• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Devastation of Puerto Rico

Photo by Juan Cristobal Zulueta | CC by 2.0

On September 20, Hurricane Maria swept through the United States territory of Puerto Rico and devastated the island (“A tale of two islands”). The death toll is not yet confirmed. It is hard to know what is happening since the roads in the interior of the island remain impassable and communications networks are down.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria left the island, the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans remain in the dark. It is estimated that 85 per cent of the population will not get power for at least six months and that 40 per cent of the islanders will not have access to drinking water. Waterborne diseases threaten the people, whose health has been further endangered by the threadbare hospitals.

The government of the island and U.S. President Donald Trump have been exaggerating the situation in the island. For instance, Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, said that 63 of the island’s 69 hospitals were fully operational. The Centre for Investigative Journalism (Puerto Rico) suggested that this was impossible. A week before Governor Rossello made these comments, 56 hospitals were closed. When the staff from the centre called many of the hospitals that were said to be operational, they found them not in any state to receive patients. The government suggests that the death toll was somewhere in the vicinity of 45. But Representatives Nydia Velasquez (Democrat of New York) and Bennie Thompson (Democrat of Mississippi) wrote to the Department of Homeland Security suggesting that the death toll was being “woefully underreported”. They say that at least 450 people might have died in this calamity.

Donald Trump arrived in Puerto Rico on October 3. He suggested that the death toll was minimal—16. “Everybody around this table,” he said of the political leaders and disaster relief personnel, “and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.” He was in San Juan, the capital, where he visited the wealthy suburb of Guynabo, whose gated communities were spared the devastation visited on nearby poor neighbourhoods such as La Perla or Barriada. Small towns outside San Juan such as Florida and Caguas suffered a complete apocalypse: sewer water ran through the streets of Florida, while houses in Caguas lost their roofs whose metal dammed up creeks and increased the flooding.

Trump went to the Calvary Church where chartered flights were bringing in meals for the more affluent residents. Trump threw rolls of paper towels at people in his version of providing relief. The journalist Valeria Collazo Canizares put it most wryly: “Our catastrophe is not real. Our need is towel paper. Our dead, a pride. The resources sent, a budget deficit.”

Valeria Collazo Canizares’ statement about the budget deficit is utterly along the grain of reality. For the past several years, the island has been struggling to manage a depressingly bad financial situation (“Puerto Rico: A Greece Moment”, August 7, 2015). This hurricane has now set the island on course to total bankruptcy. Puerto Rico is saddled with a $74 billion debt, with its own bonds worth pennies on the dollar. There is no easy way for Puerto Rico to move to solvency. “We are going to wipe that out,” Trump had said about the debt in one of his moments of paternalist braggadocio. Trump’s statement crashed Puerto Rico’s already defaulted bonds. Then, hastily, his administration walked back from his statement.

In its $36.5 billion disaster relief package, the U.S. Congress is slated to give Puerto Rico $4.9 billion, not as a grant but as a loan. This money is to go towards the maintenance of basic government activity such as normal services of the government, but not for any activity that will generate revenue. In other words, distressed Puerto Rico is being made to take a loan out to perform constitutionally mandated tasks of the government. This is not an investment towards any future revenue that could service this additional debt. This is just the heavy weight of debt on an island already sinking into financial collapse.

Whatever industry existed on the island is now substantially destroyed, and the tourism sector will not recover from the destruction of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. Unemployment rates are slated to rise, which is going to put more of a burden on the government. How it will raise revenue to service the debt, let alone pay it off, is unknown.

Meanwhile, out of this $36.5 billion package, $16 billion will go as a contribution towards Puerto Rico’s debt of $74 billion. This is money that will go directly to the banks that own Puerto Rico’s debt. Relief will go to the banks while Puerto Rico’s residents, U.S. citizens all, will continue to live perilous lives. The insurance companies, hurt by their payouts in Texas and Florida, will get some money, as will government agencies that have been dealing with a series of hurricane-related disasters.

None of these packages, like similar previous packages, will solve Puerto Rico’s problem. The debt cannot be paid off. Puerto Rico, already a semi-colony of the U.S., has drifted gradually into becoming a colony of the U.S. banking system.

Campsite of the forgotten

A few days after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, the Association of Electrical Workers said that it would bring 17,000 workers to put up fallen electrical posts and to restore electricity supply. It waited for the government of Puerto Rico to invite it and to raise $25 million to cover its costs. The electrical utility, PREPA, is wracked by debt, but it suggested at the time that it would be able to find the money. The invitation never came. The electrical workers were set aside. Instead, with great fanfare, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came and took over the recovery effort. They are in charge but they do not know the island like its own electrical workers. The pace of repair is glacial.

PREPA is itself trapped by its own contracted obligations to a Brazilian firm, Whitefish Energy Holdings (Comtrafo S.A.), which has its own approach. Money and corporate law block relief. The state watches as businesses take their time to do what should be done with speed. Privatisation turned over the responsibility to these firms, which are accountable only to their owners and shareholders. The customers, knee-deep in water and without electricity, cannot call to complain. Their phones are not working.

Rosa Perez, a journalist with Abayarde Rojo, told me a story about the town of Utuado, 104 kilometres south-west of San Juan, high up in the mountains. The Vivi river that flows near the town has been filled with debris, which broke the town’s bridge. The 33,000 townspeople who live in this coffee-producing area have united to help each other, according to their Mayor Ernesto Irizarry Salva. They call themselves the “campsite of the forgotten” and find the means to take care of themselves. To ford the river, they have built a bridge using some wood and have dangled a shopping cart on a rope to send supplies across it. The hospital is in poor shape, so the residents are trying to take care of the indigent in whatever homes remain functional. The residents have rediscovered old springs in the mountains that have long been forgotten. They are now their source of water, which is carried down in bottles and buckets.

No one is coming to save Puerto Rico, Rosa Perez says. It is the people in such campsites of the forgotten who are trying to save themselves.

This article originally ran on Frontline (India.)

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail