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Storms, Colonial Chains, and US Cruelty

The condition of the infrastructure on the island is the product not only of the economic crisis that Puerto Rico has been trapped in for more than a decade, but even more so of the criminal conduct of the US.

Héctor Reyes

October 4, 2017
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My uncle picked me up at the airport and took me directly to Pavía Hospital in Hato Rey, a relatively new hospital. Afterwards, we went to his home to brace for the storm. As we made our way to his house, which lies atop a hill that oversees San Juan, its airport, and the city of Carolina, I watched as the neighbors of a condominium complex joined a crew of workers in frantically clearing dozens of large branches and trees that had been downed by Hurricane Irma less than two weeks earlier.

When Maria hit, there were several regions on the Island that had not recovered yet from the damages caused by Hurricane Irma. There were people who were still waiting to have their electrical power restored. Irma devastated the Island’s infrastructure, which had been in a state of neglect for a long time, particularly the power grid. The condition of the infrastructure on the Island is the product not only of the economic crisis that Puerto Rico has been trapped in for more than a decade, but even more so of the criminal conduct of the U.S., having kept the Island under colonial control for 119 years.

The colonial trap

Since the early 1950s, the U.S. has proclaimed to the world that Puerto Rico was not its colony, that it had made a special arrangement with the Island (the Estado Libre Asociado, ELA), only to recognize last year, through all three branches of the federal government, that it was not true, that Puerto Rico was an unincorporated territory of the U.S. In lay language this means that Puerto Rico is not part of the U.S. but that it belongs to it nonetheless. That is the definition of a colony. And for generations the direction of our economy has been at the mercy of the caprice and priorities of the U.S. government, its wealthiest citizens, and its wealthy corporations. By the 1980s, the ELA (colonial) economic model was sputtering, and by the 1990s, President Bill Clinton hammered the last nail in its coffin by phasing out over 10 years the 936 IRS code that provided a number of tax exemptions for U.S. corporations operating on the Island — many of them greedy octopi such as the pharmaceutical companies. By 2006, many manufacturers had left the Island. And that is when the colonial economy entered into a recession that it has not been able to escape yet.

The only lever left to the colonial politicians was to borrow money through the recurrent issuing of various kinds of bonds, Ponzi-scheme style, to fund its obligations, both to the people and to the holders of older bonds. The chickens finally came home to roost, and when the government was not able to continue repaying its debt, a joint operation between President Obama and the Republican Congress put together what is known as the PROMESA Law (a cruel joke, for promesa in Spanish means promise), which imposed a financial oversight board (known in Puerto Rico as the Junta [board]).

All of the board members were jointly appointed by Obama and Congress, and Puerto Ricans had absolutely no say in its composition. PROMESA and the Junta are a draconian imposition that make the financial control boards of Detroit and Flint, Michigan pale in comparison. The law is so far-reaching that it allows the Junta to override any financially-related decision made by any elected body, both municipal or “state”-wide, and any elected official who refuses to comply with its dictates can be prosecuted and imprisoned. All Puerto Rican budgets and resources can be changed and molded after the Junta’s whims. Any pretense of local democracy has been finally squashed by the federal government.

The government-owned power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), had its own financial oversight board before the Junta took over the Island. The Junta fired the mini-Junta at PREPA (also appointed by the feds), for it had shown crass incompetence and wasted tens of millions of dollars that not only did not improve the PREPA system but also failed to make a dent in its debt. The net result was that the infrastructure of the whole electrical power system continued to deteriorate, particularly the power transmission and distribution components. Thus, when Hurricane Irma hit, 80 percent of customers lost their power. Now, after Maria, 100 percent of users lost their power.

Loss and devastation

With a nauseating sense of timing and lack of decency, the Junta announced less than a week before Maria ravaged the Island that it intended to privatize PREPA. In fact, there are already two private power generating plants operating on the Island—one fueled by gas, and the other one by coal. The coal plant has been generating large amounts of coal ash—which is very harmful to humans and the environment, loaded with heavy metals and containing concentrated levels of radioactive metals. There have been vigorous protests for months against the dumping of this ash at the landfill in the town of Peñuelas, for obvious health concerns. However, in one of the lesser-known incidents instigated by Maria, tons of the ash that had been piled up next to the coal plant in the town of Guayama, were totally swept up by the hurricane winds, exposing the whole Island and beyond to this poison. It is possible that drinking water and agricultural soil have been contaminated by this ash.

Most of the Island was left without water, electricity, and communication. Those who have power, have it because they own diesel or propane-fueled power generators. And those who have water, have it because they installed clean water holding tanks on their roofs. Yet these water reserves will only last for a limited time, and diesel has become increasingly scarce.

