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We Saw Puerto Rico’s Struggle to Survive

Major institutions have failed it, but Puerto Ricans are reuniting the social fabric.

Almost two months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island is adjusting to a new reality.

As one activist we met put it, Hurricane Maria ripped the leaves off the trees — and also ripped away the thin veil that barely concealed widespread poverty and immiseration.

The first few weeks after the storm were a period in which people worked just to ensure the safety of their families, comrades and loved ones, using alternative methods of communication to reach people in different areas. With very little support from the government, people pooled their resources to clean out their homes and try to salvage what was salvageable.

As of mid-November, about two-thirds of the island’s residents remained without electricity. Although authorities are promising to restore power to 95 percent of residents by mid-December, attempts to repair the electrical grid have already run into many problems and breakdowns.

As a result, many people must rely on power generators for electricity, polluting the air with sound and exhaust. Without reliable electricity, people struggle to preserve and cook food, clean their clothing and keep desperately needed medicine such as insulin.

While 75 percent of the island reportedly had running water as this article was being written, people still line up for hours for bottled water — because it’s suspected that water from the tap isn’t safe to drink in the wake of the storm. In the Rio Piedras area of San Juan, the tap water ran blue as it flowed from faucets, according to residents.

What You Can Do

New Yorkers can hear from Monique Dols and others who have traveled to Puerto Rico at a forum on From Devastation to Solidarity: Building a Movement that Stands With Puerto Rico. Wednesday, November 29, 6:30 p.m., City College of New York, North Academic Building (NAC) Ballroom, 160 Convent Ave.

Shortages of certain products roll through at different moments, creating spikes in prices. For example, right before we arrived, there was a shortage of mosquito repellant, which is now a necessity on the island.

The informal death toll is now around 900, but is likely more since communication is still spotty, reporting is low, and the medical system is still in a state of crisis.

Yet despite this latter crisis, the US Navy medical ship, the USS Comfort — which, when we were there, was anchored in San Juan’s port where cruise ships usually dock — is woefully underserving the sick people of Puerto Rico.

With doctors at Centro Médico in San Juan, the main hospital for the island, still operating by flashlight at times, many people wanted to know what you had to do to get admitted to the USS Comfort. The authorities had set up a couple of tents on the promenade next to the dock, and we saw dozens of people — some with walkers or oxygen tanks — lining up in the sweltering heat, presumably seeking treatment.

The common understanding on the island is that the local and federal governments have completely abandoned ordinary Puerto Ricans.


The situation in Puerto Rico today is the result multiple disasters that compounded the consequences for residents.

First, there was the severity of the hurricane itself. “It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw,” Jeff Weber, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Vox.

The hurricane affected those in charge of emergency response along with everyone else. Without means of communication and electricity and supplies of diesel cut off, they couldn’t distribute the needed relief.

Then there are the failures of FEMA and the island government due to their political priorities.

FEMA initially distributed aid through the island’s 78 municipalities. This led to posturing, with politicians using aid distribution as an opportunity for photo ops and favoritism, with supplies directed to their bases of electoral support.

To top it off, the FEMA relief packages were insultingly meager and inadequate. They included small quantities of water, as well as junk food and candy. “They just kept throwing Spam at us,” an activist who works in the Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo in Mariana, a small barrio in Humacao on the east coast of the island, told us.

But even before these packages were distributed, FEMA infamously went from town to town distributing… forms for residents to fill out. The agency even urged people to file their claims online — when most of the island had no electricity or cell service!

The US Army Corps of Engineers is also embroiled in a controversy on the island because for weeks after the hurricane, its “blue top” program — which is supposed to get tarps covering ruined roofs — has been woefully slow and bureaucratic.

Dozens of scandals lie right below the surface. Puerto Ricans know about them, but they haven’t been widely reported in the US press.

For example, several days after the hurricane struck officials in Toa Baja, a municipality west of San Juan on the north coast, decided to open floodgates in order to “prevent worse flooding.”

The New York Times reported that people simply didn’t listen to evacuation orders before the order was carried out. But one friend in San Juan told us a different story: the flood alarms didn’t work.

In a local news segment, the official in charge admitted to, as our friend put it, “criminal negligence and federal fraud” — stating in the same breath that the alarm system wasn’t functional and that it had been certified by the federal government as capable of alerting people to the arrival of a tsunami.

Similarly, the federal government continues to deny that Puerto Rico has suffered any problem related to leptospirosis, a treatable disease spread through contaminated water. Though there are dozens of cases confirmed by medical workers, they haven’t been “officially” categorized as an outbreak or an epidemic.

It’s the same with tallying the death toll from the hurricane. Authorities prefer to count casualties according to their immediate causes, such as heat stroke, rather than to their hurricane-related social causes, such as lack of air conditioning.


The Puerto Rican people received a bit of good news when Gov. Ricardo Roselló was forced to cancel a $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings in late October.

The two-employee Montana-based firm — whose CEO is a friend of Interior Secretary Ryan Zincke and whose main investor is a Trump donor — raised eyebrows when it landed a no-bid contract to help restore the electrical grid only a few days after the hurricane struck. When a Washington Post report raised questions about the contract, Roselló — who had earlier defended the contract with the island’s public electrical utility — was forced to do an about-face.

The Whitefish contract might be the most obvious example of corruption, nepotism and profiteering off Puerto Rico’s tragedy, but it’s far from the most significant.

In fact, the completely “legal” privatization and profiteering in the wake of the crisis is well underway.

The Army Corps of Engineers — like FEMA, it seems, acting as a broker for private contractors — marked up a deal with Fluor Corporation, the Texas-based multinational engineering and construction firm, from $200 billion to $840 billion for work restoring the power grid.

With the likes of Whitefish out of the way, the “big fish” can move in — and rebuild a grid that will then be sold off to private investors, according to the longstanding plans of the current Puerto Rican government and the seven-member Fiscal Control Board imposed by the US Congress.

Another major target for the privatizers is the more than 1,000 public schools on the island.

The Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), the more socially conscious of the two main teachers’ unions, is one of the only forces we witnessed firsthand organizing against the government’s privatization schemes.

The FMPR is drawing the connection between the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — which gave the state of Louisiana the opportunity to close all of New Orleans’ schools and reopen them as charters — and Maria today.

Puerto Rican Education Secretary Julia Keleher has made little secret of wanting to use the crisis to change the pre-hurricane “status quo,” adopting the language of school closers and privatizers in the US But the FMPR is directly challenging the school closings — pressuring the local government to reopen ones that are safe for children to attend.


Because of the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, federal neglect after the hurricane and the already dire state of the economy infrastructure before Maria, the post-hurricane crisis promises to be more drawn out even than in places like New Orleans.

This could result in a situation that deteriorates very suddenly. Mass disease outbreaks are an ever-present threat, contributing to an extreme degree of instability that could go in any number of directions.

Already, stories are circulating by word of mouth — like people taking what they needed from a Walgreens before burning it to the ground — an example of what is to come if there isn’t a drastic change for the better.

The common-sense feeling is that people can’t rely on the government in a moment of crisis, and so they must organize themselves to make a terrible situation a bit better.

Everywhere we went, we met people who had lost everything, but were working against the school closings and for mutual aid. A slogan heard around the mutual aid centers that have arisen in different towns and cities captures that spirit: “Because we aren’t rich, a collective response makes us rich.”

People routinely pool their resources to meet the needs of larger numbers of people. A comrade who lives in a cooperative apartment building in San Juan told us that residents generate power for a collective refrigerator to make sure that everyone’s basic food and medicinal needs are met.

The sense among many people with whom we spoke is that getting together to break out of social isolation and working together to meet people’s needs is a form of collective therapy and a part of the process of rebuilding solidarity from below.

In Caguas, south of San Juan, comrades from the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo pointed out that since people can’t cook at home on their electric stoves, they bring the food they get with their food stamps to the CAM as a donation — where it is shared out at communal meals serving hundreds.

