While mindful of the dangers of lazy historical comparisons, a couple of historical parallels with contemporary events have recently come to my attention recently. My first reference point is the history of modern Bangladesh, the ‘basket case’ par excellence of climate change era. Specifically, its traumatic early 1970s: formative years in that country’s history when Bengalis rose against neo-colonial Pakistani rule in a period of cyclones, war, displacement, and famine. These were foundational crises that help explain that country’s surprising later successes in economic and human development. My second reference point is President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
It is tempting to think that all successful world leaders possess at least one piece of political wisdom: how they handle ‘natural’ disasters is central to their legitimacy with the masses they seek to govern. This is as true of America, the richest and most powerful country in the world, as it is of Bangladesh, the country that Henry Kissinger famously labelled ‘not… our basket case’. In the United States this century alone, bad management of Katrina cost President George W. Bush and the Republican party popularity, while better handling of Hurricane Sandy eased President Barack Obama’s second victory. Comparisons between politicians’ responses are inevitable. In one memorable attack on President Trump’s response to the Texas floods following Hurricane Harvey in August, a former White House photographer contrasted the campaigning style of disaster management in the case of Harvey with the personal moral concern demonstrated by President Obama to Hurricane Sandy, and indeed by other US Presidents such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Trump’s mismanaged response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico immediately brought to mind the political ineptitude of the Pakistani government’s management of the 1970 Bhola cyclone in Bangladesh / East Pakistan. The latter storm hit a population with nothing to protect it, killing as many as half a million people. A year after the disaster, a million people still depended on relief. Half a century later and halfway around the world, Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017, killing 48 people and destroying its weak infrastructure. A month later, there was little sign of a return to normality. The media broadcast that around a million Puerto Ricans (one-third of all families) had no access to safe water and many were beginning to resort to dangerous sources of water. Three million people had no power and food security was also at risk. Work was ongoing, but states on the US mainland had recovered far quicker, and with, apparently, far more generous provisions of personnel and cash. The parallels between the responses of the authoritarian government of Pakistan, under General Yahya Khan, and those of the elected (although not by the population of Puerto Rico) government of the United States, under Trump, are striking enough.
But the conditions of rice farmers on the fringe islands in the Bay of Bengal are a world away from those of the American citizens of Puerto Rico a half century later. In a key respect, the Bengalis were arguably better off. General Khan, President of Pakistan, was tasked with bringing about the first real democratic elections in that still new state in 1970. The legacy of the Pakistani authorities’ almost implausibly inept and careless disaster response just before democratic elections was a stunning East Pakistani victory, followed by a bloody civil war that liberated East Bengalis from the yoke of West Pakistani neo-colonial rule. By contrast, the careless response to Hurricane Maria has if anything underlined the subordinate position of Puerto Ricans under US imperial rule: they have no Congressional representation and cannot vote for the President, so it does not really matter what they think. Many American citizens on the mainland, including Texans who were themselves affected by recent tropical storms, do not even think Puerto Ricans should be entitled to federal assistance.
Puerto Rico seems unlikely to liberate itself from American imperial power in the near future. But there is little doubt that his handling of Maria has lost Trump – and by extension, America – popular legitimacy in that island nation surrounded by big, ocean water. Whether or not this will materially change the direction of US politics remains to be seen.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. Her work focuses on the political economy of development, focusing in particular on the politics of subsistence crises. Recent books include The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s unexpected success (Oxford University Press, 2017), and Food Riots, Food Rights and the Politics of Provisions (Routledge, 2017). She tweets about food, feminism, and development @nomhossain.