Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency as a deadly earthquake terrified the islanders on the 7th of January 2020. The 6.4 magnitude quake has reported one death amid sweeping power shortages and demolished buildings. Although this quake in particular comes as a terrifying surprise to the islanders, Puerto Rico has frequently been a victim of tremendous earthquakes and hurricanes. However, I’m asking, are these truly natural disasters, or is Puerto Rico actually suffering from the United States’ brutal program of economic austerity?
As author and social activist Naomi Klein puts it in her recent book On Fire, ‘When you systematically starve and neglect the very bones of a society, rendering it dysfunctional on a good day, that society has absolutely no capacity to weather a true crisis.’
Naomi Klein, Canadian social activist, author, columnist for the Guardian, the Intercept, and the Nations
Puerto Rico’s immense debt has become an excuse to hammer through a program of economic suffering which systematically attacks education institutions, health care, electricity and water systems, transit systems, communication networks, and more; in other words, the glue that holds any society together. At first I asked myself, why would Puerto Rico want that for itself? It doesn’t. It was actually a plan so widely rejected by Puerto Ricans that the U.S. Congress intervened to pass the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, to carry out the program. The irony of its name - which means promise - has not gone uncommented.
You might wonder what motives the U.S. has to hijack the Puerto Rican economy. At first, PROMESA stood to help Puerto Rico’s then $70 billion unpaid debt , but few saw this to be genuine. In reality, the control over Puerto Rico’s economy allows the U.S. to make decisions over policies like minimum wages, but also sell Puerto Rican assets if they deem it necessary as well as command Puerto Rico’s imports and exports, ultimately redirecting funds to increase U.S. government revenue. This also allows for already-wealthy U.S. corporations to easily enter the island’s economy and gain huge profits, of course with no consideration of the consequences on the island’s recovering environment and history of fossil fuel extraction.
This federal U.S. law enacted in 2016 was essentially a financial coup d’etat of the Puerto Rican economy. The island’s economy was in the hands of an unelected financial oversight board; in Puerto Rico, the people call it La Junta.
So, when an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude hits, or when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, the viciously unpredictable consequences of the disaster are intensely amplified. All the systems in the society that have been deliberately brought to the brink: power, water, communication, health care, education - immediately collapse.
The 2017 hurricane Maria is perhaps the most catastrophic disaster Puerto Rico has ever experienced. The number of lives lost after Maria hit is at more than 3,000. But let’s be clear: the hurricane alone didn’t kill all those people. It was a combination of the grinding austerity and a massive storm that stole so many Puerto Rican lives.
Donald Trump, the U.S. president, denies the research that shows that the majority of deaths were caused by people not being able to plug in medical equipment because the electricity grid was down for months; caused by health systems that were so undermined they were unable to provide medicine for treatable diseases. Some died because of contaminated water from previous environmental discrimination, some were left to suicide as their only option when they were abandoned by their public services and lost hope. These deaths were not the result of a natural disaster. It was a group of Americans making decisions with powerful corporate and political interests in mind.
For years preceding the storm La Junta had laid off thousands of skilled electrical workers and failed to maintain basic repairs to the electricity grid. They used the havoc caused by the storm to allow hundreds of school closures and the massive cuts in education. When disasters like Maria hit, La Junta gave relief and reconstruction contracts to politically connected firms whose interest was not even to pretend to help Puerto Ricans recover from the mess. In addition, despite Puerto Rico’s land being one of the most fertile in the world, under La Junta’s program the island imports 85% of its food - a system that breaks down when vicious hurricanes or terrifying earthquakes suddenly appear. Furthermore, the archipelago that is lavished with ample sun, wind and waves happens to import 98% of its energy from fossil fuels instead of self-sufficiently getting its energy from cheap renewables.
Puerto Rico has always been a victim of the world economy. For centuries, Puerto Ricans have existed to make others rich, whether with the extraction of cheap labour in its colonized history or cheap natural resources for fuel. Today we are seeing a new method of exploitation: being held a captive market for imported food and energy, where corporations profit immensely at the expense of the people.
As Naomi Klein so precisely puts it, ‘This is a deadly cocktail - not just a storm, but a storm supercharged by climate change slamming headlong into a society deliberately weakened by a decade of unrelenting austerity layered on top of centuries of colonial extraction, with relief efforts that make no attempt to disguise the fact that the lives of the poor exist within our global system at a sharp discount.”