Puerto Rico Update

Return to Puerto Rico

 (Dec. 6 - 20, 2017), (Feb. 3 - 17, 2018)

(Part 2)

 

We returned to Puerto Rico in early December and again in February to visit family and lend a hand. Garbage, damaged building materials and broken furniture lined the roads,  in some cases narrowing them enough to reduce the number of lanes. Then after three months of sitting by the roadside, municipal trucks came by to remove the debris from the street out front. The number of working street lights were sporadic and main roads were mired in traffic confusion. Our young family’s water returned after two months, their hydro was back after four months. We noticed an underlying angst amongst the population in the  areas we visited. Life is more complicated with long bureaucratic wait times, repairs to infra-structure slow to happen - often temporary. Everything takes longer. 

 

 

Puerto Rico has suffered from economic debt.

The island has been in economic decline since 2006 when corporations pulled out of Puerto Rico (due to the U.S. government dropping tax incentives). Then the economic crisis hit in 2008. Businesses closed and people were forced to migrate to the mainland in search of jobs. The island’s debt increased as did the cost of food and materials. The infrastructure was fragile and suffered from a lack of effective maintenance and repair even before this hurricane hit. The island’s centralization of the energy system and the population’s dependency upon the importation of 85% of the island’s food further drove dependency upon the mainland.

 

After Maria hit, farm crops were decimated and livestock were drastically reduced. Conventional farmers growing vulnerable crops (mono culture), as instructed by the Department of Agriculture, lost 80% of their cash crops. To date, reportedly, 200 000 people have left the island since the hurricane. Presently there are places in the interior that still don’t have running water or electricity. The mortality rate has not been finalized although statistics state only 64 deaths were recorded due to the hurricane. The number of deaths is estimated to be in the thousands due to starvation, lack of medical care or access to necessary medicines, and suicide (despondency). Foreclosures of businesses, homes and farms are rampant as people are forced to leave the island.

 

How will Puerto Rico fare in the future? In this current period of slow relief and reconstruction efforts, it seems there are reportedly two directions Puerto Rico’s future can take. 

 

One possibility is an ominous forecast for the local people of Puerto Rico. In order to force payment toward the island’s overwhelming debt, the US Department of Education is threatening to close Puerto Rico’s public schools and replace these with charter/ privatized schools. There is justifiable concern that the Puerto Rican culture, language and customs would be sacrificed in this case. We have witnessed this with our own indigenous people’s history. Another concern of the populace is that government and corporate executives (mainland USA and islanders) are seeking opportunities to create a utopia in their own best interests. Because of US government bills passed in 2012 and this past year, corporate Americans (working for mainland companies) can set up permanent residence or remain in Puerto Rico for at least 187 days (the winter) and be subject to much lower taxes than local Puerto Ricans. There are discussions amongst potential corporate investors to use this time to buy up large tracts of unoccupied land and establish corporate utopias for the rich through large elaborate gated communities and even thoughts of establishing new cities that house these Puertopians. Economically this would hurt the Puerto Rican population since money from these off shore companies would not serve the local people. Again resulting in less money for maintenance, reconstruction and repair of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Being a territory of the United States, the Puerto Rican people do not vote for the US president but are represented by an elected governor. In the past there have been protests against government sanctions that are not in the people’s best interest. These have been met with authoritarian and sometimes violent opposition by police and National Guard. Hardly democratic for people at the whim of the mainland US government.

 

There are glimmers of hope.  Local populations and independent organizations are promoting greater self sufficiency. Individuals and some inland communities are investing in solar power and incorporating traditional Puerto Rican farming methods (agro-ecology) to feed themselves and their neighbours. Organizations suchas Puerto Rico’s Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, the U.S.-based Climate Justice Alliance, and the global network of peasants and small farmers, Via Campesina are aggressively encouraging best practices for traditional farming and the replanting of crops. 

 

In her article for “The Intercept” journalist Naomi Klein reports “mutual aid centers and groups of educators and economists with plans for how Puerto Ricans can confront international capital and remake their economy and public institutions. Together, this network of grassroots Puerto Rican movements is laying out a plan for a new Puerto Rico, one in which residents play a greater role in shaping their own destinies than they have at any time since the island was colonized by Spain in 1493.”

 

Grass root groups like “Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana” (Mutual Aid Project of Mariana) have formed and are symbols of hope as they help clear land, prepare crops and provide communal meals and emotional support for communities. 

 

This is a time for these two groups with diametrically opposed ideologies to seize the opportunity to transform Puerto Rico. There are the few who currently wield power over the many who are victims of an unjust indebtedness and its fallout. What will be the result is yet to be determined. With the effects of climate change and more devastating storms predicted, Puerto Rican’s are desperately repairing and preparing for the upcoming hurricane season. 

 

Submitted by P. L. Smith