While an unprecedented crisis continued in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with more than 3.5 American citizens in need, the President of the United States was keeping busy with remarks about athletes protesting, along with a ‘new and improved’ Muslim ban.
The conditions in Puerto Rico are near-apocalyptic. Food, fuel, medicines, and clean water are in short supply. The entire island is without power, with some reports saying it could be four to six months before power is restored. Conditions in the USVI are also bad. St. Croix, which was spared as Irma trashed St. John & St. Thomas, saw 70% of its structures in ruins following a direct hit from Maria.
Caribbean islands are all –to one degree or another– colonies. Even in the ‘enlightened’ 21st century, they exist to be exploited by the countries that ‘own’ them. They provide military bases, satellite launching centers and footholds in important terrains. They serve as protected markets for national corporations. American companies such as Walmart and Walgreens have more stores per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world.
The recovery of these islands will involve more than simple rescue and rebuild efforts; a price will be paid for the master’s generosity. Nowhere will this be more obvious than Puerto Rico.
On Monday Trump tweeted: “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble. It’s [sic] old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities—and doing well. #FEMA”
It should surprise nobody that Trump’s statements were somewhat divorced from reality. Hopefully, his just-announced visit to Puerto Rico next Tuesday will awaken whatever humanity is left inside him.
From the Associated Press:
In Washington, officials said no armada of U.S. Navy ships was headed to the island because supplies could be carried in more efficiently by plane. The Trump administration ruled out temporarily setting aside federal restrictions on foreign ships’ transportation of cargo, saying it wasn’t needed. The government had waived those rules in Florida and Texas until last week.
Though the administration said the focus on aid was strong, when two Cabinet secretaries spoke at a conference on another subject — including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, whose agency is helping restore the island’s power — neither made any mention of Puerto Rico or Hurricane Maria.
Democratic lawmakers with large Puerto Rican constituencies back on the mainland characterized the response so far as too little and too slow. The confirmed toll from Maria jumped to at least 49 on Monday, including 16 dead in Puerto Rico.
Trump was not wrong about Puerto Rico being in dire financial straits. The territory officially became financially insolvent in May. Its electric power authority filed for bankruptcy in July. The island has debts of over $70 billion, plus an additional $50 billion in pension obligations.
The economy of the island has collapsed over the past decade, as US companies fled the island after the federal laws on tax credits for manufactoring firms were phased out. Eighty thousand jobs simply vanished.
The government kept itself afloat by issuing triple-tax exempt (state, federal & local) bonds that were eagerly snapped up by investors expecting the larger-than-normal promised returns. By 2016, the crisis was full blown.
From the Intercept:
To avoid a default — and a war between bondholders and the island’s government — Congress last July passed PROMESA. The law endows a federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board with broad authority to restructure the island’s debt and raise revenue. Among its powers are the ability to break union contracts, cut pensions, and take control of public assets. The legislation also established several policy protocols for how to rein in spending and fiscal management across various sectors of the Puerto Rican economy. Among the 30 percent cuts now outlined are plans to close down 75 percent of the commonwealth’s public agencies, lower the minimum wage, and privatize a slew of public corporations.
Reporting at Global Voices, quoting Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico’s Carla Minet gives one an idea of just how bad thing were before September’s one-two punch of hurricanes:
…pre-Irma forecast by the Center for a New Economy’s policy director, Sergio M. Marxuach, predicts that the recently approved the Fiscal Plan would result in another lost decade, continued population loss due to migration and lower birth rates, lower employment, less access to public education, pension cuts, worsening health outcomes, higher mortality and lower life expectancy, and, ultimately, higher rates of poverty and inequality. “Now add in the cataclysm of a monster hurricane that the plan never accounted for,” said Minet.
There’s a reason why Trump felt obligated to mention Puerto Rico’s financial crisis: the island’s debt is largely owed to his buddies in the hedge fund business.
They were unhappy prior to hurricanes Irma and Maria about not getting paid at a rate they liked, and now they’re looking at an island whose ‘assets’ have been seriously damaged. The only way out looks to be a fire sale.
Adriana Garriga-López argues in an op-ed at Fortune for a people-first approach that’s unlikely to occur:
The U.S. owes Puerto Rico more than just aid and support after a disaster like this. Hurricane Maria’s destruction has laid bare the political subjugation Puerto Rico has experienced since 1898. This imbalance of power has led to a flawed relationship in which the U.S. prioritizes Puerto Rico’s credit obligations—held primarily by vulture funds from the U.S.—over its inhabitants’ quality of life. The U.S. owes Puerto Rico a serious attempt at restructuring this relationship to ensure justice for Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico has long been a captive market for U.S. consumer goods. The U.S. has benefited from extensive corporate tax breaks and exclusive rights over shipping to and from the island while saturating local markets to the point of annihilation of local business. One obvious way to improve conditions on the island would be to eliminate the existing regulations on shipping to and from the island established in 1917 under the Jones Act, which made it necessary for all goods destined to Puerto Rico to first dock at a continental U.S. port and be shipped under an American flag by a U.S.-based crew.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way things work in the colonies, as Yarimar Bonilla, an associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed:
In anticipation of Hurricane Maria, Trump tweeted that help would be available to Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the fiscal oversight board issued a statement that it would accelerate reconstruction projects as needed. Emergency funds will soon flow to the island, as the financial manager I interviewed predicted. But if history is any indication, they will do little to alleviate long-standing disparities or to remedy the conditions that put Puerto Rico at greatest risk. More likely, the expedited management of emergency money will only serve to fuel the drive for increased privatization and the gutting of public services. As was evident after the ground shook in Haiti, it is long-term structural problems that turn a disaster into a catastrophe. Vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition.
How You Can Help
Politics aside–for the moment– the people of Puerto Rico and the USVI need your help. In the short-term, what relief organizations need is cash. There is no way to get used clothing and other supplies to the islands except through organizations with enough connections to get clearance to land in devastated airports or trashed ports.
Cash. Most organizations are asking for cash, rather than supplies, so they can route help to where it’s needed most more quickly. Here are some of the largest groups with campaigns underway:
- United for Puerto Rico (spearheaded by the First Lady of Puerto Rico)
- Center for Popular Democracy
- Hispanic Federation’s “Unidos” page
- Former U.S. presidents have expanded their One America Appeal to include recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
- All Hands Volunteers
- Catholic Relief Services
- Direct Relief
- Save the Children, which focuses specifically on the needs of families and their children.
- Global Giving has a $2 million goal for victims of Hurricane Maria
GoFundMe has also created a hub that includes all campaigns for Hurricane Maria. You can also find campaigns for individual families seeking help for loved ones.
Here are some other charities I’ve seen recommended:
The Community Fund for US Virgin Islands is the central agency handling relief efforts on those islands.
The nonprofit Oxfam is focusing its efforts on the Caribbean islands that were devastated by Irma.
Global Giving is raising funds for use in Puerto Rico, Dominica, and the Virgin Islands.
United Way of the US Virgin Islands Hurricane Irma & Maria Disaster Relief Visit their Amazon Wish List.
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