Puerto Rico Was Undergoing a Humanitarian Crisis Long Before Hurricane Maria

For decades, Puerto Rico had been suffering the slow but certain violence of modern colonial capitalism.
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People walk across a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21st, 2017.

People walk across a flooded street in Juana Matos, Puerto Rico, on September 21st, 2017.

Even after the former governor, Alejandro García Padilla, announced in 2015 that Puerto Rico's $120 billion debt was "unpayable," many refused to see the island's fiscal reality for what it really was: a disaster waiting to happen.

Certainly, there were signs of trouble: school closures, water shortages, a dearth of doctors, the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people to the mainland United States. In an effort to raise awareness to the island's dire situation, the governor of Puerto Rico eventually began to describe the situation as a "humanitarian crisis." But it never really stuck.

For most, including the U.S. government, the media, and the banking industry, the island’s main problem was simply financial: The island administrators had borrowed too much money and needed to be brought into compliance with their obligations. The problem at hand seemed to be figuring out a way to pay the island's general obligation bondholders.

The political result of this delusion was Congress' Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a federal law that appointed a fiscal control board of seven people to restructure the debt and give approval to infrastructure projects. Known locally as "la junta"—conjuring the military dictatorships of the 1970s in Chile and Argentina that "disappeared" thousands of people—the control board concluded that the solution to this debt crisis was austerity. In other words, the U.S. decided that what would help the economy of a poor community drowning in debt with no say over its own affairs was even more poverty and less democracy.

Then came Maria.

With furious winds and howling breath, the deadliest storm to hit the region in a century made evident what before had been difficult to see: For decades, Puerto Rico had been suffering the slow but certain violence of modern colonial capitalism.

Maria's wrath cut easily through decrepit damns, tin roofs, poorly made buildings, and outdated communication lines. In doing so, it exposed a deteriorated infrastructure, the product of layers of structural inequality that includes substantially less federal funding than any of the 50 states, and stems from Puerto Rico's political subordination as an unincorporated territory without the right to vote for president or have a voting representation in Congress. Even further, Maria laid bare three ills at the root of contemporary Puerto Rico's very foundation: an economy exclusively catering to U.S. interests, a tax structure that sharply reduces the burden on American companies, and a local elite that takes what it can, even if that means leaving insufficient revenue for community needs.

Maria also made obvious the colonial nature of PROMESA. Not only does the law usurp the island's local democratic process, it also underscores the deep complicity of Congress and all U.S. presidents—regardless of party affiliation—in maintaining Puerto Rico's political and economic subordination. Instead of acknowledging the U.S.'s responsibility in the debt crisis and drafting a relief plan like it did for the banks in 2008, the American political priority has been to make the island pay. The 10-day waiver of the Jones Act—which forces the island to use U.S. vessels to transport food and other necessities at double the cost—is a start toward the next step: the law's outright abolition.

As this latest humanitarian crisis unfolds and the death toll climbs thanks to a lack of clean water, electricity, and fuel to power existing homes and hospitals, it is impossible to go back to the status quo or accept any more false "promises." To address the political and economic disaster that was there before Maria and break the very cycle of catastrophe—enduring poverty, political subjugation, mass migration—action needs to be aimed at not simply "rebuilding" the old structure, but also on rethinking the entire edifice. Otherwise, Puerto Rico will likely go back to being yet another invisible disaster set up to repeat itself.

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