Puerto Rico is facing an historic crisis

October 3, 2017

Puerto Rico is facing one of the worst human disasters in its history following two powerful hurricanes that devastated the island. The scale and scope of the crisis are still not fully known. What is clear, however, is that Puerto Rico's colonial overlords in Washington are determined to do as little as they can to help the victims. The federal response has been painfully slow and totally inadequate to meeting the island's needs.

Donald Trump added insult to injury last weekend when he lashed out at the mayor of San Juan on Twitter for daring to appeal for more federal aid. Trump complained that Puerto Ricans "are not able to get their workers to help" and "want everything to be done for them." Meanwhile, in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, protesters took to the streets to demand immediate emergency relief. In the midst of this developing situation, two Puerto Rican artists and activists, Jael Pimentel and Yara Liceaga-Rojas, talked with Dorian B. about the crisis--and about resistance on the island.

WHAT ARE conditions like on the ground in Puerto Rico? How severe is the humanitarian crisis?

Jael: There are many parts of the country outside the San Juan metro area that are completely without electricity, without any form of communication. Their roads are blocked and in many cases their situation is unknown.

Yara: There are massive infestations of mosquitos and rats because of the accumulation of rotting garbage. There were many animals killed during the storm, and they haven't been removed. At several cemeteries that were badly flooded, bodies have been forced from their graves by the water and are now just lying out in the open. Conditions are seriously unsanitary.

Many people are ill. The lack of air conditioning in the hospitals is leading to the spread of bacteria and bacterial infections. There are many hospitals in really bad condition, so much so that family members of patients are no longer being let in because it's unsafe.

Jael: Not only that, but people have no food. I have a cousin who waited in line for four hours. She was given three cans of spaghetti for five people.

Families line up for water in Puerto Rico
Families line up for water in Puerto Rico

Yara: Supermarkets are empty. Gas is being rationed out. You have to wait up to seven or eight hours in your car to get gas, only to be sold $10 to $15 of gas.

Jael: There are endless lines for everything. I really want to stress this because someone like my father, who is 85 years old, has tried to wait in lines twice already, but has had to leave because of his physical condition. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. one day to cue up for five hours to get gas. The elderly simply cannot stand in line for five hours. There are many people who are unable to access a lot of basic supplies.

HOW MUCH do we know about the loss of life so far?

Yara: The number of dead is far higher than the current official count, which as of this interview is 16. There are no mechanisms in place to actually locate and count the dead. So we really don't know the number, and it could climb into the hundreds.

The Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has written a report on the overwhelming number of critically ill people in Puerto Rico's hospitals. But not only that--they spoke with hospital officials who informed them that there are dozens of deceased people in hospital morgues around the country, who are not yet included in the official count because no one has been able to register or identify them. With little or no air conditioning, these bodies are also quickly decomposing.

What you can do

Several grassroots organizations are taking donations to support ongoing efforts to bring immediate relief in Puerto Rico, reach the most vulnerable populations and foster an equitable rebuilding of the island. SW urges its readers to prioritize these grassroots efforts over mainstream NGOs.

-- Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico (donate via Paypal to [email protected]).

-- Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico

-- Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund

-- Feminist Solidarity Post-Hurricane Relief Fund organized by Colectiva Feminista

Jael: There are many people who have died in remote places. Their families and friends are burying them because there's no way to transport them to hospitals in town. You know you're supposed to register the bodies of the deceased, but in an emergency situation like this, you have to either bury the person or leave them on the ground.

This is a full-scale public health crisis. And the U.S. government is really not doing anything to address it. There are medical organizations that could be sent, helicoptered in, to different parts of the island to bring medical professionals who are trained to treat people and provide emergency relief. But that isn't happening.

People with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable right now. They can't go out and wait in these five-, six-, seven-hour lines for a couple of cans of spaghetti. What is happening to people in this situation? We don't yet know. There is still so much we have to find out.

There's also a shortage of medication. Puerto Rico has high rates of diabetes. There are also a lot of cancer and HIV patients who aren't receiving medication or treatment. Often this is because the medication needs to be refrigerated, and there is no power for that. For people who depend on daily medication, the health consequences are frightening.

IN THE midst of this crisis, there have been many reports about relief supplies sitting in ports that aren't getting to those in need. Why aren't these materials being distributed?

Yara: The government authorities at the ports are refusing to distribute the donations, the food and the supplies arriving on the island. This is where the large military presence comes in.

The U.S. military and state national guards are supposedly being mobilized to distribute these supplies all across the archipelago. From what we know, this distribution hasn't happened yet. What we are constantly hearing from everyone who can post online is that barely anything is being distributed.

Jael: When food arrives at the ports, instead of treating it as emergency supplies, the authorities are going through a long, bureaucratic process. They check every shipping container and make sure their contents meet requirements and regulations, which takes a very long time, especially now when much of that has to be done manually rather than electronically.

But this situation urgently demands a different approach. Officials at the ports must release these containers and distribute the goods because people are dying.

