The Spiraling Crisis of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which already faced severe pressures because of the U.S. territory’s huge debt and demands from its creditor, has now been devastated by Hurricane Maria, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Though President Trump bragged about the relatively low death toll from Hurricane Maria — 16 at the time of his visit on Tuesday — the number soon jumped to 34 and was expected to rise much more when isolated hospitals could finally report in.

Many of the island’s 59 hospitals were cut off from power and half the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants lacked safe drinking water. The continuing crisis reflected a slow response from the federal government.

A devastated area in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the aftermath left by Hurricane Maria, Sept. 23, 2017. (Puerto Rico National Guard photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos)

Puerto Rican Jewish feminist writer, poet, and activist Aurora Levins Morales is a nationally known Puerto activist. In the following interview, Morales expressed her outrage at Trump’s racist response to the Puerto Rican hurricane disaster.

Morales is the author of Medicine Stories, Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriqueñas, and Kindling: Writings On the Body, and co-authored two books with her mother, Rosario Morales.

She created the Vehicle for Change project to research, design, fund and build her chemically accessible mobile home, and is currently traveling around the United States writing about the confluence of ecology, health and social justice struggles for her radio blog Letters from Earth, broadcast on Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio. She writes and performs with Sins Invalid, a Bay Area disability justice performance project. I spoke to Morales on October 2.

Dennis Bernstein: Aurora Levins Morales has been watching the situation very closely. This is your homeland and you must be heartbroken.

Aurora Levins Morales: I am devastated. All of us are desperate for information and there is very little to be had. Most of the island is still out of communication. My home is in a remote mountainous area in the west of the island that has received no help yet at all. Today I wrote a poem, which for me is the clearest way to express what is going on right now. It is called Rumors:

Rumors

Someone posted a message about the bees, how they search, frantically, everywhere, for the flowers that are gone. They said to put out bowls of sugar water for them, so the bees don’t all die, but no one has sugar, and no one has water.

Someone posted a message from Carrizales, which is just ten buried curves from my home. It said, “The roads into town are broken. We can’t get to the stores. We have no food.” That was days ago.

There are seven springs on my family’s land. I am hoping a few people with machetes can open a path so everyone can drink. I hope there are still springs.

Someone posted an article that said that the morgues are so full, that there isn’t room for one more body, that people are burying their dead themselves, and the governor is still saying that there are only seventeen dead.

Someone posted about the father of a former mayor who died because not all his connections could get him the oxygen he needed.

Someone said people were eating the spoiled food from their dead refrigerators because there was nothing else, and I thought about the smell, of having to hold their noses to swallow it, and about having food poisoning, having diarrhea and vomiting, without water to drink or wash in.

I remember what don Luis heard from his father after San Ciriaco, 1899, how the people dug up the roots of banana plants because there was nothing else to eat, that they must taste of nothing but water and dirt. I remember fifty years ago, how the poorest people crept onto other people’s land to dig up malanga. I whisper: Dig. Don’t give up. Keep digging.

Someone posted pictures, ten buried curves in the other direction from my home, and it looked like November in New England, bare branches, wind burnt brown leaves. It looked like a war zone, with huge bomb sized holes in concrete buildings, and the walls missing. The people who took the pictures could only get so far along that road. They didn’t make it to where my people are.

Someone said the warehouses are full and our hands are empty. Someone posted that they’re dividing each minimal packet of FEMA food into four. A packet of apple sauce. A cracker. A sip of water. Soon they’ll just hand out pictures of food. Let them eat labels.

Whenever they can, the people post picture after picture of themselves hauling broken trees, clearing rubble, carrying each other on their backs, floating each other through contaminated flood waters to dry land, sharing the last of the food.

Here in the far away, we are all tilted, off balance, leaning with our whole selves toward what we love. We post picture after picture of all the boxes we have packed for them, all the money we sent, all the clothes, diapers, medicine, food that went to sit in the warehouses. We keep posting the names of our silences, all the places we have left our unanswered messages.

Without electricity, maybe they don’t know that the man who calls himself president thinks Puerto Ricans sit around waiting, want everything done for us, that he thinks we’re lazy. If they did, maybe their anger would light up the night and start the generators.

It was announced that satellite phones would be airdropped to all the mayors, but they weren’t. Nobody knows what’s going on. Journalists arrive in mud soaked towns and they are the first to get there. The people gather around them asking, Are you FEMA? Eleven days and nobody else has come. No helicopters. No trucks. Only wind.

