Hurricane-force neoliberalism in the Caribbean

December 6, 2017

Todd St Hill and Khury Petersen-Smith look at the scale of devastation across the entire Caribbean region following this fall's disastrous hurricanes.

IN THE months since Hurricane Irma and Maria plowed through the Caribbean, the island of Puerto Rico has been struggling to recover both from the destruction of the storms and the snail's-pace response of the federal government that has compounded the humanitarian disaster.

As Puerto Rican socialist Roberto Barreto recently wrote for, over two months after Maria, the island's power grid--an essential part of basic infrastructure--is still only partially rebuilt and prone to failures.

But Puerto Rico's struggles reach back far beyond this fall. "[T]he devastation of neoliberal policies has made Puerto Rico's crisis following Hurricanes Irma and Maria much, much worse," SW concluded in an editorial.

Because Puerto Rico is held by the U.S. as a "territory," it will be forced to depend on the federal government for the funds and resources needed to rebuild. This will come on top of a debt regime and other aspects of the U.S. colonial relationship with Puerto Rico that set the stage for the island's crisis before the hurricanes hit.

Devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma
Devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma

And now, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria will present another opportunity to increase the U.S. government's and Corporate America's control over the lives of the Puerto Rican people.

With its large population and size relative to other Caribbean islands and a diaspora numbering in the millions on the U.S. mainland and around the world, Puerto Rico has understandably garnered the most attention among the islands impacted by the hurricanes and their aftermath.

BUT AS catastrophic as the devastation is in Puerto Rico, the destruction extends to other islands in the Caribbean as well.

The damage to Antigua and Barbuda, for example, has been severe. The country, made up primarily of the two islands for which it is named, was battered by Hurricane Irma. The impact was so severe in Barbuda that the island's entire population was evacuated to Antigua--some of them forcibly. In Barbuda's main town of Codrington, about 75 percent of all buildings were severely damaged or destroyed.

Since the evacuation, the government, based in Antigua, has refused to let Barbudans return to their homes. This is leading to bitterness among Barbudans, who fear Prime Minister Gaston Browne is using the disaster as an excuse to carry out a land grab--a classic application of the strategy, named the "shock doctrine" by author Naomi Klein, of ruling elites to force neoliberal measures on populations facing a crisis.

The country's elite have looked for ways before the recent hurricanes to dismantle a cooperative approach to land ownership that dates back to 1834 and the rebellion ended slavery. Since then, land on the island has been held in common, without private ownership.

In 2007, this traditional approach was made law with the Barbuda Land Act, guaranteeing that all land on the island belongs to its inhabitants and their descendants.

But as recently as 2015, Prime Minister Browne--who in a recent interview described the common ownership of Barbuda's land as "utter foolishness"--tried to undo the law with the Paradise Found Act. This legislation was put forward in collaboration with American actor Robert De Niro, who wants to build a $250 million resort on the island.

While opposition kept that project at bay, Browne and others are seizing on the devastation of the hurricanes as an opportunity to reshape the way Barbudans live. As Barbuda resident John Mussington told Britain's Channel 4 News:

It's going to mean the disinheritance in terms of our way of life, the resources we depend on and so on. In one scratch that would mean we are no longer able to live off the land in the way we have been doing for hundreds of years.

While Barbudans are kept away from their homes, the Antiqua government is moving forward with bulldozing land to build a new airport. Meanwhile, one of the few buildings that was relatively undamaged, a school, hasn't received any of the needed repairs and remains closed.

Barbudans say the neglect is a willful part of Browne's plans to "redevelop" Barbudan land and sell it to the highest bidders, while maintaining the forced displacement of Barbudans.

THE VIRGIN Islands also suffered damage from the hurricanes, and their populations have struggled with post-storm recoveries. The group of islands are colonies of the United Kingdom and the U.S.--which have divided the Virgin Islands between them.

In November, the UK government announced that it would provide $414 million for rebuilding in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). But $401 million--or 97 percent--of the relief package is composed of loans. Thus, "relief" will subject the BVI to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) comprise a U.S. territory, like Puerto Rico and Guam.

The situation in the USVI will be familiar to those who have been following recovery efforts in Puerto Rico: parts of the islands are without electricity and will remain so indefinitely, leading to dependence on portable generators; communications systems are semi-functional; and other problems persist with infrastructure.