I spent nine heart-wrenching days on the Island. I felt the fury of winds so powerful that they broke the welding on several segments of my uncle’s one and a half-inch thick fence and blew them away like paper. I saw and felt the effect of having no water for days and figuring out ways to flush our toilets. My cousin’s husband told me that they had to relieve themselves on pieces of plastic that they would cover with a second piece of plastic and throw into the garbage dumpster.

A major problem not addressed publicly yet is that as of September 30, there was no garbage collection in many parts of the Island. I saw the piles of garbage bags vastly overflowing the dumpsters. This has the potential of turning into a major public health crisis, with rats spreading everywhere and the possibility of intestinal infections growing throughout the population, at a time when most hospitals are either not operational or operating at a small fraction of their capacity.

The lack of oxygen at hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes is a major threat to the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. There are news reports that up to 200 people have already died due to lack of oxygen at healthcare facilities. My uncle, who we thought was on his deathbed at Pavía Hospital and was only kept alive by the hospital’s oxygen, was released from the hospital into his nursing home, sending his daughter on a frantic but unsuccessful search for an oxygen tank in case that he had a relapse of his pneumonia. The Pavía Hospital had its emergency room completely blown away by the hurricane, as well as its nursery section.

The scale of the destruction by winds and flooding is unbearable. In just one town, Aguas Buenas, 3,000 homes have been lost. This translates into approximately one third of this town’s population becoming homeless overnight. 70,000 people had to be evacuated from the towns of Quebradillas, Isabela, and Hatillo when the dam of Lake Guajataca was reported fractured and about to collapse.

Every day, people stand in lines for hours–multiple lines for various needs. I saw lines as long as a quarter-mile long day after day, at multiple gasoline stations. I heard many stories about people standing in those lines for four to six hours only to be turned away because the gas station ran out of fuel. And if you got to pump gas, you were allowed to pump only 10 to 15 dollars worth of gasoline. One woman stepped away from the gasoline line, went to a bridge and jumped off in an attempt to commit suicide. Diesel has become a lifeline, for it is the only way that people can get electricity through their power generators. People stand for hours in those lines with their diesel containers. My 84-year old father does. I did not have any way to contact him for 13 days. It took me a week to find out from another person that he was okay, and I was on the Island. The Puerto Rican diaspora living in the U.S. has gone through anxiety-filled days, many more than a week, trying to get a hold of loved ones, wondering if they have been hurt, if they lost their houses, or if perhaps the unthinkable happened.

Since most communications are down, electronic payments through debit and credit cards are not possible, so businesses are only accepting cash, including the gas stations. Therefore, there are long lines, several blocks long, of people trying to get cash from the banks, which will only allow $50 withdrawals. If you have to pay cash for gas, food, and every necessity, those $50 are spent quickly. The people whose jobs depend on providing services, like restaurants, are out of work at night, not only because of the lack of water and power, but because of the curfew imposed by the governor, initially from 6 PM to 6 AM, which has forced many businesses to close early. Thus, many of these young folks working in the service industry are desperate, with no income, reluctantly considering leaving the Island.

Colonial servitude and imperial brazenness

The problems of distribution of fuel alone are a basic failure of leadership and coordination by Gov. Ricardo Roselló and his administration. Roselló claimed 20 or more days worth of fuel reserves were available, but these are worth nothing if the fuel doesn’t get distributed to the people. You just cannot leave this key logistical issue at the mercy of individual players and the “free market”, for there is deep chaos, many roads are not drivable, and the lack of communication makes it hard to connect with individual truck drivers. All of this needs to be coordinated. Yet the Roselló government has chosen to take a step back and let the U.S. military supposedly rescue us. And the military is acting in its natural role as an occupying force. People don’t see the “epic” trucks, equipment, airplanes, helicopters, etc., clearing roads, bringing in desperately needed repair materials from outside the Island, dropping off supplies in inaccessible places. I saw many of them flying around from my uncle’s house, at the top of a hill straddling Trujillo Alto and San Juan. I could see the airport and the planes arriving and departing. But people across the Island are not seeing any significant aid delivered. So much for this mighty military apparatus, so good at delivering destruction many thousands of miles away, in a matter of hours, yet apparently incapable of bringing in supplies, food, and repair equipment to an Island that is barely 1,000 miles away from Miami. To an Island that imports 80 percent of its food and whose crops have been completely wiped out. The dairy industry will take years to recover because large numbers of cattle were killed by the storm.