There was a rumor that the National Guard had just left for Maricao that afternoon, to open the roads, and carry in supplies, but it kept being posted on different days, and there is not a single picture of a national guard giving a bottle of water or a sandwich to anyone in Maricao, so I don’t believe it.

There are people peering over the horizon into next week or the week after and saying the words famine and epidemic. An expert said that the water through which people wade, where children without houses play, is full of sewage. I think cholera and try not to inhale.

The mayor of San Juan, who has waded chest deep through her flooded streets, waded through the official sewage pouring from the presidential mouth says this amounts to genocide.

Someone said, we are no longer dying of hurricane. We are dying of colony.

There was a rumor that no one can sleep anymore, that we are all awake, finally awake. There was a rumor that it was about to be over. There was a rumor that all that raging brown water filled the bank vaults and turned their contracts into pulp, that resignation was disintegrating everywhere. I heard that floods of chemically contaminated runoff erased their hard drives and made the ink run on the articles of subjugation. There was a rumor that people are refusing to put one single cinder block onto another to rebuild our misery. There was a rumor, I just heard it, that enough is finally enough. I heard that people are peering over the horizon into next week, or the week after, and saying the words libre, libre, libre y soberana.

Dennis Bernstein: Puerto Rico is the quintessential case of environmental racism. For half a century it was used as a bombing target of the US military. Now we have the military saying this is a difficult task and we don’t know what to do on this island that we have been occupying forever. Talk about the military response and also about the mayor versus Trump.

Aurora Levins Morales: How can the US military, the largest and most powerful in the world, have the gall to say that they face a challenge in airlifting diesel fuel for hospital generators, where people are dying because they cannot refrigerate insulin, they cannot run dialysis machines, they cannot run respirators?

Carmen Yulin is absolutely right that this is genocidal. A few days after the hurricane she was saying that we may not be able to get to everyone, and now she is saying we don’t even know how to begin counting the dead. The inability of aid to reach people is so cynical.

And then to have the so-called creditors of this entirely fraudulent debt saying, “Well, they have some bills to pay before we can help them.” Put aside all of the colonial pillage of our country over 119 years by the United States and just look at the Jones Act, which restricts Puerto Rico to receiving goods only on ships flying a US flag, and at double the cost. That is millions and millions of dollars that we have been overcharged since 1920, which would easily pay off the so-called debt in a minute.

It is so cynical to describe this situation as Puerto Rico being in debt to Wall Street. They have been extracting and extracting with no pretense of putting anything back in. Everywhere you go there are signs of coffee farms up for sale. People cannot make a living from the agriculture. They are pressured economically and politically to grow cash crops. We import 80% of what we eat and there is only about two weeks of reserves ever on the island. So the island is always hovering on the brink of famine.

Dennis Bernstein: This is what Trump said about the mayor of Puerto Rico: “Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan and others in Puerto Rico who are not able to get their workers to help and want everything to be done for them, where it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers are now on the island doing a fantastic job. The mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.”

Artwork by Shepard Fairey.

Aurora Levins Morales: This is the story that gets told about colonized and oppressed people across time. This is what slaveholders said about the enslaved: lazy, ungrateful, can’t get it together, that’s why they’re slaves. People are doing an amazing job in Puerto Rico of organizing at the community level.

Activists all over the island are out there making sure people are okay. Yes, we have a flaming racist in the White House, but remember that the PROMESA Act came into being under Obama. That was a great big present to Wall Street. This was the so-called “rescue” of Puerto Rico which took over our economy entirely and put it in the hands of an appointed board of fiscal control that can override any decision of our elected government.

They are basically selling off all of our public assets and gutting all of our government services in order to pay a fraudulent debt to predatory lenders on Wall Street. It is a massive armed robbery of our people. Now the indignation of the Puerto Rican people has reached a fever pitch. People are demanding that the PROMESA Act as well as the Jones Act be revoked right now, that the debt be cancelled and that we be given a whole lot of money to rebuild, or our country is dead. There is no way to recover without that.

The way in which the story is told determines how people respond. This is being portrayed as a natural disaster when it is really a result of climate violence. Our country is being portrayed as incompetent when in reality we are actively being denied help.

It reminds me of the differences in how the Haitian earthquake was covered in the US media and in the Latin American leftist media. The American media made it sound like those Haitians died because they just don’t know how to build good houses. Not that Haiti has been under economic attack in revenge for the slave uprising two hundred years ago. The left Latin American countries are saying, we have a debt to Haiti because of what they did for all of us.

It is the same narrative with Puerto Rico, that people are just sitting around waiting to be rescued. Nobody is sitting and waiting for anything.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.

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16 comments for “The Spiraling Crisis of Puerto Rico

  1. Garrett Connelly
    October 5, 2017 at 10:36 pm

    Yes. The debt is fraudulent. Kick backs paid to increase the debt and buy thousands of road distance marker signs or new radio gadgets on police cars, etc.

    The purchases were mostly corrupt in the first place and thus are invalid.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    October 5, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    I have fond memories of Puerto Rico from my old Navy days from back in the late sixties. I seem to recall hearing my first Steel Drum Band somewhere down on I think Luna Street. I also was part of Puerto Rico’s problem having been a U.S. Navy sailor involved in doing military exercises off the coast of Vieques. All and all, I learned to love my non-voting fellow American citizens, the Puerto Rican’s, and our family will donate what we can and pray for their quick recovery. Thanks for this interview with Aurora Levins Morales, Mr Bernstein. Joe

  3. Zachary Smith
    October 5, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    “Elon Musk says Tesla could rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid with batteries and solar”

    I hope he isn’t blowing hot air as he so often does. In the event some version of this happens, the solar cells would have to be much more robust than usual. At least a good fraction of them. Instead of little metal racks I’d want them in something much more substantial. And this could be the first really good application for those Solar Pavers I’ve heard about. Put them in place on a backyard patio. Or on top of a small above-ground concrete cistern. This could be a free-standing unit or a backup for the water company supply.

  4. Curious
    October 6, 2017 at 3:51 am

    I would like to think Trump is odd or out of character, but his visit is worth a rebellion from any American who still has a soul. His words were all about money, which comes as no surprise since money seems to be his God, or at least his Devine inspiration for living. He had to bash the country first because of their debt which is rather strange coming from a man who has roughly 5 bankrupcys to his record. He should be the last one to talk about losing money on bad investments.
    The key here is simply the nature of a person, and Trump repulses, or induces a gag reflex with his vacuous words. Any sense of decency with respect to sympathy and empathy doesn’t exist in his pathetic heart. What a terrible example, after bashing the poverty of the country to stand on a stage and toss paper towels to the ‘audience’. In Iraq that would be the perfect case of a shoe in his face and it’s too bad the people in attendance couldn’t follow suit.
    My one great expensive venture in life was to create a ship which could act as a desalinater in times of desperate need. I ran out of money with the idea, but when I see the reports on this island I wish I could have pulled it off. A tanker which could move to areas of desperate need providing potable water after the salt residue is figured out. I now do what I can, but to be a presidential total buffoon without any mercy in his soul hurts me to my core and I wish he would just go away or replace his heart with one known to care and have empathy and justice and leave money out of the equation.
    It’s time to claw back the 70 bill from the military and at least 200 billion more and have them act as Americans and not world aggressors. We need them on our side, and not the side of conquering the world.We don’t need the 800 plus bases around the world, and this case of disparate people, Americans to boot, are dying and this provides a great example of why we don’t need to conquer the world as aggressors, when the ‘many’ think it’s all “defense”.
    It’s far past time to put an end to the military madness and waste, and help those in need.

  5. Robert
    October 6, 2017 at 4:36 am

    US spends 800 billion on defense annually. US concocts wars that kill millions of innocents. US blames innocent leaders, trying to protect their people, from It very own crimes against humanity.
    US uses world class propaganda to continue genocidal course to overthrow sovereigns and set up the New world order and currency.

    US does not care about People of PR but only getting paid back. Never believe a word coming from a politician. They are just diabolical murderous hypocritical liars who have and always will, put power and the purse before people.

  6. Celso Barrera
    October 6, 2017 at 5:53 am

    Yes,,the only things I can say, a los hermanos del paiis the Puerto Rico. You country go the wrong name.
    How many billions $ USA , for Israel on the last 25 years,, I am sorry I said billions,, I could trillion.

    • Realist
      October 6, 2017 at 6:51 am

      Ya got that right.

      If the American people actually had a say, we’d cancel two or three of the wars we are presently fighting and certainly not precipitate new ones in Korea and Iran. We’d intelligently spend the money saved on our own in places like Puerto Rico. After all, we claim that the island is ours. If we can’t show it the largess we shower on Israel, we ought to give the place its independence.

      Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Give it to them and treat them like Texas in reconstruction from a record-breaking hurricane. Man up, America, and ACT like an exceptional and indispensable country. The main thing preventing this has been presidential politics and the 4 or so electoral votes that would be at stake with statehood. Time to stop being so petty and to put life ahead of politics that constantly shift with the wind irrespective of conventional models.

