The people of Puerto Rico, who were ravaged by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria two weeks ago, are in their 13th day without any power, remain largely without cell service, and are fighting for their lives without adequate food or water. The island is so low on Donald Trump’s list of priorities that he publicly criticized San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz for asking for federal aid and hadn’t bother visiting until Tuesday. After initially refusing to waive the Jones Act, a decades-old shipping law that severely restricts trade and commerce to Puerto Rico, Trump lifted the shipping restrictions for a 10-day window; a blip compared to the years it will take for Puerto Rico to recover. The underwhelming response is a stark contrast to the government’s reaction to recent natural disasters in Texas and Florida.
On this week’s Big Time Dicks, Splinter’s Katie McDonough and I talk to Dr. Yarimar Bonilla, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, about the specific policy decisions and economic conditions that have exacerbated the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, and why federal funding alone won’t be enough for its recovery.
Puerto Rico has suffered from an economic recession for the past decade, and US policies continue to cut the island off, economically and politically, from the mainland. “This environmental crisis is coming in the wake of an already-existing economic crisis,” she said, explaining that an influx of money now is very likely to be siphoned to contractors and private companies—like hotels that house FEMA workers, or construction firms—and may not make its way to people who are struggling to find food and shelter every day.
“One could be optimistic and think, ‘Oh, that will help resolve a lot of Puerto Rico’s problems overall, but the truth is, as we’ve seen in the past, the kind of economic problems that these societies face are usually not resolved with these influx of funds,” she explained. “If anything, socioeconomic divisions are sharpened. We saw this, for example, in new Orleans after Katrina, when a lot of folks were displaces from their homes. Public services such as public education were gutted. And so we can imagine the same thing is going to happen in Puerto Rico.”
“It’s important to remember what, exactly, Puerto Ricans have gone through. They’ve gone through two back-to-back hurricanes, the experience of surviving these storms is in of itself a traumatic event,” she continued. “They were in their house for hours with something that is akin to a tornado, a tsunami, and an earthquake all wrapped into one. And so, after that traumatic experience, they’ve all gone for more than a week without running water and basic services.”
What will help? Donating to local grassroots organizations who directly support the local community, and putting political pressure on Congress to repeal the Jones Act and to represent the interests of Puerto Ricans. “It’s important for people in the mainland US to tell their politicians that Puerto Rico matters to them, because Puerto Ricans don’t have representation in Congress,” Bonilla said. “They’re nobody’s constituents.”
“It’s really up to people in the mainland US to tell the politicians that are supposed to respond to them and listen to them, to tell them that Puerto Rico is an important issue for them as well,” she said.
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