Janine Jackson: The New York Times may have meant well with their September 24 editorial headlined “Puerto Rico Is American. We Can’t Ignore It Now,” which called on “all Americans” to rally behind their “fellow citizens” as Puerto Rico faces staggering devastation after hurricanes Maria and Irma.
But there’s something hollow about underscoring the “Americanness” of people who do not in fact have the same rights of US citizenship, and in describing the factors that make the disaster much worse, and harder to address—namely Puerto Rico’s crushing debt and stifled economy—as “persistent agonies,” as though they were endemic conditions which we can only look upon and lament.
With thousands of people lacking water, electricity, fuel, food and homes, the hurricanes created one sort of crisis in Puerto Rico, but they brought another into stark relief. What possible ways forward are there that could address both? Ed Morales is a freelance journalist and poet. He teaches at the Center for Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, and is co-director of the documentary film Whose Barrio? about gentrification in East Harlem. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Ed Morales.
Ed Morales: Hi. Thanks for having me.
JJ: I hardly know where to start. First, I know that you have family in Puerto Rico. You’ve been able to be in touch with them?
EM: Yeah. You know, my closest relative is my mom, and she lives up in the mountains near the rainforest, and I haven’t been able to speak with her directly. But in a kind of freak occurrence, an ex-neighbor of hers who had moved to the town below—I’ve heard that on some of the major highways, you can get cell service, even if you’re not in the metropolitan area—so she called my sister and told her that my mom’s OK, and there was minimal damage to the house. So I assume it was on a good side of the mountain, and was maybe actually protected by one of the sides of the mountain. But that was five days ago, and I’m getting more concerned. And actually, I have tickets to go down next Wednesday to make sure she’s OK.
JJ: Well let’s talk about what’s happening now, and the US government’s response. We understand that Trump has approved a ten-day waiver of the Jones Act, which prohibited ships not made, owned and crewed by US citizens from delivering goods to the island, so it prevented Puerto Rico’s neighbors from bringing aid from Day One. Waiving the Jones Act sounds good for the short term, but I can’t see how that’s sufficient. What do you make of the Trump administration’s response so far?
EM: Well, yeah, definitely sluggish, as are most things that happen with Trump. And it’s hard to tell whether it’s negligence or purposeful. But even just incompetence seems to work for the Trump administration, as we’ve seen. It’s almost part of the plan, governing by chaos and incompetence. The thing with the Jones Act, and the fact that he suspended it temporarily, was probably more because he’s concerned with his image in the media, and it was a bad look.
But, yes, despite the fact that that’s now suspended, the big problem that seems to be prominent now, and it was just reported on CNN and a lot of other places, is there’s a lot of containers of supplies that are actually at the port, which weren’t prevented by the Jones Act, and for varying reasons, like lack of fuel for the trucks to get them out to the countryside, and also lack of drivers, who may be homeless or incommunicado, to actually do the driving of the trucks.
JJ: A number of media have been kind of riffing on how a lot of Americans don’t even known Puerto Rico is part of the US, snicker snicker. But it isn’t really that simple. I mean, the Jones Act, which doesn’t apply to the US Virgin Islands, for example, is just one of the ways that Puerto Rico exists in a strange relationship to mainland US. How is that relationship and Puerto Rico’s status impacting the situation now?
EM: I actually have had trouble with myself insisting on a huge program of redevelopment sponsored by the US government, and actually feeling like it’s necessary for at least some military to show up to help restore infrastructure, because I eventually want the goal of independence, and I don’t want to rely on the US. However, it’s such an incredibly catastrophic situation that supporting this kind of help is absolutely necessary to save people’s lives. And I would prefer to see it as sort of a down payment for reparations in the future, regarding the colonial status of Puerto Rico.
