The outpouring of American sympathy for Puerto Rico over the pounding it took from Hurricane Maria, followed by a blunder-filled federal recovery effort that left many dead or fleeing the island has been impressive.
Whether influenced by strong ties to Puerto Ricans in the United States; shame over the federal government’s clear neglect of its own citizens; or the nightmare of life without happy singing peasants serving piña coladas by the beach, the rush of compassion has been surprising.
State governments sent rescue and repair crews. Talk show hosts, often joined by a Puerto Rican celebrity guest, have made heartfelt appeals for relief donations. Mainstream news outlets have lavished in capturing the desperation and spirit of the island. Thousands of high school and college students have organized class projects around flying down to clear away fallen trees and install water purifiers. Fundraisers abounded.
Sadly, very few of these good samaritans know or even want to know that most of Puerto Rico’s difficulties trace back to their own government’s 120-year colonial rule over the island. God forbid they should someday have to take a stand on the issue.
“It’s complicated,” says Samantha Bee on her HBO show Full Frontal, after vowing to singlehandedly make Americans care about Puerto Rico.
Actually, it’s not complicated at all, Samantha. The screw-ups by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and President Trump’s sneering behavior after Hurricane Maria are manifestations of a time-honored U.S. tradition: Let us seize your land, your infrastructure, your natural resources and anything else you have for our personal wealth or we’ll kill you. And if you’re dumb enough to believe that U.S. citizenship will spare you the same fate as the native Hawaiians, Native Americans, and all the other ethnic groups that we’ve wiped out over the years, you’re in for a big surprise.
That’s right. Americans are gushing with kindness for Puerto Rico, even as their government has effectively made driving Puerto Ricans off the island an official policy, under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that was signed into law by President Obama in 2016.
PROMESA set up a Financial Oversight Board with dictatorial powers that has ordered the closing and/or sale of every essential service that Puerto Ricans rely on to survive in their homeland — schools, hospitals, utilities, transportation systems, university campuses, even the beaches. The board maintains that its strategy of unbridled austerity — as opposed to stimulating economic growth — is the only way to resolve the island’s $73 billion debt crisis. Few of the Americans who have rushed to dab Puerto Rico’s wounds even remember that the oversight board’s solution to the debt crisis had already driven about 450,000 residents off the island prior to Maria’s arrival, as opposed to the estimated 100,000 residents who left after the hurricane.
Maria simply made it easier for the board to further its brutal intentions without exposing itself to scrutiny. It now had FEMA doing its dirty work and taking the blame. FEMA, as most everyone knows by now, did a masterful job of stalling food, medicine and water deliveries and hiring politically connected contractors at bloated prices with no experience or capacity to restore Puerto Rico’s power. Moreover, FEMA casually denied thousands of requests home restoration money, then offered the rejected applicants free one-way tickets out of the country, ensuring that they won’t be around to defend themselves when the banks foreclose on their properties. That, if you haven’t caught on yet, is precisely what FEMA was created to do: scatter the victims of natural disasters so that rich investors can scarf up their land cheaply, then prolong the crisis to guarantee that the poor losers never come back again.
The PROMESA board took their vision of austerity to a whole new level of savagery this month when it released a 10-year fiscal plan prepared by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that reduces the number of government agencies from 114 to less than 35 by either consolidating or eliminating them entirely. The plan reduces public employee salaries, vacation and sick pay. It closes nearly 300 hundred public schools, closes several satellite campuses at the University of Puerto Rico and nearly triples the university’s tuition. It privatizes the power authority, the transportation authority, the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, the regional airports, the public seaports and the Corrections Department. And finally, the plan shrinks, eliminates or sells off pretty much the major entities that nurture Puerto Rican culture and ethnicity, including the 58-year-old Puerto Rican Conservatory of Music, the Center for Performing Arts, the Puerto Rico Public Broadcasting Corp. and Office of Historic Preservation.
But here’s the scary part. With a shrinking population and nothing much to stimulate the economy, the board’s fiscal plan remarkably anticipates that its austerity plan will result in an estimated $8 billion surplus with which to pay back the bondholders who own the debt. The board is apparently counting on all the construction activity that will take place when Puerto Rico receives about $60 billion in federal hurricane relief funds to help accumulate the surplus. Let that sink in for a minute.
Among the more cruel items on the list is a budget reduction in the agency the manages the long standing project to dredge and restore the Caño Martin Peña water channel in San Juan, home to a tightly-knit community of 26,000 low-income residents.
The agency, La Corporación ENLACE del Caño Martin Peña, under the direction of urban planner Lyvia Rodriguez Del Valle has already secured commitments from private charities and environmental organizations for a sizable portion of the $600 million needed to finance the plan. A hobbled ENLACE would place 26,000 more Puerto Ricans at risk of being swept off the island.
On a map, El Caño is the thin waterway that flows between San Juan Bay and the San Jose Lagoon. In truth, the channel flows nowhere. It is so polluted with rubbish, construction debris and sewage that you can step across it in spots and not wet your shoes. The trash mixes with the stagnated water and breeds rats and disease-carrying bacteria that flood the houses bordering El Caño whenever it rains.
Notwithstanding El Caño’s physical condition, the families that live there, most of them descendants of displaced agricultural workers who arrived as squatters in the 1930s, want to stay. El Caño is their home. The earliest settlers lived in clapboard huts on dry ground. Those who followed had to build their sheds on stilts over the mud in the mangroves and, eventually, over the channel water itself.
The government of Puerto Rico looked the other way for more than half a century, as the squatters gradually converted their shacks into improvised one and two-story bungalows. The houses clashed sharply with the increasingly gentrified areas around them, including San Juan’s financial district, a strip of stale high-rise skyscrapers, known as La Milla de Oro (The Golden Mile), built parallel to the channel. If you’re into imagery, this is analogous to putting Wall Street next to a swamp. When the oversight board meets at La Milla de Oro, as it has done at least once already, its seven members can literally look down their noses at El Caño.
Development schemes to replace the bungalows with five-star hotels and gated communities, often backed by high government officials, surfaced continually. The residents insulated themselves from them by organizing their community into a Special Planning District and designing their own blueprint for cleaning up the channel that does not displace anyone who wants to stay there.
In 2004, during one of Puerto Rico’s tightest political races, vote-hungry legislators passed a law granting the residents collective title to the 3.7 miles of what was technically public land that they occupied nearly 90 years ago. The title was awarded to a Community Land Trust under their control. ENLACE was created as a government agency to manage the dredging project on behalf of the land trust. Homeowners who choose to leave the area, earn a portion of the increased property value. The remainder is kept by the trust to help move the 1,000 families living in the dredging path to homes further inland, as they become available. About 500 families have already been relocated.
The project gathered worldwide attention as a model of community self management and sustainability from organizations such as the Building and Social Housing Foundation, the American Planning Association, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Banco Popular and the United Nations, which presented the land trust with the 2015 Habitat Award for its forward-thinking approaches to replenishing the ecosystem in the channel. Notoriety also enabled the land trust to enter into an Urban Waters funding partnership with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers for a portion of the money to fix up the channel.
Fame, however, hasn’t diminished efforts chase the residents off the channel. In 2009, former governor Luis Fortuño and former San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini retook the land trust property by eminent domain and then lost it again when, El Caño tied them up in court for three years then helped vote them out of office.
Now, as the people of El Caño struggle to recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria, they are once again at risk of being pushed out of there. History suggests that El Caño won’t go down without a fight.
It will be interesting to hear what the good samaritans have to say then.