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Puerto Rico Religious Leaders Criticize Debt Plans and Negotiations

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WASHINGTON – Puerto Rico’s Catholic Archbishop and an Evangelical leader who heads the island’s bible society criticized a debt agreement and ongoing debt negotiations. “We are strongly opposed to the COFINA debt deal,” wrote the religious leaders in a statement referencing a recently approved plan on a type of debt backed by sales taxes. The plan was approved by Puerto Rico’s government and oversight board and covers about $17 billion of the total $72 billion debt of the US Territory. A year ago, Puerto Rico was decimated by two hurricanes.

“Before the hurricanes, we wrestled with the fact that nearly 60% of our children lived in poverty. After the hurricanes great suffering persists across Puerto Rico. Yet, now we see debt deals that are worse than what was proposed before the hurricanes,” wrote Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez and Puerto Rico Bible Society General Secretary, Reverend Heriberto Martinez. “If the government of Puerto Rico and the oversight board cannot reach debt deals with a high enough debt cut to put Puerto Rico on a sustainable path for growth, they should immediately step aside and allow the bankruptcy process approved by Congress in 2016 to arbitrate this immoral debt burden that weighs upon our people, especially on our children.”

The leaders also took aim at negotiations around the General Obligation debt and expressed concern if a similar deal was reached, Puerto Rico would be restructuring their “debt in a few years time.” The leaders also raised concerns about a fiscal plan approved by the oversight board.

“The current fiscal plan and ongoing debt negotiations are not doing enough to address child poverty, limit austerity and promote sustainable economic growth,” stated Eric LeCompte, who advises the religious leaders and is the director of the religious development group Jubilee USA.

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Puerto Rico One Year Later: We’re Fighting for Justice and Prosperity


It has been a year since the impact of Maria. Here in Puerto Rico, there are still families living in the dark, homes without a roof, people who haven’t been able to find a new job after their businesses were destroyed, and people mourning their lost loved ones. This is climate injustice in action.

Day before Hurricane Maria. Taken in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. ( Photo: Amira Odeh)

Day before Hurricane Maria. Taken in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. ( Photo: 

One year ago, I lived the scariest day of my life.

As the wind blew I could hear things falling and breaking outside. The walls of my (concrete-built) home were vibrating and water was coming in through every single window and door. At the moment I could only think of how to prepare for the worst and to be ready to seek refuge inside a closet or a bathroom.

It has been a year since the impact of Maria, and here in Puerto Rico, there are still families living in the dark, homes without a roof, people who haven’t been able to find a new job after their businesses were destroyed, and people mourning their lost loved ones.

On September 20, 2017, I was fighting to keep my home and family safe during those long 24 hours that we endured Hurricane Maria. I would have never imagined what the next year would look like.

It has been a year since the impact of Maria, and here in Puerto Rico, there are still families living in the dark, homes without a roof, people who haven’t been able to find a new job after their businesses were destroyed, and people mourning their lost loved ones.

Recovery has been extremely slow — and on other parts of the island, there has been barely any recovery at all. With our communities all but abandoned by the federal government, enduring the past year has done lasting harm to the physical and mental health of thousands of Puerto Ricans.

Some of us are hopeful about this just being a phase that we will soon get through, but many others lose more and more hope daily.

Day After Hurricane Maria. Taken in Bayamón, Puerto RicoDay After Hurricane Maria. Taken in Bayamón, Puerto Rico

What scares me the most is knowing that Hurricane Maria was just a glimpse of how climate change is affecting the Caribbean, and a warning of what’s to come.Larger and stronger hurricanes will continue to cause deaths, destroy property and displace people, separating families and slowly destroying our culture.

Climate disasters are also an opportunity for disaster capitalism to continue enforcing the colonization dynamics that are already occurring in Puerto Rico. And as if there were not enough issues already, neither the government of Puerto Rico nor the U.S federal government are taking any action to mitigate climate change or prepare for future disasters. This is due in part to a lack of funding and to no initiative whatsoever, in addition to the climate denialism, from the US federal government to protect its colonies — all of them vulnerable islands — from climate change effects.

What scares me the most is knowing that Hurricane Maria was just a glimpse of how climate change is affecting the Caribbean, and a warning of what’s to come.

For the more than 100 years that Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States, the federal government has imposed unjust laws and systems of colonization that have helped create the island’s current debt crisis.  That debt crisis has been used to put in place policies that targeted worker and students’ rights and put their well being in the hands of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board known as “La Junta.”