But Puerto Ricans have always had second-class citizenship, as you know. Puerto Ricans on the island can’t vote for president, don’t have representation in Congress. And I think it’s analogous to the second-class citizenship that African-Americans and Native Americans have, the internally colonized have, in the United States. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Colin Kaepernick’s story and this story have a sort of a synergistic relationship. It shows Trump representing the historical white supremacy of the US, facing off between the internal and externally colonized people, who are second-class citizens.
JJ: Pretty much every story about the hurricane mentions the debt. Puerto Rico has some $68 billion in debt. When you hear “debt crisis,” it implies people were living high on the hog and spending beyond their means, and now, as Trump would say, “sadly,” it’s time to pay the piper. What should we know about the debt and the measures taken to address it?
EM: The PROMESA Act passed in a bipartisan way, including some of the more liberal Democratic senators, last year. I’m surprised that people last year were not saying that, well, we’re American citizens, how can they do this to us, because they’re essentially taking away Puerto Ricans’ right to autonomous government on the island. And the same way that Puerto Ricans have a nonvoting representative in Congress—it’s called the resident commissioner, it’s now Jenniffer Gonzalez from the Statehood Party—on the PROMESA board itself, the governor has a nonvoting representative. So even the governor of Puerto Rico just cannot vote in issues that come up before PROMESA. And then PROMESA has to approve all budgetary matters.
That in itself was an abysmal situation, but I think that what’s—I don’t want to say it’s interesting, because it’s an incredible human tragedy what’s going on in Puerto Rico. But the fact that there’s such widespread devastation, first of all, it puts their budgetary plans in absolute uncertainty. The revenues that were supposed to be generated by even the failing economy that was happening there are just—how can you project them? We’re going to have, really, an exodus of a lot of people, there are businesses that are not working. There’s a problem with people receiving Social Security and entitlement checks that’s coming up soon, because banks are not working.
So it’s hard to imagine that there’s any way that the plans about repaying the debt really can move forward at this point. There has to be a huge rebuilding of the island before we can even get back to what PROMESA was thinking about.
JJ: I did want to underscore your point about the anti-democratic nature of the financial oversight board that PROMESA put in place. These are economic decisions that are being made over the heads of people without their participation, and yet it’s certainly the people who are suffering under them.
(Washington Post, 9/22/17)
But going forward, in a Washington Post op-ed, Rutgers professor Yarimar Bonilla recounted a conversation she had had with a wealth manager in Puerto Rico, who was upbeat about the island’s economy. Investments were doing well after Trump’s election, and this person said “the only thing we need now is a hurricane.” It chills the heart to hear that some people see humanitarian disasters as an opportunity for gain, but of course they do. Is that what we possibly are looking at now with Puerto Rico, this disaster capitalism?
EM: Years ago, Naomi Klein related that to what happened in Louisiana with Katrina, and the remark by that person to Yarimar is indicative of, probably, experiences of Home Depot actually having profited from other natural disasters.
JJ: Yeah. So the idea is that some people will see this as almost, as they did with New Orleans, like, oh, now we have a clean slate.
EM: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
JJ: And we can push through a lot of things, including privatization.
EM: Yeah. The thing with New Orleans, and even with all of the recent hurricane disasters in the United States, is that you have these regions that are affected, that are seriously affected, and there’s a considerable area involved. But there are neighboring areas that can absorb some of the population, or send help easily on trucks. And the thing about Puerto Rico is that it’s an incredible scale of devastation that resembles what happened with Barbuda under Irma and other smaller islands, where almost the entire island is devastated. So there’s no stability in any region on the island that can help support recovery efforts.
For instance, Sandy, you know, knocked out a few places in the southern shores of New York City, but the rest of New York City went on. And then the tri-state area was able to help the victims of Sandy. And it’s just not the case in Puerto Rico, as it isn’t in some of those smaller Caribbean islands that were also devastated.
JJ: Right. Well, I’m also reading, again talking about the debt, that there’s concern that the oversight board may channel funds toward recovery efforts that allow bondholders to be paid back, that that will be the priority, or that they will prioritize service to the tourist sector at the expense of the rest of Puerto Rico. Is it your sense or concern that this debt-servicing that seems to be put forward, that that will impact the way recovery happens?
