Tag Archive | "Puerto Rico"

Media Ignoring Puerto Rico’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ Makeover


NOVANEWS

Nearly five months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, more than a hundred thousand US citizens there still lack clean drinking water, and almost one-third of the island has no reliable electric power. As initial life-sustaining recovery efforts still grind toward completion, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (image below) has wasted no time using his territory’s recovery as an opportunity to push a number of policy proposals right out of the “disaster capitalism” playbook: from privatizing the island’s power utility to converting nearly all of its public schools to charters.

And while the mainstream US press has been mainly focused on the Trump administration’s woeful institutional response to the storm, it has barely noticed this much more radical political transformation of Puerto Rico, and the potentially disastrous long-term consequences for the citizens who live there.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosello

Ever since Maria made landfall on September 20, the corporate press has been neglecting  the island in its coverage. Despite ranking second behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina for property damage and lives lost, Maria has drawn markedly less media attention than the two major hurricanes that preceded it last summer. For example, according to a survey by the Tyndall Report, broadcast network evening news reports in 2017 devoted 30 percent less coverage to the aftermath of Maria than to Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey. Likewise, Maria drew 12 percent less evening news coverage than Hurricane Irma’s devastation of Florida and the US Virgin Islands.

To be sure, major US news outlets have produced some notable pieces of accountability journalism about the storm’s aftermath. Intrepid reporting by the Daily Beast (10/24/17) uncovered how a tiny Montana energy contractor won an exorbitant $300 million no-bid contract to help restore the island’s power grid, a story that ultimately cost the head of the island’s power utility his job. A New York Times story this week (2/6/18) found similar incompetence and recklessness in Trump’s FEMA, which hired a one-woman company to provide 30 million meals to needy Puerto Ricans, only 50,000 of which were ever delivered.

NYT: FEMA Contract Called for 30 Million Meals for Puerto Ricans. 50,000 Were Delivered.

New York Times (2/6/18)

However powerful, the focus of these breakout stories is mainly anecdotal, and the outrage they engender tends to fade from headlines and cable news talk shows after a few days. In her seminal report on “disaster capitalism” (The Nation,  4/14/05), author and activist Naomi Klein noted how these stories can also have the perverse effect of distracting from much larger, systemic transgressions happening out in the open:

If anything, the stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal: the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them.

Nowhere was this “shock doctrine,” as Klein christened it, more evident than in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Mere weeks after the storm hit—with many victims still missing or their bodies unrecovered—Republicans were already planning an onslaught of right-wing policy changes for the ravaged city, but few in the mainstream press took notice.

One example was an email list of policies sent from Congress’s Republican Study Committee, at the time chaired by then-Indiana Rep. Mike Pence. The memo proposed dozens of “pro–free market” ideas for the Bush administration to consider for the still-suffering city, which were little more than a wish list for corporations and private enterprise.

Similarly, Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from New Orleans, offered this famously macabre comment on the storm’s devastating impact: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” He got his wish, and accompanying the subsequent massive makeover of the New Orleans public housing was a rapid, wholesale restructuring of the city’s troubled school system.

2 weeks after announcing the privatization of the electricity system, Puerto Rico’s governor just declared the school system will be privatized (charters, vouchers), just like post-Katrina New Orleans. Don’t let anyone tell you it was a success: http://inthesetimes.com/article/18352/10-years-after-katrina-new-orleans-all-charter-district-has-proven-a-failur  https://twitter.com/adrianflorido/status/960628617662251009 

Klein’s 2007 book, Shock Doctrine, zeroes in on the bifurcated response post-Katrina and its impact on the schools:

In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within 19 months, with most of the city’s poor resident still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just four. Before that storm, there had been seven charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its 4,700 members had all been fired. Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.

More than a decade later, Klein’s book sounds eerily prophetic of Puerto Rico Governor Roselló’s post-Maria plans. Under his education reform proposal, announced just this week, the island would closely follow the roadmap of New Orleans, creating a voucher system and converting more than 800 public schools to charters that would be run by non-profits or corporations. If implemented—the plan would require approval of the Puerto Rican legislature, but many in the majority party have already come out in support of it—the move would represent a seismic shift for the island’s struggling school system, and a major milestone for US education policy.

But mainstream US news organizations mostly shrugged at the news. Many, like the Washington PostCBS NewsCNN and MSNBC, didn’t even bother to cover it. For its part, the New York Times didn’t bother to write its own story. Instead, it just ran the same syndicated Associated Press article (2/5/18) that NBC News (2/5/18), ABC News (2/5/18) and Fox News (2/6/18) did.

