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Irma and María: Shedding Light on Puerto Rico’s Colonial Reality

Photo by Dmitry K | CC BY 2.0


You came to Puerto Rico for the golden sands and sun (gold was also the basis of our first colonizers’ initial attraction); for the endless piña coladas and rum-spiked mysteries; for the “colonial charm” and “quaint, humble lifestyle” (poverty looks so alluring in the Caribbean, what with the bright colors, translucent waters and lush greens in the background—and it’s only for a week). Your friends say it’s the hottest Spring break spot, the newspapers say it’s a debt-ridden disaster, your parents say it’s dangerous and that the water is undrinkable, and the brochures say it’s a (tax) haven, absolute paradise. So here you are, in your bathing suit and sarong, mojito in hand, ready to focus on your one task for the week: tanning.

But it turns out that the sun isn’t nailed onto the sky, that it doesn’t run on unfailing one-million 100-watt light bulbs; that the tides rise and the swells are ferocious; that coconuts, palm trees and branches are potential projectiles; and that a hurricane is heading straight towards your worry-free fantasy. So you try to catch your flight out of this paradise-turned-inferno, because a hurricane was not in your sites to see itinerary, but instead, Jetblue takes you to one of the many refuge sites in San Juan, to a hot and humid coliseum, where your beach chair is replaced for a cot, your piña colada for a Walgreens water bottle, your dream for our reality.

The power was out in my house as I imagined this scenario (and read parts of it in the newspapers[2]), which had taken place the day before, right before Irma’s arrival. The next day, the morning after Irma’s passing, there were more than a million households[3] without power, the Electric Power Authority (EPA) predicting the outages to last from 2-4 months[4], and almost 80,000 households[5] had lost their water service as well. Over 6,200 people[6] were in refuges around the Northeastern side of the Island, and PR’s agricultural industry suffered $30.4 million in losses. To make matters worse, about two weeks later, a new disastrous category 4 hurricane, the effects of which were 1,000 times more catastrophic than Irma’s, was heading our way: María.

But Puerto Rico is no stranger to crisis. Before Irma’s and María’s devastating pitstops in the Archipelago, Puerto Rico was (and still is, even more so now) undergoing one of the most detrimental financial and socio-political crises of its contemporary history. With an unaudited $74 billion debt under its belt, and $49 billion in pension obligations, with decades of illegal bond issuances and trades and an overly-advertised tax haven, Puerto Rico was/is almost literally drowning. Neoliberal policies, such as draconian budget cuts and extreme austerity measures, have been in the works towards the precarization of Puerto Rican livelihood. Governor Rosselló, an unelected and antidemocratic Fiscal Control Board, and Judge Laura Taylor Swain are all trying to oversee and command Puerto Rico simultaneously, going back and forth on the Archipelago’s fiscal management and debt restructuring processes.

However, for too many global north-ers, even as its financial crisis worsened (and continues to do so) and hurricanes Irma and María headed straight towards it, Puerto Rico is a mere casualty on CNN’s news ticker, an enchanting US-owned island on a tourist brochure, that exotic place[7] where the music video for “Despacito” was filmed (and which, in the blink of an eye, was torn to pieces by hurricane María), a pebble sinking between an ocean and a sea that have seen too much. But Irma’s and María’s passing, and more importantly, their after-effects, exasperated the aforementioned and brought to light Puerto Rico’s primordial conundrum, which encompasses everything from its stifling debt-crisis to its crumbling infrastructure to the lack of media coverage and recovery-related attention by the US of PR’s hurricane dilemmas: colonialism.

After 199 years as a US colony (the US would rather euphemize it as a “commonwealth,” “unincorporated territory,” “free associated state,” or “foreign in a domestic sense”), and 100 years as US citizens, Puerto Rico has been trapped in a dangerously steep downward spiral, its current fiscal and socio-political crisis one of its many repercussions. And so, “natural disasters” (which are really disasters of our own making, so let’s call them human disasters[8]) are setting PR’s colonial reality under the spotlight by highlighting all of the current complications rooted in it.

Irma’s and María’s passing were real kicks in the stomach as they underscored the neoliberal austerity measures (and their effects) being imposed on PR by the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board, and the corporate crimes being committed by corporate entities taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. For starters, as one of the many consequences of the massive closure of public schools[9], only 329 schools across the Island were available as shelters during hurricane Irma, whereas 372 public schools were available during hurricane Bertha’s passing in 2014[10]. According to Julia Keleher, the leader of PR’s Department of Education, a week after hurricane María, there were only about 160 refuge sites available for post-hurricane stays, this including community centers, not just schools.

As a result of a decades-long crisis, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure finds itself in an advanced state of deterioration, this including roads, bridges, the University of Puerto Rico, public service buildings, the electric power system, the list goes on, for which they were in critical danger during Irma’s and María’s passing. The first few days after hurricane María, the entire Island was powerless, PR’s EPA predicting the power outages to last up to six months; rows of wooden and cement light posts on the ground, broken to pieces, generators and power cables lining narrow neighborhood roads and expansive highways. Internet and communication systems were down as well, the recovery despairingly slow (and still ongoing[11]), leaving civilians in a horrible state of despair, longing to either know if their family and friends were safe, or to communicate their post-hurricane status to people both on and off the Island. Gov. Rosselló estimated that the cost of overall damages caused by María would exceed $10 billion[12].

Furthermore, a good part of PR’s “essential infrastructure”[13] is on the coast, making it more vulnerable to flooding and high tides, especially during a hurricane of Irma’s or María’s intensity. Interestingly enough, however, a lot of the “essential infrastructure” is built to benefit and serve the tourist industry and mercantile trade with the US, and only the US (thank you, Cabotage Laws[14]). Whatever money is invested in infrastructure tends to go towards revitalizing these “essentials” (forget the hole-covered roads leading to our homes, asbestos-filled buildings and crumbling light posts at the mercy of hurricane winds), further proving our colonial market dependency and the coloniality of the tourist industry, which caters particularly to PR’s colonial relations with the US.

Additionally, after hurricane Irma, president Donald Trump signed a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, which meant the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be able to assist the Archipelago. However, the assistance authorized for Puerto Rico was only for search and rescue, public health and safety, and debris removal. It didn’t include rebuilding or even restoration of power[15], and with the current fiscal crisis, and the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board’s long silence[16] after Irma’s passing, rebuilding and restructuring will be a tough feat for Puerto Rico given the lack of resources to do so. After María’s passing, Gov. Rosselló met with FEMA’s administrator, William B. Long, and solicited that Congress pass a law to help PR, claiming that Puerto Ricans should be treated equally, as American citizens (his statehood-er party politics at play, no matter the truthfulness of his statement).

The US’s unjust exceptionality and second-class treatment of Puerto Ricans, both islanders and statesiders, even though they’re American citizens, is exemplary of the workings of colonialism, just like the US media’s blatant disregard of Puerto Rico (and the Caribbean as a whole) during Irma’s passing, coverage taking place well after disaster struck and people complained[17], and the unequal recovery-related attention after both hurricanes in comparison to the aid being offered to Florida and Texas.

Carla Minet, from the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, elaborated on the crisis’s already devastating effects on PR, and how they would be further aggravated: “The budget cuts, in an already weak economy, will probably make the storm’s social impact worse. A forecast before Irma arrived by the Center for a New Economy think tank’s policy director, Sergio M. Marxuach, projected the catastrophic effects of the Fiscal Plan that was recently approved: high probability of another lost decade, continued population loss due to migration and lower birth rates, lower employment, less access to public education, pension cuts, worsening health outcomes, higher mortality and lower life expectancy, and in the end — of course — higher poverty and inequality. Now add in the cataclysm of a monster hurricane that the plan never accounted for.”[18] Therefore, Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, a product of colonial practices such as the well known tax-haven, highly-suspected unconstitutional bond issuances by some financier members of the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board[19], and corporate involvement[20], was heightened by Irma’s and María’s dangerous threats to the lives of the people of Puerto Rico.

