Puerto Rico faces a “trauma doctrine”

February 15, 2018

Longtime Puerto Rican socialist Roberto Barreto looks at how many people on the island still lack electricity and basic relief--and at the schemes of investors and politicians to take advantage of this misery. This article was translated by Monique Dols.

ACCORDING TO the government of Puerto Rico, recovery efforts since Hurricane Maria hit four months ago with devastating effect are going swimmingly.

The reality of the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the island, however, paints a very different picture. More than a thousand people have died since the hurricane and more will continue to do so as long as the recovery of the electrical system remains in shambles.

We will never know the true number of people dying due to the ways that the government obscured the figures. But we do know that sick and elderly people are dying due to the lack of consistent electrical services and the resulting impact on the health care system and social safety net.

Suicides in Puerto Rico are on the rise. There is an influenza epidemic on the island that the government continues to deny, and banks are preparing to foreclose on the homes of thousands of families that have not been able to make mortgage payments since the storms.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which claimed to be focusing its efforts not on immediate relief but on helping Puerto Ricans fill out forms to request assistance in the weeks after the storm, has proven itself completely incapable of doing even that. As many as 62 percent of requests for assistance have been either denied or left unprocessed.

San Juan suffers through another blackout
San Juan suffers through another blackout

As of the beginning of February more than one million people--30 percent of the island's population--was still without electricity as a direct result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Hundreds of businesses remain closed and many have announced that they will never reopen.

The cost of living in Puerto Rico has skyrocketed and the rate of inflation is double the rate in the United States. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, and thousands more have left, mostly for Florida. It is projected that by 2022, one in five Puerto Ricans will have emigrated to the U.S.

FEMA HAS proven to be a complete and utter failure.

In the initial and most critical stage of the emergency, the agency was unable to bring water and food to the victims of Hurricane Maria because it put municipal governments in charge. The problem with this plan, of course, was that many municipal governments had been destroyed and incapacitated by the hurricane.

Despite this obvious reality, FEMA announced that local governments could collect desperately needed food and water supplies from their storage facilities without knowing if they had trucks or fuel needed to do so. It was weeks before the incapacity of the municipalities was recognized and the army took over that job.

FEMA's local director Alejandro de La Campa admitted that his agency wasn't ready for the crisis:

Yes it is true that FEMA was not prepared to be first responder. For that, there are the municipalities and the state government. We prepare ourselves to support the state government and the municipal government and at that moment we had to use the Army to distribute food house by house, street by street... It means that we were the first responders.

But there is no excuse for what FEMA is doing now: denying aid to thousands who lost their homes because they lack a title to their homes, which have been in their families for generations.

What FEMA does not understand (or wish to understand) is the social reality and history of Puerto Rico in relation to home and land use. Hundreds of communities on the island are the product of "land invasions" (also known as "land rescues" depending on one's point of view). The government recognizes these communities despite their lack of "legality" and provides them with electricity, water and telephone coverage.

As much as 20 percent of the 1,300,000 residences in Puerto Rico--some 260,000 homes in total--lack official recognition that they own their homes and as a result are technically considered to be in their homes "illegally".

On top of this are thousands more cases in which family land has passed on through generations and the inherited land or farm, subdivided informally among siblings without the involvement of official agencies. On the informally subdivided land new generations have built their own homes without any official state recognition despite having a legitimate claim to the land.

In Puerto Rico these traditions are a part of a heritage that the federal government simply do not understand or respect.

WITHOUT THE aid that people need to rebuild many people are being forced to leave. Yamilka Schumacker Robles described in El Nuevo Día the heartbreaking decision that her parents made to leave Puerto Rico:

Do you know when that exact moment it is [when my parents decided to leave Puerto Rico]? When there simply is no way out of the crisis for ordinary people. When the aid continues to pile up on the docks and does not reach those who need it most. When the school cafeterias can only offer canned pork to children. When still without electricity or running water, the electrical companies charge you an "estimated" amount of water and light. Light? What a sick joke!

That is the moment. For my parents, the heavy, heartbreaking moment for them was when, despite living in their little house for the past 30 years, despite having raised four children and two grandchildren and countless dogs, chickens, turkeys, geese, horses and rabbits in their home the heartless federal government decided that they would get nothing. They gave them nothing because there is no piece of paper that says that their slice of land belongs to them.

The response by the rest of the federal government has been just as disastrous. Instead of asking for help from the American Public Power Association (APPA), which has a mutual aid protocol in case of emergency in which states and U.S. territories help each other out when their grids are destroyed, the Puerto Rican government hired the Whitefish Company from Montana to repair the electrical network.

Whitefish outsourced the work with inflated rates to other companies that sent their personnel to Puerto Rico, where they didn't even perform repair work because there were no materials or machinery to carry out the work.

Millions of dollars were squandered for nothing, precious time was lost, and eventually, the government had to reverse its decision to contract the work out to Whitefish and others and turn to the APPA for help.

It was not until mid-December, two and a half months after the storm, that an APPA-coordinated plan to fix the electrical-grid was established. Despite this, the continually painstakingly slow arrival of materials and tools has continued to delay the whole process. For example, at the end of January the Army Corps of Engineers had received only 15,524 electrical poles out of a total of 40,232 ordered poles.