El Nuevo Dia: Ricardo Rosselló announces his education reform plan

El Nuevo Dia (2/6/18)

Tellingly, none of the national news coverage saw fit to mention New Orleans’ post-Katrina experience with charter schools, even though it closely resembles what Rosselló is proposing. Local news outlet El Nuevo Dia (2/6/18) did, however, giving its readers key context that the New York Times and Associated Press left out. It painted a much different picture than Rosselló’s rosy outlook:

In Louisiana, which is one of the models the Island tries to follow, all public schools in the city of New Orleans were converted into charters after Hurricane Katrina, but did not reach the expected academic achievement.

On the contrary, education and civic organizations have denounced segregation in the education system and that the poorest or most vulnerable did not have the same access to high-quality educational opportunities.

In fact, a three-month investigation of New Orleans charter schools in 2015 by In These Times (8/28/15) found even more systemic failures. Formerly tight-knit communities were disrupted by the voucher system, teachers unions were gutted in favor of younger, cheaper and less experienced staff, and many students were left out or left behind because they were considered too difficult to teach, and thus threatened the charter schools’ standardized test scores track record. And a New Orleans Times-Picayune analysis (4/20/16) found that dozens of the city’s charter school executives ended up earning well over six-figure salaries, while teachers’ pay averaged closer to $50,000.

A similar scenario played out at the end of January, when Rosselló announced plans to privatize PREPA, Puerto Rico’s antiquated, bankrupt public utility. Again, news organizations like ABC News (1/29/18), the New York Times (1/29/18), the Washington Post (1/29/18) and Fox News (1/29/18) all relied on one or two of the same news briefs from the AP for their coverage. However, few of these news organizations chose to include critical, historical detail from the AP, buried deep in one of its stories (1/23/18):

Puerto Rico once privatized its water and sewer company only to have the government take it back in the early 2000s after problems with service, billing and quality requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How would Rosselló’s plan avoid these same past mistakes? You won’t find any answers.

CNN (1/22/18) and NBC News (1/22/18) wrote their own short articles on privatizing PREPA, but front-loaded Rosselló’s claims, with only cursory skepticism over selling off such a critical public asset. With no other alternative sources or plans presented, their coverage made privatization seem like a fait accompli.

Left unmentioned were some of the reasons for PREPA’s dreadful state. To appease bondholders of Puerto Rico’s skyrocketing debt, the island instituted austerity measures in 2014, prompting hundreds of experienced PREPA employees to retire early to claim their pensions before the cuts kicked in (Economist10/19/17). They were never replaced, leaving maintenance and upgrades languishing. Similarly, Rosselló recently began stacking PREPA’s board with political cronies that had little to no experience in running a public utility.

Wall Street Journal article (1/22/1) on PREPA’s possible privatization waited until the final paragraph of the story to point out this detail, as well as the fact that Roselló intentionally undermined a regulatory appointee charged with oversight of the agency—something particularly relevant to how well a future privatized Puerto Rican power company might respond to public needs.

Exacerbating nearly all of the many crises facing Puerto Rico is the territory’s broader fiscal situation—it currently suffers from $70 billion in debt—and federal oversight more focused on Wall Street bondholders than American citizens living in Puerto Rico. Again, only the Associated Press (1/17/18) seems to have paid much attention to the fact that, last month, the Trump administration withheld an already-approved billion-dollar emergency disaster loan, claiming Puerto Rico had too much cash on hand. This follows a little-reported announcement in late 2016 that the federal control board overseeing the territory’s finances rejected legislation creating a $100 million emergency fund for municipalities struggling in Maria’s aftermath—no matter that most of the island’s power, water and sewer systems have little to no funds left for operations.

A rare Washington Post story (1/23/18) on the territory’s fiscal problems noted that Republicans in Congress are still intent on forcing it to honor its crushing financial burden, despite projections that the island’s economy will be devastated by a massive diaspora of nearly 500,000 people by 2020, according to one Hunter College study. As the Post story noted, House Natural Resources Committee chair Rob Bishop (R.-Utah) said the goal of the federal oversight legislation was “to return Puerto Rico to fiscal accountability and the capital markets, and this can only occur if the fiscal plans respect the lawful priorities and liens of debt holders.” Servicing a monumental debt in the midst of the island’s 11-plus-year recession while trying to rebuild from one of worst natural disasters in US history is tantamount to fiscal harakiri. But it does provide a handy excuse for Puerto Rican officials looking to tear down or sell off whatever is left of the public commons for pennies on the dollar.

