From the November-December 2017 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
The devastation wrought in Puerto Rico by Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Sept. 6 and 20 was compounded by the chaotic aftermath. The country was hammered by a combination of climate change, the depredations of capitalism in its prolonged depression and the malign neglect of the racist Donald Trump administration.
Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in 90 years, came in one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, the first year to feature three storms as powerful as Irma, Jose and Maria. This year hints at the future if the world does not check global warming. In Puerto Rico alone, Maria left dozens of people dead; destroyed thousands of homes and other structures; caused flooding from 6 to 15 feet in places; knocked out the island’s power grid and most communication networks; wiped out a year’s worth of agricultural production; and caused billions of dollars in insured losses.
IS PUERTO RICO THE WORLD’S FUTURE?
Five weeks after Maria hit, only one in four people had power, with repairs not projected to be completed until next year. Electricity is crucial for preserving food and medicine and cooling the sick and elderly, as was brought home by the shocking deaths of 11 residents in a Florida nursing home due to the greedy owner’s negligence combined with the power loss after Hurricane Maria.
The serious consequences for a society built around electricity and cars—with over 90% of roads still closed due to the storm—are illustrated by the fact that Puerto Rico’s hospitals are without power. Witnesses have described one hospital in which all Intensive Care Unit patients died. A viral Oct. 27 photo showed a surgery lit only by flashlight. Dialysis has been dangerously rationed due to a shortage of fuel for generators.
Basics like baby food are lacking or in short supply. People wait in endless lines in the hot sun to buy food, fuel and water, when it’s available. Nearly one-fourth of the population still lacked clean water at the end of October, forcing some people to open sealed wells on a Superfund toxic waste site. Diseases spread by contaminated water, such as leptospirosis, are sickening and killing people. Many people are living in soaked, roofless houses with dangerous black mold growing.
Fifty volunteer nurses from National Nurses United, after a two-week mission, reported desperation in Puerto Rico worse than they had witnessed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The federal government, they said, was “delaying necessary humanitarian aide to its own citizens and leaving them to die.”
‘CLOSE TO A GENOCIDE’
In the words of San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, “I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy. If we don’t solve the logistics, we are going to see something close to a genocide.”
But President Donald Trump’s initial response has been characteristic of his hate-filled regime. First he was slow to send needed aid, mobilizing many fewer rescue workers than had been done in response to previous disasters. When Puerto Ricans rightfully objected, this inhuman creature dared to accuse them of “wanting everything to be done for them.” He only grudgingly suspended the 1920 Jones Act, which limits shipping to Puerto Rico and even blocked aid supplies after the hurricanes—and then it was only suspended for 10 days! (See “Help Puerto Rico now,” p. 10.)
While the islanders were straining to survive and rebuild, Trump was not only occupied in tweeting insults at them and playing golf. Quite the contrary. At the very moment that he was giving himself both a “10” and “A+” for a “response better than anyone has ever seen,” he was pushing an agenda reflecting his contempt for Latinos and all people of color:
- Trump was tempting Congressional Democrats with partial retention of the Dreamers program in exchange for funding for his border wall and intensified militarization of the Mexican border.
- His administration was drafting a law for speedy deportation of child migrants from Central America.
- He was pushing as nominee to oversee chemical safety for the federal government Michael Dourson—a notorious defender of toxic chemicals, including chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to harm children’s brains. Farmworkers and their families, many of them immigrants from Latin America, are those most likely to be poisoned.
- He ordered new barriers to women’s access to birth control, which hurts women of color the most. (See “Abuser-in-chief trashes women’s lives,” p. 1.)
The colonial relationship to Puerto Rico is revealed by the slowness of aid and the priority given to maintaining control over the people, as seen in the rifle-toting shadowy private security roaming the streets. Even the infamous war-crime-stained Academi (formerly Blackwater) has been invited by the administration to send its mercenaries to keep “order.” At the very same time, the U.S. Navy hospital ship the USS Comfort arrived at San Juan on Oct. 3 but three weeks later 87% of its 250 beds were still empty, despite the massive unmet need for care.