The CAM slogan of “I can’t eat austerity! I cook dignity!” has struck a chord. The crisis has led to a growth in the idea of self-organization from below.


Despite this instinctive spirit of solidarity, a resistance to government and colonial indifference and private profiteering will take some time to develop, just because of the scale of the crisis.

A comrade from the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST, or Socialist Workers Movement) described, for example, how the group’s first priority right after the hurricane had to be accounting for all of its members and allies, and helping each other clean up from the storm and get basic needs met.

In spite of the difficulties, though, comrades we met were part of organizing some small but important initiatives.

For example, the MST organized a small protest when Donald Trump came to town, raising the slogan “People Before Debt!” The Colectiva Feminista en Construcción protested the army’s inefficient distribution of relief, demanding “More water, less militarization.”

And the FMPR organized teachers and families for important protests and press conferences to keep schools open. We attended the union’s protest at the Padre Rufo School in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. The school was opened the next week, proving yet again that protest and solidarity work!

While on a solidarity brigade with the FMPR, we visited a school in Guaynabo, the mountainous area outside of San Juan. At the somber meeting of teachers at the Escuela Rafael Hernandez — many of whom had lost everything in the storm — the educators discussed how to organize to get their school reopened, weighing and debating the risks involved in engaging in a struggle.

After several weeks of organizing families and teachers to engage in direct action at the offices of officials responsible for the decision, along with protests and interviews with the press, the school — one of the last in the area, so its closure would have been deeply felt — reopened!

Socialists reported an opening to socialist ideas and organizing outside of the two main political parties: the Partido Popular Democratico (the pro-commonwealth PPD, aligned with the Democrats, and the party of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz) and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (the pro-statehood PNP, currently led by Gov. Ricardo Roselló).

Most people we met with described a left in Puerto Rico that had, even before the hurricane, struggled to find its feet and orientation in the face of a grave economic crisis that has disorganized many people’s lives.

The unelected Fiscal Control Board, established under the 2016 federal law titled the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), has devastated the island by intensifying neoliberal policies of privatization and austerity.


To this point, the working class has been unable to launch the kind of resistance needed to stop privatization and force debt relief. After the hurricane, this dynamic is even more pronounced.

Almost all members of the left that we met pointed to 2008 as a turning point. Faced with harsh anti-union and anti-public education demands, the FMPR launched an island-wide strike that suffered a bitter defeat, leaving the union open to a government-sponsored decertification under newly passed labor legislation.

The result was the decimation of the island’s most militant and socially conscious labor union. In subsequent elections, the Associación de Maestros (Teachers Association), a more conservative organization affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in the US, displaced the FMPR as the sole representative of the teachers.

The FMPR has attempted to win back representation, but has been unable to. The organization has shrunk from a membership of 40,000 in 2008 to 3,000 today, according to FMPR President Mercedes Martinez.

The FMPR continues to be a key organization with Puerto Rico’s social movements, but it has lost much of its social weight.

The weakening of the FMPR reinforced sectional, business-unionist tendencies in the rest of the labor movement. Labor has faced a decline based on a series of anti-union laws, mass layoffs, austerity measures, shifts in the economy and the exit of thousands of workers to the US during the recession that has gripped the island since 2006.

All the comrades we met pointed to the weakness of the labor movement as a central reason why, as yet, there has not been a broader political movement or protest against the local or federal governments following Maria.

Due to the uncertainty and volatility of the situation, struggles may break out in any number of arenas. Yet all the activists we talked to realize they are up against powerful forces — like the US military and Wall Street’s richest firms, to name two — that will not be easily dislodged from pushing through austerity.

For that reason, all asked for solidarity and support from the US Comrades from the Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (PPT, or the Working People’s Party) stressed that political solidarity in the US will be crucial over the next few months.

Specifically, they asked that US organizations standing in solidarity with Puerto Rico organize around the follow demands: Billions from Congress to help in the reconstruction of the island; cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt; and the repeal of PROMESA and its austerity agenda.

These are demands we think anyone concerned with justice and democracy should enthusiastically endorse.

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