EM: Yeah, I hadn’t heard that, but I’m not surprised at all. And that would be logical, because they would justify it on the grounds that the tourist sector is one of the last remaining viable industries that could be up and running. In fact, I’ve heard reports that some of the hotels are functioning somewhat normally, and you don’t have to go into the countryside, and you can just sit there on the beach and still go swimming. So that’s the problem. You know, there’s many problems. These natural disasters reveal the difference in social classes and the way poor people usually are devastated the worst, and that recovery efforts have continually driven to favor the private sector or monied classes.
Ed Morales in The Nation (9/27/17)
JJ: Well, you might not always see it clearly through media coverage, but there are other possible ways forward. Let’s talk about, as you do in your Nation piece, let’s talk about if we were to apply, I would say humanistic principles, instead of this ideology of private gain, what could happen if we could exert the will? What could happen going forward in Puerto Rico?
EM: Well, when I first wrote the bit about what Roosevelt did, Franklin Roosevelt, for The Nation—in fact, there are these main streets in San Juan that are named after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as a result of those efforts—it felt like, wow, this is so anachronistic to be writing this. I mean, nobody really believes in government providing this massive Keynesian infusion to infrastructure, and creating jobs for people, without worrying about the private sector.
But I wanted to leave it in, because I wanted to point out how maybe even a lot of our leaders, maybe on the moderate left or the Democratic end of the spectrum, are not even suggesting things like this, and would probably feel powerless bringing stuff like this up in Congress, when it’s exactly what is needed. We have a problem in this country about how we devalue that era of American history.
It’s really funny how some of these “make America great again” people, you know—what was the greatest era, at least in the 20th century, in American history was the era of recovering from the Depression, and fighting in the great war that had the moral cause, World War II. And what was happening during that era? There was high taxation of wealthy people, and there were huge government investment programs, and that’s what created the middle class. But there are so many people who don’t remember those things, and that is what’s needed. And I put it out there, and I hope someone takes it seriously. But, frankly, I felt like I was on the fringe, saying something like that.
JJ: I actually have seen a few little glimpses here and there, even in the press. A columnist, Jeff Spross at The Week, had a column in which he said, “Just spend the money necessary to repair Puerto Rico’s society,” and he talked about the government just paying off the debt. $70 billion, he points out, would increase federal spending by 1.8 percent for one year
EM: Uh-huh. And that’s what should have happened instead of PROMESA. But you didn’t see any strong Democratic Party, besides Bernie Sanders, supporting that idea.
JJ: Yeah, and Yarimar Bonilla said in that Washington Post piece that part of the reason that PROMESA was such a non-solution, so short-sighted, was “fear in Washington that the legislation would be viewed as a federal bailout.”
EM: Right, yeah. That’s it. And then you even had Puerto Ricans saying we don’t want a bailout, as if there was something morally wrong with it.
JJ: Right. The disconnect, also, in terms of just money and what it actually means, and I do fault media to some extent for not making these things clear, because you know that people would say, oh, we can’t afford this investment in Puerto Rico, we can’t afford it. And these would be, many of them, the same people who had nothing to say when the Senate voted to increase military spending by $81 billion, to $700 billion. Just the increase is more than the entirety of Puerto Rico’s debt.
JJ: So it’s not really about money.
Let me ask you, what’s the role for the media here? How can it help, how can it hinder? What would you like to see—we know they’re going to be covering it, but what would you like to see that coverage do?
EM: I would like to see an avoidance of gratuitous—I don’t think it’s happened yet, but I think that during the Virgin Islands disasters, there was some gratuitous reporting about looting, which juxtaposed white tourists with people of color, looting stores in the town. I think that this could be a problem, because one of the problems with the military aid that’s coming is that some of that personnel may be used to enforce something like martial law, and there could be sensationalist use of—we don’t even know if we want to call it “looting” if it’s out of necessity, but those kind of activities would be blown out of proportion, to rationalize a continued military presence.
