No End in Sight Puerto Rico’s Many Crises after Hurricane María

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Edwin Jusino, a fellow historian and friend, called me from Puerto Rico two days after hurricane María castigated the archipelago. He was noticeably shaken and wanted me to give him some information about the condition of the island and to let others know he was ok. He stated several times, “There is a before María and a post-María Puerto Rico.” He couldn’t be more on point.

Harry

Harry Franqui-Rivera is a professor of global, Caribbean, and Latin American history at Bloomfield College, New Jersey.  He is also a public intellectual, cultural critic, and blogger. He wrote a piece about Puerto Rico’s crises for Process in 2016. His manuscript, Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868–1952, University of Nebraska Press, will come out in spring 2018.

Last year I wrote an article about the many crises afflicting the U.S. territory known as the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (ELA). This may not seem like the most appropriate time to return to this topic in view of the crippling blow Hurricane María dealt to Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, but appearances can be deceiving. The situation in Puerto Rico has only deteriorated since my 2016 post. Enter Hurricane María, which rolled back progress and compounded ongoing crises, making the situation in the Puerto Rican archipelago one of apocalyptic proportions.

Before I discuss María’s effect, let’s quickly review the facts of Puerto Rico’s crises. The ELA is burdened with an outstanding public debt exceeding $70 billion and pension obligations of an additional $50 billion. To deal with these, several administrations have taken austerity measures such as reducing the public labor force, reducing services, increasing sales taxes and tuition for the University of Puerto Rico, and offering tax incentives to non-island-based investors, among others. The Puerto Rican economy has been contracting for more than a decade now, labor participation has shrunk to 40 percent, and unemployment fluctuates between 11 and 12 percent.[1]

The economic crisis has triggered the largest Puerto Rican migration to the U.S. mainland ever. “Between 2005 and 2015, Puerto Rico had a net loss of about 446,000 people to the mainland,” and the “population of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest metro area, declined by 40,000 people (-10%) between 2005 and 2015.”[2] In 2015, more than 89,000 Puerto Ricans left the island.[3] Those who are leaving are young, educated blue- and white-collar professionals. Migration has exacerbated Puerto Rico’s problems as the tax base further shrinks. Even medical doctors started to leave the island due to the crisis. They also left because Medicare and Medicaid reimburse them far less for performing the same services in Puerto Rico than in the states of the Union. For a while Puerto Rico was losing a doctor a day, which contributed to an unfolding health and humanitarian crisis compounded by last years’ Zika virus epidemic.[4] In a desperate attempt to stop the mass migration of physicians, in February 2017 the new Puerto Rican government passed Act 14, a law to reduce the income tax of qualified specialists to just 4 percent.

Even Puerto Rican military veterans and service members have been leaving the island in record numbers. “From 2003 to 2015, Puerto Rico lost 52,000 veterans. During that period, the island-based population went from 142,00[0] to 90,000. And this happened during a period of constant warfare in which Puerto Ricans continued to enroll in the military at a rate almost twice as high as the rest of the population. This means, that if anything, the island-based veteran population should have increased in numbers.”[5] These statistics should worry local officials. Puerto Rican veterans have served as the backbone of Puerto Rico’s middle class, and as a gauge for measuring how well the economy is doing, since at least World War II.

The massive exodus, which has resulted in the abandonment of homes and foreclosures, has caused property values to plummet throughout the island, adding to the plethora of problems afflicting Puerto Rico. In fact, all these crises, feeding off one another, seem to create a vicious cycle.

We shall return to these crises, in particular to the Puerto Rican exodus to the U.S. mainland. But first, let’s take a look at the U.S. response and how the political landscape has changed in Puerto Rico.