While aid is desperately needed because the colonial economy has been engineered to depend on imports of food and fuel, at the same time everything depends on solidarity from below, especially within Puerto Rico. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and when 98 (9%) of the schools were reopened, it was teachers, aided by parents, who worked to get them in shape for learning.
The Indypendent1“A People’s Recovery: Radical Organizing in Post-Maria Puerto Rico,” by Juan Carlos Dávila, The Indypendent, Oct. 18, 2017. reported on “A People’s Recovery” bringing together activists “supporting more than 20 grassroots initiatives that range from debris cleaning brigades to agricultural projects to communal kitchens….The main concern of organizers…was the mobilization of thousands of U.S. troops to the island who were not distributing the much-needed aid but controlling it.” They “encourage communities to unite and become self-sustaining” and aim “to build popular power from within the communities and eventually move Puerto Rico away from its colonial dependency to the U.S.”
Every disaster manifests this conflict between solidarity from below and the state-capitalist drive to control activities. (See “Earthquake: Mexico’s wake-up call,” p. 9.) That is not a momentary impulse by bureaucrats to stay in charge, nor simply a “shock doctrine” conspiracy by greedy leaders, but the inner drive of capital itself to shape the conditions to shore up its accumulation.
DEBT CRISIS AND COLONIALISM
Puerto Rico’s debt crisis had already set that in motion. The multi-billion dollar debt is the end result of centuries of colonial exploitation. Spain decimated the native Tainos 500 years ago and built an economy on enslavement of Africans and surviving Indigenous people. After the U.S. seized Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam in its 1898 war with Spain, Yankee landlords seized the lands of peasant farmers and turned agriculture into a sugar-cane monoculture, driving peasants to the cities. The people became producers of cheap manufactured goods for U.S. companies—U.S. businesses in Puerto Rico were allowed exemption from minimum wage laws, and efforts to lower the minimum wage continue today.
Forty years ago, Congress set up tax breaks so that multinational corporations could rack up huge profits virtually tax-free and send them to the U.S. mainland or Europe. In lieu of taxes, the territorial government borrowed money, with the predatory loans largely determined by people who worked for international banks, some of whom also had decision-making jobs at government entities. Not surprisingly, the banks made out like bandits—with some bonds requiring payment of 10 times the amount borrowed—while Puerto Rico’s debt ballooned to more than 100% of its gross national product. Now much of the debt has been bought by “vulture funds,” which buy “distressed” debt and use courts to make whole populations pay for the illegitimate actions of corrupt governments.2See “Who Owns Puerto Rico’s Debt? We’ve Tracked Down 10 of the Biggest Vulture Firms,” by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti and Carla Minet, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, and Alex V. Hernandez and Jessica Stites, In These Times, Oct. 17, 2017. Some of these same vultures recently preyed on Detroit.
Congress imposed a Fiscal Control Board with only one Puerto Rican member, with power to override local decisions—like the emergency management responsible for poisoning Flint, Mich., water. Similar to Detroit, the Board pushed mass closings of 179 schools. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló invited Teach for America to scab on the island’s teachers, who face potential layoffs and salary freezes.
The Fiscal Control Board jacked up the sales tax. It proposed drastic government spending cuts and furloughs (delayed for a few months due to Maria), and a 10% cut in pensions. Free marketeers like the American Enterprise Institute, which has a representative on the Obama-appointed Board, are clamoring for it to privatize the electric and water utilities, the Transportation Authority, the Land Authority and the government bank.
This comes in the context of 10% unemployment, a 46% poverty rate, and looming cuts in Affordable Care Act healthcare funding. Meanwhile, the exodus to the mainland—445,000 from 2006 to 2015—has accelerated due to both austerity and the storm.
This is not enough for the vulture funds, which are using the courts to demand that every dollar of revenue should go first to paying off the debt before funding such secondary priorities as health and education.
