Friday, May 16, 2008

Natural Disasters Highlight Government Incompetence

Disasters in China, Burma, and the United States while tragic, also highlight the inherent weakness' of authoritarian regimes. The many faults and incompetence of leaders in these nations, often hidden in the past, have now been brought to the world's attention by the deaths of hundreds of remote villagers, little children, and urban poor or elderly. Only Indonesia's leaders appear to have understood the importance of rapidly getting assistance to the people that need it most.

Think About Burma First

The military junta in Rangoon, Burma, actually preferred to see outbreaks of typhoid fever and dysentery rather than allow aid workers access to Cyclone Nargis' victims. It was appalling to learn of their ignorance of the advanced capabilities of well-funded western aid organizations.

Many survivors of the initial storm that savaged Burma would have survived if the largest influence on that nation, Communist China, had chosen to become involved in diplomatic efforts to admit disaster relief workers. Instead China stayed focused on saving the threatened 2008 Olympic Games while cracking heads and arresting people in occupied Tibet.

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The message was clear for all the world to see. Dictators do not care if the citizens of their country are dying or suffering from a tragedy. Fake elections are more important than clean water, medical care, and dry shelter.

Now China's Corrupt Officials

The earthquake in China, which registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, and was centered near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, has drawn attention to unsafe building construction allowed by corrupt local and regional officials. Communist party officials and other individuals allow construction firms to cheat on construction projects in exchange for bribes. This is hardly a recent phenomena. Hundreds of illegal and dangerous coal mines always seem to slip past the attention of officials designated to regulate such things. In the past few years illegal steel mills and unsanitary food processing plants have finally been shut down. It is hardly likely that those in positions of authority were unaware of these death traps.

In the case of rural Sichuan Province, which does not have so many mines or manufacturing plants, it seems the preferred method for corrupt officials to milk cash out of the system was to use little or no steel and overlook other building codes in the construction of public schools. The real tragedy is that so many children died inside these poorly constructed schools.

The Chinese have long studied the effects of earthquakes on buildings. Their nation has suffered severely from major tremors in the past. Chinese architects are among the world's best designers of earthquake-resistant structures. Chinese seismologists also stand with the best in that field. However all that knowledge only works if builders are required to erect structures legally, that is, according to the correct building codes for earthquake zones.

In the months ahead, there will certainly be investigations, trials, and even executions of those responsible for these blatant building code violations. The rest of the world may or may not hear of such actions. In the recent case of the poisonous food processing plants the world did learn that some officials were put to death. Those death sentences were probably publicized on purpose, to placate victims and consumers of the tainted food and to reassure everyone that the problems have been resolved.

Don't expect to hear about the arrests or prosecutions of any officials responsible for building code violations in Sichuan Province prior to the Olympics. The Chinese and even U.S. or European news sources have too much at stake in the upcoming events. Corporations and big advertisers like Nike, Adidas, or Coca Cola expect to collectively make billions on the Summer Olympic Games, even if thousands of Chinese must die from corrupt officials, unsafe coal mines, or the pollution pouring out of illegal steel mills. It does not matter if Tibetans are not free, profits are more important. Corporate executives all over the world could care less if people must die needlessly while they each receive $100 million dollars or more in annual pay and benefits.

China had thousands of troops in Tibet cracking heads and arresting peaceful protesters even yesterday, while nearby Chengdu Province roiled from that massive earthquake.

So far, the leadership of Communist China appears to be handling foreign aid as poorly as the military junta in Burma. After the tsunami struck Indonesia's Aceh Province in 2004 the leadership of that nation took advantage of the advanced skills of Western aid organizations. As chaotic as the early efforts were, the few survivors of the giant wave were rapidly provided with medical care, shelter, food, and fresh water, by U.S military forces no less.

The Bush Administration's Response To Katrina

In the U.S., the cronyism, political favoritism, and the overall incompetence of the Bush Administration was obvious in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Republican areas of Alabama received immediate assistance while Democratic New Orleans was left to rot for days. "Heckuva Job Brownie" and a staged event in the mostly undamaged French Quarter was all Bush could come up with.

Immediate medical aid from Cuba, a Communist country in the same vein as our trusted trading partner, Communist China, was refused. The only reason the U.S. embargo on Cuba continues is so politicians can secure the vote of populous south Florida. No matter that the mostly poor remaining residents of New Orleans 9th Ward had to suffer for days waiting for proper medical attention. We couldn't upset the Cuban voting bloc in Miami by letting the skilled doctors from Cuba in to help New Orleans now could we?

This author is trained in specific disaster management techniques. Years of work in India, Haiti, and even SE Washington, DC honed those skills to a very effective edge. When I contacted Federal officials the day after Katrina to offer my help I was told I would be immediately arrested if I crossed the police barricades south of Baton Rouge. The person at DHS told me specifically that local and state officials had everything under control.

Waste, corruption, and incompetence in the Army Corps of Engineers gave us the problems associated with the faulty Mississippi River levees. The Dutch, experts at keeping the North Sea out of their nation had long offered to help reduce the problem of flooding in New Orleans. Billions of dollars were spent on poorly designed systems that were supposed to contain that mighty river. Important wetlands areas, necessary for absorbing the storm surge, were converted to other uses over the decades.

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The fact that too many National Guard troops were deployed in the effort to colonize Iraq also slowed assistance to stranded New Orleans residents. A large percentage of the Louisiana National Guard was busy guarding the new U.S. colony of Iraq at the time.

"The issue goes way beyond Bush's decision to invade Iraq in the middle of the war in Afghanistan. U.S. government literally broke down during the Bush years. The interagency process was destroyed as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld set up what was effectively a 'black' alternative government. . . . The White House treated its coequal branch, Congress, like an interloper (to the annoyance of Republicans as well as Democrats). Junk science infected the policy-making apparatus on key issues of importance to our allies in Europe and Asia, like global warming. Junk legal reasoning by White House and Justice Department lawyers was used to publicly justify torture, decimating our once high moral stature around the world. Junk economics--an excess of free-market fervor--infected the Federal Reserve and other regulators, who slumbered while Wall Street ran amok selling fraudulent mortgage securities to foreign markets. Congress went to sleep while the administration ran up record deficits. . . . The Department of Homeland Security, misconceived and oversized even at its birth, grew into an unmanageable monstrosity, leading directly to the disaster of the Hurricane Katrina response. . . ." - Michael Hirsh writing for Newsweek magazine.
At a recent meeting with a government health official I learned that many places in the U.S. still lack proper disaster response plans, almost 7 years after the events of September 11, 2001. It really came as no surprise given the Bush Administration's focus on extraordinary rendition, aka kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment without trial.

In the long run, the people most affected by these disasters are the ones that remember the failings of their government the most. When millions are impacted by disaster the memory of such tragic events is burned into the minds of a larger slice of society. It will always be impossible to censor the suffering and death of so many families from the general public. Government responses to natural disasters and the human greed this exposes, may bring a type of social revolution to these broken societies. Let us hope this occurs in Burma, China, and the U.S., despite the all efforts by those same corrupt leaders to cover up their crimes.


Burma Aid Blockage is Mass Murder
Jacques Rogge Defends China Brutality in Tibet
BBC diary of Burma Relief Efforts
BBC coverage of Sichuan Earthquake
Guardian coverage of Sichuan Earthquake
Washington Post coverage of Sichuan Earthquake
New York Times coverage of Sichuan Earthquake

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