The Left Needs Its Own Shock Doctrine for Puerto Rico

Sarah Jaffe September 28, 2017

A vehicle drives through streets filled with floodwater near destroyed homes from Hurricane Maria in this aerial photograph taken above Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. We’re now sev­er­al months into the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, and activists have scored some impor­tant vic­to­ries in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many peo­ple, the ques­tion of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, agi­ta­tors and edu­ca­tors — not only about how to resist, but how to build a bet­ter world.

Javier Moril­lo: My name is Javier Moril­lo, and I live in Min­neso­ta. I am the pres­i­dent of Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 26, and I am orig­i­nal­ly from Puer­to Rico. That is where I grew up.

Sarah Jaffe: Things were not great in Puer­to Rico before the hur­ri­cane flat­tened it. Give us a lit­tle back­ground on the so-called debt cri­sis,” the PROME­SA bill and U.S.-imposed aus­ter­i­ty in Puer­to Rico.

Javier: The sit­u­a­tion was so pre­car­i­ous before the hur­ri­cane hit, and it was pre­car­i­ous for com­plete­ly human-made rea­sons. Puer­to Rico is in a debt cri­sis. When Don­ald Trump final­ly start­ed tweet­ing about Puer­to Rico, he men­tioned the debt twice.

I think your read­ers are famil­iar with the fore­clo­sure cri­sis and how that was caused by Wall Street’s preda­to­ry loans. It was a very sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in Puer­to Rico. Munic­i­pal bonds in Puer­to Rico are triple tax free. That means there are no local, state or fed­er­al tax­es on them, so they are very attrac­tive to a lot of investors. Wall Street, Gold­man Sachs and the invest­ment firms had been push­ing investors to buy these. Because of Puer­to Rico’s colo­nial sta­tus, Puer­to Rican munic­i­pal­i­ties can­not declare bank­rupt­cy. They were, essen­tial­ly, bet­ting on the island’s inabil­i­ty to pay-and that is what happened.

Then, what made things worse was that, in 2016, Con­gress passed the PROME­SA bill. It is the Puer­to Rico Over­sight Man­age­ment Eco­nom­ic Sta­bil­i­ty Act. In the grand tra­di­tion of Con­gress giv­ing acronyms that mean the oppo­site of what they do, prome­sa” means promise” in Span­ish. One of my con­gress­men here in Min­neso­ta is Kei­th Elli­son, a pro­gres­sive stal­wart. He is on the Finan­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, a won­der­ful ally. I spoke with him quite a bit about this. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion pitched PROME­SA by argu­ing that the bill is the only thing that can res­cue the island. It sets up the Finan­cial Over­sight Board, which has been impos­ing austerity.

The thing to do at that moment, rather than pass PROME­SA, was to default: real­ly call the colo­nial ques­tion and point out that Puer­to Rican munic­i­pal­i­ties can­not declare bankruptcy.

Instead, they have been impos­ing aus­ter­i­ty. There is an unelect­ed jun­ta. It is called an over­sight board in Eng­lish, but peo­ple on the island refer to it as the jun­ta, which I think is more appro­pri­ate. We should all call it that, because it sounds like the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships of Latin Amer­i­ca, and that is essen­tial­ly what it is like. The gov­er­nor has to sub­mit to the jun­ta, and they are impos­ing austerity.

At the cen­ter of the debt cri­sis is the elec­tric power com­pa­ny. The hur­ri­cane has knocked out pow­er over the whole island and, on top of that, this is a util­i­ty com­pa­ny that last year was lit­er­al­ly cut­ting off the elec­tric­i­ty in hos­pi­tals and endan­ger­ing the lives of peo­ple because the hos­pi­tals were in debt to them. And they are in debt to Wall Street creditors.

Sarah: Before we dig into what can be done, what are you hear­ing from peo­ple on the ground in Puer­to Rico right now, after the hur­ri­cane? It looks Puer­to Rico could be with­out pow­er for months. Trump seems like he is in no hur­ry to do any­thing. And a lot of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States don’t even seem to real­ize that Puer­to Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Javier: My par­ents are on the island. For the first few days after the hur­ri­cane, it was near impos­si­ble to get in touch with any­one. I had spo­radic texts and con­tact. I was just able to speak to my par­ents in the last cou­ple of days on the phone. They were pre­pared for the worst. Based on what I am hear­ing, it feels worse than any­thing any­one could have imag­ined. There is no pow­er any­where. I com­mu­ni­cate with my sis­ter through What­sApp or text when she has a sig­nal. She is ask­ing us to send her news sto­ries, because they have such lit­tle access to the media. They have no pow­er. I am frankly terrified.

A cou­ple of days ago, the gov­er­nor of Puer­to Rico had a press con­fer­ence where he was giv­ing a pret­ty pos­i­tive face to every­thing that was hap­pen­ing. But he also men­tioned that there were eight munic­i­pal­i­ties that they had not had any con­tact with, at least as of two days ago. The island is 100 miles by 35 miles. It is a very small island. When I hear that eight munic­i­pal­i­ties have no con­tact with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, that sounds very sus­pi­cious and terrifying.

Sarah: Before the hur­ri­cane, you were involved in orga­niz­ing around PROME­SA and the debt cri­sis. Look­ing at this now, peo­ple are orga­niz­ing to call Con­gress just to say, Get them some aid.” But what are the short, medi­um and long-term goals for pres­sure on this administration?

Javier: I have been think­ing about this a lot. One of the things I am real­ly strug­gling with right now is that we don’t have a pro­gres­sive or a Left shock doc­trine, as Nao­mi Klein calls it. The Right has a pro­gram in place for how to take advan­tage of moments like this. When you look at what the jun­ta has done and every­thing else, this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the wealthy 1 per­cent of the Unit­ed States and world to make Puer­to Rico into a play­ground the way Cuba was in the 1940s and 1950s for the U.S. rich. I am ter­ri­fied we will have an island of Puer­to Rico with­out Puer­to Ricans.

To me, the ques­tion is: What do we do in the short and medi­um term that offers some sem­blance of a shock doc­trine for our side? If we are going to rebuild Puer­to Rico, how do we do it in a way that is right for the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico? I have to weigh that with the very imme­di­ate con­cern of need­ing to get car­go con­tain­ers with food and neces­si­ties that peo­ple have. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I don’t have a very good answer for how we meet the short-term need a way that sets up for the future.

There are orga­niz­ers on the ground. One affil­i­at­ed with the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy in the Unit­ed States, which has set up a fund. It is Mari​a​Fund​.org. They have been doing base-build­ing work on the island for some time, espe­cial­ly in the poor­er areas and the coastal areas that have been dev­as­tat­ed by Irma and now Maria. That is who I have been encour­ag­ing peo­ple to donate mon­ey to, because I trust the work they do. It is direct­ed at social trans­for­ma­tion on the island, with a focus on the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and the com­mu­ni­ties of African descent on the island.

My hope had been that the finan­cial cri­sis would be a moment on the island when we would tran­scend the pol­i­tics of sta­tus. Every­thing on the island, includ­ing mem­bers of the polit­i­cal par­ties, is defined by the polit­i­cal sta­tus of the island. You are either a state­hood per­son, a com­mon­wealth per­son, or a pro-inde­pen­dence per­son. That is the dia­logue that has been hap­pen­ing for decades.

My father is much more con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal­ly than I am. But he has a very keen anti-Wall Street analy­sis of what has been hap­pen­ing on the island. I think we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to unite peo­ple on the island across the polit­i­cal spec­trum with regards to sta­tus, on a mes­sage of how Wall Street has screwed the island until now. And now we have to fight back beyond the par­ti­san divi­sions on the island.

Sarah: Is there any­thing else that peo­ple should be think­ing about right now?

Javier: The way FEMA nor­mal­ly works just will not work on the island. When there is a dis­as­ter in Texas or Flori­da, FEMA frees up mon­ey. But what it frees up is local munic­i­pal­i­ties, local gov­ern­ments, coun­ties or cities to put out con­tracts for pri­vate con­trac­tors to come in and remove debris, for exam­ple. Then, FEMA reim­burs­es the munic­i­pal­i­ties. In Puer­to Rico, that is not going to work for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. In Texas and in Flori­da, you had peo­ple dri­ving from all over the coun­try with trucks. Any­body who had this kind of a busi­ness could go down and do that. Peo­ple can’t get to Puer­to Rico to do that.

Fur­ther­more, the munic­i­pal­i­ties are bank­rupt. They are lit­er­al­ly bank­rupt. They can’t reim­burse folks. There is going to have to be an actu­al com­plete rethink­ing of how FEMA works in Puer­to Rico for this crisis.

Sarah: Because Puer­to Rico doesn’t have the same kind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Unit­ed States that oth­er U.S. cit­i­zens have, are there any mem­bers of Con­gress who have tak­en inter­est in this and could be looked at to be push­ing for some sort of solu­tion here?

Javier: The mem­bers of con­gress who are Puer­to Rican by descent have obvi­ous­ly led on all kinds of issues. There is Nydia Velazquez in New York. Con­gress­man Luis Gutier­rez has been par­tic­u­lar­ly good from a pro­gres­sive, left per­spec­tive. For exam­ple, he opposed PROME­SA. So we are look­ing to his leadership.

Regard­less of who you are rep­re­sent­ed by, it is good for law­mak­ers to hear from U.S. cit­i­zens on the main­land that they are con­cerned that U.S. cit­i­zens in Puer­to Rico are not get­ting prop­er assis­tance. It is good to raise the lev­el of alarm in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. about this. Be indis­crim­i­nate about talk­ing to your elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives about it.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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