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Puerto Ricans Still Desperately Need Help: Teamsters Return From Disaster Relief Trip

In any crisis, Teamsters are among the first responders.

Teamsters listen to Liz Schuler ahead of their trip to Puerto Rico in October. (Photo: Alex Moore)

We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 87th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Dan Maldonado, a business agent with Teamsters Local 445. Maldonado discusses his recent disaster relief trip to Puerto Rico with a delegation of union volunteers.

Sarah Jaffe: You just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico with a union delegation. Tell me about your connection to Puerto Rico and why this is important for you to go?

Dan Maldonado: My connection is, first and foremost, I am Puerto Rican. I have a lot of family that still lives down there. We didn’t have a lot of communication with a lot of my family. That was very important for me. Second of all, I am a Teamster. There was a little rumor started that the Teamsters in Puerto Rico were not moving product, which was completely false. We were there as a backup for them, also. It was a union movement, but those were the two main reasons why I went.

Tell us a little bit about what you saw while you were down there.

What we saw was a lot of destruction. We saw some roads that were impassable. We saw a lot of destroyed homes. We saw broken spirits. There were people who had been without water and food for weeks. Very bare minimums.

What part of the island were you on?

We stayed in the San Juan Coliseum. That was basically our living quarters. But, we touched the island pretty much from east to west and north to south. We went all over the island.

Talk about the work that you guys were doing while you were down there.

A lot of the work that I, myself, primarily did was I worked with the Red Cross. We did a lot of the heavy lifting for them. We drove box trucks for them and we helped distribute food and water. A lot of Teamsters down there, they served as drivers for nurses and they went all over with nurses. All different types of towns to see people. We were like the chauffeurs for nurses. Besides all that, we did all the heavy lifting for Red Cross.

What is it that people here are missing about what is happening in Puerto Rico right now?

Well, what is missing is basically the infrastructure is so destroyed. That is creating such a big challenge for the stuff to be distributed. It is not that people are not chipping in, but that the infrastructure … [and] impassable roads. There are certain roads that you really can’t get to as a normal civilian, where you need maybe some engineers to lay down a bridge just so you can get from one side to the other. Unless you are going to get there through a helicopter.

It is hard for us to get a sense here, without having seen it, the breadth of the destruction that still exists and the different challenges people have, just getting through the day.

I want to add one thing that I think is very important that people are missing out on. When you look at the death toll … and right now, they are saying it is 51. It may not seem like a lot, 51. But the bigger concern is the long-term health effects. Let me give you two examples: one from what I knew from another Teamster and a personal one, myself.

One, being that there was a Teamster that went to a neighborhood with a group of nurses and the lady had gangrene. Basically, she was in such a condition that her daughter kept obeying all her commands and we basically had to tell the daughter, “We understand that you respect your parents, but her mind is not there. The gangrene is getting inside of her.” We were able to get a VIP room for her. Unfortunately, her legs were amputated, but that was the only way for her to survive.

Me, on a personal level, I have an uncle who is a diabetic, he had no electricity…. So, for seven days he didn’t take his [diabetes] medicine and he has the funds, he is economically stable to come over here, but now, because [he didn’t take his medicine], his legs got swollen, which affected his kidneys and now he has got a pacemaker. So, he is in a catch 22 where he can’t get on a plane because he has got a pacemaker and he has got to stay in Puerto Rico. So, a lot of the long-term ill effects are something that we are concerned with down the road.

I think that is one of the things that we should think about more. There is the short-term and the medium-term and the long-term recovery issues, and the stuff that you are seeing now, we are getting into the medium and long-term questions.

Right now, the government said that by December, 95 percent of the island is going to have electricity. Well, my question to the government is: Is that 95 percent based on the current population of 3.4 million or is that based on the population that you are going to have left? As you know, there is an exodus of people leaving for the mainland.

Talk a little bit about that. I don’t think we have talked that much about the implications of people leaving a place when it has been so devastated by disaster.

When all hope is lost, you have an island where 40 percent live at the poverty level, where you are making $18,000 or less. And everyone knows that when you have times of disaster, you have your people like the unions that wanted to go down there and really help out and give a helping hand. Then you have those people that take advantage of the situation and their mission is to extort everybody. Like I said, you have 40 percent that live in poverty. I think another 23 percent are elderly. If I am a young person, what do I have to look forward to in the future? If I am an 18-year-old man right now, the rebuilding phase is going to take at least three to four years. Do I want to stick around for that? People are leaving.

The situation … there were economic problems in the past. It is not a secret. The economy has gotten worse. Let me give you a perfect example. I made friends with a cop down there. He is working six days a week, 12-hour shifts. There is no money to pay him overtime. So, the way they are going to repay him is with comp time. So, you are working six days a week, 12 hours a day. That is 72 hours a week and 32 of the 72 hours is going to be paid to you in comp time. So, they are frustrated and are looking to leave the island themselves and do other things and try a new career.

You were there for a week?

I was there for two weeks.

Was there any noticeable difference from when you got there in the beginning to when you left?

How do I say this…. [we] did what we could, but we didn’t even put a dent in the situation. There was so much catastrophe that it was like we went to one neighborhood and we know that we left that one neighborhood with food. The next day we are repeating the same thing. So, when we left, you still had the situation where they had problems with the power. We were in San Juan, which is the main city, and the mall, Plaza Las Americas, which was a source of income for them — the power would not stay up. There would be two or three days where it would close sometimes and they would reopen and hope it would say on. Believe it or not, with everybody shopping online these days, that mall happened to still be an outlet where someone can go and get AC or just get away from the reality of what was going on. We saw that constantly happening.

It is interesting to think about the question of public space, when the mall is the public space that people can access.

Right. You have other things, like San Juan — there wasn’t a single street light that worked. That experience in itself was another experience. Just imagine you are driving through Times Square without a single street light. That is what we experienced out there when we were driving.

When you guys were leaving, there were more rounds of volunteers coming in, but I guess the question is: How long is that going to keep up? How long are people going to be able to keep doing volunteer trips down there?

I have got to say, on the union movement side, I was really proud. We went down there with 327 people. I have got to say, if not 100 percent, at least 99 percent of us said that we would definitely go back if we were asked to go back. That, to me, means a lot and is a big thank you for everybody that is willing to go back. That is the biggest way that somebody can repay me. I really don’t need a thank you from somebody saying, “Thanks for what you did.” The biggest way I could be repaid is that somebody volunteers to go down and also provide help and assistance.

Anything else you think people should know about what is going on right now?

The situation is definitely dire. They need help. They really need help. If anybody can help in any way, it would be gladly appreciated. The Puerto Rican people are very grateful. People really need to understand that they are Americans. There’s a stat that a lot of people don’t know about, but when the Vietnam War happened, there were more Puerto Ricans drafted from Puerto Rico than any state on the mainland. People need to remember that and not forget about them in this time of crisis.

How can people keep up with you and how can people keep up with the work that the Teamsters and others are doing in Puerto Rico?

I don’t think we are really looking for the credit or looking for the accolades. Basically, the Teamsters put something out and they got an overwhelming response of people that just wanted to go help. It is not the first crisis that we have been involved in with as Teamsters. If you look at us from 2001 — 9/11 — we were in Houston, a month prior, with Hurricane Harvey. We have been in Katrina. We have been in all kinds of disasters. More than likely, if there is a disaster, you are probably going to have the Teamsters there as the first responders.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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