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Two Storms Hit Puerto Rico: Maria and Colonialism

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

Fans of socialist Rosa Luxemburg looking at Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico may recall the deaths of 40 000 people in 1902 when Mt. Pelee erupted in Martinique, a French colony.  Luxemburg wrote then that “the lords of the earth,” who with “faith unshaken – in their own wisdom …have all turned to Martinique [to] help, rescue, dry the tears and curse the havoc-wreaking volcano.” They had plundered and murdered in colonies like Martinique and she was accusing them of hypocrisy in trying to comfort the survivors.

Currently that accusation applies to U. S. words and deeds in the wake of two recent hurricanes – particularly Hurricane Maria – that left Puerto Rico in shambles.

Food, water, and medical supplies were almost exhausted nine days after Maria struck. Lack of diesel fuel to power generators caused electricity shortages such that in hospitals air-conditioners and therapy devices weren’t working. Patients dependent on respirators were dying. The entire electricity grid is destroyed. Puerto Ricans are in the dark and without refrigeration or means for communication. Recovery is measured in months or years.

The U. S. government quickly provided disaster relief funds for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. But more than a week after Maria hit Puerto Rico no extra emergency funds were heading for the island. President Trump reminded Puerto Ricans of their debt obligations. News reports mentioned Puerto Rico’s chronic infrastructure deficiencies, but didn’t offer much explanation.

Indeed, Puerto Ricans were facing great difficulties prior to the hurricanes. Almost half of all Puerto Ricans live in poverty, including 60 percent of the island’s children.  Almost 200 schools closed in the months before the hurricanes. The University of Puerto Rico was on the way to losing an estimated $300 million in funds. Public funding for healthcare was being reduced. Blame for these problems falls on the U. S. government.

Under new regulations in 1976, corporations gained tax advantages for setting up factories on the island. Thereafter, the island’s government ran short of money and secured loans from Wall Street bankers. Later Washington authorities removed the tax advantages and factories departed. By 2016 Puerto Rico’s government owed creditors $74 billion and owed pension funds $50 billion.

The U. S. Congress that year passed its PROMESA law which prioritized payments on debt over human needs. But even before then, Puerto Rico’s government had been cutting away at social services. PROMESA established a Financial Control Board that, according to critic Nelson Denis, is “the de facto government, banker, judge, jury, and executioner of Puerto Rico.”

The die had already been cast. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – the Jones Act – benefitted U. S. shipbuilders. Still in effect, it assigns the job of transporting goods from one U. S. port to another exclusively to U. S. ships and U. S. crews. Under the law, says Denis, “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.”

Consumer items from the U. S. mainland cost twice as much in Puerto Rico as they do in other Caribbean islands. The cost of living on the island is 13 percent higher than in hundreds of urban areas in the United States.

To promote recovery in Texas and Florida from hurricane damage, the U. S. Congress quickly exempted those places from Jones Act restrictions. But President Trump took over a week to do the same for Puerto Rico. He acted after the Defense Department determined that a waiver for Puerto Rico, in effect for only ten days, would serve national defense.

Puerto Rico has been a special case ever since it was occupied by the U. S. Army in 1898.  Two years later the U. S. Congress took charge of the island and large areas of Puerto Rican farm land fell into U. S. hands. Legislation in 1950 enabled Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution, but required that it be subject to U. S. laws and regulations. Puerto Ricans don’t vote in U. S. presidential elections. They aren’t represented in the U. S. Congress.

Now murmurings are heard of privatization of Puerto Rico’s electrical system, and hedge fund creditors are offering a new billion – dollar loan to “re-establish the electricity system and facilitate access to federal funds.”

But workers on the island may learn from their recent experience, says Puerto Rico’s Communist Party: “People’s wrath provoked by the criminal negligence of the [island’s] government before Maria’s arrival will only increase with each broken promise, each example of government impotence and each slap in the face.”

Rosa Luxemburg weighs in: “a day will come when another volcano lifts its voice of thunder … And only on its ruins will the nations come together in true humanity, which will know but one deadly foe – blind, dead nature.”

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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