Gov. Roselló, who was humiliated when he held a referendum back in June on the desire of Puerto Ricans to choose to become the 51st state of the U.S., and more than 77 percent of the electorate boycotted it, seems to be on a sadistic quest to prove a point about the desirability of statehood by stepping back and hoping that the feds will “rescue” the Island. Yet FEMA is providing a lesson of disdain and incompetence, while the U.S. military acts like an occupying force. I heard reports of Marines deployed in the El Condado area of San Juan, which is full of hotels and U.S. American tourists, with their assault rifles at hand. Yet these military forces seem incapable of providing any meaningful assistance. The port of San Juan was full of cargo containers with supplies that were not being distributed. Out of 7,000 containers, 5,400 were still at the port on September 29th.

Roselló’s administration is grossly underreporting the number of the dead, claiming that less than 20 people have died, while the real figure is close to 300. People no longer trust what the government says because unfortunately they see and feel on their bodies a different reality from that portrayed in the public announcements. After some of the shipments with donated supplies arrived at the port, they were held back because the government wanted to charge a use tax on the donations. Only after public embarrassment did the government retreat from such absurdity.

Despite the attempts of the U.S. corporate press to question and chastise the overt vileness of President Trump, it is recklessly spreading outright lies or misinformation. They talk about the lack of truck drivers, yet the truck drivers go all the way to the port when they have diesel to fuel their trucks only to be told that they have to wait for a three-star general appointed by Trump to oversee the alleged relief efforts to orchestrate the U.S. military’s supposedly “gallant” effort. Many drivers simply do not have fuel, while many roads are still not drivable due to downed trees and other debris. Here is something the Marines can do: provide and use their machinery to clear the roads—and if they still want to ambush someone, let them ambush the mosquitoes. Meanwhile, the commercial airlines refused to transport the piles of donations that the Puerto Rican diaspora have collected all throughout the U.S. and only relented after they were publicly shamed by a massive social media campaign.
The U.S. press put out a number of reports of people who have or will be shipped to the Island to deal with many logistics and repair operations. Yet our Island is not lacking in skilled workers and experts. After all, NASA comes to the Island to recruit engineers and scientists every year, and we have all sorts of technicians and highly skilled workers. The problem is that many of them have been laid off or forced into early retirement by the government in order to pay the debt to Wall Street. At PREPA, thousands of skilled workers have been trimmed from the payroll over the years, especially those who can repair the power transmission system. Therefore, we do not need most of the people that the U.S. government wants to send our way. This does not mean we do not need the help of particular groups of people with special skills, such as doctors (for we have lost 35 percent of them due to the decade-long economic crisis). What we need is the materials, food, and other essential supplies that the Junta and our colonial condition have made scarce, and the will of the government (i.e. the Junta) to hire back the workers who have the know-how but were laid off or forced into retirement.

Furthermore, at the core of the crisis lie some of the most egregious features of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. One of them, the Jones Act, prevents any country from shipping donated supplies to Puerto Rico, for the provisions of the Jones Act compel the ships to deliver their cargo to Jacksonville, Florida. The cargo is then unloaded only in order to be loaded onto U.S. American ships that will then deliver the cargo to Puerto Rico. Not only does this procedure delay the delivery of the material donated by fellow countries from the Caribbean, but it also makes it adds unnecessary expenses. In fact, this amounts to having the U.S. government give permission to other countries to provide necessary aid to the Island, without Puerto Ricans having any say in it. As a result of the Jones Act, our food, 80 percent of which is imported, is always 20 percent more expensive, and in these times of crisis this additional charge amounts to a form of punishment. The ten-day suspension of the Jones Act that the Trump administration announced is despicably insufficient, for it will take months and years for the Island to recover. We need it to be permanently suspended.

Then we have the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which requires a 25 percent matching of funds from the regions declared a disaster relief area. Will the federal government enforce this requirement? This is a nonstarter for a bankrupt colony like Puerto Rico, which is under siege by Washington and Wall Street, having its budget severely slashed in order for bondholders to be paid.

In addition, the decision to mobilize any military forces, and to determine their size and scope of operation, all lie beyond the reach of Puerto Ricans. Thus the current display of U.S. military force on the Island is not only shocking but inefficient in providing relief to the population. Shortly after Maria assaulted the Island, I became privy to a trustworthy eyewitness report that indicated that the feds showed up at the center where the municipal government of San Juan had been collecting relief supplies. They demanded that all of these supplies be relinquished to them, ostensibly to distribute them throughout the Caribbean. The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, told them that they could have some but not all. Very quickly a tense situation ensued with the feds aiming their long-barreled weapons at the mayor and her team, compelling her municipal police guards to aim their weapons at the feds. Though no shots were fired, the imperial arrogance once again carried the day. This is outrageous and absurd on all counts, for Puerto Rico had been delivering relief supplies to the U.S. Virgin Islands and beyond after Irma. And with the desperate need for supplies now in Puerto Rico, any supplies taken out of the Island will need to be replaced by other means from the exterior, turning the whole federal requisitioning exercise into a cruel show of force.

