One year after Hurricane Maria made landfall in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico last Sept. 20, the U.S. and local governments continue to display their class disregard for the lives of working people there.
Most, but still not all, of the country has electricity and drinking water — most of the time. But 60,000 homes still have only blue tarps as roofs and tens of thousands more were destroyed or severely damaged. Many roads and bridges have not been repaired.
Under dog-eat-dog capitalist rule, all serious natural disasters turn into social catastrophes for working people. But Puerto Rico’s colonial status made the catastrophe worse.
After insisting for nearly a year that only 64 people died as a result of the storm, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló finally admitted that at least 2,975 had perished.
“The government makes promises and more promises, but the people are still suffering,” retired teacher Mildred Laboy, a leader of Arecma, a community group in Humacao, said by phone Sept. 22. And few believe the government is better prepared for when the next hurricane hits. When tropical storm Isaac passed south of the island earlier in September, with winds at 35 mph, electricity went out across the country.
Faced with government inaction, Arecma set up a community center where area workers organized daily meals and other help after the storm.
The U.S. imperialist rulers have plundered Puerto Rico’s resources and labor since they seized the island in 1898. Colonial exploitation has decimated agricultural production. The “isle of enchantment,” which at the beginning of last century produced most of its own food, now imports 85 percent from the U.S.
With the onset of the worldwide capitalist economic and financial crisis in 2007, the colonial government stepped up its anti-working-class measures. The electric company cut back on maintenance and didn’t replace antiquated equipment and systems. Maria’s winds decimated the grid.
Much of the rebuilt system is just as bad. The government admits that 20 percent of the repaired network needs to be torn out and redone. U.S. contractors were brought in, and made big profits while workers for the state electrical company often couldn’t get needed supplies.
Despite layoffs of tens of thousands of workers, jacked-up sales taxes and cuts in pensions, the government’s debt to profit-hungry bondholders by the time Maria struck was estimated at $74 billion.
The lack of the most elementary preparations by U.S. and local officials to prepare for the storm and their disregard for working people afterwards has deepened workers’ distrust in all the bourgeois parties on the island and created greater awareness of colonial oppression among the Puerto Rican people.
‘Advance in consciousness’
“Now everyone is aware that Puerto Rico is a colony,” Wency Bonilla, an occupational therapist, told the Militant by phone from Caguas Sept. 22. “Even the pro-statehood people, for whom ‘colony’ was almost an obscenity, now say it.”
Bonilla recently graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao. With his new job he travels to some of the regions hardest hit by the hurricane.
After the storm thousands of working people joined protests against the slow pace of restoring electricity and the closing of schools.
“These were people who had never joined a protest before,” he said. “On one side we see an advance in consciousness, but most people still don’t see a sovereign Puerto Rico as a solution.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has disbursed or committed $1.3 billion to individuals and $3.4 billion in public grants to aid in repairing the damage from the hurricane. But so far FEMA has denied nearly a third of people’s 1.1 million applications for aid.
As working people in the U.S. battered by recent hurricanes from Texas to Louisiana to the Carolinas can attest, the “aid” FEMA gives is always inadequate. In the U.S. colony it’s even worse.
The Miami Herald reports that as of June 1 Maria survivors in Puerto Rico who were able to qualify for aid got an average of $1,800 for repair assistance, less than one-fifth of what survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas received.
“In Puerto Rico it seems that if you’re driving every 20 minutes there’s a Walmart, Best Buy or Costco,” Cándido Santiago, a businessman, said by phone from Humacao Sept. 22. “The big chains are doing fine, but not the local businesses.” As many as 8,000 of the island’s 44,000 small businesses have shut down since the storm.
“And the money the big chains make doesn’t stay here, it goes to the U.S.,” he added. “And their employees, they don’t work a full day, they just get four hours so the company avoids paying benefits.”
The Department of Education has shut down 254 schools in the last year, despite numerous protests, claiming there was no choice because of declining enrollment. By 2010, with so many people fleeing the island’s deteriorating conditions, there were more Puerto Ricans in the U.S. than in Puerto Rico. As many as 200,000 more left after the storm, although many have returned.
Santiago notes that after months of waiting and protests he helped organize, electricity was restored in most of Humacao in July.
“We have electricity, but streets still don’t have traffic lights,” he said. “It’s like in the old days.”
The Financial Oversight and Management Board, appointed by President Barack Obama to guarantee payments to the bondholders and given veto power over all financial decisions of the Puerto Rican government, continues to insist on steep cuts in government services, health care and pensions, more layoffs, and privatization of the electrical system.
Vieques: ‘Colony of a colony’
On the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast conditions are harsher. People there say they live in the colony of a colony. The government-owned electric utility hasn’t restored an underwater electrical cable connection and the only electricity there comes from generators.
The dialysis center on Vieques shut down after the storm. Now the only way for patients to get the three-times- a week treatment they need to stay alive is to travel to the main island by ferry or plane.
At least five of the patients have died since the storm. The government has promised for months to provide a mobile dialysis unit, but hasn’t delivered.
Ismael Guadalupe, a retired school teacher and long-time activist in the successful fight to force the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, told the Militant he was lucky he no longer needs dialysis, after getting a kidney transplant before the storm. Like everything under capitalism, he said, “it’s just a business. They take advantage of our tragedy.”
With the onset of the worldwide capitalist economic crisis, many U.S.-owned factories shut down. But U.S. capitalists depend on the relatively cheap labor in Puerto Rico to make billions of dollars in superprofits.
There are some 50 pharmaceutical factories in Puerto Rico, a key part of the U.S. and global drug supply chain, including Amgen’s largest facility in the world, with 2,700 workers in Juncos. Johnson & Johnson has 3,700 workers in six plants in five towns. And 11 of the top 20 medicines sold worldwide, including Viagra, have components manufactured in Puerto Rico.
Amgen is investing $40 million to build its own cogeneration plant to provide heat and power no matter what storms bring in the future.