Puerto Rico: Disaster Colonialism Strikes Again
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN, 16 Jul 2018
Jun 2018 – Disaster capitalism? Shock Doctrine? Whatever you want to call it, these terms are used to describe what has happened to countries hit hard by natural disasters. For Haiti, it was the 2010 earthquake. For Puerto Rico, it’s the recent 2017 mega-hurricane Maria. It’s just the latest for countries colonized and neo-colonized for decades.
These island nations were already feeling the strong arm of structural adjustment—and in Haiti’s case, outright occupation—but these catastrophes that destroyed the majority of the infrastructure exacerbated the situation, resulting in massive displacement and unbridled privatization. And perhaps to make matters even worse, it’s the people who are blamed for the failures of recovery.
Most of you have read the headlines:
“Category 4 Hurricane Maria hits the island of Puerto Rico wiping out most of the infrastructure! Trump Administration slow to respond.”
“They want everything done for them when this should be a community effort.” (Donald Trump talking about Puerto Ricans in response to the hurricane.)
Maria hit landfall on September 20, 2017, and it made a direct hit. Eight months later, much of the island is still without water and electricity. Some estimate that one third to a half of the population is still affected. It is the largest blackout in US history and is not going to end anytime soon. This has had dire consequences, especially for those who are elderly and/or sick. Think about it: How can people get the medical care they need, such as dialysis, if there is no electricity? As of January, the majority of hospitals were still using makeshift power. Although the official death count is 64, even the mainstream media estimates that it is more than 1500. This number doesn’t account for those who will die prematurely due to bad medical care. Then too, how do children go to school without electricity? How do people live without potable water? How do computers work? In other words, how can everyday life occur, let alone a recovery?
Tens of thousands are still without the well-known blue temporary tarps given out by FEMA. (Port-au-Prince is still dotted with similar tarps.) The Federal Government says it has no idea how many people are seeking unemployment compensation. In December, it stated that there was 10% unemployment, but Puerto Ricans themselves know that the figure is much, much higher.
These statistics mask many deeper problems stemming from Puerto Rico’s colonial status, which in turn is responsible for its massive debt of $70 billion. This debt is due to a combination of privatization, fiscal mismanagement, and the consistent looting and bankrupting of Puerto Rico by Wall Street. The island is under a federal receivership plan called PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, signed by President Obama in May 2016). The answer to the debt was further structural adjustment which was already threatening the livelihoods of Puerto Ricans. Blackouts have been common, workers have been laid off, and schools and hospitals have been closed. Ironically, promesa in Spanish means “promise”!
Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico had the worst drinking water of any “state”—70% of its water was already contaminated. Its electrical grid was sorely outdated, overly expensive, and prone to blackouts. The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Puerto Rico needs 50,000 utility poles and 6,500 miles of cable to restore its power system. It compared the situation to Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
In December there were more blackouts—the parts of the island that had actually had their power restored were again without electricity. The answer to this? When Puerto Rico asked the Federal Government for a loan of one billion dollars to restore its grid, it was turned down and given only $300 million. The Federal judge overseeing the loan request claimed it made bad fiscal policy. Those in charge of the electrical grid said this will only be enough to stave off disaster for the next few months. Already, San Juan is without power much of the time, and more brownouts are being planned. Clearly, this is just one more step towards privatization. Thus, electricity will be more expensive and more Puerto Ricans will be out of work.
It’s the Shock Doctrine!
It is now universally acknowledged that the aid response to the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti was really just a party for graft, corruption, and privatization. It was and remains a giant rip-off. The earthquake is considered one of the worst national disasters in modern history. Three-hundred-thousand people were killed in its aftermath. Entire towns were wiped out, and over one million people were displaced and rendered homeless.
In the eight years since, billions of dollars have supposedly been raised. Celebrities, charities, and NGOs are still talking about how “they’re giving back” by going to “help Haiti.” Yet most of the money has gone into the pockets of everyone except those needing it most.
