As people in Puerto Rico are dying and President Trump lashes out at San Juan’s mayor, Bill talks with social anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla about the challenges Puerto Ricans face in the wake of the storm.
Puerto Rico is devastated. Two hurricanes plunged the island into darkness and despair. Crops perish in the fields. The landscape of ruined buildings and towns resemble Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it. Over three million people are desperate for food, water, electricity and shelter.
After a slow start, the Trump Administration is now speeding up the flow of supplies to the island. A top US general has been given command of the relief efforts. And, like so many others, Yarimar Bonilla watches with a broken heart as her native Puerto Rico struggles.
This noted social anthropologist – a scholar on Caribbean societies — says the hurricanes have made an already bad fiscal and economic crisis worse, and she sees darker times ahead unless major changes are made in the structure of power and in Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.
Most folks in the US don’t even know how to orient themselves towards Puerto Rico. How should they feel about it? Should they support statehood, should they support independence? They’re unable to reconcile the political history of Puerto Rico with the history that they are taught in schools about the United States.
Puerto Rico’s been in an economic recession for over a decade. The great American recession that was so debated in the United States during the early Obama Administration after the collapse of the banks in the US — all of that started in Puerto Rico much earlier, and whereas the US is said to have recovered to some extent for certain populations, Puerto Rico’s recession has only deepened.
That is in part due to the lack of a strong economic base and to tax incentives that were put in place to bring foreign — “foreign” meaning US companies — to Puerto Rico. After the crash a lot of companies left and a base of employment in Puerto Rico was gone.
So even before this last hurricane, already Puerto Rico had huge unemployment, huge poverty rates — poverty rates that double any poverty rate in the US, even that of the poorest states of the US — and a very neglected infrastructure that was not ready for the storms.
And so all of this means that leading up to the storm, people already did not have enough money to prepare, to buy the supplies that they needed. Ideally, you would prepare for a storm of this nature by having a well-stocked pantry, plenty of water, lots of batteries, and if you can afford it, a generator.
Also, your car would be full of gas and you would have a good amount of cash, because as can be expected and as we’re seeing now, ATMs are down. People who are just making ends meet, they don’t have the kind of money that is necessary to prepare for these storms.
There’s a lot of talk about the island’s environmental precarity and vulnerability. It’s true that the Caribbean is on the front lines of effects from climate change. But there are other forms of vulnerability, like socioeconomic vulnerability.
And also a political vulnerability because Puerto Ricans don’t really have anyone in Congress advocating for them. They’re nobody’s constituents. They have no representation and no one who can leverage votes and trade deals with other states in order to get things expedited on the ground there.
If you look at the Jones Act, the only goods that can arrive in Puerto Rico have to be on US-made ships, and owned by US citizens, with a US crew flying a US flag.
So this means that if the Dominican Republic wants to sell food to Puerto Rico, which it does, it has to send that food first to Jacksonville, Florida, unload it, put it on another ship that is allowed to bring it to Puerto Rico. So this makes it very difficult for Puerto Rico to engage in trade with other countries. We’re not an independent nation, so we can’t make our own trade arrangements. And that means that we have to buy mostly from the US!
That will help momentarily in terms of letting a few ships arrive and letting Puerto Ricans find more inexpensive methods of procuring the items that they need right now. A lot of us are very offended that it was only lifted for 10 days, as if you could resolve the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, which is of a devastating scale — as if you could resolve that in 10 days. It’s absolutely offensive for it to be so limited. A small crumb.
What I hope is that there are now a lot of people who have become educated about the Jones Act. Most people in the United States didn’t know anything about it before this. Maybe now there can be enough pressure to fully repeal it.
Puerto Ricans have been kicked by Irma, then kicked by Maria, and now kicked by Trump. We’re really suffering. In the middle of our humanitarian crisis, he tells us, “It’s a shame but you have to pay back that debt.” It’s clear that was a message to Wall Street not to worry, they’ll get paid back. Puerto Ricans need to worry, however.
Wal-Mart has negotiated a series of benefits from the Puerto Rican government such as free or subsidized land to build on, subsidies for their payroll, and for the training of new employees. So they basically get to set up shop almost for free. In addition, we are a captive market.
There’s not a lot of competition for them. So they’re the biggest employer, and the biggest retailer. Also, Wal-Mart USA sells to Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, at surprisingly inflated prices so that then it appears as if Wal-Mart Puerto Rico doesn’t have much profit, which means they pay very little taxes to the Puerto Rican government.
The Puerto Rican government wanted to raise the taxes but Wal-Mart threatened to sue and leave and then a federal judge decided that the tax would be discriminatory because Wal-Mart was the only operator of the scale to which these taxes would apply.
One big problem is that donors want to aid small scale organizations. And there’s good reason for that. But the problem is, that when you need to rebuild something like an electricity grid or a public water system, you can’t do it in a patchy way. In Haiti, a lot of money was sent to organizations like the Red Cross that was kept for overhead and not used for what was promised.
But then a lot of people, to avoid that kind of thing, would send money directly to a community that would build just one school. So you have this kind of patchy education system. You have communities that have wells that don’t connect to each other. You have roads that are built to go from one town to the church that helped build them but that doesn’t lead to a national roadway system. What you need is a systematic process of rebuilding by a government that has decided what kind of society they want to rebuild and in what way.
If you also look at a place like New Orleans and what has happened after Katrina, we know already that in other disaster situations, the preexisting inequalities just get exacerbated. And so the folks who were already suffering the most in these places are the ones who will benefit the least from the reconstruction.
I really fear that there’s going to be a mass exodus from Puerto Rico — basically what Aimé Césaire once described as genocide by substitution. Puerto Ricans are going to leave and FEMA workers brought in from the US are going to arrive. More wealthy investors are going to come and Puerto Rico is no longer going to belong to Puerto Ricans.
It will look more and more like Hawaii. When we talk about rebuilding we have to think about why rebuild an energy sector that is not based on renewable sources when you can rebuild with solar power, for example. But we also have to think about rebuilding for whom, who is going to remain on the island and what role are they going to play in Puerto Rico’s reconstruction?
There’s no other way to talk about it, especially in a context where you literally have people dying in the hospital because there’s no energy to sustain their life-support systems.
Moyers: Most of us have a little bit of the vulture in us, so the question arises, who’s at fault when this happens? Did local politicians and local people just get too greedy or is this simply the way the Wall Street economy works – barracuda capitalism, so called? Or is what’s happening in Puerto Rico the inheritance of colonialism?
The same formula is dedicated to neighboring Caribbean island St.Maarten, where the Dutch are creating havoc among its citizens, in order to control its so-called autonomy. The Dutch Kingdom preys on horror with terror!
Moyers & Company / AA Magnum Analyst Blog Site News 2017.