As We Celebrate “Independence,” Remember That the U.S. Left Its Colony Puerto Rico to Die

The disastrous impacts of Hurricane Maria were made by inequalities of race, income and access to U.S. political power.

Basav Sen July 3, 2018

A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Res­i­dents of Puer­to Rico are con­fronting the prospect of a fresh hur­ri­cane sea­son, which will like­ly bring five to nine hur­ri­canes, includ­ing one to four major hur­ri­canes. The island, bad­ly bat­tered by last year’s Hur­ri­cane Maria, still has­n’t recov­ered. We con­tin­ue to learn more about how dire the dis­as­ter has been.

This vicious cycle—in which racial, economic, and other forms of inequality are both a cause and a consequence of environmental devastation—needs to be broken with powerful movements that confront the systemic roots of these inequalities.

A recent aca­d­e­m­ic study showed that the death toll from Maria was like­ly about 4,700 — or more than 70 times the offi­cial” count of 64. This was no mere nat­ur­al” dis­as­ter. The impacts of Hur­ri­cane Maria were to a large extent attrib­ut­able to inequal­i­ties of race, income and — crit­i­cal­ly — access to polit­i­cal power.

The major­i­ty of deaths in Puer­to Rico weren’t from peo­ple being hit by fly­ing debris or drown­ing in floods. The largest num­ber of deaths occurred because hos­pi­tals and clin­ics lost pow­er, ren­der­ing them unable to pro­vide treat­ment to crit­i­cal­ly ill patients. Oth­ers died because water treat­ment facil­i­ties shut down, increas­ing the risk of poten­tial­ly fatal water­borne diseases.

This sit­u­a­tion per­sist­ed for unac­cept­ably long. Only 43 per­cent of the island’s res­i­dents had access to elec­tric­i­ty even two months after the hur­ri­cane — bare­ly half the glob­al aver­age. That’s on par with the 41 per­cent share in Benin, and con­sid­er­ably less than the 76 per­cent share in Bangladesh.

In one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world, then, access to elec­tric­i­ty fell to the lev­el of some of the world’s poor­est coun­tries. Even today, thou­sands of Puer­to Ricans remain with­out elec­tric­i­ty.

Puer­to Rico is a 99 per­cent Lat­inx island. Its 43.5 per­cent pover­ty rate is near­ly 3.5 times the nation­al aver­age, and its medi­an house­hold income is bare­ly one-third of the U.S. medi­an. Can we stop pre­tend­ing these facts had noth­ing to do with the scale of the dis­as­ter and the inept offi­cial response to it?

Turns out, it wasn’t just the after­math of the storm, but what came before.

The delay in restor­ing elec­tric­i­ty was part­ly because the island’s grid hadn’t been main­tained over a decade-long reces­sion—a cri­sis wors­ened by Wash­ing­ton-imposed aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies that pri­or­i­tize loan repay­ments over the needs of Puer­to Ricans. The hur­ri­cane lift­ed the veil on the pre-exist­ing cri­sis,” says Jesús Vázquez of Orga­ni­zación Boricuá, a Puer­to Rican food sov­er­eign­ty orga­ni­za­tion. But we knew it was there, because we were liv­ing it constantly.”

Puer­to Rico is effec­tive­ly a U.S. colony, with no rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Con­gress. Philip Alston, the UN’s Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Extreme Pover­ty who recent­ly toured the Unit­ed States, explic­it­ly linked the ter­ri­to­ry’s eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion to its colo­nial sta­tus. Polit­i­cal rights and pover­ty are inex­tri­ca­bly linked in Puer­to Rico,” he said. In a coun­try that likes to see itself as the old­est democ­ra­cy in the world and a staunch defend­er of polit­i­cal rights on the inter­na­tion­al stage, more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple who live on the island have no pow­er in their own capital.”

This isn’t the first time the UN has paid atten­tion to U.S. colo­nial­ism in Puer­to Rico, either. It holds hear­ings on decol­o­niza­tion of Puer­to Rico every year and pro­duces lengthy reports. The Unit­ed States doesn’t both­er to attend the hear­ings, blow­ing one off as recent­ly as this month.

What of the storm itself? The inten­si­ty and fre­quen­cy of hur­ri­canes are increas­ing because our economy’s addic­tion to burn­ing coal, oil, and gas is warm­ing our world. Sci­en­tists have warned about this for decades, but our polit­i­cal lead­er­ship has failed to act.

Every activ­i­ty of the fos­sil fuel indus­try—pro­duc­tion, trans­porta­tion, pro­cess­ing, com­bus­tion and waste dis­pos­al—is dirty and dan­ger­ous. Expo­sure to these haz­ards and their con­se­quences fall across strik­ing race and income dis­par­i­ties every­where in the U.S. and world­wide.

It’s a prob­lem that infects the main­land, too. From res­i­dents of the 95 per­cent Black town of Port Arthur, Texas, who con­front extra­or­di­nar­i­ly high can­cer rates because of oil refin­ery pol­lu­tion, to the Indige­nous Alaskan vil­lages at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing because of sea lev­el rise, poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly bear the costs of our unhealthy addic­tion to fos­sil fuels. And the con­se­quences of cli­mate change are expect­ed to make pover­ty and inequal­i­ty worse.

Our unequal polit­i­cal sys­tem places greater val­ue on the prof­its of pol­luters than on the basic needs, or even the lives, of most of human­i­ty. Our polit­i­cal lead­er­ship gets away with this immoral cal­cu­lus because of the sys­tem­at­ic dis­en­fran­chise­ment of vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple at the bot­tom and legal­ly sanc­tioned bribery at the top.

This vicious cycle — in which racial, eco­nom­ic, and oth­er forms of inequal­i­ty are both a cause and a con­se­quence of envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion — needs to be bro­ken with pow­er­ful move­ments that con­front the sys­temic roots of these inequalities. 

The great news is that these move­ments are hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple in Puer­to Rico and in the Puer­to Rican dias­po­ra in places like New York have been demand­ing a just recov­ery led by Puer­to Ricans and for the ben­e­fit of all Puer­to Ricans, and work­ing to build com­mu­ni­ty resilience from the ground up.

Here on the main­land, affect­ed com­mu­ni­ties includ­ing Indige­nous peo­ples are at the fore­front of resis­tance to pol­lut­ing fos­sil fuel infra­struc­ture in Min­neso­ta, Louisiana, and else­where. Indeed, short­ly after the lat­est death toll fig­ures in Puer­to Rico were released, thou­sands marched on state cap­i­tals across the coun­try, demand­ing solu­tions to pover­ty and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice as part of the new Poor Peo­ple’s Campaign.

For Puer­to Ricans brac­ing them­selves for more storms and black­outs this sum­mer, Pacif­ic Islanders watch­ing ris­ing seas drown­ing their home­lands, and count­less oth­er mar­gin­al­ized peo­ples in the Unit­ed States and world­wide pay­ing the price for our dirty ener­gy and eco­nom­ic sys­tems, these move­ments could­n’t come sooner.

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Basav Sen is the cli­mate jus­tice project direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (IPS) and writes on the inter­sec­tions of cli­mate change and social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Pri­or to join­ing IPS, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.
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