Poor Puerto Rico

Sad is the situation that Puerto Ricans are going through. The island was recently devastated by a deadly hurricane that crossed its entire length. Hovering over it, sharpened vehemence, is another phenomenon, one more criminal, prolonged and bloody. its condition of being a colony of the United States..

The Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) has bureaucratically hindered the distribution of aid that has been able to reach Puerto Rico. There are reports that claim that most of the aid for the disaster is still on the docks of San Juan, the capital.

Fifty percent of the population still lacks access to drinking water. The power grid is so damaged that 85 percent of the population still does not have electricity. The lack of fuel and energy hinders the functioning of hospitals and puts at risk the lives of the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. The death rate is increasing, especially in rural areas.

In the midst of the greatest devastation on the island, due to the passage of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were severely offended when President Trump blamed them for the humanitarian crisis the island was facing.

“Texas and Florida are doing very well, but Puerto Rico, which already suffered from a damaged infrastructure and massive debt, is in trouble,” Trump wrote in his Internet account, comparing the rapid recovery of two of the nation’s major states hit by hurricanes. In the process of degradation that affected them, with the tragedy suffered by their country in the Caribbean because of the most violent hurricane in Borinquen history, with sustained winds of 155 mph (250 km/h).

Trump’s angry reaction to the atrocious humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico exacerbated by the meteorological phenomenon in the conditions of a country deeply hurt by decades of colonialism and neoliberal policies, has created an explosive situation.

Puerto Rico currently has a debt of $73 billion to its creditors, which is equivalent to the total of its GDP. The commonwealth officially is in default (unable pay the debt). Neither the US government nor the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have presented any solution.

In reality, the country’s debt began to grow in the 1970s. Its economy, since the middle of the last century, was based mainly on the pharmaceutical industry. But with the appearance of the maquiladoras in Mexico and Asia, this sector has been moving to those regions in search of cheaper labor and higher productivity.

Currently, the official unemployment rate in 16 municipalities is 20 percent and in 61 others it exceeds 12 percent, although in reality the real unemployment rate is much higher than the official rate. Some 45 percent of the island’s 3.5 million people live in poverty and 83 percent of children live in poor areas. In a desperate act, last may Governor Rosselló cut the budget by $674 million dollars. This affected the health care system, education, various social programs and the University of Puerto Rico. As a result of the economic crisis, 144,000 Puerto Ricans left the island in search of employment.

Puerto Rico and Cuba have shared destinies as Spanish colonies. Their emancipatory struggles were interrupted by an opportunistic US intervention that sought to adjudge the remnants of the Spanish colonial empire in disgrace. Cuba achieved that the military occupation of the then nascent US imperialism was limited to 4 years and gave way to the proclamation in 1902 of an independent pseudo-republic. January 1959 brought, through the revolution, a genuine independence, although at the cost of a bloody daily battle against American hegemonic appetites.

118 years ago Washington seized Puerto Rico and the other vestiges of the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere. When neoliberalism broke onto the scene, to provide an injection of life to capitalism in crisis, the impulse towards the privatization of everything that existed caused extraordinary damage in Puerto Rico. Living conditions deteriorated with the disappearance of government funds for social programs and jobs. The island’s infrastructure was devastated by a campaign to convert everything from roads and public services to the education system into private for-profit companies.

Colonialism imposed an unpayable debt on Puerto Rico. Now it has had a dictatorial junta imposed on it to ensure that this debt is paid, even at the cost of a humanitarian crisis for the Puerto Rican people. Boricuas are demanding, specifically, that this debt be audited and that it be determined which part of it is legitimate and who is responsible for having assumed it.

Manuel E. Yepe is a lawyer, economist and journalist. He is a professor at the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana.