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Underwater in Puerto Rico: Islanders Struggle With Debt While Desperate for Hurricane Relief

Puerto Rico’s suffering spells profit for Trump and the 1%.

Jose Gonzalez has taken everything out of his home in Estancia Del Sol, outside of Rio Grande, after the hurricane destroyed it. Many people in the area are without food and shelter one week after Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Jose Gonzalez has taken everything out of his home in Estancia Del Sol, outside of Rio Grande, after the hurricane destroyed it. Many people in the area have not received any aid one week after the hurricane Maria. The roof of their home is gone and they have very little to eat. (Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)Jose Gonzalez has taken everything out of his home in Estancia Del Sol, outside of Rio Grande, after the hurricane destroyed it. Many people in the area are without food and shelter one week after Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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 ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 77th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26 in Minnesota. Morillo is originally from Puerto Rico, and offers his thoughts on how to wrest control of Puerto Rico from Wall Street and how to best assist islanders devastated by hurricanes. He also talks about Target workers winning a $15 minimum-wage victory.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s start out by talking about … things were not great in Puerto Rico before the hurricane flattened it. Give us a little background on the so called “debt crisis,” the PROMESA [Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act] bill and the US-imposed austerity in Puerto Rico.

Javier Morillo: Right. What is terrifying about what is going on on the island now is that the situation was so precarious before the hurricane hit and it was precarious for completely human-made reasons. Puerto Rico is in a debt crisis. Donald Trump has been tweeting about debt when he finally started tweeting about Puerto Rico. He mentioned the debt twice … I think your listeners would be familiar with the foreclosure crisis and how that was caused by Wall Street’s predatory loans. It was a very similar situation in Puerto Rico … [the] municipal bonds in Puerto Rico are triple tax-free, meaning there are no local, state or federal taxes on them, so they are very attractive to a lot of investors. Wall Street and Goldman Sachs and the investment firms had been pushing investors to buy these up because they also know that because of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, Puerto Rican municipalities cannot declare bankruptcy. They were, essentially, betting on the island’s inability to pay, and that is, indeed, sort of what happened.

Then, what made things worse was that in 2016, Congress passed the PROMESA bill. It is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management Economic Stability Act. In the grand tradition of Congress giving acronyms that mean the opposite of what they do, promesa means “promise” in Spanish, and this was sold to Congress people. One of my congressmen here in Minnesota is Keith Ellison, [a] progressive stalwart, and he is on the Financial Services Committee, a wonderful ally. I spoke with him quite a bit about this. The way the Obama administration pitched the need for PROMESA was that this was the only thing that could be done to rescue the island. It sets off the Financial Oversight Board, which has been imposing austerity.

One of the things that I heard as a pitch for PROMESA then was one of the Puerto Rican members of Congress, in particular, saying, “Oh, well, the island is being bought up by rich people and it will be essentially an island without Puerto Ricans.” What I said to Congressman Ellison at the time is, “Well, that is going to happen either way, the way things are going right now….” Instead, what we have now is … they have been imposing austerity. There is an unelected junta. It is called an oversight board in English, but people on the island refer to it as the junta, which I think is the more appropriate….

When you do the math on how much more Puerto Ricans have been paying in taxes for goods that come onto the island over the many years, it dwarfs the debt.

The center of the debt crisis is the electric tower company. Right now, this is where it is all overlaid. The hurricane has knocked out power over the whole island and, on top of that, this is a utility company that last year was literally cutting off the electricity in hospitals and endangering the lives of people because the hospitals were in debt to them, and they are in debt to Wall Street creditors. And, I should say, people can look up a lot of the amazing research that ReFund America and the Action Center on Race and the Economy have done on Puerto Rico — on the financial research of all of what I am talking about now — because a lot of that debt is actually most likely illegally incurred. Meaning that the constitution of the island forbids debt that requires payment beyond 30 years and they very clearly surpassed that. So, there is precedent. I think this happened in Detroit, where a judge decided that that debt was incurred illegally. It is not the responsibility of taxpayers. So, if we actually got the island to be repaying the principal of the debt rather than all of these interests…. Most of the billions of dollars the island owes is just fees that they owe to Wall Street for the very products that they should not have been selling the island.

Before we dig into what can be done, what are you hearing from people on the ground in Puerto Rico right now after the hurricane? The reports that we are seeing is that this could be months and months without power. Trump seems like he is in no hurry to do anything. And a lot of people in the US don’t even seem to realize that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.

Yes. My parents are on the island. For the first few days after the hurricane, it was nearly impossible to get in touch with anyone. I had sporadic texts and contact. I was just able to speak to my parents in the last couple of days on the phone. They were prepared for the worst, and I would say from … everything I am hearing, it feels worse than anything anyone could have imagined. There is no power anywhere…. My sister, we communicate through either WhatsApp or text when she has a signal. She is asking us to send her news stories because they have such little access to the media. They have no power. I am just frankly terrified. I think a couple of days ago, the governor of Puerto Rico had a press conference where he was giving a pretty positive face to everything that was happening, but also mentioned that there were eight municipalities that they had not had any contact with, at least as of two days ago. The island is 100 miles by 35 miles. It is a very small island. To me, when I hear that eight municipalities have no contact with the central government, that sounds very suspicious to me — and terrifying. I know some of them are under water. I don’t know what the causalities are or anything. There are very few flights coming in and out of the island. I, honestly, am just frankly very afraid that we are going to have to find a way to get my family off the island and not have a way to do that. I know that many, many other people are feeling the same way.

I was reading this morning about how the Trump administration has to lift some regulation on ships coming in to Puerto Rico that they are not doing.


There does not seem to be any sense of emergency, perhaps not surprisingly, from this administration on this front.

The historical roots of this, which is Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States, is the Jones Act of 1917. The Jones Act made Puerto Ricans American citizens. We are born American citizens, although when we live on the island, we cannot vote for the president of the United States — who sends us to war — or the Congress that can do things like create a junta to run the island. The Jones Act — it is a maritime act — also prohibits any foreign vessels from entering the US ports in Puerto Rico. I think this also applies in Hawaii. What that means is … Puerto Rico cannot make any trade deals with any other countries, any other bilateral trade deals with anyone else. We are 100 percent a consumer of American goods on the island. What foreign products do come onto the island … they arrive in cargo containers to Florida and then they are moved from the foreign cargo ship onto an American cargo ship and then brought over…. Then they are taxed as well in that move. So, products arrive on the island already more expensive than they would be because, as you can imagine, that just adds cost. One of the things that they have apparently done in the past with similar disasters is to waive the ban on foreign vessels arriving in the ports. So far, the Trump administration has refused to do that. That is the temporary solution. The more fundamental problem is just the Jones Act itself. It is the fact that it contributes to the debt crisis. When you do the math on how much more Puerto Ricans are paying in taxes for goods that come onto the island over the many years, it dwarfs the debt. That is the historical root of what the problem is. Then yes, the situation today [is]: “What are the many things that need to be done in the short-term to fix what is going on there?”

There was already organizing going on that you were a part of before the hurricane … around the debt crisis. Looking at this now, people today are organizing to call Congress just to say, “Get them some aid.” What are the short, medium and long-term goals for pressure on this administration, [and] hopefully the next administration?

I have been thinking about this a lot. One of the things that I am really struggling with right now is that we don’t have a progressive or a left “shock doctrine” … the right has a program in place for how to take advantage of moments like this. What I am terrified about on the island right now is that I think, absolutely, when you look at what the junta has done and everything else, that this is an opportunity for the wealthy 1% of the US and the global 1% to make Puerto Rico into a playground (the way Cuba was in the 1940s and 1950s) [for] the US rich, and that we will have an island of Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans.

To me, the long-term question is: What do we do in the short and medium-term that is some semblance of a shock doctrine for our side? If we are going to rebuild Puerto Rico, how do we do it in a way that is right for the people of Puerto Rico? I have to weigh that with the very immediate concern of needing to get cargo containers with food and necessities that people have. Unfortunately, I don’t have a very good answer for how we do the short-term in a way that sets up the long-term.

There are organizers on the ground — one affiliated with the Center for Popular Democracy in the US — who have set up a fund. It is They have been doing base-building work on the island for some time, especially in the poorer areas and the coastal areas that have been devastated now twice with Irma and now with Maria. That is who I have been encouraging people to donate money to because I trust the work that they do, that it is directed at the most vulnerable and actually at social transformation on the island….

Right now, what I am frantically trying to figure out with other Puerto Ricans on the mainland — other left and progressive Puerto Ricans — is: “How do we direct resources and how do we direct help with that medium- and long-term vision in place?” Thankfully, because of the work that has been happening before, which you have mentioned, and the ReFund America work on the debt crisis, there is a lot more awareness in the US of what is on the island. Nowhere near enough, but it is time to call to question. My hope had been that the financial crisis would be a moment on the island where we would transcend the politics of status. Everything on the island … the political parties are defined by the political status of the island. You are either a statehood or you are a commonwealth person or you are pro-independence. That is the dialogue that has been happening for decades….

The way FEMA normally works just will not work on the island. Also, people don’t have internet or working phones, so they can’t sign up for disaster relief aid.

For example, my father is much more conservative politically than I am. But he has a very keen anti-Wall Street analysis of what has been going on on the island. I think we have an opportunity to unite people on the island across the political spectrum as it exists on the island with regards to status on a message of how Wall Street has screwed the island up to now, and now we have to fight back beyond the partisan divisions on the island. That is what I am hoping — how we can use this opportunity — but I have to say, this is a really, really difficult time. I don’t want to sound like [I’m] completely intellectualizing everything about the island, because it is devastating, what is happening right now.

Yes. Short-term, obviously, people can demand that this administration speed up aid and lift this particular regulation on foreign ships, but is there anything else that people should be thinking about right now?

The way FEMA normally works just will not work on the island. FEMA, when there is a disaster in Texas or Florida, what they do is they free up money, but what it frees up is local municipalities, local governments, counties or cities to put out contracts for private contractors to come in and do debris removal, for example. Then, FEMA reimburses the municipalities. In Puerto Rico, that is not going to work for multiple reasons.

One, in Texas and in Florida, you had people driving from all over the country with trucks. Anybody [that] had this kind of a business could go down and do that. People can’t get to Puerto Rico to do that, A.

Then, B, the municipalities are bankrupt. They are literally bankrupt. They can’t reimburse folks. There is going to have to be an actual complete rethinking of how FEMA works in Puerto Rico for this crisis. I think the immediate call of action for members of Congress is to waive the ban on shipping onto the island, and for very rigorous oversight for how FEMA is working in Puerto Rico so that it is working for Puerto Ricans. I saw a FEMA website where they encourage Puerto Ricans to “follow this link to sing up for disaster relief aid.” People don’t have internet in Puerto Rico. It was like, “Follow this link or if you don’t have internet, call this number.” They also don’t have phones. I read things like that and I just get increasingly panicked that they have no idea what they are doing on the island.

Because Puerto Rico doesn’t have the same kind of representation in the US that other US citizens have, are there any members of Congress who have taken interest in this and could be looked at to be pushing for some sort of solution here?

The members of Congress who are Puerto Rican by descent have obviously led on all kinds of issues. Nydia Velázquez in New York. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez has been particularly good … from a left perspective. For example, he opposed PROMESA. So, looking to his leadership. Then, really, what I would say is that regardless of who you are represented by, people hearing from US citizens on the mainland that they are concerned that US citizens in Puerto Rico are not getting proper assistance is just good in terms of raising the level of alarm in DC about this. I would just say, “Be indiscriminate about talking to your elected representatives about it.”

I want to switch gears a little bit, because there is also some good news this week. You were organizing workers in Target’s backyard. Target announced that it is going to raise its minimum wage across the company to $15 an hour by 2020. Give us a little bit on how that happened and what the workers you represented are feeling right now.

Sure. That is an incredible story. Our work, SEIU 26 and the work of our community partners here in Minnesota has been … we have been a part of the Target story for some years now. For years, we were battling Target. A workers’ center called CTUL here — the Center for Workers United in Struggle — the acronym is in Spanish — for years had a campaign with the retail janitors who clean inside Target stores. The people who clean Target’s corporate offices have been members of SEIU Local 26, my union, for many years and today, they make over $15 an hour….

Target workers in Minneapolis will be reaching the $15 mark before the city ordinance requires Target to do so.

We had a very hostile relationship with Target for many years that eventually just changed. It switched and they decided to take a different approach to us and to organizing. They eventually adopted a responsible contractor policy that resulted in us, SEIU Local 26, organizing the first retail janitorial market in the country. Across the country, SEIU represents commercial office janitors, but the janitors who clean inside stores — the standards are very, very low. Much lower.

Beginning with Target and then moving to Macy’s and other retailers, we have the first master contract that represents hundreds of workers that clean inside retail stores. Since then, our relationship with Target has been one that on local policy issues … they have just taken a different approach than the rest of the business community. When it came to us passing our sick and safe time legislation … their vice president for labor relations was a co-chair of the city committee in Minneapolis that made the recommendation for earned sick and safe time. They just decided basically and they told us, “We are not just going to say ‘no.’ We are going to try to work with the community and figure out what the best thing is for us and the community.” I know from my conversations that happened since their announcement with folks — I know at Target, that this decision actually came pretty quickly. Just this past summer in Minneapolis, we passed a $15 minimum wage. After that, there was a conversation within Target just about what they need to do to be competitive in the job market and took a serious look at a lot of their lowest-paid employees, [which often] have to have second or third jobs, and that might be different if they paid a higher wage. So, they made this announcement.

The ironic thing is that Target workers in Minneapolis will be reaching the $15 mark before the city ordinance requires Target to do so. But the fact that they are doing it nationwide — the vast majority of places are nowhere near that minimum wage — is actually astounding. I hope [that it is] a harbinger for other big companies … to make investments in their workforce so that we can expand this conversation.

I always like to remind people…. There is a debate between politicians now about who gets to take the most credit over $15 an hour. The answer is, “None of you.” Fifteen began as a demand of fast-food workers on their private-sector employer. It later became, in Seattle and elsewhere, a minimum-wage demand. Now, we have the first major Fortune 500 corporation instituting a $15 minimum wage…. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to celebrate victories, and this is a victory people should celebrate. Workers who struck … fast-food workers who went on strike and demanded a $15 wage — people scoffed at them, publicly and in the press, [and] other labor unions would say, “That is a crazy demand.” Now, that has become the standard by which we judge wages in this country. It is just a phenomenal thing and people should think of that when we talk about … the trials and tribulations of the labor movement — and there are many — is just know that workers [are] organizing and fighting on the streets. They dared to dream big and are now changing the world. That is an amazing thing.

On that note, how can people keep up with you and your union and also with the work that is being done around Puerto Rico?

Probably the easiest way to follow me is on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @JaviMorillo and our SEIU 26 handle is @SEIU26. For the work on Puerto Rico, again, is a good place to put resources into base-building work in some of our poorest communities there. For people to really understand the financial crisis, go to ACRE is the Action Center on Race and the Economy. They have a series of white papers, really well-researched work on Wall Street and Puerto Rico. You will learn scary, scary things by going there, but really understand how multifaceted the crisis there is.

That Puerto Rico stuff is scary. I guess the only answer is we are going to have to keep up with it and come up with our version of the “shock doctrine.”

Yes, I think we should have a conference on this. What is our shock doctrine? We know with climate change and such, we are going to be living…. This is catastrophic living, right? So, we should have a plan in place for everything, [should] something like this happen.

Absolutely. Naomi Klein has the LEAP Manifesto in Canada and she has been talking about versions of that elsewhere. But specifically thinking in the wake of these disasters, what do we do? It has been interesting to just watch community organizations like the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] who are like, “Oh. Now we are going to get in touch with people who did Occupy Sandy and we are going to go do this in our community.” That kind of stuff has become replicable, but what the political program is still to be determined.

Exactly. Yes.

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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