Workers Vanguard No. 1125
12 January 2018
Mexico: Earthquakes and Capitalist Criminal Negligence
The following article has been translated from Espartaco No. 48 (December 2017), which is published by the Grupo Espartaquista de México, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
Again on September 19, this time at 1:14 p.m., a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook the center of Mexico. At the time, the anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985 and left an estimated 20,000 dead and 100,000 homeless was being commemorated. It would appear to be calculated cruelty: the new earthquake struck a little over two hours after a national disaster drill took place. Barely 12 days earlier, an even more powerful 8.2 magnitude earthquake had rocked [the states of] Oaxaca and Chiapas.
In Mexico City, scenes from 1985 were replayed. On one hand were the terror and dismay of the population, millions of whom were scarred for life by the 1985 tragedy. On the other hand, thousands of youth and workers voluntarily mobilized to begin rescue work and gather and distribute food and tools. A contingent of Central American immigrants on their way to the U.S. border stopped in Oaxaca to offer help, risking deportation, while the Cuban deformed workers state sent a brigade of doctors, despite its scarcity of resources and the hostility of [Mexican president Enrique] Peña Nieto (a lackey of yanqui imperialism).
Even if the scale of this tragedy was not close to that of 1985, according to official figures the recent earthquakes left 471 people dead, mainly in Mexico City, where 228 died. Eighty-three people died in Oaxaca and 74 in Morelos state. Although the disaster in Mexico City’s exclusive Roma and Condesa neighborhoods dominated the news, poor areas in the south of the capital were practically devastated, as were impoverished towns in Oaxaca, Morelos, Chiapas and Puebla. Hundreds of thousands of Mexico City inhabitants were left without potable water. According to the Secretary of the Interior, 2.3 million people were left homeless in Oaxaca and Chiapas. But it isn’t nature that should be blamed as centrally responsible for the loss of human lives—it’s the capitalist system, which necessarily generates class inequality and subordinates the very lives of the poor to the production of profits.
When the bourgeoisie and its government speak of “natural disasters,” they are simply trying to cover up the criminal negligence and priorities of the capitalist system. Some of the collapsed buildings in the capital were poorly built multifamily residential buildings intended to house workers’ families; other buildings had been opened only a few months before they caved in. In rural and semi-rural areas, many of the homes that collapsed had been built or expanded by workers or peasants on their own, with whatever materials they could afford and with scant structural planning.
The earthquakes exposed a small part of the enormous web of corruption connected to the unfettered real estate speculation that unites all levels of the government, the capitalist parties (the PRI [ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party], the PAN [right-wing National Action Party], the PRD [nationalist-populist Party of the Democratic Revolution], Morena [Movement for National Regeneration, a split from the PRD], etc.) and private consortiums. Between 2000 and 2012, under federal PAN governments some seven million homes of “social interest” (for the poor) were built, the bulk of which are simply uninhabitable—rinky-dink dumps in remote housing developments lacking any services, prone to fire and likely to collapse with the wind and rain.
A handful of capitalists have augmented their already massive fortunes through these schemes, which involve Wall Street and imperialist institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (see “Mexico’s Housing Debacle,” Los Angeles Times, 26 November 2017). At the bottom of society, due to extremely onerous mortgages, hundreds of thousands of working-class families have lost everything or are trapped in these unsanitary ghettos. Almost 150 years ago, Friedrich Engels, who together with Karl Marx founded scientific socialism, taught us that “the housing shortage is no accident; it is a necessary institution and it can be abolished together with all its effects on health, etc., only if the whole social order from which it springs is fundamentally refashioned” (The Housing Question, 1872).
The bourgeois media now speak of “solidarity” in an insulting campaign of flag-waving schmaltz. But the earthquakes showed, once again, the ineptitude, insatiable search for profit and disregard for human life and suffering on the part of the capitalist class, its state and its entire system. The 1985 earthquake brought to light the inhuman situation of industrial textile workers, especially women, when in the very center of the city almost 1,600 workers died. They were without a union, were paid miserable wages and were crammed into improvised workshops in rickety buildings packed with heavy machinery. Now, in the miserable Obrera neighborhood, a building collapsed that housed a dressmaking workshop and other businesses. To date, it’s not clear how many workers perished, given that in most cases textile workers lack any legal benefits, and thus there is no reliable count of the workforce.