WSJ: Puerto Rico Doesn't Want Reform

Wall Street Journal (11/24/17)

When not ignoring the the pillaging of Puerto Rico, some in the corporate press were not so subtly trying to make it worse. In late November, a Wall Street Journal op-ed by “Americas” columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady (11/24/17)—headlined “Puerto Rico Doesn’t Want Reform”—criticized the territory’s unwillingness to extend its own post-Maria misery when it dared to reject a predatory funding offer from PREPA bondholders.

Puerto Rico rejected the offer. “The bondholders’ proposal is not viable and would severely hamper and limit PREPA’s capacity to successfully manage its recovery,” Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority said at the time. It added that the offer had the “appearance” of “being made for the purpose of favorably impacting the trading price of existing debt.” Heaven forbid.

The arch condescension in that “heaven forbid” sums up the disaster capitalism mindset. It also speaks to a broader failure of the press to cover more radical solutions to Puerto Rico’s formidable struggles. One such proposed solution, co-authored by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz back in September, has been all but blacked out of corporate media’s post-Maria coverage of the territory, although Bloomberg (1/16/18) did mention it when the territory’s new fiscal plan was rolled out early this year. Coincidentally, this plan rejects the conventional wisdom that the island should further retrench into austerity while stripping down its assets and selling it off for parts. Instead, Stiglitz calls for more borrowing and expansion, coupled with massive write-offs of Puerto Rico’s debt—as much as 80 to 90 percent—and canceling interest payments on the remaining debt for at least five years.

Ironically, none other than President Trump endorsed the idea of radical debt forgiveness during his post-Maria visit to the island in October. “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” he said about Puerto Rico in the Washington Post (10/3/17). “You’re going to say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”

This off-the-cuff comment, from someone whose White House is chock full of Goldman Sachs alums, clearly caught his staff off guard. A day later, it fell to his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to do damage control, reassuring bondholders that they could safely ignore the president’s comments. In statements to the press, Mulvaney made it clear that a Puerto Rican debt jubilee, like so many of this president’s populist-sounding promises, would not be happening (New York Times, 10/4/17).

But just because the White House wants to memory hole the inconvenient truth about Puerto Rico’s indentured servitude at the hands of Wall Street doesn’t mean the press should willingly oblige. Nor should journalists continue to ignore the long-term impacts of the privatization schemes its governor is intent on pushing through, or how the federal government enables them—not merely through its woeful emergency response, but in its failure to fund a full recovery.

Though last week’s government shutdown budget deal did allocate more money for the island, the new disaster relief package—for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as California wildfires—only totaled $89 billion, whereas Puerto Rican officials have estimated more than $94 billion would be needed for the island’s recovery alone. And good luck seeing any news coverage point out that this shortfall could have easily been made up by taking some of the extra $165 billion that Congress happily added to the military budget. But then, under the “shock doctrine,” disasters are to be exploited, not mitigated—and the main role of the corporate press is not to notice.

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A People’s Recovery: Radical Organizing in Post-Maria Puerto Rico


NOVANEWS

By Juan Carlos Dávila

Residents form a human chain to load supplies to a truck at the Rio Abajo community in Utuado on October 17, 2017. (Photo: Ricardo Arduengo / AFP / Getty Images)

Residents form a human chain to load supplies to a truck at the Rio Abajo community in Utuado on October 17, 2017. (Photo: Ricardo Arduengo / AFP / Getty Images)

After Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, most telecommunications services collapsed, particularly cell phones and internet providers. People struggled for days to contact their loved ones, and although there have been some improvements, making a call, sending a text message, and connecting to the Internet is still a challenge in most areas.

Only certain analog and satellite telephones managed to survive the category-four hurricane, and the landline of Cucina 135, a community center located next to San Juan’s financial center, was one of them.

“Having a phone line was an invaluable resource,” said Luis Cedeño, spokesperson for El Llamado, an organization focused on providing support and unifying social movements in Puerto Rico. El Llamado (The Call) is supported by the Center for Popular Democracy and is led by a group of organizers from different sectors, including artists, communicators, social workers and student leaders.