Carmen Yulín Cruz is the same mayor who denounced the federal government for its crass incompetence and cruel disdain in its relief efforts, only to be insulted in a series of tweets by President Trump. Trump’s racism and the incompetence of his administration are crass. Yet the pusillanimity of Gov. Roselló, in his quest of subservience, in his pathetic, useless bid to to pretend that Puerto Rico is a state of the U.S., only provides Trump with undeserved cover. Rosello’s idea of handling the current crisis is to retreat and allow the U.S. federal government and military to “rescue” us in order to boost his case for statehood among desperate Puerto Ricans. In the process, he has become an accomplice to the criminal abandon dispensed by the U.S. No wonder that Mayor Cruz has been compelled to step into the void and provide the leadership that is currently lacking within the colonial government.

The big picture

As unconscionable as the response of the Trump administration and its armed forces has been, the truth is that it is only different from the historical abuse and neglect of Puerto Rico bestowed by the U.S. government over the past 119 years in its overt crassness and incompetence. As a matter of fact, when Hurricane San Ciriaco hit the Island with devastating force in 1899, one year after the U.S. invasion, the Island was under military rule. After 90 percent of the crops were destroyed (in an era when the Island essentially had food self-sufficiency), the U.S. War Department militarized the distribution of food, which it failed to deliver to the western part of the Island. Many Puerto Rican mayors began to organize food distribution by creative means, but the U.S. Military declared it an insubordination. It ordered the establishment of a notebook system to ration food, through which each adult capable of working had to prove that he/she had worked at least six days per week. Otherwise, the whole family would not receive any food. It is therefore a profound and damaging mistake to assume that the current crisis of our people, and our shameful treatment at the hands of the Trump regime, is some sort of aberration brought about by his racist and fascistic proclivities.

The degree of destruction on the Island and the humanitarian crisis that continues to worsen on a daily basis, as well as the cruelty and absurdities of the colonial and federal governments, can be further detailed in reams of paper, yet we need to put things in a broader perspective. Indeed, we need to continue to demand that aid of all sorts, from all sorts of countries be allowed to enter the Island, without ridiculous short-time windows, after which the Jones Act will be re-imposed. We need to demand accountability from the Trump administration and from the Roselló administration. We need to demand forbearance on the $73 billion debt. We need to demand that the PROMESA law be repealed.

However, in the context of the destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it is useful to distinguish three phases. The first is the actual damage caused by the storms.The degree of destruction and despair must be framed not only within the context of the extraordinary wind force of the hurricane (keeping in mind the consequences of global warming), but also of the actual degree of deterioration of the physical infrastructure on the Island, directly caused by the choking hold imposed by its colonial condition.

The second phase is that of trauma, of death and collective asphyxia, created by the lack of resources to perform urgent repairs, to rescue people, to distribute food, water, and fuel, and to provide proper medical care. This is what the inhumanity and incompetence of both the Trump and Roselló administrations have highlighted. But make no mistake, the suffocation regime of the PROMESA law and its Junta, as imposed by Washington at the behest of Wall Street, is ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. The key question is: Will Puerto Rico recover? How many months or years will it take, given the state of siege the Island is currently under, as Trump confirms in his callous tweets proclaiming that the payment of the $73 billion debt has priority over anything else. Some commentators have speculated that the Island has been thrown 20 to 30 years back in time. I am afraid that there are regions of the Island that will never recover: places that our people have abandoned in the current crisis, and which they may never be able to return to. This is no idle speculation, for we know of the many African Americans who were compelled to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and who never returned.

The third phase of this crisis will largely unfold after its most severe aspects have been abated. The Island is in the early stages of a new mode of colonialism, namely that of settler colonialism, aided and abetted by the forces of gentrification. As a matter of fact, the timetable of how our land is plundered and our natural resources are destroyed may be accelerated by the new facts on the ground: people leaving in even larger numbers, in deeper desperation, and with heavier economic burdens. Financial and real estate sharks with deep pockets will come to feast in bloody waters: the bloody waters of the voids left by those who were forced to leave . The voids of abandoned houses, small businesses, and people who will not be able to afford to come back to their Island any time soon. These voids will become targets of those who want to steal our country at bargain prices, of those who will come to replace us as colonial settlers!

Things were bad before Maria, due to the endless economic crisis and the despotic doings of colonial rot and its new instrument, the PROMESA law. Now we have a gaping wound. More than ever, we will need to open our eyes, to close ranks and get ready to do battle to defend our country’s existence: who we are as a people with a history, a culture, and a land. For the next phase of plunder, that of disaster colonialism and the shock doctrine, is knocking on our door. Our country’s existence is on the line. We must defend our land because our continued existence as a people is mortally threatened if we lose it.

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