The Invisibility of Poverty in Puerto Rico

Photo by Juan Cristobal Zulueta | CC BY 2.0

It has been more than two months since Hurricane María, a catastrophic category four hurricane, took a heavy toll on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and dismally affected its local residents. People in the mainland saw pictures and videos of entire communities being physically disconnected due to bridges collapsing and roads being covered with debris. The news cycle kept repeating how extremely difficult it was to send rescue teams and aid to these heavily hit areas. And it is pretty common to know by now that any form of communication was basically inexistent—due to cellphone towers being torn down by strong winds—and that 100 percent of users were left without electricity right after the storm. Although some improvements have occurred, to this date, not much has changed. Only a little over half of the island has recovered electrical power—mostly intermittently.

Even though it has lost its persistent media coverage, what this dire aftermath and the subsequent relief and recovery effort have revealed is the island’s century-old unequal colonial relationship with the United States, and the local elites’ role in sustaining it. Recent controversy over the mishandling of the humanitarian crisis after Hurricane María should not surprise anyone. In the territory, as subaltern subjects, Puerto Ricans have been continuously subjected to a capitalist and racial hierarchical system.

These unjust core-periphery relations are a still evolving colonial condition that has made the territory a contested realm for economic extraction and injustices since the U.S. invaded the island in 1898. In fact, there is a similar case that dates back to an 1899 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico called San Ciriaco—after which the U.S. quickly moved to devalue the local currency, raise property taxes, and put in place a corporate takeover of land that unleashed the sugarcane economic boom of this period.

As multiple recent news articles have highlighted, it has also laid bare the extreme inequality and conditions of poverty present throughout the U.S territory. Even the politically vocal Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz pronounced recently in an interview that: “We will no longer be able to hide our poverty and our inequality with palm trees and piña coladas.”

It is important to note, however, that Puerto Rico has had a long history of obscuring poverty—especially after the Operation Bootstrap program was implemented in the island during the mid-twentieth century. This expedited modernization project was to become the Cold War’s antithesis to communist Cuba. Deemed a beacon for freedom and a laboratory for democracy in Latin America, huge amounts of federal money were transferred from the mainland to the territory in order to showcase Puerto Rico as capitalism’s success story.

However, this process of modernization was not working hand in hand with a long-term economic project that would actually lift most islanders out of poverty—today, more than 40 percent of residents live under the federal poverty line. By the 1970s, the economy started a downturn, so in 1976 Section 936 of the U.S. tax code was created to grant mainland corporations a tax exemption from their incomes originating from its Puerto Rico subsidiaries. Without a strong local economy—just a huge profit increase for mainland companies—when the tax exemption finally expired in 2006, Puerto Rico was left in economic shambles and has not recovered since.

Although throughout the twentieth century improvements to the quality of life of Puerto Ricans were felt in the U.S. territory, more often than not, it was equally important to erase or hide certain representations of poverty. This was done in order to uphold the highly symbolic nature of selling Puerto Rico as a success story—rather than actually doing away with the economic/political/colonial framework that benefitted only certain local and mainland stakeholders. In other words, this political project hid the many remaining representations of poverty—and the belligerent actions that sustained them—and re-imaged them into something that met the aesthetic standards of progress at the time.

In the 1950s, under the recently established commonwealth, new modernist buildings began housing government agencies, luxury hotels catered to the new tourism industry and, more importantly, public housing projects started accommodating the most impoverished sectors of the island—after relocating them from unsightly slums or arrabales, as they are commonly called in Puerto Rico.

Similarly to the mainland, since the first public housing project was erected through the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937, and the subsequent creation in Puerto Rico in May 1938 of the Puerto Rico Housing Authority (PRHA), the State relied on architecture to resolve the social ills that came about from segregation and poverty—which were spatially represented in the arrabal. It was thought that architecture could provide the working class and the unemployed with a means to access modernity in a plentiful fashion, and escape poverty in the process. Today, Puerto Rico has the second largest public housing system in the U.S. and about 250,000 island Puerto Ricans live in 58,000 public housing units.

In the public housing experiment undertaken in Puerto Rico, the spatial characteristics employed were both a product of a country that was modernizing itself—industrially and visually—and an inherited cultural assumption that understood that the poor had to be purged from any former tie with their rural past or with the spaces and community interactions of their former slum. Arrabales, were seen as spaces, where according to privileged sectors, crime and disease emanated. The government understood that they had to erase any trace or memory of the past and give way to progress. Although constantly evolving, to this day, this sense of Otherness is still very present in Puerto Rico.