The second day after the hurricane, El Llamado began calling Puerto Ricans in the diaspora from the landline of Cucina 135 to organize relief efforts independent of government agencies or big NGOs like the Red Cross. Cucina 135 is based in a small house that has been converted into a communal kitchen and meeting space. El Llamado now oversees Cucina 135, which serves as a gathering point for activists in a post-Maria Puerto Rico where they can exchange information and coordinate relief efforts. The main concern of organizers coming into the space was the mobilization of thousands of US troops to the island who were not distributing the much-needed aid, but controlling it. Meanwhile, prices soar and people go hungry.

In the rural town of Utuado, about 65 miles inland from San Juan, the military presence is widely visible. The US Army has established a checkpoint at the entrance of the small urban center in this mountain town. Troops were posted three days after the hurricane hit. Still, more than a week later (I visited the town on Oct. 2), residents less than a mile away from the checkpoint had only received one FEMA meal box that contained two bottles of water.

Leonilda Maldonado Guzmán is a resident of Utuado. When I interviewed her, she talked to me about the abandonment she feels: “It’s like we don’t exist. In Utuado, we feel abandoned, because no help has arrived. There’s elderly people here. Most of us can’t communicate with our families. We don’t have medicine. Nobody has come to help. My house is damaged. I have asthma. I have many health problems.”

Responding to this official neglect, El Llamado is currently supporting more than 20 grassroots initiatives that range from debris cleaning brigades to agricultural projects to communal kitchens, including one in Utuado that identifies as a Center of Mutual Support (CAM in Spanish).

The CAMs fight hunger while striving to raise the political consciousness of participants.

Five of these centers have opened their doors since the hurricane. The first one appeared in the city of Caguas; the organizers’ philosophy is to encourage communities to unite and become self-sustaining, “The CAM is the proposal of a new municipality and a new country. The CAM is the new municipality of Caguas… through structures like this, of people participation, I know that we can construct other things,” said Giovanni Roberto, a former student leader at the University of Puerto Rico and current coordinator of the CAM in Caguas, which serves about 600 meals per day. Since 2013, Roberto has run a project called Comedores Sociales (“Social Diners”) that seeks to provide food to university students who struggle financially. This served as a foundation for the establishment of the CAM.

In the long term, the objective of the CAMs is to build popular power from within the communities and eventually move Puerto Rico away from its colonial dependency to the United States. Currently, Puerto Rico imports about 88 percent of its food, and, because of the Jones Act, supplies can only arrive on US vessels. This means that even aid cannot come from countries other than the United States. The colonial status creates a major humanitarian problem, particularly after a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, when Puerto Ricans are facing shortages of water, food and medicine on a daily basis.

Before Hurricane Maria, most activism in Puerto Rico was centered around the issue of the $74 billion debt and opposition to the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). The latter established a seven-member unelected oversight board that controls Puerto Rico’s finances. However, activists opposing the payment of the debt and PROMESA were focusing on hunger and poverty prior to Hurricane Maria. The catastrophe accelerated efforts already underway as the economic crisis and precarious position for the masses of Puerto Ricans is worsening even more.

After a community breakfast in Río Piedras, I sat down with Marisel Robles, a spokesperson from the group Promises Are Over (SALP in Spanish). SALP has been organizing against PROMESA since President Barack Obama signed it into law. Presently, Robles is one of the coordinators of the Olla Común (Common Pot), another CAM initiative. As some volunteers cleaned the support center, and others began preparing the meal for the next day, Robles stated, “Hunger was already being discussed, and the level of poverty was being discussed. But after the hurricane hit us so hard, the veil of everything was lifted.” The Common Pot in Río Piedras has around 30 volunteers that coordinate the distribution of 150 breakfast meals per day from Monday through Saturday.

But the Common Pot should not be mistaken for a cafeteria, as Scott Barbés Caminero, coordinator of the CAM and member of the SALP, emphasized when addressing residents of Río Piedras before breakfast, “The Center of Mutual Support is not a cafeteria. It is a space where we come to help each other in light of a situation where the government collapsed after Hurricane Maria,” Barbés Caminero said. The Common Pot operates under an egalitarian system, which organizers call Sistema de Aportación (Contribution System). And while all comers are welcome to have breakfast, the objective is that everyone becomes involved with the project by volunteering for work, donating food items or contributing money. “If we all are doing this, Puerto Rico would be advancing,” said one man as he waited in line for breakfast.

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Masked and Armed with Rifles: Military Security Firms Roam Streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico


Featured image: Antonsanti Street in Santurce, Puerto Rico (Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

It’s the morning of Oct. 7 and a man stops traffic on Antonsanti Street in Santurce, behind the Ciudadela building. He is wearing a helmet, sunglasses, facemask, a vest with ammunition, gloves, plastic straps used for arrests, boots, camouflaged pants with knee pads, a knife and gun. There is a machine gun in his hand. He has no plaque or ID.

He works for a private security firm hired by Nicholas Prouty, the owner of the Ciudadela complex. Prouty turned to that service after Hurricane María, he told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish) last week.

“With a substantial reduction in the number of police officers on the streets [due to the government’s reallocation of resources to protect diesel and supply chains0, and most streets lights not functioning, Ciudadela has taken the necessary steps to make its residents and commercial tenants feel safe,” he said, without revealing the name of the security firm.

Who do you work for?, the CPI asked the armed man who was at Ciudadela.

“We work with the government,” he answered.

Which division?

“It’s a humanitarian mission, we’re helping Puerto Rico,” he said in broken Spanish.

And why the covered face?

“Because if I go with my daughter to eat at Burger King tomorrow and somebody identifies me, they could kill me,” he said.

Two other men dressed in military uniforms standing at another corner of Ciudadela said they worked for a private company, but also refused to reveal the name.

Why do you cover your face?

“Because we want to,” one of them said, pulling the facemask up to his nose to cover himself better. He had a rifle in his hand: a silver shotgun.

(Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

The CPI asked Héctor Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, if a special permit was issued to private security companies to carry rifles after Hurricane María made landfall. “We’re dealing with that,” he said as he left a press conference at the Convention Center. When we showed him the photo of the security men in Ciudadela, he said, “they could be military,” and scurried to the back of a room in the San Juan Convention Center where the government of Puerto Rico has set up its Emergency Operations Center (COE in Spanish) after Hurricane María.

Does the federal weapons law allow private security guards to carry long weapons?, the CPI asked Rosa Emilia Rodríguez, head of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Puerto Rico.

“We go by federal law violations and they include long weapons, carrying an automatic rifle and so on, if they do not have the proper license.”

But are there licenses to carry long weapons?

“It depends [on] whether they are military. That is, it is very restricted. I’m surprised that this is happening. I don’t know if they are off-duty police officers, I don’t know, I would have to see the circumstances. A police officer can work in a private security company in their spare time.”

In that case, could they have long weapons?

“I don’t know, it has roused my interest, so I’ll check it out. But I’m surprised that they only have access to long weapons,” Rodríguez replied.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Olga Castellón said Pesquera is processing an executive order that will detail the rules for private security companies. Perhaps that’s what the Secretary of Public Security referred to when he said, “We’re dealing with that.”

Both federal officials agreed that the order should not allow private security guards to carry long weapons. “They would be going very far,” said Rodríguez.

The Puerto Rico Weapons Act says that “you can not…own, use, transfer or import a Semi-Automatic Assault Weapon.” This prohibition does not apply to “people whose license contains the category of target shooting, hunting or who possess an armory license, or for those assault weapons legally existing in the United States.” Or to people “with a gunsmith license, or law enforcement agents who use arms in the call of duty, or the government of Puerto Rico or the United States, or for the use of by armed forces of the Government of the United States or Puerto Rico.” The law bans arms such as shotguns and semiautomatic rifles.

Two members of the United States Air Force consulted by the CPI said that both the shotgun and the machine gun carried by the men of Ciudadela are automatic or semi-automatic weapons, after seeing a photo.

(Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

“In terms of firearms, [private security companies] have to be governed by the Puerto Rico Weapons Act and must have a gun holding license. As far as I know, gun licenses granted here are for short guns. Long weapons are used solely and exclusively for the custody of securities transport, armored trucks, and is a special license provided by the government of Puerto Rico. All other armed services have to be with small arms. The only people who could use long weapons are those of the State. I don’t know of any legal authorization to carry long guns in private service in Puerto Rico,” said Adalberto Mercado, vice president of operations for private security company Ranger America.

“The State can provide provisional licenses, but they have to request them and the State has to grant them. If not, they would be carrying illegal weapons inside the territory of Puerto Rico,” Mercado said.

Security firm Academi —known by its former name, Blackwater, which won $21 million contract with the U.S. government to provide security services during the Iraq war in 2003— said that they already have offers from the local and federal government and by the Red Cross to come to Puerto Rico.

