Kneeling for La Borinqueña

My city is likely to receive a bounty from the hurricane that trashed Puerto Rico. Hartford is home to tens of thousands of people with roots in the island culture. Over the coming days and weeks we should expect many hurricane evacuees to arrive here, where they can find friends and relatives. People from the Caribbean have enriched our city in my lifetime, and a wave of new arrivals is an occasion. Let’s hope our community can come up with a coherent strategy to accommodate them.

In the wake of the hurricane,you might have expected our national government to be at work on a coherent strategy for Puerto Rico. We hear that “the island” borrowed billions of dollars and can’t pay them back. To judge from published reports, the money didn’t go to “the island” or to most of its residents. Rather, it seems to have ended up in the pockets of rich people, who got richer in proportion to the money that was advanced. Poor people got poorer, but they’re the ones whose pockets will be emptied to pay the money back. No coherent strategy has been suggested  to deal with that situation.

Even though it’s part of the USA and its residents are American citizens by birthright, Puerto Rico is administered as a colonial possession. It’s subject to special federal laws that facilitate the exploitation of labor and natural resources for private profit. For a hundred and some years, capitalists have seen to it that the status of most islanders hovers slightly above that of livestock. Roads, bridges, utilities, schools, and public amenities of every kind are denied proper maintenance, making the entire infrastructure delicate and vulnerable to destructive weather.

Don’t look for a coherent strategy to deal with destructive weather. With the island reeling from two storms in quick succession, causing unprecedented damage, you might expect some suggestions for what to do when the next one strikes. Because forecasters say it will. I haven’t heard a thing. It appears that some residential neighborhoods at low elevations will have to be abandoned permanently. What will happen to the people who lived there isn’t discussed. By anybody. How and when normal commerce will be restored is anyone’s guess, and we hear no plan of action from any source. Here’s a place that ought to be a tropical paradise, and yet its future is bleak. Why?

Some think the problem is political. Puerto Rico isn’t a sovereign but a possession of the US government. Public policy for Puerto Rico is made not in San Juan but in Washington, DC. Given a chance, the people of Puerto Rico might achieve a better state of preparedness than the coalition of bureaucrats and businessmen that govern today and that have failed the people so grievously. This compact island could be generating electric power to a modern grid entirely with inexhaustible solar and tidal resources, if only the oil and gas industry were willing to give up the island’s lucrative market. It’s an island with ample high ground and no system to relocate people threatened regularly by flooding, which is predicted to get worse with each passing year.

Puerto Ricans will probably achieve some sort of equilibrium as they cope with the devastation. Many will leave the island. Many who are here on the mainland now will find ways to aid those who remain. Government and the mass media will almost certainly hinder efforts at recovery, as they maneuver to create opportunities for rich people to profit from the disaster. Because of the corruption of these institutions, Americans have no reliable knowledge of what sort of future Puerto Ricans want or need, further impeding progress. In places like Hartford, support for the recovery will be strong across all segments of the public, but Puerto Rico will soon be forgotten by most Americans. The resolve and resourcefullness of its people will determine the island’s future.

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