While Congress and the White House debate the amount of aid the federal government will give to Gulf Coast states and the Caribbean territories, FEMA has moved ahead with presenting the USVI with a package of predatory and colonial loans. On December 1, senators of the territorial government approved a $300 million FEMA Community Disaster Loan (CDL), even as they decried its terms.

"Insofar as the CDL loan, you're damned if you do or damned if you don't," said Sen. Janelle Sarauw on the floor of the legislature, referring to the territory's lack of options for relief funds. "It's a form of colonialism."

The agreement requires that the territory's tax revenue be "indentured," going directly to paying off the loan, without any discretion of Virgin Islanders. "You're going to put a noose around each and every citizen's neck," said Sen. Brian Smith during the vote. "You're going to put a noose around your grandchildren's, your children's neck. But we don't have no choice, because we're in a real, real bad situation."

Since the hurricanes, there have been a number of proposals put forward in media outlets in the Caribbean and in the U.S. for improving the infrastructure of the USVI and Puerto Rico to better withstand hurricanes.

There is an obvious logic to investing in and redesigning power grids and other systems, since hurricanes are an unavoidable feature of Caribbean life. But the Stafford Act, a 1988 law that spells out certain rules on federal spending for disaster recovery, requires that structures damaged or destroyed in disasters be rebuilt exactly as they were.

For U.S. territories, this is yet another colonial imposition on U.S. territories in some of their most difficult moments.

ONE ISLAND that has had a different experience since the hurricanes is Cuba.

Hurricane Irma remained a category five storm when it struck Cuba, and it caused a great deal of damage to the country's housing and infrastructure. Recovery, however, has looked different--with power in Havana restored in a matter of days, not weeks.

The reason is a fundamentally different approach to disasters. In the U.S. and its territories, disaster preparedness and relief is largely privatized.

The ability of individuals and families to purchase plane tickets or otherwise escape the path of a storm determines what evacuation looks like, with meager alternatives such as shelters for everyone else--and those are usually operated by NGOs like the Red Cross, not the government.

Those same NGOs, alongside FEMA, provide paltry provisions to supplement the needs of survivors, though retail stores and other businesses are the primary source for food and supplies.

Cuba, on the other hand, has a system for relocating and housing every resident in the event of a storm.

Survival and recovery efforts are also organized in a completely different way. The U.S. approach relies on first responders--firefighters and EMTs who are usually well trained for disasters, and police officers who are poorly trained--supplemented by volunteers, such as people who arrived in Houston with their own boats during Hurricane Harvey.

In Cuba, doctors, electrical workers and others with specialized skills are involved in responding to hurricanes, but the population at large is activated, with a centralized plan communicated to ordinary people who are enlisted to carry it out. As Branko Marcetic wrote in Jacobin:

A major reason for the Cuban model's success, particularly in a country with comparatively few resources, is its philosophy of total mobilization. The hurricane response may be directed from the top down, but it's carried out by ordinary Cubans in their local communities, building on the regular training they receive.

THE "SHOCK Doctrine" thesis put forward by Naomi Klein is a useful framework for understanding other examples of governments' taking advantage of disasters to push through financial and social restructuring in the Caribbean.

In Haiti, for example, the recovery and reconstruction effort has been revealed as a lie. Under the guise of a relief effort for quake victims, Haiti has undergone a colonial privatization project overseen by powerful countries of the Global South, such as Brazil and Argentina--under the banner of the United Nations, CARICOM (an organization of 15 Caribbean nations) and the U.S. government, along with private players such as the Clinton Foundation.

One of the most glaring but less well-known aspects of Haiti's "recovery effort" is the land grab of one of the country's offshore islands, Ile a Vache. Ile a Vache has become a site for the development of hotel resorts, along the lines of what the rich hope to achieve in Barbuda..

The predatory policies on Ile a Vache did not take place without peasants protesting against land seizures--something the people of Barbuda struggling to return and resisting development for the rich can look to.

Hurricanes amplified by global climate change will continue to disproportionately impact people of color, the working class and poor, leaving them vulnerable to catastrophe as a result of super-storms. These same communities are also left vulnerable to the vulture capitalists of the world in the aftermath of climate disasters.

With growing numbers of people around the world at risk of the nightmares unfolding at the intersection of climate change, corporate power and colonialism, our resistance must also be international.

But solidarity cannot stop with the storms. The challenge will be turning the tide so that victims of environmental disasters cannot be taken advantage of by the powerful, whether in boardrooms or halls of government.

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