“We’re ready to go,” said Paul Donahue, Chief Operating Officer of Constellis, Academi’s parent company, in a phone interview with the CPI. He explained that if the government of Puerto Rico accepts the proposal made by Academi to respond to the government’s offer, they would be providing security services for water transportation. The company already operates in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and St. Martin, where they arrived after Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall. This company, described as an army of mercenaries by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, has changed its name three times since its founding in 1997 by a former Navy Seal Officer (United States Marine, Air and Land Teams.)

Blackwater also operated in New Orleans after the passing of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There they worked under a federal contract and for millionaires who left the city before the storm passed. They were hired to protect their properties.

On the entry of U.S. security companies into Puerto Rico, Mercado, Ranger America’s vice president of operations, said,

“We have signed service contracts with U.S. security firms that have hired us to in turn provide security to clients they have here in Puerto Rico… I would say there are large numbers (of companies), but we have seen hiring (of U.S. security companies) in the area of communications and in the hotel area. They are companies that we don’t really know about, they have no presence here in Puerto Rico, but they have come and we know they are serving some corporations and multinationals.”

Mercado said Ranger America has been recruiting more employees since the hurricane, to serve retailers, supermarkets, government warehouses, and “more recently,” FEMA. He did not mentioned the names of the companies or agencies that have hired them.

The Whitestone Group, another U.S. security company, posted an ad on the Monster job search site on September 29 seeking “retired officers with gun licenses for immediate response in Puerto Rico.” The ad said salary would be about $2,400 a week plus a per-diem and housing. The ad that indicates the offer says “FEMA-Puerto Rico.”

“I really don’t know the answer,” said Alejandro De La Campa, director of FEMA in Puerto Rico, when the CPI asked if the agency had hired private security companies to work in Puerto Rico and, specifically, The Whitestone Group.

“But we’re going to hire… all the hiring is done through Federal Protective Services, that’s the federal agency that does the hiring; they would be the ones who could answer you. That we’re going to need (private) security across the island, that’s true,” De La Campa said during a quick exit from the COE.

Whitestone Group currently has “several contracts” with the U.S. Departments of Defense, Engineering, Interior and Commerce, as well as with the Army, Armed Forces and Coast Guard. Its first contract with the federal government was with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Treasury Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

People watching the military show behind Ciudadela on that Saturday morning did not seem safer. An elderly woman who was prevented by the man armed with a machine gun from going on Antonsanti Street looked anxious, nervous and frightened. But she still rebuked him through her car window. She asked him to let her pass because she was going to a street that was before where a truck was unloading merchandise. The woman was about to cry. The robot-looking man finally let her in and said, “Thanks for interrupting my work.”

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Congressional Disaster Relief Legislation Ignores Puerto Rico


NOVANEWS

 

Hurricanes Maria and Irma caused vast destruction in Puerto Rico, creating humanitarian crisis conditions for millions.

Instead of massive amounts of vitally needed aid and debt relief, the Trump administration requested House and Senate members authorize a $4.9 billion loan to the island as part of $36.5 billion in disaster relief – plus a $150 million loan, matching FEMA grants, increasing its unrepayable indebtedness instead of responsibly cancelling it.

Funds loaned are intended for maintaining basic government operations, nothing for devastated Puerto Ricans.

Most on the island still lack power. They have limited access to food, fuel and clean drinking water.

Estimated hurricane damage is around $95 billion, according to Governor Ricardo Rossello.

“Puerto Rico is on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future,” he said.

House legislation provides emergency funding for hurricane and wildfire relief – earmarked for business interests, not devastated Texas and Florida residents, or Californians affected by wildfires.

Legislation includes $18.7 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, another $16 billion to replenish the flood insurance program.

House members passed legislation on Thursday, Senate members taking up similar legislation next week.

Puerto Rico is insolvent. Its indebtedness is around $74 billion – plus another $50 billion in pension obligations. Last May it declared quasi-bankruptcy.

Creditors were unwilling to grant concessions. Pensioners and workers nearing retirement may lose out altogether.

Before hurricane devastation, Trump said they’ll be no “bailout” for Puerto Rico. Unlike US counties, cities and other municipalities, states and US territories can’t declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy, allowing them to restructure debt.