On June 30, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). This law established an Oversight Board to assist the government of Puerto Rico in dealing with its debt and financial crises. PROMESA has been denounced, and rightly so, as a colonial institution. It created a supra-government acting with impunity and zero accountability, yet it cost the Puerto Rican people millions of dollars. Even the newly elected governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares (who is pro-U.S. and pro-annexation), has denounced the fiscal board, declaring that it violates Puerto Rico’s autonomy.[6] Moreover, PROMESA did not come with a stimulus package. It seems that its main goal was not to alleviate the crises but rather to make sure that debt will be repaid. Among other initiatives, the fiscal board has introduced even more austerity measures.

As the new administration sought common ground with the PROMESA fiscal board, nature struck, twice. First, in a last minute turn, Hurricane Irma skirted the island. Though exposure was limited, Irma knocked down an aged electrical grid. Ironically, prior to the hurricane, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was not able to upgrade the grid because its debt obligations do not allow for the work.[7] Irma barely grazed Puerto Rico but one million customers were left without power. By the day that María hit the archipelago, PREPA, to its credit, had restored power to all but 40,000. These outages were a sign of what could happen to the archipelago’s infrastructure if a tropical storm hit it directly.

Those who followed María’s path through the Caribbean understand that in its wake the storm didn’t just leave destruction and islands in crisis; it left a post-apocalyptic scenario. In Puerto Rico you will find a whole nation without reliable power. Officials estimate power will not be completely restored for four to six months. Over half the island remains without running water, which is rationed, and those with access to water must boil it before use. Communications—land lines, cellular phones, and the internet—are down for the vast majority of Puerto Ricans. Food and fuel supplies are rapidly dwindling, even as thousands of containers continue to arrive and pile up at the docks. Flooded neighborhoods and roads, collapsing bridges, damaged dams, and blocked access to mountain regions is keeping aid from reaching those in need. The situation is deteriorating into a public health crisis. Few hospitals have enough fuel to run their generators. Patients in need of dialysis and life support have started to die because of the lack of power. Diabetics can’t keep their insulin from spoiling.

The list goes on. But think of it this way. Three and a half million human beings are trapped on an island that imports most of its food as well as oil for energy and ground transportation.

Worse yet, according to Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s secretary of the Department of Agriculture, “Hurricane Maria wiped out about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico—making it one of the costliest storms to hit the island’s agriculture industry.”[8] Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector had been experiencing a renaissance, but it would be a euphemism to call the destruction of the agrarian sector a rollback; this is an unparalleled catastrophe.[9] We are talking about complete dependence on imported food for at least a year.

Puerto Ricans prepared for Irma and for María as best as they could. Entire contiguous neighborhoods, barrios, projects, and developments were evacuated and the people taken to shelters. The concerted action of local authorities minimized the loss of lives during the storm. The people of Puerto Rico—as is always the case—did not sit on their hands waiting for help to get to them; rather, they immediately joined the effort to clear the roads in the hope that institutional aid would soon arrive. That help has been, at best, slow; consistent, but slow.

Local and state agencies are overwhelmed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Military Northern Command had prepared for post-hurricane relief. The U.S. Armed Forces have sent hardware and personnel at a steady pace to Puerto Rico to engage in all kinds of missions. No one doubts that the relief personnel are trying to do their all. However, the White House has been morose at best and negligent at worst in dealing with the crisis. As of this writing, the White House is not expected to ask Congress for emergency disaster aid relief for Puerto Rico until the first or second week of October.

To make matters worse, the president’s comments and tweets show an administration more concerned with reassuring bondholders that Puerto Rico’s public debt will be paid and with protecting the interests of the American shipping industry than with aiding 3.5 million American citizens.[10] The White House had to be shamed into temporarily lifting the Jones Act of 1920, which calls for goods transported between U.S. territories and states to be carried by the U.S. merchant marine. Many deem the lifting of this act essential for accelerating the delivery of aid and supplies to the island.[11]

Conditions on the island are going to trigger yet more migration to the mainland. As the University of Puerto Rico announced that the semester will be lost, Florida colleges offered to receive students. Similarly, Florida, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are preparing to receive a wave of grade-school Puerto Rican students and their families. These are grand gestures, but they may also deprive the island of future leaders, professionals, and much-needed talent to rebuild the country.