Many of these rural communities have been told that they can't expect electricity back until May, June or July. But the government's inability to bring back desperately needed electricity has caused some municipalities and neighborhood groups to take matters into their own hands and make their own repairs.

SOME LOCALITIES have directly hired retired electrical workers from the Puerto Rican Electrical Power Authority (PREPA or AEE by its Spanish initials) to rebuild their electricity networks.

By the end of November, at a time when still 50 percent of Puerto Rico was off the grid, 85 percent of the houses in San Sebastian had electric service thanks to the work of the local brigades. It is important to note that this was achieved in defiance of the PREPA, who opposed the effective initiative at every step of the way.

In Coamo, a group of self-organized neighbors worked to put downed poles back into place in the Progreso neighborhood. Their work successfully provoked PREPA to take their area more seriously and begin the work to reconnect the area to the grid. Because of these grassroots initiatives from below, they will no longer have to wait until the summer.

In the midst of so much devastation, Governor Ricardo Roselló, has seized the opportunity to announce the privatization of the PREPA. For years entrepreneurs and politicians have dreamed of profiting from the state power company. Now in this crisis they see the opportunity to justify their greed. They propose privatization as the solution to the crisis that they themselves have created and from which they do not know how to escape.

With hurricanes Irma and María, the crisis in Puerto Rico has reached catastrophic levels, but the crisis is not new and it wasn't caused only by the hurricanes. For decades, the state allowed the looting of the public coffers by legal and illegal means. State revenue in Puerto Rico has long been sucked dry by a combination of tax breaks for corporations and illegal tax evasion schemes for the rich.

At the same time, a succession of governments granted huge million-dollar contracts as a quid pro quo for political contributions, and the corrupt privatization schemes have only exacerbated the problem. As a result, the government lost income, borrowed more and more money to make ends meet and, as a result, accumulated a public debt measuring at more than $72 billion.

As PREPA was losing credit in the markets due to its high level of debt, it cut maintenance costs, postponed infrastructure modernization and suspended the purchase of replacement materials.

When hurricanes make landfall in this economic climate, they find a decrepit and decaying public electrical system, ready to be destroyed by these human-made factors. Even before the hurricanes, for example, the electrical system collapsed for several days in September 2016, leaving the entire island in the dark.

When it became clear that the debt couldn't be repaid, Puerto Rico lost credit. When the local government tried to postpone the payment of the debt, Washington took direct control of the situation.

TO PROTECT the Wall Street bondholders, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA), which imposed a Fiscal Oversight Board (or Junta as it is known is Puerto Rico). The Junta is charged with implementing severe austerity and budget cuts that secure the payment of the illegitimate debt despite the humanitarian crisis that Puerto Rico is living.

Since 1952 the United States has maintained that Puerto Rico was not a colony because it enjoyed autonomy as a Commonwealth or a "Free Associated State." Those of us who are critical of this have always maintained that the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico's helped to facilitate the colonial relationship because Congress has always maintained full power over Puerto Rico.

But now, through the appointment of the Junta, Washington has taken direct and naked control of the colonial administration of the island.

It is through the Junta that the green light for the privatization of the PREPA was fast tracked.
Now they have announced the closure of 300 more schools--in addition to the 500 that have already been closed--under the guise of austerity. The Junta also wants to cut $450 million from the University of Puerto Rico.

Congressman Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources (which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico because apparently the island and all of its people are a "natural resource), expressed concern that the Junta does not adequately defend the interest... of the bondholders!

"The Board's stated goal under PROMESA is to return Puerto Rico to fiscal accountability and the capital markets," the Utah Republican declared, "and this can only occur if the fiscal plans respect the lawful priorities and liens of debt holders. My committee will be following the development of these plans intently to ensure financial stability returns to the Island."

Donald Trump expressed the same sentiment in his September tweet that "much of the island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly must be dealt with."

THE MESSAGE from Washington is clear: No matter how much suffering, no matter the human cost, paying the debt is the priority. The rules of capitalism are more important than the lives of the people of Puerto Rico who will sacrifice everything to ensure that the debt is paid off.

The Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, visited the island in January and participated in a forum at the University of Puerto Rico organized by several resistance organizations, where she said this about the crisis:

Puerto Ricans have been living the shock doctrine for a long time, and I think there have been different ways, different scenarios, indeed, starting with the economic crisis--and there have been several economic crises that have been exploited in Puerto Rico. But speaking of the most recent, and especially since PROMESA, you have a concrete example in which a state of exception and emergency has been declared, which becomes an excuse to throw aside any pretense of self-government, to which is added an agenda of privatization and austerity that has just begun to be introduced

It's a different form, maybe it's not the shock doctrine; maybe it's something else. Maybe I have to rewrite or write a new chapter called the trauma doctrine, because it is not shock; it is trauma that has been exploited, which is different and surprising.

It's urgent to build resistance to these plans to devastate the people of Puerto Rico, and challenge the priorities of a society in which the luxuries and privileges of the rich are more important than the basic needs and human rights or workers and poor people.

Translation by Monique Dols

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