Puerto Rico is facing a huge humanitarian crisis after being hit by two super-strong hurricanes. It suffered a glancing blow by Irma and then a direct hit by Maria, both storms greatly strengthened by warmer ocean water caused by climate change.
The crisis is still unfolding weeks after Maria hit. The full picture and extent of the damage will not be known for some time.
US President Donald Trump took five full days playing golf before even acknowledging the destruction. He then blamed Puerto Ricans themselves for the incredibly slow and inadequate response of Washington to bring desperately needed fuel, water, food and medicine to its Caribbean colony.
This slow and grudging federal response, far worse than offered to Texas and Florida following Harvey and Irma, reflects a racist attitude to the largely Latino population of Puerto Rico. Trump “dog whistled” with suggestions that Puerto Ricans were lazy, refused to pitch in with the recovery effort and were waiting for a handout from Washington.
After almost two weeks since Maria hit, Trump finally made a short visit to the island. He took the occasion to play down the extent of the devastation, saying that it was not a “real catastrophe”. He implied that recovery would not require much money, in face of estimates it would run into the tens of billions.
Electricity was completely shut down across the island. Only 5% has been restored. It will take more than 10 months to get it back to even the miserable state it was in before the hurricanes hit.
Hospitals have been forced to operate with their own generators, with fuel difficult to come by. This places patients in immediate danger. Medicine is also in short supply.
Communications are very difficult. The emergency 911 phone system, inadequate to begin with, is down.
Some aid that did arrive remained on the docks for two weeks due to many roads being closed by downed trees and debris. Many truck drivers were stranded and the lack of fuel makes transporting aid even harder.
TV reporters managed to arrive on the scene rapidly, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow to turn up. It still has not reached most of the island outside the capital, San Juan.
US abandonment notwithstanding, there were scenes just after Maria hit of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz wading chest-deep in flooded streets, joining fellow citizens in rescue efforts. Puerto Ricans are helping each other as best they can.
When Cruz went on TV to castigate Washington for its wholly inadequate response, appealing for aid because “we are dying”, Trump attacked her as a “poor leader”. The president doubled down on his assertions that Washington was doing “a great job”.
For more than a week, Trump resisted temporarily lifting a maritime law that made it more difficult for aid from other countries to reach Puerto Rico. Even in normal times, this law greatly increases prices in the poor island country. For example, before the storms food prices in Puerto Rico were double those in Florida.
Before Maria smashed the island, there was already a huge crisis in Puerto Rico caused by the exploitation of the colony by US imperialism. This greatly weakened the country’s electrical system, its medical facilities and infrastructure, making the hurricane’s impact worse.
As with Cuba and the Philippines, Puerto Rico became a US colony when the US defeated its former colonial rulers, Spain, in the war of 1898. The US tried to hide Puerto Rico’s colonial status with the fig leaf of labelling it a “commonwealth” or “unincorporated territory”.
Soon after the US captured the island, the US Supreme Court ruled that the only parts of the US Constitution that apply to Puerto Rico are those US Congress chooses to apply. The Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico belonged to, but was not part of, the US.
The consequence is that all major decisions involving the island are dependent on acts of Congress as interpreted by US courts.
US capitalists have exploited the island since. For the first 50 years, this largely involved US corporations exploiting low-wage labour on large sugar plantations. After World War II, the form of exploitation changed.
In the face of worldwide anti-colonial revolutions, and anti-colonial sentiments on the island, some concessions were made. A limited form of self-government was enacted.
This meant it was no longer a crime to display the Puerto Rican flag or to speak Spanish in public schools. Puerto Ricans could elect their own governors and legislature, although still under Congress’s control.
A new form of imperialist exploitation was established as the island was industrialised on the back of low-cost labour. The island was turned into a huge tax haven to encourage US corporations to invest. Mass migration to the mainland of unskilled labour was encouraged, to alleviate poverty while still retaining a reservoir of cheap labour.
In the 1960s, faced with the victory of the Cuban Revolution and the rise of revolutionary movements in Latin America, these policies were intensified to turn the island into a “showcase” of the supposed benefits of US control.
This was coupled with severe repression of pro-independence activities and the building of US military bases.
For a time, these policies improved conditions in Puerto Rico. Annual growth rates jumped in the 1950s, but gradually slowed until they stagnated in the 1980s. By then, Puerto Rico was a hugely profitable place for corporations. But soon, the cheap labour model started to find greener pastures elsewhere.
Austerity and debt
In 1996, Congress began to phase out tax breaks, which were completely gone by 2005. Big US corporations pulled out and the economy collapsed. The island has been in recession for the past 11 years.
The pro-imperialist politicians in Puerto Rico responded by borrowing from US financial capitalists to keep the country afloat. Then more loans were needed to repay earlier loans. In clear shades of Greece, this vicious cycle led to a crisis where Puerto Rico could no longer repay its loans by 2014.
An example of the crisis was the government-run power company, which became insolvent. Equipment was unable to be modernised and repairs were neglected. The electrical system was so fragile that when Irma and Maria hit, it completely collapsed.
As the economic crisis deepened, there were huge cutbacks to social services, education and health care.
By 2014, the island’s debt to US financial lenders hit US$73 billion. As the debt could not be paid, its price fell. Vulture capitalists bought the debt cheaply, then demanded it be paid at its full value.
In the face of this crisis, the “fig leaf” hiding Puerto Rico’s colonial status was ripped off. With bipartisan support, US Congress passed a law called PROMESA. It created an un-elected seven-person financial board with sweeping powers over the island’s economy.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling to underscore the point. It overruled a law passed by Puerto Rico’s parliament to allow the island to use bankruptcy procedure to cut its debt and extend the time for payments until the economy recovered. The Court reaffirmed a 1986 Congressional law that bans Puerto Rico from declaring bankruptcy — unlike the 50 states and cities that have that right.
‘We are a colony’
Supreme Court Justice Soto Mayor, who is Puerto Rican, dissented. She wrote that without being able to restructure its debt through bankruptcy, Puerto Rico and its utilities “will be unable to pay for fuel to generate electricity, which will lead to rolling blackouts”.
Other vital services “will be imperiled”, she continued, “including the utilities ability to provide safe drinking water, maintain roads and operate public transportation”.
For her part, Cruz said: “What the Congress has done, what the president of the United States has done, what the judicial system has done, is that they have unveiled to everyone, the international community and everyone in Puerto Rico, that we are a colony of the United States.
“PROMESA is a broken promise to the people of Puerto Rico. They have turned their backs on the rights of the Puerto Rican people, and they will not move forward an agenda which will help the development of the Puerto Rican economy.”
She added: “While in the US people are fighting to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, this colonial control board will lower the minimum wage in Puerto Rico for people 25 or under to $4.50 an hour.
“[It] could sell our national resources … and have sovereign power to revoke anything our next governor, our next legislature or any public official of the Puerto Rican government … will do.”
This board will oversee Puerto Rico’s economy in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Any federal aid for recovery will have to be repaid by Puerto Rico.
Already, moves are afoot to use the crisis to further privatise the island’s economy. As Naomi Klein wrote in The Shock Doctrine, such crises are used by the capitalists and capitalist governments to further the exploitation of the workers and oppressed.
This is what they have in store for the people of devastated Puerto Rico.