A handful of people grew very rich thanks to the suffering Hurricanes Irma and Maria left behind in Puerto Rico. If you don’t live there, it’s an easy situation to ignore, unfortunately, in this noisy, post-truth world of ours. Here are two things every “mainland American” should know about Puerto Ricans but probably does not.
The first thing to know is that, yes, Puerto Ricans are American citizens (because apparently that bit of common sense eluded roughly half of America before the island's name started really hitting the mainstream media last September). And second, the nation of Puerto Rico lost three-quarters of its electricity generation and delivery infrastructure during two recent hurricanes. Six months after the first hurricane, Irma, visited Puerto Rico, 150,000 private homes and businesses still don’t have electricity.
Why? Because the nation is being sold right out from under its citizens’ feet.
More Than a Decade in the Making
As of late April and early May 2018, the people of Puerto Rico still had reasons to get upset by their government’s — and the United States’ — response to this string of tragedies. The thing is, these storms were merely a catalyst. They only came after years and years of the federal government ignoring worsening economic conditions there.
Currently, Puerto Rico’s public resources are depleting in the name of austerity and privatization after years of languishing in neglect from the mainland U.S. And, as in mainland America, an ever-larger share of the social burden falls on middle-income and poor Puerto Ricans. The system actively keeps millions mired in poverty as income inequality worsens.
Puerto Rico endured a more-than-decade-long recession under these conditions and presently carries a public debt of some $72 billion USD. The government chose austerity and the drastic cutting of social safety net programs, including raising the cost of public university tuition by three times or more.
“The rich don’t suffer [under austerity],” Adria Bermudez said, representing the biggest public university in Puerto Rico. “The measures are aimed at the middle class and low middle class.”
Puerto Rico Is the Story of Everyplace
Here’s the briefest of all possible recaps — like everyplace else on the planet, a handful of tiny elites in Puerto Rico siphoned money from the public coffers and hid it away for themselves. And thanks to neglect from our own leaders in Washington, who practice all of these same bad habits, they’ve been getting away with it and making life harder and harder for an ever-larger portion of the population.
And now there’s a new wrinkle in the form of two devastating hurricanes.
Generally speaking, a country has two courses to choose from when a major economic or natural disaster strikes. They can either rebuild their society from the bottom up by accounting for everybody’s most basic needs, and people are healthful, employed and productive as a result.
They can try the whole thing in reverse by throwing money at rich people and hoping it eventually trickles its way back down to the folks who need it. Puerto Rico’s elites took notes from American oligarchs, it seems, because they chose the wrong path.
The public demonstrations and protests roiling in Puerto Rico right now are a direct result of consequence-immune elites choosing their own well-being over everyone else’s. The astronomical rate hikes at public schools prove that. The elites got an education, so why chip in for public schools?
But Puerto Rico’s electric grid is a particularly dark spot in what is already an extremely upsetting situation. Naomi Klein of The Intercept likely said it best when she called the public and private response to Puerto Rico’s almost total loss of its electric grid “Disaster Capitalism.”
What Is Disaster Capitalism?
It’s not hard to imagine why the people of Puerto Rico are marching in the streets. After years of austerity, and then half a year of darkness without power, they finally see the light at the end of the tunnel — only to find out all the light was privatized.
“The decision to privatize Puerto Rico’s state-owned power company follows the same dangerous path mapped out in the Trump administration’s draft infrastructure plan,” explained Wenonah Hauter of the watchdog group Food & Water Watch. “Whether it’s water or energy, privatization helps Wall Street at the expense of the wellbeing and health of communities, particularly low-income families and people of color.”
That’s right. The Puerto Rican government is selling out public infrastructure to privately-owned, profit-driven corporations who tend to do poor-quality work when they bother to do the work at all. Sound familiar at all?
Additionally, it’s a well-known strategy among insurance adjusters to, for example, misclassify certain types of structure damage to defraud the government and renege on their own financial obligations. Human beings are extremely talented at taking advantage of vulnerable people. Government is supposed to act as our tool for protecting ourselves when we’re in harm’s way. Instead, it’s now a tool for abusive corporate enterprises to extend their influence and their profit margins.
Swap shoes with some of these people. Think about the uncertain and treacherous parts of your own life. Then imagine the parasites descending from Washington and Wall Street.
Puerto Rico’s situation was and still is a wet dream for corrupt world commerce, unfolding right before our eyes. Hang a price tag on absolutely everything — including stuff we need to survive. But a country is not a company — and the citizens in both Puerto Rico and mainland America who are awake to these injustices and atrocities are pissed.
Here, as in thousands of other case studies over the generations, we see that the only practical and morally defensible alternative to privatization and unaccountable corporate ownership of the world’s institutions is the sharing of resources, opportunities, burdens and the infrastructure that makes life possible.
Anything else — anything that drives a profit motive into the heart of our humanitarian efforts and the workings of democracy — is cruel and uncivilized. And possibly permanent, too, unless we act fast.