Two Wings of the Same Bird – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hurricanes and Political Prisoners

Photo by Rob Oo | CC BY 2.0

Six months after Oscar López Rivera was released from prison having spent 35 years inside, he traveled to Cuba.  “I feel at home, this is a dream come true; for many, many years, I have wanted to come to Cuba and today for the first time I have arrived,” Oscar told Fernando Llort González, the President of ICAP (Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples), who greeted him when he stepped off the plane.

The last time Oscar had seen Fernando was in the cell he shared with him for four years in Terre Haute prison where they became good friends. Their friendship wasn’t surprising. Oscar was in prison because of his participation in the struggle to win Puerto Rican independence from the U.S. while Fernando, one of the Cuban 5, was in prison for his efforts to protect a sovereign Cuban nation from U.S. aggressive interventions.   A Puerto Rican and a Cuban freedom fighter sharing a cell was a twenty-first century manifestation of the historical bonds between the two islands, eloquently expressed in the lines that Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tió  wrote in 1893:

Cuba and Puerto Rico are
as two wings of the same bird,
they receive flowers and bullets
into the same heart.

When Oscar arrived in Cuba on November 13, 2017, both Cuba and Puerto Rico had recently received bullets into the geographical hearts of their islands. Cuba was hit by Hurricane Irma, a category 5 hurricane, on September 8, 2017. Two weeks weeks later, on September 20th, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane.  In Cuba, the electricity was restored to the entire island within a few weeks.  In Puerto Rico, over four months after Maria nearly 40% of the island is still without power. The scandal-plagued response to the hurricane on the part of the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments exposes the operation of disaster capitalism at its worst.

In Cuba, Oscar summed up the situation. “After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was left devastated and is now showing the world the poverty that existed and was hidden; the world is being shown what colonialism is, because it is perhaps the best example of what becomes of a country that has been colonized for 119 years by the U.S. government.”

I recently spoke with Oscar to find out what he had learned during his trip to Cuba and how he saw the current Puerto Rican reality.  He started by telling me how he had toured Villa Clara, the Cuban province hardest hit by Irma, with the Director of Civil Defense.   All electricity in the province had been restored in little over two weeks.  The rebuilding of thousands of structures that had been damaged by Irma was rapidly occurring with many houses already repaired, all with government support.

The Cuban government put all available resources into action before and after the hurricane, prioritizing the preservation of life above all else.  Days before Irma hit, the Trump administration renewed the embargo against Cuba, which has been in place since 1960.  This meant Cuba couldn’t access vital supplies needed for reconstruction from the U.S. or  assistance from many international financial organizations that are impacted by the embargo’s sanctions. Fortunately, many other countries, including Venezuela, China and Bolivia, provided assistance immediately.

I asked Oscar what he thought was key to Cuba’s capacity to respond so rapidly and effectively. “It is their commitment to developing the human resource,” he answered unequivocally. “They continue to fortify and strengthen the people and it gave me the most amazing emotion to see how this was being done on all levels. Everyone is organized into neighborhood and civic organizations that get the information out to everyone very quickly. “

He went on to explain how all parts of the society were mobilized  –  neighborhood organizations helped to coordinate the evacuation of almost one million people in Havana, civic brigades conducted search-and-rescue operations across the island, electric workers began repairing the electrical infrastructure as soon as the hurricane dissipated, and medical brigades fanned out through the country to help with health emergencies.

“What’s needed in Puerto Rico is to organize the people,” Oscar asserted when I asked him about the failure of the governmental response to Maria.  Oscar described how he was shocked when he returned to Puerto Rico, after decades of being in prison, by the level of poverty, the intensifying gentrification, the takeover of land, buildings and infrastructure by private U.S. corporations and the strangling dictatorship of the PROMESA fiscal control board over all areas of Puerto Rican economic life. These were the conditions which contributed to the breakdown of recovery efforts.  When Oscar testified to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization in June 2017, even before the hurricane, he told them that in spite of the deteriorating conditions “many Puerto Ricans believe this is the best moment to wage an effective decolonizing process.”

As soon as he could after he was free, Oscar jumped into organizing in Puerto Rico. “I love to figure out communities and organize at the community level,” he explained.  With Maria, the focus has necessarily shifted to supporting self-determined survival efforts of the community. As one example, Oscar described how the people of San Sebastián in the rural western part of Puerto Rico were still without electricity two months after Maria hit. Through the initiative of the town’s mayor, retired electrical workers formed volunteer brigades to restore electricity to the town.  PREPA (the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) accused the town of illegally circumventing its monopoly but the town refused to stop its work to turn the power back on.  Based upon San Sebastián’s example, other municipalities began to pressure the Puerto Rican government to allow them to legally restore their own power.  As a result of the widespread pressure, a bill has been introduced in the legislature to allow cities to hire their own contractors.

