by Ryan Kresge
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
The ongoing humanitarian disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck on September 20 is exacerbated by the interplay of poverty, structural racism, militarism, and environmental degradation. These are identified as the “four evils” being denounced by the New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, led nationally by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Puerto Rico suffers from todos los males juntos – all of the bad things – that have made a natural disaster into a continuing “people-are-dying story.” It is imperative that we contextualize the devastation in Puerto Rico as a part of the war against the poor and dispossessed more generally.
In this sense, Puerto Rico is more than just Puerto Rico: it is one important canary in our collective coal mine. While we acknowledge and support the push for a “people’s recovery,” Puerto Rico’s crisis is a strong indictment of a system that would make possible such widespread suffering. Impoverishment, racism and U.S. militarism throughout Puerto Rico’s history and today have together made it possible for a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria to have such deep and devastating social consequences on the island. Elements of the island’s colonial legacy and current status as an unincorporated U.S. territory have set the stage for the slow and inadequate official response. We will incorporate an interview with Dr. Enrique Gonzalez-Conty, an Ithaca College Spanish professor, to ground the historical analysis in lived experience. Gonzalez-Conty visited his family a month after the hurricane to bring supplies and help with reconstruction efforts.
Hurricane Maria struck the island with devastating consequences. The United States government has yet to respond on an appropriate scale given the fact that Puerto Ricans are both human beings and U.S. citizens. Gonzalez-Conty noted that lack of access to clean water and food has been a major part of the ongoing emergency and has likely contributed to hundreds of deaths in the weeks after the storm: “I went a month after the hurricane so things, at least the roads, were cleared up but you could still feel the emergency. I went to different supermarkets to buy water and there was no drinkable water. The lines were huge. That tells you how critical the situation is.” He added that many have gotten dangerously ill from drinking contaminated water. “Puerto Rico has a lot of springs, but it’s not safe to drink,” he said. “People have been in desperate situations and if they’re going to survive they’re going to drink whatever they can.”
Another obstacle to recovery is electricity. The island’s electric grid remains largely destroyed. The possibility of restoring the power grid is hampered by $9 billion in debt already owed by the power authority. Further, in some areas almost 90 percent of houses were destroyed. This begs the question, who will rebuild these areas given the vast poverty and debt of the working class?
Gonzalez-Conty said, “What’s worrisome is that the debt is going to rise. Even if people are dying, they still take advantage of the situation. As harsh as that is, and as crazy as that sounds, that’s how it works. In Spanish we call it ‘Capitalismo salvaje,’ or savage capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t have a heart, and it doesn’t care if people are dying. It just needs to make money.”
The privatization of industry on Puerto Rico for the benefit of the rich is continuing in the face of dying Puerto Ricans. Gonzalez-Conty spoke to the history of privatization on Puerto Rico: “The electric authority in Puerto Rico is one of the last of the national industries that hasn’t yet been privatized. For example, they sold the airport and the telephone company. The father of [current governor] Ricardo Rosselló, Pedro Rosselló, was the governor in the ’90s, and he sold the telephone company. It was a huge fight because people in Puerto Rico didn’t want it to be sold, but the neoliberal mentality is to privatize everything. That destroys unions, which is another goal. It’s a war against workers, which is something the Poor People’s campaign talks about. It’s a class war.”
The electricity infrastructure was largely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, and the rebuilding of the infrastructure is in danger of being hawked to private companies. Puerto Ricans protested and defeated a $300 million contract with a largely unknown Montana-based company named Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC in October, but other privatization efforts are ongoing.
In the vein of the Poor People’s campaign, one can look to Puerto Rico’s history for examples of injustice that benefit the elite. That is, Puerto Ricans have U.S. passports, but they aren’t guaranteed the same privileges as most U.S. citizens. This exclusion dates back to Puerto Rico’s inception, and has been maintained by several legislative acts.
In 1917 Congress passed the the Merchant Marine Act, or the Jones Act, which demands that all ships entering a U.S. port from another U.S. port be made and owned by Americans. For Puerto Rico, this creates a dependence on U.S. goods. Further, the Jones Act created a tax haven for the ruling elite by making all the interest on bonds issued by the Puerto Rican government tax exempt on the national, state, and municipal level. This prompted investment in Puerto Rico by the U.S. ruling elite.
The unsustainable issuing of bonds worsened an already precarious economic position by encouraging a massive accumulation of wealth by corporations or investors who then aren’t required to pay taxes while the government of Puerto Rico consistently failed to meet their bottom line. The issuing of bonds to stimulate economic growth and pay debts coupled with the existence of tax havens creates a burden on the working class to bail out a government that is more interested in promoting business interests than they are in caring for their people.
When a sector of society is shackled with massive debt, it is unlikely to have the resources, time, and power to prepare for more sporadic and intense natural disasters. The U.S. government has been preparing for the impacts of climate change since at least 2004.
They released a Quadrennial Homeland Security Review in 2014 which states, “[given] the increasing number of natural disasters with more costly and variable consequences—driven by trends, such as climate change, aging infrastructure, and shifts in population density … it is imperative to build and sustain core capabilities to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover rom the most high-risk threats and hazards.” Climate change is disproportionately impacting those who have been forced to the fringes right now. If the government has been preparing for the impacts of climate change since 2004, why has the response to Hurricane Maria been so lacking?
Gonzalez-Conty diagnosed this problem by pointing to the power that hydrocarbon companies have in government: “Some of the environmentalists on Puerto Rico are trying to push solar energy and move away from petroleum-powered electricity. Of course, the government is not supporting that. Why not? Because, as in the U.S., the oil companies have a lot of influence. They pay for the campaigns that allow the officials to be in office, so they have bought politicians on the island.” Further, given the concentration of 40 U.S. military bases on Puerto Rico, emergency response been slow, especially in rural and mountainous areas. A military with the capacity to deploy deadly force or humanitarian aid to any point on the planet within 24 hours should be able to assist U.S. citizens on an island smaller than the state of Connecticut.
As we analyze disaster response, we must consider historical context: the key role Puerto Rico has played as a U.S. center for militarization. Since its annexation in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, there have been several methods of labor manipulation that have maintained the function of Puerto Rico as U.S. military outpost and producer. Puerto Rico has gone through several waves of restructuring the labor force.
In the colonial period and directly after, Puerto Rico’s primary industry was sugar. When that became economically inviable, the island’s workforce was transitioned to industrial production, specifically with the implementation of “Operation Bootstrap” in 1947. Finally, in 1981 the island’s economy was reoriented to military industry. All the while, starting in World War I, Puerto Ricans were serving in military forces that fought for U.S. intervention, and ultimately U.S.-based business interests, throughout Latin America. Puerto Rico has gone through many colonial and neocolonial stages that have perpetuated Puerto Ricans’ systematic exclusion from enjoying the fruits of their own labor, because they are a source of labor, resources, and strategic military position for the US.
In the face of this historical oppression, the Puerto Rican people have found more than devastation. There are countless narratives about communities banding together to supply themselves with the necessities of life. Gonzalez-Conty said, “I saw also saw more than negatives. I saw people helping each other and creating community projects, which gives me hope. For example, I went to Humacao, which is the southeast of the island where the hurricane hit full on. That part of the island had the worst devastation. People have been creating community kitchens to cook for the whole neighborhood. It is called Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana. They cook for 350 people.”
In the words of Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. Barber, “This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness, not from the top down, but from the bottom up.” Meaningful change will come in the form of bottom-up, community-based solutions to the struggles that arise out of historical exploitation. People directly affected by problems often come up with the most creative and effective strategies for solving them – knowing the extent and complexity of a problem is essential.
In Puerto Rico, there are communities without electricity, so instead of waiting for the electrical grid to be rebuilt by a centralized (and most likely privatized) industry they are demanding community-owned solar power. It may have taken a devastating hurricane to bring that possibility to the forefront, but the possibility now exists to rebuild in a different way.