Puerto Rico faces a long, painful struggle ahead, debt-entrapped by creditors, ill-served by uncaring Washington, mismanaged by corrupt officials, a deplorable situation, affecting its poor and most vulnerable hardest – compounded by hurricane devastation and uncaring US officials.

Economist Mark Weisbrot explained cancelling Puerto Rico’s debt and providing significant federal aid is its only chance to recover. Its residents are US citizens. Its political status denies them legal rights.

They’re treated like colonial subjects, enduring crushing austerity because of the island’s insolvency. They pay federal taxes without congressional representation, getting back pathetically little in return.

They suffer from mismanagement, political greed, widespread corruption, deplorable social services, and monied interests exploiting them, enforced by police state harshness.

Debt-entrapped, Puerto Rico is forced to pay bankers and other creditors at the expense of responsibly serving its residents.

Recovery under favorable conditions will take years. Given federal indifference to the island’s misery, devastation in large parts of it could go unaddressed indefinitely.

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Two Storms Hit Puerto Rico: Maria and Colonialism


NOVANEWS

Photo by The National Guard | CC BY 2.0

Fans of socialist Rosa Luxemburg looking at Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico may recall the deaths of 40 000 people in 1902 when Mt. Pelee erupted in Martinique, a French colony.  Luxemburg wrote then that “the lords of the earth,” who with “faith unshaken – in their own wisdom …have all turned to Martinique [to] help, rescue, dry the tears and curse the havoc-wreaking volcano.” They had plundered and murdered in colonies like Martinique and she was accusing them of hypocrisy in trying to comfort the survivors.

Currently that accusation applies to U. S. words and deeds in the wake of two recent hurricanes – particularly Hurricane Maria – that left Puerto Rico in shambles.

Food, water, and medical supplies were almost exhausted nine days after Maria struck. Lack of diesel fuel to power generators caused electricity shortages such that in hospitals air-conditioners and therapy devices weren’t working. Patients dependent on respirators were dying. The entire electricity grid is destroyed. Puerto Ricans are in the dark and without refrigeration or means for communication. Recovery is measured in months or years.

The U. S. government quickly provided disaster relief funds for victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, respectively. But more than a week after Maria hit Puerto Rico no extra emergency funds were heading for the island. President Trump reminded Puerto Ricans of their debt obligations. News reports mentioned Puerto Rico’s chronic infrastructure deficiencies, but didn’t offer much explanation.

Indeed, Puerto Ricans were facing great difficulties prior to the hurricanes. Almost half of all Puerto Ricans live in poverty, including 60 percent of the island’s children.  Almost 200 schools closed in the months before the hurricanes. The University of Puerto Rico was on the way to losing an estimated $300 million in funds. Public fundingfor healthcare was being reduced. Blame for these problems falls on the U. S. government.

Under new regulations in 1976, corporations gained tax advantagesfor setting up factories on the island. Thereafter, the island’s government ran short of money and secured loans from Wall Street bankers. Later Washington authorities removed the tax advantages and factories departed. By 2016 Puerto Rico’s government owed creditors $74 billion and owed pension funds $50 billion.

The U. S. Congress that year passed its PROMESA law which prioritized payments on debt over human needs. But even before then, Puerto Rico’s government had been cutting away at social services. PROMESA established a Financial Control Board that, according to critic Nelson Denis, is “the de facto government, banker, judge, jury, and executioner of Puerto Rico.”

The die had already been cast. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – the Jones Act – benefitted U. S. shipbuilders. Still in effect, it assigns the job of transporting goods from one U. S. port to another exclusively to U. S. ships and U. S. crews. Under the law, says Denis, “any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.”

Consumer items from the U. S. mainland cost twice as much in Puerto Rico as they do in other Caribbean islands. The cost of living on the island is 13 percent higher than in hundreds of urban areas in the United States.

To promote recovery in Texas and Florida from hurricane damage, the U. S. Congress quickly exempted those places from Jones Act restrictions. But President Trump took over a week to do the same for Puerto Rico. He acted after the Defense Department determined that a waiver for Puerto Rico, in effect for only ten days, would serve national defense.

Puerto Rico has been a special case ever since it was occupied by the U. S. Army in 1898.  Two years later the U. S. Congress took charge of the island and large areas of Puerto Rican farm land fell into U. S. hands. Legislation in 1950 enabled Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution, but required that it be subject to U. S. laws and regulations. Puerto Ricans don’t vote in U. S. presidential elections. They aren’t represented in the U. S. Congress.