A New Deal for a Post-María Puerto Rico
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico may very well become the largest in American history. But it can be avoided. The White House and Congress should work to extend waiving the Jones Act’s shipping restriction indefinitely. The PROMESA fiscal board, which has proven both onerous and inefficient, should be terminated. The Federal Government should negotiate a reduction of the debt with bondholders and absorb the rest. The debt was unpayable before María. To pretend otherwise now is beyond negligent; it is inhumane. Puerto Rico also needs a stimulus package in addition to relief and reconstruction aid. We can’t expect aid to serve as stimulus.

Before Hurricane María punished Puerto Rico, pundits were comparing it to Hurricane San Felipe in 1928. Now we know San Felipe pales in comparison to María. Yet, some comparisons are still appropriate. San Felipe hit Puerto Rico and plunged it into chaos before the whole country faced the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands faced unemployment, hunger, and disease. It took the New Deal, a world war, and a post-war federal and state effort to get Puerto Rico on its feet. Puerto Rico can’t wait that long this time. It already faced many crises before María, crises which are in large part due to the colonial nature of its political relationship with the United States.

An old Puerto Rican plena, the product of oral tradition teaching the most vulnerable about the inclemency of nature, timidly asks:

¿Que será de mi Borinquen cuando llegue el temporal?
What would happen to my Borinquen (Puerto Rico) when the storm comes?

The storm has come and gone and the archipelago is no longer at the will of nature. What will happen to it in this post-María world will be decided in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., far from this American territory in the Caribbean Sea. As I finish this post, it remains uncertain whether those with the power to act immediately and decisively to prevent what could be the largest human catastrophe in the history of the United States have the will to do so.

If you would like to donate to Puerto Rico’s relief, please consult this list of organizations, compiled by Charity Navigator.

 

[1] Data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last updated: Sep 14, 2017.
[2] Jens Manuel Krogstad, Kelsey Jo Starr, and Aleksandra Sandstrom, “Key Findings about Puerto Rico,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/29/key-findings-about-puerto-rico/.
[3] Jorge Duany, “Puerto Rico in Crisis,” https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/puerto-rico-in-crisis/.
[4] Heather Long, “Puerto Rico is Losing a Doctor a Day,” http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/13/investing/puerto-rico-debt-medicare/index.html.
[5] Harry Franqui-Rivera, “Too Many of Puerto Rico’s Veterans Are Moving Away,”  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/voices-too-many-puerto-rico-s-veterans-are-moving-away-n764676.
[6] Gloria Ruiz Kuilan, “Governor Disagrees with the Oversight Board’s Power,”
https://www.elnuevodia.com/english/english/nota/governordisagreeswiththeoversightboardspower-2290765/.
[7] Mary Williams Walsh, “Puerto Rico’s Power Authority Effectively Files for Bankruptcy,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/business/puerto-ricos-electric-power-authority-effectively-files-for-bankruptcy.html.
[8] Frances Robles and Luis Ferré-Sadurní, “Puerto-Rico’s Agriculture and Farmers Decimated by María,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/us/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-agriculture-.html.
[9] “Puerto Rico Experiences an Agricultural Renaissance,” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-experiences-agricultural-renaissance-n656001.
[10] “Trump Tweets Puerto Rico’s ‘Massive Debt’ as Humanitarian Crisis Unfolds,” “https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-puerto-rico-tweet-humanitarian-crisis-hurricane-maria-aftermath/.
[11] Terence Cullen, “Trump Lifts Jones Act Restriction for Hurricane-Ravaged Puerto Rico to Help Get Supplies on the Island,” http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trump-lifts-jones-act-restriction-storm-ravaged-puerto-rico-article-1.3527377.

 

 

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