STRUGGLES IN BARBUDA AND CUBA
Hurricane Irma created an opportunity for rulers in the Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda to privatize traditional communal land handed down by the descendants of freed slaves on the island of Barbuda, whose entire population was turned into climate refugees by the hurricane. But the people of Barbuda are fighting back.3See “Barbudan Land Ownership: A 200-Year-Old Freedom Put at Risk Following Hurricane Irma,” by Tim George, openDemocracy, Sept. 22, 2017.
In Cuba too the aftermath of Irma spurred revolt. Cubans reported that as the hurricane approached the state telecommunications monopoly charged money for storm update notifications, and afterwards food rations that were supposed to be free were being sold. Protests erupted spontaneously in at least two neighborhoods of Havana with chants of “We want light! We want water!”
Even on the U.S. mainland, though better served than Puerto Rico, thousands were suffering after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and were frustrated by bureaucratic delays, saying they got more help from family, neighbors and churches than from FEMA. Particularly in Texas, toxic waste from virtually unregulated industrial sites seeped into floodwaters and contaminated homes, schools, water and soil. Texas prisoners donated thousands of dollars from their scant funds for hurricane relief, just as 4,000 California prisoners, women and men, were fighting the climate-change-fueled wildfires there.
The Trump administration once again tried to smother all thought about climate change by banning Environmental Protection Agency scientists from speaking on it at a conference and by removing even more information on climate change from official websites, as it began to do on its very first day in January. But they cannot hide the reality from the world, demonstrated by the spate of major hurricanes; the out-of-control wildfires in California, Portugal and Spain; the deadly drought in India; the famine in three African countries; the toll from record heat waves.
REFUSING CLIMATE CHAOS
Puerto Rico’s catastrophe spells out the world’s future, if capitalism is allowed to continue its sway—not only as climate-driven disasters but as society’s class-tilted, racist, sexist responses to those disasters and preparations or lack thereof. That includes the crumbling infrastructure. In Puerto Rico both the electric grid and the water and sewer systems have been falling apart for years as resources have been diverted to debt service. The mainland is on the same path, as capitalists react to the falling rate of profit by putting the squeeze on infrastructure investment, social services, workers’ wages and benefits.
Climate change denial fits well with this squeeze, since adaptation requires massive retooling and shoring up of infrastructure. The Trump administration even covertly abandoned the belated federal program for relocating homes, infrastructure, and communities endangered by rising seas, melting permafrost, and unprecedented storms.4See “America’s Climate Refugees Have Been Abandoned by Trump,” by Kyla Mandel, Mother Jones, Oct. 17, 2017. Capitalism is much more geared to the short term, and the short term demands shoring up profits at the expense of humanity’s future.
As the Puerto Rican exodus builds, climate refugees—also refugees from war, repression, and economic depression—are a real factor in global politics. Their numbers will continue to swell as long as climate change is unchecked and adaptation is modeled after the militarization of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and its subsequent restructuring by dismantling public housing and education and permanently displacing many Black residents.
This is not only Trump’s plan for one devastated island; it is his plan for the entire crisis-ridden world. It is his capitalist “philosophy.” The essence of Trumpism unfolds in apocalypses, up to and including imperialist world war, because capitalists want to stay on top even at the price of civilization’s destruction. The widespread solidarity with Puerto Ricans and the growing refusal to surrender to climate change show the deep opposition that needs to unite with a philosophy of liberation to revolutionize this world and save our future.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||“A People’s Recovery: Radical Organizing in Post-Maria Puerto Rico,” by Juan Carlos Dávila, The Indypendent, Oct. 18, 2017.|
|2.||↑||See “Who Owns Puerto Rico’s Debt? We’ve Tracked Down 10 of the Biggest Vulture Firms,” by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti and Carla Minet, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, and Alex V. Hernandez and Jessica Stites, In These Times, Oct. 17, 2017.|
|3.||↑||See “Barbudan Land Ownership: A 200-Year-Old Freedom Put at Risk Following Hurricane Irma,” by Tim George, openDemocracy, Sept. 22, 2017.|
|4.||↑||See “America’s Climate Refugees Have Been Abandoned by Trump,” by Kyla Mandel, Mother Jones, Oct. 17, 2017.|