In Puerto Rico, it’s not just the NGOs, it’s a classic case of crony capitalism. At a time when rural areas are still without power and water, the Governor’s wife is raising millions of dollars (so far $27 million) for her own pet project of national parks. It’s not clear where this money has really gone.
Haiti and Puerto Rico
The IMF, known for implementing draconian austerity measures, recently worked out a deal with the Haitian Government. While it purports to want to alleviate poverty, its method is to both privatize and hike up prices especially for essentials like fuel.
A few months after the earthquake, Hillary Clinton famously declared, “Haiti is open for business!” Yet even the particular business she touted—a South Korean-owned low-wage textile factory—has proven to be a bust with little of the promised jobs or output. Corruption is rampant.
It’s the same in Puerto Rico. Two examples: A company in Atlanta with only one employee received a contract for $156 million to deliver 30 million freeze dried meals to the island, where 80% of the agriculture has been wiped out. The company delivered only 30,000 of those meals.
Whitefish Energy, a Montana based company, had only two employees on the day Maria hit the island. But it had close ties to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior. It was given a $300 million contract to restore power—despite the fact that it actually had little capability to do so. Eventually, the Puerto Rican Government itself had to cancel the contract.
After the 2010 earthquake, Pierre-Marie Boisson of E-Power, the company contracted to privatize Haiti’s electricity, said, “Earthquakes should be an opportunity because they destroy. Where earthquakes destroy, we have to build. When we have to build we can create jobs, we can create a lot of changes, we can change a country.”
Compare this to: “What happened here is a perfect storm,” said Halsey Minor, the founder of the news site CNET, who is moving his new blockchain company, called Videocoin, to Puerto Rico this winter. Speaking of the hurricane, he said, “While it was really bad for the people of Puerto Rico, in the long term it’s a godsend if people look past that.”
This is an ominous development. In the 19th century, businessmen such as J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie accumulated enormous wealth, in large part by “opening up the West.” Manifest Destiny justified the takeover and genocide of indigenous land and resources. Settler colonialism moved those people out and so called “Americans” in.
As the New York Times reported in February, Puerto Rico is being viewed as the perfect place for a crypto utopia. Investors who have made millions in the new digital “cryptocurrency” are buying up huge swathes of land, hoping to create their own “paradise”—a land with no personal income tax, no capital gains tax, very accommodating business taxes, and no threat to American citizenship.
Rich American male crypto-entrepreneurs, (representing the worst of “tech-bro” culture), have already taken over hotels and even a former children’s museum in San Juan. (This while Puerto Rican art museums are reporting major problems in reopening.) These guys are salivating over the prospect of buying up land in the former naval base at Roosevelt Roads. Wealthy Americans were already displacing many Puerto Ricans—seeing Puerto Rico as either a perfect vacation spot or one to retire in. It’s gentrification on a country-wide scale. It’s a depopulation project, and the hurricane furthered that process at an alarming rate.
There are other consequences. The economic disaster in Puerto Rico was already causing an uptick in an underground economy and violence, both of which are now growing. So is prostitution—and since most of these “cryptobarons” are men, this will undoubtedly increase and even flourish.
Unlike the big pharmaceutical corporations, which caused immense environmental and health damage, but still provided at least some jobs, these cryptocurrencies offer little employment—except for servants—and leave Puerto Ricans little choice but to succumb to these new robber barons’ desires or leave.
And Puerto Ricans are leaving in massive numbers. In an historic first, there are now more Puerto Ricans residing outside the island than living there. They have no choice. Students have to go to school, but the university is still not fully operational. People have to work and have to have housing, but unemployment is staggeringly high, and so much housing has been destroyed. Over 135,000 have left, many going to Florida and Texas. It’s only going to get worse.