  7. Brad Owen
    October 6, 2017 at 7:24 am

    Over on EIR website, in their “Hot News” column on the right side: Wall Street in deep shock because Trump committed to wiping out P.R.’s debt to Wall Street. The people come first, he said. This may be the “Great Turning” that the LaRouche people saw (in potentia) in Trump. The enemy has now been engaged, and as the LaRouche people have always been saying, the enemy is WALL STREET.

  8. Aldo Lauria Santiago
    October 6, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Thanks for the article. Visibility and solidarity are critical at this time.

    Aldo Lauria Santiago

  9. Anna Roman
    October 6, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    I to feel that the Promesa Act and Jones Act should be repealed. I have been traveling to Puerto Rico for the last 10 years visiting my dad. I see that people in Puerto Rico pay $6.00 for and gallon of milk and $3.00 for 1/2 gal. while here in the states we can get it for $2.30 for a gal. if not less. There is something seriously wrong when people are paying so much for necessity just to survive. Give Puerto Rico a chance to rebuild itself by removing all of these and other obstructions. Let Puerto Rico become a state instead of treating it like second class society.

  10. Dhruvi Pardeep
    October 7, 2017 at 3:05 am

    Poor hate-filled whiny liberals. The problem with making everything a crisis is when a real one comes up no one believes you.

    People took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands in their pussy hats over some comment President Trump made twenty years ago. The best Puerto Rico gets is an interview on a fifth rate blog with some woman who wrote a poem about the hurricane.

    Sorry Puerto Rico, Democrats have already moved on to their latest crisis du jour: banning bump-stocks.

  11. jools
    October 7, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Nelson Denis stated that the Jones Act doesn’t apply for Guam, but it’s applied to Puerto Rico. ?? Heck Guam is further out than Jupiter. NO offense to Guam, I hear they’re lovely people. Strikes being blatantly unfair though. Also, Puerto Ricans in Florida, just remember that Marco Rubio flipped his vote Against Puerto Rico being able to file for bankruptcy at the last minute. Why? Hedge fund managers fattened his pockets to vote No.

  12. Zachary Smith
    October 7, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Headline: “In Puerto Rico, lives depend on volunteer doctors and diesel generators”

    That’s pretty clear. Puerto Rico needs doctors, and it needs electricity.

    h**p://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-puertorico-healthcare/in-puerto-rico-lives-depend-on-volunteer-doctors-and-diesel-generators-idUSKBN1CB28W

    But what happens when Cuba offers both?

    The Cuban government’s offer to send four brigades of electrical workers and a mobile hospital with 39 doctors to Puerto Rico — an offer Washington hasn’t even acknowledged — shows that when Cuban revolutionaries say they “share what they have, not what’s left over,” they mean it.

    Now how is THAT for arrogant Imperialism? They didn’t ever bother to reply!

    h**p://www.themilitant.com/2017/8137/813701.html

    That’s how wannabee Empires behave. Reading the story dredged up a memory from WW2 when the story was Racism.

    In December 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, a Detroit mother named Sylvia Tucker visited her local Red Cross donor center to give blood.

    Having heard the “soul-stirring” appeals for blood donors on her radio, she was determined to do her part. But when she arrived at the center, the supervisor turned her away. “Orders from the National Offices,” he explained, “barred Negro blood donors at this time.”

    “Shocked” and “grieved,” Tucker left in tears, later penning a letter of protest about the whole ordeal to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Socialist doctors and electricians aren’t any good for Puerto Rico, and Negro Blood was no good for anybody!

    h**p://theconversation.com/desegregating-blood-a-civil-rights-struggle-to-remember-37480

    In 1942 the Red Cross relented to the degree of accepting Negro Blood, but on the strict condition it be segregated.

    The poem at the link has these two final lines:

    “Their skins are white as snow … it’s well.
    Their souls are tarnished, black as hell.

    Whoever in the Trump Administration nixed a generous offer of help surely has souls “black as hell”.

    Considering how Trump begrudges US American assistance to the Colony, I guess I ought not be so shocked.

  13. Zachary Smith
    October 7, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Just found a third term on the Software Censor list:

    N e g r o

  14. Josue
    October 9, 2017 at 8:34 pm

    This experience leads me to believe we should do a better analysis re independence for Puerto Rico. What if Puerto Rico could deal with other countries? Especially economically?

Comments are closed.