Now murmurings are heard of privatization of Puerto Rico’s electrical system, and hedge fund creditors are offering a new billion – dollar loan to “re-establish the electricity system and facilitate access to federal funds.”

But workers on the island may learn from their recent experience, says Puerto Rico’s Communist Party: “People’s wrath provoked by the criminal negligence of the [island’s] government before Maria’s arrival will only increase with each broken promise, each example of government impotence and each slap in the face.”

Rosa Luxemburg weighs in: “a day will come when another volcano lifts its voice of thunder … And only on its ruins will the nations come together in true humanity, which will know but one deadly foe – blind, dead nature.”

Posted in Puerto RicoComments Off on Two Storms Hit Puerto Rico: Maria and Colonialism

Puerto Rico: A Public Health Catastrophe


NOVANEWS

 

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke deplorably called the federal response to crisis conditions in Puerto Rico a “good news story,” adding she’s “very satisfied.”

San Juan Mayor Yulin Cruz emotionally responded, saying

“(w)ell, maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good-news story.”

“When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good-news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good-news story.”

“When you have to pull people down from their buildings – I’m sorry, but that really upsets and frustrates me.”

“I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns and then make a statement like that, which frankly is an irresponsible statement and contrast with the statements of support that I have been getting since yesterday when I got that call from the White House.”

Cruz continued adding

“(d)ammit, this is not a good-news story. This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”

“This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story. This is a story of devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food or water.”

“If I could scream it a lot more louder: It is not a good-news story when people are dying when they don’t have dialysis, when their generators aren’t working and their oxygen isn’t providing for them.”

“Where is there good news here? The good news is we’re getting heard. For heaven’s sake, somebody let them do their job. Let them get the food and water into the hands of people, and then we can talk about good news.”

Washington knows what to do.

“For heaven’s sake,” start doing it, Cruz stressed. “(W)hen you have people dying literally, scraping for food, where is the good news?”

Thousands remain in temporary shelters, many others stranded in the wreckage of their residences. Around 80% of Puerto Rican agriculture was destroyed. Nearly all power transmission lines were knocked out, over 95% of the island still without power, continuing for many months in isolated areas.

Around half the population has no access to drinking water. Hospitals can’t function normally, struggling to keep seriously ill patients alive. Many thousands of jobs were lost for impoverished islanders, many working in agriculture.

According to Agricultural Economics Professor Jayson Harper, Hurricane Maria destroyed high value crops. Some will take years to replace, he explained.

The coffee industry was hit at the worst time, just before beans are harvested, the crop largely destroyed.

Supplies delivered to ports are stuck in docks for lack of transportation. Nearly two weeks ago, the strongest hurricane in nearly 90 years devastated the Island, creating crisis conditions for its 3.4 million residents.

On Monday, Florida International University Dean Tomas Guilarte said conditions in Puerto Rico continue deteriorating. A public health catastrophe looms.

“When the sewer system stops working, wastewater – aka human feces and urine – and seaborne bacteria contaminate the water supply.”

“This leads to bacterial infections – such as cholera, dysentery, E. coli and typhoid – that can be disastrous. The typical treatments, like tetanus shots or powerful antibiotics, are not readily available on the island, where medical supplies are quickly running out.”

According to FEMA, 58 of the island’s 69 hospitals have no power or fuel for generators. Only one is operating normally. Water can’t be boiled to kill bacteria. Some toxins become concentrated by the boiling process.

It kills harmful organisms, not toxic chemicals, compounds, salts, and heavy metals. Disease-causing pathogens contaminated areas affected by floodwaters.

Toxicity seeping from Puerto Rico’s Battery Recycling Company in the Arecibo coastal area alone “could be off the charts,” said Guilarte.

Immediate congressional action is vital, appropriating enough funds for food, medical supplies and medicines, along with other essentials to life.

Most islanders are impoverished. Residents evacuated by government aircraft and other means of transportation have to sign promissory notes to repay the cost, a disgraceful situation.

Public health and welfare are essential human rights. Trump disgracefully lied, tweeting

“(w)e have done a great job with the impossible situation in Puerto Rico.”

Islanders are suffering under devastating conditions. The Trump administration failed to go all-out to help.

It serves privileged Americans exclusively, disdainful of others – notably millions of Puerto Ricans, Floridians and Texans devastated by hurricane damage, largely on their own to cope.

Posted in Puerto RicoComments Off on Puerto Rico: A Public Health Catastrophe


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