Puerto Rico is facing a humanitarian crisis after being hit by two hurricanes – a glancing blow by Irma and a direct hit by Maria.
The full picture and extent of the damage to life, health, infrastructure, buildings, trees and much more will not be known for some time.
The slow and grudging federal response reflects a racist attitude to the largely Latino population of the island. President Trump in effect said that Puerto Ricans were lazy, refused to pitch in with the recovery effort and were waiting for a handout from Washington.
After waiting for almost two weeks, Trump visited the island. He played down the extent of the devastation, saying it was not a “real catastrophe”, implying that recovery will not take much money – in the face of estimates of tens of billions or more.
Electricity was shut down across the island, and only 5 percent has been restored. It will take more than 10 months, officials say, to get it back to even the miserable state it was in before the hurricanes hit. Hospitals have been forced to operate with generators, and fuel is difficult to come by, placing patients needing things like dialysis and surgery in immediate danger. Medicine is scarce.
The emergency 911 phone system, inadequate to begin with, is down.
Some aid remained on the docks for two weeks because of the difficulties clearing roads, finding truck drivers and the lack of fuel.
TV reporters could get on the scene, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow to arrive and hasn’t reached most of the island outside the capital, San Juan.
When San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz castigated Washington for its inadequate response and appealed for aid because “we are dying”, Trump attacked her as a “poor leader” and doubled down on his assertions that Washington was doing “a great job”.
Before Maria smashed the island, there already was a crisis in Puerto Rico caused by the exploitation of the colony by US imperialism.
Soon after the US captured the island from Spain, following the war of 1898, the Supreme Court made certain rulings that are still in force. One was that Congress gets to choose which parts of the constitution apply to Puerto Rico. The ruling also stated that Puerto Rico belonged to, but was not part of, the United States. All major decisions involving the island depend on acts of Congress as interpreted by US courts.
US capitalists have exploited the island ever since. For the first 50 years this was done by US corporations that set up sugar plantations on much of the island. After World War Two, the form of exploitation changed.
Faced with the rise of the colonial revolution worldwide, and the rise of anti-colonial nationalism 0n the island, concessions were made. A limited form of self-government was enacted. 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, but still under the control of Congress.
A new form of imperialist exploitation was established: industrialisation using low cost labour. The island was turned into a huge tax haven. Mass migration of unskilled labour to the mainland was encouraged.
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. Annual growth rates jumped to 6 percent in the 1950s, but dropped to 4 percent in the 1970s. They were stagnant in the 1980s. By then Puerto Rico had become the most profitable place in the world for corporations. But soon the cheap labour model found greener pastures in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam and other places.
In 1996, Congress phased out the tax breaks, which were gone by 2005. Big US corporations pulled out, the economy collapsed and the island has been in a recession for the past 11 years.
The pro-imperialist capitalist politicians in Puerto Rico borrowed from US financial capitalists to keep the country afloat. More loans were necessary to repay earlier loans, in a vicious cycle that led to a debt crisis.
The government-run power company became insolvent. Equipment could not be modernised and repairs were neglected. The electrical system was so fragile that when Irma and Maria hit, it collapsed. Huge cutbacks to social services were implemented as the crisis deepened. The health system was in dire straits before the blows it took from the hurricanes.
In 2016, Congress, the executive under Obama and the judicial system took control. With bipartisan support, including from the liberals, a law was passed creating an unelected seven-person financial board with sweeping powers over the economy.
The Supreme Court made two rulings that underscored the point. One concerned criminal procedure and stated that Puerto Rico is not sovereign. The other reaffirmed a 1986 law prohibiting Puerto Rico from declaring bankruptcy.
Supreme Court justice Soto Mayor, who is Puerto Rican, dissented from both decisions. She wrote that, without restructuring 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”.
San Juan mayor 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”.
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 must be repaid by Puerto Rico. Already, moves are afoot to further privatise the island’s economy. As Naomi Klein explained in her book The Shock Doctrine, such crises are used by the capitalists and their government to further, not decrease, the exploitation of the workers and oppressed.
That’s what’s in store for the people of Puerto Rico.