Chile and Haiti: A Tale of Two Earthquakes

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Residents look at a building in Concepción, Chile, that collapsed during the Feb. 27 earthquake.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Chile early on Feb. 27 was 500 times stronger than the 7.0 quake that killed an estimated 200,000 Haitians last month. And yet the number of casualties in Chile appears to be exponentially smaller, with the official death toll still in the hundreds. Far fewer people were rendered homeless than in Haiti, and much of the telephone service in Santiago and parts of central Chile had been restored within five hours.

Comparisons between the two countries will no doubt be much discussed when the U.N. hosts a conference in New York City on March 31 to hash out how best to help Haiti rebuild. Donor governments already know why there was so much less destruction in Chile: it's because the government there forces builders to adhere to rigorous codes, while Haiti's incorrigible corruption and carelessness left such regulation all but nonexistent. On the global corruption index put out by Transparency International, a Berlin-based nonprofit that lists countries from the least to most corrupt, Chile ranks 25th and Haiti 168th. And while Chilean President Michelle Bachelet hit the streets on Saturday reassuring citizens about her government's earthquake response, Haitian President René Préval has been seemingly AWOL for weeks.

Both Chile and Haiti sit atop large, volatile fault lines. In recent decades, Chile has mandated earthquake-proofing for new structures, requiring that materials like rubber and features like counterweights be built into the architectural designs to allow buildings to bend and sway rather than break during temblors. Haiti, by contrast, lets its buildings rise with little if any input from engineers and plenty of bribes to so-called government inspectors. Structures have scant reinforcement and are often set on weak foundations. That's why 13 of 15 federal ministry buildings pancaked in the Jan. 12 earthquake — and why, in 2008, 91 students and teachers died when their school in a Port-au-Prince suburb collapsed. The school's owner was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after admitting he barely even used mortar to hold its concrete blocks together.

The Chile quake provides all the more reason to demand that, in return for billions of dollars in aid, Haiti must agree to terms that will force it to improve its abysmal governance. "The Chilean example will encourage donors to make the case that this is an opportunity to do things differently in Haiti — and do them right for a change," says Michael Shifter, vice president at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

To be fair, Haiti has had far less experience with earthquakes, and therefore earthquake preparedness, than Chile has. (Before Jan. 12, the last major quake to hit Port-au-Prince was in 1751.) There will, of course, be the apologists who insist it's unfair to compare a basket case like Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country, with a showcase like Chile, which has Latin America's highest per capita GDP and is set to become the first South American member of the exclusive, Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Chile can do things right, Haiti defenders argue, because it's more developed.

Wrong. It's the other way around: Chile is more developed because it's doing things right. The same goes for Brazil, Uruguay, Costa Rica and a handful of other Latin American and Caribbean nations that have decided in the 21st century to stop running their societies like medieval fiefdoms. They've conceded that niceties like rule of law, accountability, education, entrepreneurial opportunity and administrative efficiency actually have merit. And they've stopped making worn-out excuses, like the threats of communism or U.S. imperialism, for not modernizing their political and economic systems.

Granted, Haiti, a republic founded by former slaves who won their independence from France in 1801, has long been at a disadvantage thanks to lingering discrimination in the hemisphere and the world. (The U.S. wouldn't recognize Haiti until 1862, and Nicolas Sarkozy's visit there two weeks ago was, remarkably, the first ever by a French head of state.) As a result, the international community needs to give the country more comprehensive help than it's offered in the past. But such aid should not be delivered without an acknowledgment by Haiti's ultra-venal political and economic élite that the benighted way of doing things has got to end. Even Haiti's Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, conceded to TIME recently that reform "has to be a part of Haiti's rebuilding process."

Bellerive wouldn't go as far as to blame Haiti's élite for the more than 200,000 earthquake deaths. But those who doubt Haiti's ability to transform its government should note that Chile wasn't always an OECD candidate — it spent 17 years, from 1973 to 1990, under a brutal military dictatorship — and that Haitians are more than capable of emulating Chileans if given the chance.

Anyone in need of a dose of optimism about Haitians' ability to succeed should look at the Haitian diaspora, Shifter says, "which has proven to be remarkably entrepreneurial and resourceful" in ways it couldn't be under the corrupt, ossified system in their homeland. One of these émigrés is Serge Jean-Louis, a thriving Haitian-American construction contractor in South Florida. "I'm eager to fly back and help rebuild Haiti," he told TIME shortly after the quake. And chances are, he'll surpass Haiti's dismal standards and help rebuild more to the modern specs of Chile.