Historically, in the island there has existed a generally ingrained idea that views the disenfranchised and their spaces of livelihood/engagement (be that the countryside, the arrabal or public housing—depending on the historical period) as inferior and with a need to be transformed, educated and disciplined. This political thought lives in the minds of local elites—be them powerful private citizens or government leaders—and is later turned into an actual political exercise through diverse spatial apparatuses: the walled colonial city, the sugar and tobacco plantations, public housing, etc.

However, in these spaces, this pre-established political thought that sees these sectors as inferior continues to operate. That is why the negative views with which these communities are understood and viewed as an Other has periodically been transferred for example from the plantation to the arrabal, and from the arrabal to public housing. They are the reproduction and constant redeployment of old racial/colonial hierarchies through a coloniality of power.

In Puerto Rico, local government administrations—aware of the politics of aesthetics—have taken bold steps to turn parts of the territory into something visually attractive to the local and foreign visitor’s gaze. The demolition of multiple public housing towers during the last decades, for example, was the immediate disappearance of these tall structures through an act of aggression that symbolically and physically purged the bodies considered and imagined as poor and violent. They were removed indefinitely by cleaning up the rubble that was left behind, and any other trace of their community and livelihood.

These demolitions of high-rise public housing in Puerto Rico, as in the case of Las Acacias (2000) and Las Gladiolas (2011), and the constant police occupation of other public housing projects in the island are all evidence of a complicated political condition. After its introduction at a national scale, a joint commission was set up in 1991 between HUD and the Puerto Rico Public Housing Authority (PRPHA) determining that due to their generally rundown state and an institutional lack of funds to maintain upkeep, all the island’s tall public housing buildings should be demolished and replaced by new mixed-income ones. Public housing was now being given the same negative characterization that had been conferred to slums just a few decades before. In order to sustain the symbolic prowess of economic progress, these towers had to be demolished as soon as possible.

In the case of Las Gladiolas’ former site, new renderings of the new four-story mixed-income building that will be built in its place have already been released. It is worrisome to see that the smaller scale of the development clearly cannot house all of the residents of the former tower-complex. Today, one would have to ask, is the current massive flight of Puerto Ricans to the mainland after the hurricane the most current version of this kind of socioeconomic purging?

Going back to hurricane María’s aftermath, the cloaking of poverty that was recently revealed—demonstrating how run down the infrastructure and the living conditions of many was—is strengthened by the centuries-old framework of political invisibility that was until now being partially revealed in U.S. media. In Puerto Rico, this contemporary political invisibility is a form of instability that strengthens neocolonial relations of power. The territory has no political representation in Congress, there is a lack of general knowledge of Puerto Rico’s political situation in the mainland, the island is heavily indebted (yet there are no reliable statistics to distinguish debt that was issued illegally), and there is an unelected oversight board with broad (yet unchecked) powers that was put in place by Congress in 2016 under a new law called PROMESA—with a clear neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatization of publicly owned land and corporations, and a reduction of both federal assistance programs and minimum wage for workers.

Today, what makes Puerto Rico unique is that neocolonial means of exploitation/expulsion take advantage of this surviving and often occulted colonial/political framework. In the wake of the crisis left by Hurricane María, local and mainland actors are likely to take advantage of the aesthetic/political project that has already been put in place—the local government has already unveiled a campaign to attract mainland investors called: “Paradise Performs”.

Additionally, as we have witnessed from President Trump’s tweets, blaming the victims and making them solely responsible for the hurricane’s catastrophic aftermath masks the old hierarchical system’s role in the constant yet evolving economic exploitation of the island. However, blaming Trump instead as the sole culprit, or blindly celebrating the “resilient” capacity of a population in dire need, also contribute to conceal this existing political framework of instability and the condition of poverty it reproduces.

As a matter of survival, new modes of exposing the structural colonial differences between the mainland and the island must be deployed. Additionally, Puerto Rico must claim for a structure of governance that strengthens new democratic processes of land use, sustainability, and social equity, while simultaneously empowering the emerging multitudes dealing with the environmental, economic and political aftermath of the hurricane.

In the end, images of Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane María paint a drastically different picture. Inequality and poverty were laid bare, and the sheer awe of destruction looms heavily. In the island, however, the political framework that supports the invisibility of poverty—repeating itself under the cloak of colonialism—has already been in place for more than half a century. This sets the perfect scene for disaster capitalism’s destabilizing maneuvers—selling destruction as an opportunity and offering a tropical paradise at bargain prices.

We must act fast. And never forget the interdependency that exists between redevelopment, aesthetics, and our cultural understandings of race and poverty.


Oscar Oliver-Didier is Director of CIUDADLAB and on the Adjunct Faculty at The New School Parsons.