Puerto Rico: U.S. colonial dependency impedes hurricane recovery
Abi de la Paz de la Cruz, 3, holds a gas can as she waits in line with her family, to get fuel from a gas station, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 25. Gerald Herbert / AP

Fans of socialist Rosa Luxemburg may look at Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico and recall the deaths of 40,000 people in 1902 when Mt. Pelee erupted in Martinique, a French colony. She wrote then of “the lords of the earth, who with faith unshaken—in their own wisdom…have all turned to Martinique to help, rescue, dry the tears, and curse the havoc-wreaking volcano.” Luxemburg was thinking about the murder and mayhem at the hands of the French colonialists and accusing them of hypocrisy in trying to soothe the survivors.

That accusation fits now in regard to U.S. words and deeds materializing in the wake of two recent hurricanes—particularly Hurricane Maria—that left Puerto Rico in shambles.

Food, water, and medical supplies were almost exhausted nine days after Maria struck. Lack of diesel fuel to power generators caused electricity shortages that shut down air conditioners and therapy devices. Patients dependent on respirators are at risk for death. The entire electricity grid is destroyed. Puerto Ricans are in the dark and without refrigeration or means for communication. Recovery is measured in months or years.

The government had quickly arranged for disaster relief funds for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. But eight days after Maria hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress had released no extra funds for Puerto Rico. President Trump reminded Puerto Ricans of their debt obligations. News reports mentioned Puerto Rico’s longstanding infrastructure deficiencies, but didn’t offer much explanation.

Rebuilding will be measured in months or even years. After more than a century of colonialism, Puerto Rico’s economy is too tied to U.S. control, hampering recovery efforts. | Carlos Giusti / AP

Indeed, the Puerto Rican people were facing great difficulties prior to the hurricanes. Almost half of all Puerto Ricans live in poverty, including 60 percent of the island’s children. Almost 200 schools closed in the months before the hurricanes. The University of Puerto Rico was on the way to losing an estimated $300 million in funds. Public funding for healthcare was being reduced.

Blame for these problems falls squarely on the U.S. government.

In 1976 the U.S. government awarded corporations tax advantages for setting up factories on the island. Consequently, the island’s government ran short of money and secured loans from Wall Street bankers. Then Washington authorities removed the tax advantages and factories departed. By 2016, Puerto Rico’s government owed creditors $74 billion and owed pension funds $50 billion.

Authorities there had already been reducing social services before 2016 when the U.S. Congress passed its PROMESA act and thereby ensured that payments on debt would be prioritized over human needs. The legislation established a Financial Control Board that, according to critic Nelson Denis, is “the de facto government, banker, judge, jury, and executioner of Puerto Rico.”

The die had already been cast. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920—the Jones Act—greatly benefited U.S. shipbuilders. Still in effect, it assigns the job of transporting goods from one U.S. port to another exclusively to U.S. ships and U.S. crews. Under the law, says Denis, “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees, and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.”

Consumer items from the U.S. mainland cost twice as much in Puerto Rico as they do in other Caribbean islands. The cost of living on the island is 13 percent higher than in hundreds of urban areas in the United States.

To promote recovery in Texas and Florida from hurricane damage, the U.S. Congress quickly exempted those places from Jones Act restrictions. But President Trump took eight days to do the same for Puerto Rico. He did so only after the Defense Department determined that a waiver for Puerto Rico, in effect for 10 days, would serve national defense.

Puerto Rico has been a special case ever since it was occupied by the U.S. Army in 1898. Two years later, the U.S. Congress took charge of the island, and large areas of Puerto Rican farm land fell into U.S. hands. Legislation in 1950 enabled Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution, but one that is subject to U.S. laws and regulations. Puerto Ricans don’t vote in U.S. presidential elections. They aren’t represented in the U.S. Congress.

Now murmurings are heard of privatization of Puerto Rico’s electrical system, and hedge fund creditors are offering a new billion-dollar loan to “re-establish the electricity system and facilitate access to federal funds.”

But workers on the island may learn from their recent experience, says Puerto Rico’s Communist Party: “People’s wrath provoked by the criminal negligence of the [island’s] government before Maria’s arrival will only increase with each broken promise, each example of government impotence and each slap in the face.”

“People’s wrath provoked by the criminal negligence of the [island’s] government before Maria’s arrival will only increase with each broken promise, each example of government impotence and each slap in the face.”

Rosa Luxemburg weighs in: “a day will come when another volcano lifts its voice of thunder… And only on its ruins will the nations come together in true humanity, which will know but one deadly foe—blind, dead nature.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.