On the topic of corporate involvement, Applied Energy Systems (AES), a corporation that generates coal-based energy and is profiting off Puerto Rico’s colonial status, didn’t properly cover up the toxic ashes[21] and coal waste that they produce in the town of Guayama. And what’s worse is that, whereas Irma skirted the Northeastern part of PR (its devastating effects mostly experienced in that region), María cut straight through the Island, entering through the town of Yabucoa, which is only 4 towns away from Guayama. The uncovered ashes[22] were at the mercy of hurricanes Irma and María, representing a profound health risk to communities far and wide. AES Puerto Rico, and many other corporations residing and profiteering in PR, have been exploiting and taking advantage of colonially enforced deregulation, tax exemption, corporate welfare, the labour reform[23], the list goes on.

And so Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” comes into play in a colonial context. Klein, an award-winning journalist, uses the term “shock doctrine” to “describe the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock […] to push through radical pro-corporate measures.”[24] After Irma’s and María’s destructive passing, and most importantly, after the chaos they created, the “shock doctrine” is a recipe for disaster for a colonial territory under the jurisdiction of a (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board and neoliberal-loving governor Ricardo Rosselló, and additionally, under the threat of profit-hungry hedge funds. The (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board is likely to push, even more aggressively, the many policies it has in line, such as the privatization of PR’s EPA, using Irma and María as excuses[25] to do so. In a press conference in PR three days after María’s passing[26], New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who flew to PR to assess damages and assist rebuilding and restoration efforts, said PR might as well use this opportunity not just to rebuild, but to rebuild with the intention of making everything “better” than it was before, referring to PR’s electrical infrastructure as an example. But is Gov. Cuomo aware of what “better” entails under the colonial-fiscal crisis PR finds itself in? Similarly, news anchor Erin Burnett from CNN was in utter shock after hearing that PR’s power-outage situation would probably take up to six months to get fixed: “Six months without power?! This is the United States of America!” But that’s where Burnett is utterly wrong: this (PR) is not the United States of America, this is a colony of the United States of America; this is not a first-world country, this is a third-world country; this is not a global north, developed nation, this is a global south, (made) under-developed nation; this is not a fully incorporated and equally-privileged state (not that we want to be), this is a neglected and rejected foreign yet domestic appendage of the US.

To continue making matters worse regarding the “shock doctrine,” it wouldn’t be surprising if Gov. Rosselló and the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board applied this very doctrine, aided by Irma and María, and further aided by PR’s colonial vulnerability, to dismantle and privatize the University of Puerto Rico[27], the only public higher education institution on the Archipelago (which has been conveniently shut down for too long due to Irma’s and María’s passing, María having caused devastating damages to many of its campuses). And so on and so forth with a number of other public institutions that are defenseless under the colonial rule of the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board and its blatant neoliberal attacks, especially after chaos-monsters like Irma and María.

On September 23rd, only 4 days after María’s passing, PR was supposed to celebrate El Grito de Lares, a highly important anticolonial uprising against Spanish colonial rule that took place 149 years ago. Instead, almost two weeks after Irma’s passing, PR had to stare down another monstrous hurricane, which headed straight towards the Archipelago, where Irma’s after-effects were still being felt; where some people had just gotten their power back while others were still living in the dark; where trees and light posts were still lying around, waiting to take on second lives as projectiles; where many (both locals and refugees from neighboring Caribbean islands) were still recovering from having lost their homes and living in one of PR’s many refuge sites; where crisis and colonialism hold hands, crowned normal, every-day.

