intervention and dependency. In the case of Haiti, its external debt was already intolerable prior to the 2010 earthquake of 7.3 on the Richter Scale which killed 222,570 people and caused material damage reckoned at US$7.9 billion. Both the UN and other international organizations urged creditors like the US, Canada, France, Britain, Taiwan, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Paris Club, among others, to write off debt so the country might be able to recover.

However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made a loan of US$144 million to be repaid after a grace period of five and a half years, even when the country needed donations rather than an increase in its debt. Most of the initial international aid was spent in the first weeks and months after the earthquake to meet urgent needs, but then world interest diminished and the country’s long term recovery stagnated.

That Haiti earthquake in January 2010 caused a new US invasion, taking control of the country’s operation and installing its troops on “humanitarian” pretexts. Seven thousand soldiers and police ended up serving as shock forces in a political crisis combined with a cholera epidemic introduced by Nepalese “blue helmets”, sent to help after the earthquake only to cause even more deaths.

Up until 2014, only 1% of the emergency aid and 16% of the reconstruction funds had been channeled through the Haitian authorities. 76.7% of the funds for European Union (EU) reconstruction contracts in Haiti during 2010 and 2011 was handed to European companies. The US gave just 1.3% of its reconstruction projects to Haitian companies.

After Tropical Storm Erika in 2015, the IMF jealously made sure that the government of Dominica implemented a fiscal adjustment package including measures to “limit the increase in the wage bill and prepare specific plans for the gradual unwinding of the expenditures related to recovery and reconstruction in the aftermath of Erika.

Erika, like Katrina, hit the overall Caribbean economy hard, affecting public service infrastructure in Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic and other countries. These natural disasters were exploited by the financial institutions and business corporations that orbit the US government so as to impose draconian political and financial conditions aimed at getting political benefits from reconstruction with the ultimate aim of ensuring blind support for US policy from the Caribbean bloc.

To date, President Trump’s government has yet to announce its policy towards the Caribbean region apart from general policy announcements on the region and some gestures on Cuba and Haiti. Just in relation to the issue of security, an issue dear to his administration, evidence suggests that in the first six months of this year, the number of criminals who learned their criminality in the US but have been deported to the Caribbean is almost equal to all that category deported from the US to the Caribbean in 2016. Some 70,000 people have been deported in the last 10 years to the Caribbean from the US, Britain and Canada, a significant number in terms of the Caribbean’s population.

Venezuela giving cooperation on a practical level

Venezuela’s solid commitment to its relations with Caribbean countries has increased with the deepening of the cooperation and reciprocity envisaged by Hugo Chavez. In Haiti, the regional integration mechanism Petrocaribe has helped 133, 000 people achieve literacy, rebuilt over 800 kilometres of streets, constructed 3000 houses to relocate many of the people living under tents and also renovated another over 6000 houses.

The United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, was approved by the US Congress as an effort by the Obama administration to counteract Venezuela’s influence and generate a climate of insecurity and uncertainty in the Caribbean countries in relation to Petrocaribe. It is a measure lacking any support in terms of funding or other resources that might help promote economic and social progress or security.

The US government is worried by any “undue” influence in the Caribbean on the part of countries like Iran, Russia, China or Venezuela, but does matches those countries’ bilateral investments neither in terms of development cooperation nor in their absence of non-economic conditionalities that might otherwise compromise Caribbean nations’ sovereignty and self-determination.

For their part, the big oil companies manage climate and geopolitical issues to serve their interests, seeking to control Caribbean countries via the menace of military intervention, economic domination and systematic exploitation of the region’s labor force. Petrocaribe supplies 32% of Caribbean oil needs and contributes 25% of its member countries’ Gross Domestic Product. The refineries and joint-venture companies managed by PDV Caribe facilitate access to oil products via concessionary terms of payment and prevent that debt from limiting member countries’ economic growth.

This solid relationship serves as a base from which to ensure assistance to address disasters like Hurricane Irma, in contrast to the extortionate proposals of the United States. Venezuela has confirmed that, as in years past, it will help the island nations affected by Irma, facilitating reconstruction and overcoming its calamitous effects.

Togther with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas – Peoples Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Association of Caribbean States (AEC), Petrocaribe’s amounts to a weighty bloc of influence in Latin America’s Caribbean region, whose geographic location, commercial importance and decision-making power in multilateral organizations protects against intervention and establishes levels of cooperation and mutual support that transcend US political and financial blackmail and the hypocrisy of its “humanitarian” pretexts.

Venezuela plays a key role supporting countries suffering the effects of climate change, a phenomenon globalized by corporate capitalism.