And the other thing is that it’s really important to just use it as a way to not only study what’s happened now, but really find out about Puerto Rico. Because there’s been very little attempt by the media to really find out what Puerto Rico is about, how it’s a really interesting juxtaposition between a vital, cosmopolitan urban center and some amazing rustic, folkloric communities that keep the notion of the culture alive, and actually engage in subsistence farming in some cases. And all under, you know, supposedly under the US flag.
And, again, I think that the media really needs to report, as I mentioned before, is the magnitude of the crisis, because almost the entire island is affected. And I think most of the time, when people see reports, they say, oh, well, surely this is just some areas that are deeply affected, and others are not, but—and I think that should be done, to really emphasize the magnitude of the problem.
JJ: And then, we have seen media being critical of Trump and his tweets, and his tweet about the debt in this context. But it was kind of as though, this isn’t the moment to mention that, as though it’s just sort of unseemly. But there’s going to be reporting on the debt as well. And you do talk about what might happen, what should happen or could happen, with that debt in The Nation piece. What are your thoughts about that?
EM: The problem is that it’s bigger than Trump and his narrow-minded politics, or even just the greed of our system. One of the Achilles’ heels of the global capitalist system now is that the financial sector has been overused in terms of generating profit, and so the municipal bond market is almost as important as the oil economy for the world, in terms of generating profits. And so if the government doesn’t quote unquote “bail out” Puerto Rico, there’s going to be a serious destabilization of the bond market, and that might alarm the Trumps’ Wall Street friends.
So I think that it’s a little bit beyond just how we perceive Trump as sort of racist and neglectful. This really has the potential of creating a situation like we had in 2008, a real destabilizing situation in the world economy. That’s why these battles were fought so hard in Argentina and Greece. But Argentina and Greece did not undergo this unbelievable cataclysmic atmospheric event that virtually decimated any kind of productive activity, the way it is now in Puerto Rico.
JJ: It’s hard to think of looking at the situation and thinking what it calls for is more austerity, and yet that seems to be the kind of automatic response.
EM: Yeah. But it’s kind of untenable. I mean, it’s going to be fascinating to watch. It’s like imposing austerity on someone who is on their deathbed.
JJ: Well, and as you say, interesting, and I’ll let you go, but I think it is interesting in the sense that it seems to be kind of a “which side are you on.” It does seem like a moment where we have a choice to make about how we’re going to go forward—a big-picture choice of how we’re going to respond to events like this. Because we certainly know, with climate disruption, this is not the last time, this is not the last we’re going to see of it. And so we’re going to be confronting these same questions again and again, and we have an opportunity to maybe do something different.
Ed Morales: “These policies of government neglect, of private sector-only, and increasing climate disasters, are going to create Hurricane Marias in pockets of the First World, and some people are going to be left behind.” (image: C-SPAN)
EM: Yeah, that’s how I try to wind up my Nation piece, which was talking about Puerto Rico being a mirror of America’s potential dystopic future, and hoping that in the mainland, people realize that it may not be now, it may be 10 or 20 or 30 or 40, 50 years, but this could be their future. These policies of government neglect, of private sector-only, and increasing climate disasters, are going to create Hurricane Marias in pockets of the First World, and some people are going to be left behind.
What happened in Sandy? People with the fewest resources had to pack up and leave, and the same with Katrina, people became refugees. And that’s another big problem going on in Puerto Rico now, is people who have been forced from their homes, and where are those people going to go?
JJ: We’ve been speaking with writer Ed Morales. His article, “Puerto Rico Needs Massive Emergency Aid Now—and an End to Austerity,” appears in the most recent issue of The Nation. You can also find his work online at EdMorales.net. Ed Morales, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
EM: Thanks for having me. I hope we have better news soon.
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