The September 19 Seamstresses Union was born out of the 1985 catastrophe. Today it has been practically destroyed due to attacks by the government and the bourgeoisie. Mexican workers organizations have been the target of an incessant offensive by the bosses since the 1980s, in the face of which the bulk of the trade-union bureaucracies have simply ducked for cover. In 1985, unions like the SME electrical workers, which was destroyed in 2009 by the PAN’s [Felipe] Calderón, and the miners and steel workers mobilized to carry out rescue work. But this time the battered organizations of the working class were absent. The extensive solidarity that was displayed lacked the discipline, experience, skill and class content that only the workers movement could provide.
It is necessary to revitalize and strengthen the unions by organizing the masses of workers that do not have union representation. The existing union leaderships are without exception pro-capitalist bureaucracies that tie workers to one or another bourgeois party and inculcate in the working class the notion that the capitalist state is everlasting. To unchain the proletariat’s enormous social power, a struggle is needed to replace these bureaucracies with class-struggle leaderships committed to mobilizing the working class in the interest of all the exploited and oppressed.
Bourgeois State to the “Rescue”
With medical and rescue services overwhelmed, authorities asked the population for donations of everything from water, milk and tools to adrenaline. The shelters that were improvised were often unsanitary and exposed to inclement weather, especially in the countryside. At least a large part of the food and necessary supplies for the homeless came from the population. These donations were the object of innumerable cases of corruption by the government and bourgeois parties.
In this ever more militarized society, the government’s only plan when faced with disaster situations is the mass mobilization of the forces of the capitalist state (the army, the navy, the police); firemen, paramedics and other rescue services barely exist. While the military may have participated in rescue efforts, the overwhelming majority of soldiers and navy men do not have the slightest training for such tasks: their job is to repress. In fact, while there was no shortage of assault rifles, the detachments of soldiers lacked shovels, pickaxes and any basic tool for removing rubble in search of trapped survivors. The police, meanwhile, are the guard dogs of the bourgeoisie, plain and simple.
The bourgeois state is a machine of coercion directed against the exploited and oppressed at the service of the capitalists and their regime. In that vein, a central purpose of the state forces was to intimidate the population and protect private property from “looting,” i.e., desperate people procuring necessary consumables. The real looters are the capitalists, who squeeze out of the workers their very last drop of sweat and blood! Just as in 1985, the cuerpo de granaderos [riot police] soon cordoned off disaster areas to contain the indignation and rage of residents, who still did not know the fate of their relatives and friends when the government decided to end rescue efforts and bring in heavy machinery.
“Reconstruction” and Bourgeois Philanthropy
Oozing elitism, PRI president Peña Nieto, with Miguel Mancera of the PRD (head of the Mexico City government) at his side, announced with great fanfare that he would grant the capital’s homeless 3,000 pesos [approximately $160] a month to pay rent for up to three months—an amount barely enough to pay for a room. Owners of collapsed homes in the city will receive mortgage credits of up to two million pesos [$105,000] for 20 years at 9 percent annual interest. Those who lost everything, maybe even their families, can now acquire one more debt with the capitalist government and bloodsucking banks.
Peasants in Oaxaca and Chiapas were promised 120,000 pesos if their homes were destroyed and 15,000 if they only suffered “partial damage.” In Chiapas alone, almost 17,000 homes collapsed. The racist Peña Nieto sermonized that with the money, people should have enough to build “decent and dignified two-room” homes, as long as they don’t spend it on something else. This was an allusion to the vile stereotype of indigenous people spending all their money on alcohol.
Having promised 120,000 pesos, the cruel government reconsidered. Since a good number of homes still had a wall standing, such damage was in the end considered “partial.” So the government deducted 105,000 pesos from those affected. In any case, many of the homeless in the southeast have protested that they haven’t received a single peso, since they were given bankcards without funds.
The same builders who, hand-in-hand with the government, are centrally responsible for the tragedy will now make a killing from reconstruction, including of Catholic churches, which will be paid for out of public funds. However, in a display of Christian compunction, the “private initiative” (the bosses) donated four billion pesos, and the Vatican gave alms of $150,000 (not enough to rebuild even one of the lavish churches). That kind-hearted soul Carlos Slim [telecom magnate] “raised” 2.3 billion pesos, money that was “donated” basically by hundreds of thousands of people paying the monopolistic phone charges that allowed him to become one of the world’s richest men. Sweet philanthropy! As Engels wrote of the bourgeois philanthropic hypocrites in 19th-century England:
“As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then practicing your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them! Charity which degrades him who gives more than him who takes; charity which treads the downtrodden still deeper in the dust, which demands that the degraded, the pariah cast out by society, shall first surrender the last that remains to him, his very claim to manhood, shall first beg for mercy before your mercy deigns to press, in the shape of an alms, the brand of degradation upon his brow.”