The same has happened in Haiti. Since the earthquake and devastating hurricanes, Haitians have been forced to flee in massive numbers to destinations such as Brazil, Chile, and now Argentina, where their labor is exploited. Similar to blaming Puerto Ricans, Donald Trump has issued racist statements against the robbed Haitian population and terminated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for the beneficiaries forced out of Haiti and now living in the US.
The economic crisis was already pushing Governor Rossello to privatize all aspects of public life. This includes education. Already last winter, Rossello planned to close over 300 schools. One-hundred-fifty have been closed already, with more on the way. Rossello and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have a plan to extensively privatize the schools. They want to bring in charter school companies, for which there is little oversight, and provide vouchers for private schools. There has been pushback from teachers’ unions and educators, but at this point it looks like the plan will go through, if not in totality, then in a smaller initial trial run, resulting in more and more school shutdowns.
Many schools are still operating without full power, and school districts with large Puerto Rican populations in the US are jumping in to help. One example is a school in Paterson, New Jersey which is providing resources and delegations to Barranquitas—the hometown of one of its teachers. However, it all comes with a twist. New Jersey has a shortage of bilingual teachers, so one of the goals of these delegations is to recruit teachers away from the island and into New Jersey school districts.
As one school official stated, “The disaster relief effort presented an opportunity for the district to conduct its recruiting more directly. It’s not just a matter of adopting a school in Puerto Rico, we want to create a pipeline of educators.”
The Puerto Rican Community Responds
The hurricane has also sparked solidarity and activism among communities and community organizers, both in Puerto Rico and throughout the diaspora.
Jose Lopez, director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, put it this way: “There is an awakening of the Puerto Rican diaspora—more than I have ever seen. People are chipping in as never before. In Chicago we have sent three planeloads with direct food and medical supplies. Communities have raised money for micro grants; we’re helping to rebuild institutions. There is a growing symbiosis.”
This sentiment was echoed by Silvia Torres, a Bay Area activist. “We have always seen ourselves as Puerto Ricans, with close family ties to the island, but now we are being integrated as never before. We know it’s our responsibility to help.”
When Oscar Lopez Rivera visited California in May 2017, he talked about the goal of Puerto Rican self-actualization: “Now that the hurricane is forcing us to be more self-reliant, there are great possibilities to create something new. Unity is being forged among forces who hitherto might have had differences that kept them apart.”
Days after the hurricane, people from all over the island began to build “Mutual Support Centers” (Centros de Apoyo Mutuo), coming together to rebuild their island and to make it self-sufficient. Soup kitchens and new buildings began to spring up. Communities are not only creating communal and cooperative agriculture but are rethinking how public spaces will be organized for cooperation for the future. There are over twenty such centers throughout the island, and there are plans for them to come together in a kind of consortium.
Young engineering and medical students whose schools are still not fully operational are going to rural areas and are partnering with environmentalists to develop new forms of agriculture, such as hydroponics. They are also working on more traditional forms of agriculture as well exploring new forms of energy.
Although Puerto Rico is a perfect place for both solar and wind energy, the rebuilding of the grid is not relying on them. Both of these, however, are within people’s means, being both accessible and cheap, so municipalities are pressuring the central government to use them. Solar energy in particular is the perfect vehicle for providing energy to both cities and rural areas.
It is clear that being part of the US is no guarantee of getting real Federal relief. People can just look at the examples of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, what is happening in Houston as the result of Hurricane Harvey. For Puerto Rico it is starker. Statehood for Puerto Rico is losing ground as an option.
In this era of extreme climate change, resulting in increasing natural disasters, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the rest of the Caribbean will continue to be hit hard. June 1 is designated as this year’s official start of the hurricane season, and no one has recovered from last year’s. The lessons already learned by the popular movements in both places will be invaluable as this crisis deepens. The resistance and organization of the Puerto Rican and Haitian people—and the solidarity that they receive—will have a great impact on the outcome.
Judith Mirkinson – President, San Francisco/Bay Area National Lawyers Guild
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