And so, you’re sitting in your cot with your straw hat on, hundreds of locals scrambling around you with their homes stuffed in a bag or a suitcase, and you wonder why your flight dropped you and ditched; why this place of refuge is so understaffed; why the power went out when it hasn’t started raining yet and no gusts of wind have blown; why CNN wasn’t covering the hurricane’s passing over Puerto Rico (“I’m here, send over an Embassy representative for me!” you yell in your mind as you stare into your almost-batteryless smartphone); why life had been so unfair to you, ruining your longed-for vacation in the Island of enchantment. Your thoughts are interrupted when you spot a window and decide to walk towards it in gloomy fashion, only to look through pigeon-christened glass, and watch as clouds gather and incoming winds batter a US flag… Oh, and a Puerto Rican one.

Parts of this article were previously published in an article entitled: “Puerto Rico, Trapped Between Colonialism and Hurricanes”, published with Global Voices. I worked on and finished this article from the very trenches of the scene of devastation: PR. In my hometown, Mayagüez, I currently have no power, water, internet or cellphone service, therefore, aside from sparse local print newspapers, a solar radio, and an unreliable hour of news every once in awhile made possible by a power plant, I’m totally isolated.

Notes.

[2]http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/puerto-rico/nota/jetbluedejadecenasdepasajerosenrefugioensanjuan-1244291/

[3]http://cb.pr/mas-de-un-millon-de-abonados-sin-servicio-de-energia-electrica/

[4]http://www.primerahora.com/noticias/gobierno-politica/nota/aeeanticipaquehabraareassinluzhastapor4meses-1244014/

[5]https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/casi80000abonadossequedaronsinaguaporirma-2355524/

[6]http://cb.pr/irma-deja-sobre-6200-refugiados-en-puerto-rico/

[7]“Depacito’s” music video was filmed in a historically marginalized and impoverished borough in San Juan, PR, called La Perla.

[8]https://medium.com/@auroralevinsmorales/stop-calling-the-events-of-this-summer-natural-disasters-5cfc32f0af17

[9]A decision made by the leader of the Department of Education, Julia Keleher, and sanctioned by the (Colonial) Fiscal Control Board. https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/educacionreducea167lalistadeescuelasqueserancerradas-2326578/

[10]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/09/07/puerto-rico-wasnt-ready-for-hurricane-irma-we-couldnt-possibly-be/?utm_term=.90117de3a2e8

[11]“Tomará meses restablecer la industria”, by Yalixa Rivera Cruz, published in El Nuevo Día, September 24, 2017.

[12]“Impacto económico sin precedentes”, by Gloria Ruiz Kuilan, published in El Nuevo Día, September 24, 2017.

[13]http://prospect.org/article/puerto-ricos-double-whammy-irma-and-hedge-funds?platform=hootsuite

[14]Which were annulled for a short span of time, approximately a week, after Irma’s and María’s passing.

[15]http://prospect.org/article/puerto-ricos-double-whammy-irma-and-hedge-funds#.WbMB2Fzz6FE.facebook

[16]http://www.noticel.com/noticia/207770/la-junta-no-ha-llamado-al-gobernador-a-preguntar-como-esta-todo.html

[17]https://medium.com/@odanu/in-the-eye-of-hurricane-irma-there-is-too-much-quiet-181eefbe1067

[18]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/09/07/puerto-rico-wasnt-ready-for-hurricane-irma-we-couldnt-possibly-be/?utm_term=.90117de3a2e8

[19]https://www.thenation.com/article/bankers-behind-puerto-ricos-debt-crisis/

[20]Corporations have been partners with the colonial enterprise since the 17th century, the West India Company being an example.

[21]http://theconversation.com/in-puerto-rico-environmental-injustice-and-racism-inflame-protests-over-coal-ash-69763

[22]https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/montanasdecenizasenguayamacontinuanamerceddelosvientos-2355318/

[23] http://cb.pr/resumen-del-proyecto-de-la-reforma-laboral-de-rossello/

[24]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/06/naomi-klein-how-power-profits-from-disaster?CMP=share_btn_fb

[25]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/09/07/puerto-rico-wasnt-ready-for-hurricane-irma-we-couldnt-possibly-be/?utm_term=.737d8342e419

[26] Friday, September 22, 2017

[27]https://protestamos.net/2017/06/05/enlaces-al-plan-sos-upr/