—The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)
No Illusions in the
Now that the child has drowned, they want to cover the well. Facing popular pressure, [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador (AMLO) and his Morena promised to donate a little more than 100 million pesos for the homeless. The other capitalist parties will also donate part of the millions they get in subsidies to those affected by the earthquake, even though they, along with government authorities, had originally met the proposal with indignation. In the face of growing discontent, López Obrador wants to offer a little more carrot without easing up on the stick. AMLO is a bourgeois populist committed to the capitalist order—he and his Morena are no less enemies of proletarian victory than are the PRI, PAN and PRD.
AMLO bases his whole 2018 presidential campaign on rhetoric against the “corruption” of the “mafia in power.” But corruption is inevitable under capitalism. And don’t forget, it was successive PRD Mexico City governments—starting with López Obrador in 2000, when he was still in the PRD—that unleashed real estate speculation. Criminal corruption around permits and supervision of construction in the city occurred for the most part under its PRD governments, as well as borough administrations under Morena (in Cuauhtémoc, Tláhuac and Xochimilco) and the PAN (in Benito Juárez).
There is without a doubt disgust and anger at the capitalist rulers among the Mexican masses. After September 19, Secretary of the Interior Osorio Chong and municipal president Avelino Méndez Rangel of Morena confirmed this for themselves when they had to haul ass to save their hides from the fury of residents of Obrera and Xochimilco respectively. But what is missing is a class understanding. The masses’ miserable situation, as well as the rulers’ disdain for human welfare, are not the products of the policies of one or another party or individual, but rather are inevitable characteristics of the capitalist system based on private ownership of the means of production.
For a Workers and
Half of this country is in an area of intense seismic activity, and practically the entire coastline is under the annual threat of hurricanes. In Mexico City, one of the most populous cities in the world, danger from earthquakes is increased by the fact that a large part of it is built on a lakebed. Scientific institutions as well as the government were fully aware that a new and potentially catastrophic earthquake was just a matter of time. Though earthquakes, like other natural phenomena, are unpredictable, technology exists that can give the population some advance warning, depending on the distance from the epicenter. But preventing disasters is far from capitalism’s priority. In this society everything, including science, is subordinated to the enrichment of a handful. The agency responsible for the famous (and most often inaudible) seismic alert system is a private entity, an obscure civil association called CIRES, that offers early-warning systems for more than 50,000 pesos. And Mexico City’s supposedly strict anti-earthquake construction standards are worth nothing when making money is involved.
Incapable of providing everyone with safety, health care, decent housing and employment, capitalism deserves to perish. Against the bourgeoisie’s speculation and fraud, in order to reconstruct disaster zones and tackle unemployment, we are for an extensive plan of public works and housing improvement under union control—let the workers themselves ensure the quality of materials and construction—and for a sliding scale of wages and work hours. A struggle for goals like these would light the way toward the necessary revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. A workers and peasants government—the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry—would put science at the service of society, which would at least help minimize the effects of natural disasters.
Faced with rural misery, workers are forced to cram into cities in search of some way to survive, living in rooms as dismal as they are expensive and often lacking basic services. As a basic and immediate way to begin solving the housing problem, a workers state would expropriate the opulent residences of the possessing classes and open them to workers who are homeless or in overcrowded housing. We communists work to see the day when the true producers of society’s wealth occupy the mansions and luxury apartments of the Polanco and Las Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhoods…and the presidential residence at Los Pinos!
Workers and peasants in power would fight to overcome the contradiction between the city and the countryside. Such a regime would seek to eliminate ancestral rural backwardness by bringing all of modern society’s advances to the countryside: decent, comfortable housing; roads; schools; telecommunications; industry and scientific agriculture; etc. As a result, a huge, chaotic, overpopulated, dirty, polluted city like Mexico City, which is sinking and collapsing, could gradually be eliminated.
This perspective is not realizable without the international extension of the revolution, especially to advanced countries like the U.S. and other powers, which would put enormous resources inherited from imperialist capitalism at the service of the world’s vast dispossessed and oppressed masses. It is necessary to forge Leninist-Trotskyist parties, following the example and experience of the Bolsheviks who brought the Russian workers and peasants to power in 1917. Such parties would fight for socialist revolutions internationally to destroy capitalism and set the foundations for a new society, where those who labor rule, on the basis of the collectivization of the means of production. Humanity’s struggle against blind nature requires the expropriation of the capitalist expropriators and the establishment of an international planned economy dedicated to satisfying human needs.