For Oscar, this type of grassroots action is a core part of the decolonization project in Puerto Rico at this moment in time.  He has been involved in organizing town hall meetings in various communities to get input from the people on how they see conditions and to support them in developing their own solutions to the many problems they face.   Puerto Rico’s Governor Rosselló has begun the privatization of PREPA,  marketing  privatization as the solution to the corrupt practices of the agency – a false solution that the Fiscal Control Board has been promoting.  In contrast, a main focus of the town halls has been alternative energy projects using renewable energy from the sun, air and water – real solutions that channel Puerto Rico’s natural resources towards sustainable self-sufficiency.

Casa Pueblo is an example of a Puerto Rican community-based organization that has a long history of organizing to protect and develop Puerto Rico’s natural resources dating back to 1980 when it started as part of the struggle against open-pit mining.  I spoke with Arturo Massol- Deyá, Professor of Microbiology and Ecology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and Associate Director of Casa Pueblo.  According to Arturo, the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments set up false expectations that they would be able to manage the crisis catalyzed  by Maria.  In fact, there was a total collapse of governmental response so that not even tarps were available for people to protect themselves from the elements.

To support the people immediately after the hurricane, Casa Pueblo, which is based in Adjuntas in a mountainous part of the island, reached out to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States to get tarps and solar-powered lamps which were flown to Puerto Rico on charter flights.  Casa Pueblo was able to distribute over 10,000 solar lamps across Adjuntas which helped to alleviate the crisis of darkness in that area. This emergency lighting project was rooted in Casa Pueblo’s long standing commitment to solar power.  The organization’s headquarters has been run on solar power since 1999.  In 2017, ten houses in Adjuntas were converted to solar and the plan is to create an entire solar-based community in 2018 which can become a model for other municipalities around Puerto Rico.

Speaking about the impact of Maria on Puerto Rico, Arturo explained, “When one system fails, you have to create another.  The new reality means that solar power is not an alternative but a necessity. Energy is a clear example of how the colonial model has failed to provide for the Puerto Rican people….We have to redefine the energy agenda from the bottom up because from the top down clearly doesn’t work.”   According to Arturo, Maria has also led to a strengthening of relationships between Puerto Ricans on the island and those in the diaspora who have stepped forward to help on an unprecedented level.  “The commitment of the people in Puerto Rico and on the mainland is from their heart. That makes all the difference.”

Cuba has also been pushed by the impact of Irma to accelerate its 100-year plan, Tarea Vida , for responding to climate change. According to Dalia Salabarría Fernández, a marine biologist at Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP), “The overarching idea is to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities.” The plan bans construction of new homes in threatened coastal areas, mandates relocating people from communities doomed by rising sea levels, calls for an overhaul of the country’s agricultural system to shift crop production away from saltwater-contaminated areas, and spells out the need to shore up coastal habitat defenses. Arturo sees the value of this Cuban initiative for Puerto Rico. “We might be in different political realities, but regarding climate change, we are islands in the Caribbean facing the same environmental challenge…We [Puerto Rico] have the science, but lack of political will (or power) to act on climate change is compromising the security of many communities and critical infrastructure. Taking a closer look at our neighbors could be a good reference for our people. “

For Oscar, his visit to Cuba reaffirmed his sense of the indelible solidarity between the two nations.  During the three decades of Oscar’s imprisonment, Cuba repeatedly introduced a resolution before the United Nations Decolonization Committee that recognized Puerto Rico’s right to independence and self-determination and demanded Oscar’s release as a political prisoner.  This year for the first time, Oscar himself was able to testify on behalf of the decolonization resolution.  As part of his speech, he spoke in support of  Ana Belén Montes a Puerto Rican who is currently serving a twenty-five year prison term for relaying U.S. intelligence information to Cuba, one more example of the complex political links between the islands.  Oscar has also continually denounced the United States’ economic embargo of Cuba whose goal is to undermine the right of the Cuban people to determine their own political system and destiny.

When they were cellmates at Terre Haute prison, Oscar and Fernando had imagined celebrating their freedom together many times.  Even though there were few indications that this could ever happen, they both trusted that the persistent struggles of their peoples would at some point win their release.  On November 14, 2017, Cuba presented Oscar with the Order of Solidarity in a ceremony held at the José Martí Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.  At the ceremony, Fernando praised Oscar as a “brave, modest, educated man with a great artistic sensibility” and “a concerned father, caring grandfather, and committed lover of his island and people.”  The flower of shared struggle between Puerto Rico and Cuba will continue to bloom.

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Diana Block is the author of a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History (PM Press, 2015) and a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back (AK Press, 2009).  She is an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners  and the anti-prison coalition CURB. She is a member of the editorial collective of The Fire Inside newsletter and she writes periodically for various online journals.

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