Disaster Capitalism is Shaking it Up in Puerto Rico

by Amanda

What do you get when you have two major disasters in an island colony saddled with billions of dollars of debt? It’s not pretty.

Over 500 earthquakes have hit Puerto Rico in the last 3 weeks including 4 powerful quakes ranging from 5.2 to 6.4. In 2019 when I visited PR, the day’s seismic activity was part of the weather report with several quakes each day I was there.  Thousands of people are now living out in the open or in shelters, their homes destroyed or unsafe, or they’re too fearful to sleep in them with the constant and unpredictable quakes. The fear of not knowing when another major quake will come is a terrifying and constant stress. Puerto Rico is located between 2 tectonic plates both moving toward the island from opposite sides, squeezing the island. And, the debt is squeezing the lifeblood out of the people.

As happened with Hurricane Maria, it isn’t the natural disaster, terrible as that was, that is the worst problem. The infrastructure of Puerto Rico was crumbling before Maria and the orange man refuses to release the billions of dollars allocated after Maria due to the island’s “corruption and financial mismanagement”.  There is corruption: 2 high-level FEMA administrators have been indicted. Then there was the tiny inexperienced Whitefish company, owned by one of Trump’s major donors, which got a no-bid contract to restore the power grid after Maria. The post-Maria blackout was the longest in US history and the second longest in the world. Spoiler alert: the power grid has still not been restored. Electricity is still erratic and black outs continue. Puerto Ricans now refuse to donate or funnel supplies through the official US and PR government sites. After Maria a FEMA official was put in charge of communications to hearing impaired people although she had no knowledge of ASL and just made up signs. Disabled activists called her out. And on and on.

   So, yes, there is corruption. And the emergency funds to rebuild after Maria are still desperately needed to repair homes and infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. Instead, the PROMESA fiscal board overseeing the debt promotes austerity and wants to close schools and hospitals, ignore the crumbling infrastructure while cutting health care, schools, pensions, and salaries. Schools crumbled in the quake, never having a seismic engineer inspect them after Maria. Students couldn’t go to school after the quakes because they were waiting to have their schools inspected. Schools also serve a dual purpose as emergency shelters.

There has been a mass exodus of young and skilled workers after Maria since supporting a family is almost impossible. Many areas are depopulated especially of young people. Doctors and mental health professionals have left. Instead of the needed massive recovery to rebuild renewable energy and help people survive, only 10% of Maria recovery contracts have gone to local Puerto Ricans. Workers from the US are brought in, paid a far higher wage plus travel and living expenses to stay in hotels. Despite a law passed in PR requiring 12% renewable energy by 2018 and 40% renewable by 2025, only 2.3% of energy is currently renewable.  The electrical company is in the process of being privatized and the US controlled PROMESA board, “the junta”, calls the shots. The petroleum industry, who care nothing for the survival of any being on the planet, continue to develop and export oil, coal, and LNG and are so happy to have a colony to play with.  

   Almost everyone on the island lost power after the January 7, 2020 earthquake. It took days to restore power and, even restored, the electricity remains unreliable. Hundreds of thousands were without water, which is often not accessible when there is no electricity. Even in San Juan, blackouts of hours to a day or more have occurred frequently over the last years. Elsewhere on the island it is worse. Everyone on the island has lanterns and solar lights, generators, propane refrigerators, water filters or as many emergency supplies as they can afford. Donations are constantly needed.

   After Maria, instead of replacing the damaged and aging oil and coal fired power plants with solar and wind, the power plants were falsely claimed operational. As it became impossible to deny how dysfunctional they were, the decision was made to move to more liquefied gas plants and allow the 9 (out of 22) oil-fired plants that are still somewhat functional to increase their output and up their pollution limits. This will result in more health problems, carbon emissions, and fossil fuel dependency. There are large petroleum and LNG (liquefied natural gas reserves) offshore, which Boricua have fought not to explore and develop for 50 years. Can you imagine (more) fracking in the south of PR, the site of all the earthquakes? In Oklahoma fracking has brought hundreds of earthquakes to an area that hadn’t even had them previously. 

Many of the most remote areas of Puerto Rico waited nearly a year for power to be restored after Maria. The cost of providing solar panels, that could be taken down for a hurricane, to all these vulnerable families would be less than building a new LNG plant. But, the goal is for Puerto Rico to be the LNG hub of the Caribbean with LNG plants ringing the island and a proposal for 3 gas import terminals. Meanwhile, grassroots activists are showing the way by installing solar across the island in health clinics, community centers, and homes in vulnerable areas.

  A difference between Maria and the current earthquake disaster is that the damage is much more localized to the south and west of the island. Puerto Ricans from the north have collected food, water, and emergency supplies and driven south to deliver the aid and help with building temporary kitchens and shelters and other disaster help. Since everyone knows that supplies post-Maria sat on tarmacs and were never delivered there is no trust of government or FEMA aid. A government warehouse full of never-distributed emergency supplies from 2017 was just discovered in Ponce. Water, food, baby formula, and tarps had been sitting until an inspector found them after the earthquakes. Thousands of people died after Maria and those supplies were, and still are, desperately needed. I heard a story of one man still waiting for promised funds to rebuild his house from hurricane George in 1998. There are many blue tarps and thousands of destroyed homes waiting to be rebuilt from Maria in 2017.

 We must call for a release of the aid already promised to Puerto Rico for the damage of hurricane Maria. The US states have received and spent their Maria money.  There also needs to be more money allocated for the damage of this new major disaster. And, of course, the debt must be dropped or renegotiated. As graffiti across PR says, “The debt is not ours.” The banks and the politicians created the debt; the people should not be made to pay for the colonizer’s debts.

  I want to salute all the amazing grassroots activists in Puerto Rico who are feeding people, rebuilding agriculture, fighting for the education system, providing acupuncture, health care, mental health services, marching in the streets to demand people’s needs and priorities, kicking out the corrupt governor,  and so much more. The beautiful spirit of Puerto Rican people in the face of all this adversity refuses to be crushed. La luta continua.

BRIGADA SOLIDARIA DEL OESTE is one of the grassroots groups doing great work since Hurricane Maria. Donate through Pay Pal brigadasolidariadeloeste@gmail.com
Donate through a check to Eury Orsini, Calle Mariano Abril, 101A, Bo. Buena Vista, Mayaguez, PR 00680

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is www.lagai.org.

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