The other point is that the authorities and shipping companies claim that there are not enough drivers to distribute the goods. But we've heard multiple stories of people being turned away at the ports when they show up with their own trucks because they're told they don't have the right kind of license.

All of the reports that we've heard repeat the fact that people are extremely frustrated and angry with the government--the federal government as well as the government of Puerto Rico--and that people are taking matters into their own hands to organize relief themselves.

CAN YOU describe some of what ordinary Puerto Ricans are doing to organize relief?

Yara: People are getting very creative in organizing various kinds of solidarity. Some arts communities, like El Local or Casa Taller, have been making and distributing food. The infrastructure of gas and stoves has collapsed. So these organizations have been giving out meals for free.

People have been going to San Juan's main financial district, the Milla de Oro, to find buildings with functioning electricity. They're bringing power strips down there and helping people charge their phones. It's also one of the few remaining spaces with Internet, where people can communicate with family and friends, both on and off the archipelago.

The initiative to bring power strips to the financial district is quite brilliant because people really don't have any way to charge their phones, which is the only means of communication with the United States. Most of the information that we know has come through speaking with friends and family on the phone or looking at the things they've posted on social media.

Jael: It's important to emphasize that people are forming many grassroots organizations. Those are the organizations that we're trying to find ways to donate money to, because that's what they need.

Yara: And, of course, we also have to recognize that many people are also trying to leave the island right now to escape to safety. But in response, the airlines have jacked up ticket prices to several times the normal cost. So it's very hard for most people to leave.

And this brings up another issue, which is that, as you might imagine, the crisis unfolding right now is not touching everyone on the island. The rich and the big business owners are doing fine.

The owner of one of the island's biggest malls, the Plaza las Américas, has electricity in their mall. But it's closed to the public. The wealthy are hiring others to supply them with generators, water supplies and other materials, while people around them are suffering.

CAN YOU talk about this crisis is affecting the millions of Puerto Ricans who live in the diaspora in the continental U.S.?

Yara: Here in the U.S., we are working really hard to do what we can for our friends and family on the island. Doing this interview is an important part of that work, because people in Puerto Rico really want people here to know what is actually happening. The full story is not reaching the mainstream news.

There are many people who until this day do not know the status of their family members. Many people in Puerto Rico are actually asking those in the U.S. for information about what's going on, because they can't gain access to information themselves.

Jael: At the same time, many people on the island have taken it upon themselves to check on the family members of people in the diaspora. People have offered their help through social media and gone to the houses of friends and relatives, which those of us here in the U.S. are trying to reach. One man did this for me and assured me that my parents are okay, after several days of not hearing from them.

Those of us who live in the diaspora have more political rights. We can vote in presidential elections and impact state politics, and we can apply pressure through protests and other actions.

The main demands that I think we need to call for are the cancellation of Puerto Rico's debt and the repeal of the Jones Act.

There is no way Puerto Rico can recover from this disaster without canceling the debt. Before the storm, people were already going through immense suffering because of the destruction of the social infrastructure due to the onerous debt and austerity measures. The situation was already so bad. Now it's gone over the edge.

The second thing is that we must demand the repeal of the Jones Act. This law, which forces all incoming ships to first dock in the U.S., not only damages the recovery effort, it makes economic stabilization very difficult. Our taxes are higher, the prices of consumer are goods are higher, and our commercial relationships are restricted. We can't be economically independent under these conditions.

THE ONGOING reality of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico doesn't receive the attention it deserves. How do you think this colonial relationship is impacting the current disaster?

Jael: We have to recognize the connection with colonialism. This is why the Jones Act was passed into law--to deny Puerto Ricans access to anything that the U.S. doesn't approve of. Trump has lifted the Jones Act for only 10 days. Ten days is nothing. It's going to take a lot of time to get to and treat all of the people on the island who are starving and suffering. That's not enough time.

We continue to feel like the United States wants to keep Puerto Rico trapped, wants to keep it locked in an imperialistic relationship and isn't doing enough to help on the ground. Not nearly enough. The U.S. state can go to any country, invade it, find oil and all kinds of things. They organize and do it. And for Puerto Rico, they're not doing anything.

Yara: I think that both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments are scared that people on the island will soon begin to resist, to resist what is happening.

People on the ground are living in shock right now. This shock has different stages, from the initial shock to the mobilizations in the streets. People are protesting, because there is obviously no plan, no strategy by the authorities to resolve this crisis, and the situation is quickly deteriorating. Both the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico have failed miserably.

Jael: It's incredible to watch Trump say that Puerto Rico is hard to reach because it's in a "big ocean." He has clearly shown that he has no respect or regard for the people of our country, and he couldn't care less what happens to us. His response has been absolutely deplorable.

I also want to say that one of the main arguments we've heard so far is that Puerto Ricans deserve to be helped because we are American citizens. That may be true, but it's a bad argument to lead with. We deserve to be helped not because we're citizens, but because we're human beings. We have fundamental rights that are being totally violated in this crisis.

Further Reading

From the archives