With the local government under pressure to pay off its debts to the US, La Junta and the government continue to push brutal austerity measures — slashing funding for our schools, cutting workers’ benefits, and gutting dozens more public programs essential for our island’s recovery — instead of working for the people. And austerity has only gotten more punishing since the hurricane.

September 23, 2017. Bayamón, Puerto RicoSeptember 23, 2017. Bayamón, Puerto Rico

More areas from the public sector are up for sale, more laws are imposed that harm workers and benefit foreign investment, and more resources have been shifted to help the private sector instead of the people needing support most. All of these measures will continue to affect the quality of life of millions of Puerto Ricans if we find ourselves facing another hurricane in the coming years.

And as climate change makes hurricanes like Maria stronger and more frequent, I know that the next hurricane isn’t a question of if, but of when.

There is still a lot to be done in Puerto Rico — not only to recover from the hurricane, but also to free the country of the colonial systems that have long prevented people and our environment from thriving.

Destroyed Apartment Building. Bayamón, Puerto RicoDestroyed Apartment Building. Bayamón, Puerto Rico

A year after Maria, we still need to do the long, hard work of building a power grid that relies on renewable energy, making sure people have safe homes, reopening businesses, making safe food and water accessible and making adaptation and mitigation of climate change one of our local priorities.

It is urgent that the US takes real action for Puerto Rico, do its part to fix the problems that it has caused, and treat with equality the millions of people who pay taxes and live in one of the colonies that the US invaded.

It is urgent that the US takes real action for Puerto Rico, do its part to fix the problems that it has caused, and treat with equality the millions of people who pay taxes and live in one of the colonies that the US invaded without consulting or being invited.

Puerto Rico deserves a prosperous future and safety, not leftovers from Congress and paper towels being thrown at us.

My family, our neighbors, and our people deserve more than this.

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Puerto Rico Raises Hurricane Maria Death Toll From 64 to 2,975

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The government of Puerto Rico Tuesday raised its estimate of the number of Puerto Ricans who lost their lives to 2017’s Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975. This figure makes Maria the worst natural catastrophe on territory claimed by the US since the Galveston, Texas flood of 1900.

The near 50-fold increase in the death toll exposed what millions on the island already knew: that the authorities had long deliberately concealed the real human cost of the storm. It is also a searing indictment of the criminal negligence and indifference of both the US ruling establishment and its two major parties, as well as that of the territory’s own governmental authorities.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló officially adopted the new figure for the number of Hurricane Maria’s victims following the release of a study commissioned by his government and carried out by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

The study appears to be the most scientifically rigorous and detailed thus far, drawing on demographic data that the Puerto Rican government had previously hidden from the public. It compared the death rates between September 2017 and February 2018 to earlier periods dating back to 2010. The researchers also factored in the mass exodus of people fleeing the desperate conditions prevailing in Puerto Rico, marked by interminable power outages, for the US mainland.

During this period, Puerto Rico’s population fell by 280,000, an 8 percent drop, making the increased number of deaths all the more extraordinary.

Earlier studies had already provided far higher numbers than the ludicrously low death toll maintained by the Puerto Rican government for nearly a year. Research done by Penn State based on death certificates had come up with an estimate of 1,139 deaths. Another study done by Harvard University, based on interviews with a random sample of some 3,300 households, yielded an estimate ranging between roughly 800 and 8,500, with a median figure of 4,645. This number was embraced by many Puerto Ricans who were outraged by the deliberate underestimate maintained by the Puerto Rican and US governments.

The Harvard researchers noted that this median figure was likely too low, and that the real number of deaths was probably higher than 5,000. No doubt the George Washington study also represents a serious underestimation of the real number of fatalities.

The George Washington study noted that many Puerto Rican doctors and hospitals had failed to follow protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control, and attributed deaths to the storm only where people were directly killed by the immediate destruction wrought by its winds and rain. Those who died because they could not get medical care or medications, were cut off dialysis and oxygen equipment because of the lack of electricity, or had medical conditions that they would not have confronted absent the wholesale destruction of the island’s infrastructure were not linked to Maria. It added that some doctors were reluctant to relate deaths to the hurricane “due to concerns … about liability.”

Among the more important findings of the George Washington study was the vastly disproportionate impact of the storm in terms of deaths among the poorer layers of Puerto Rican society, compared to the wealthy and the middle class.

It found that the risk of death was 45 percent higher, and remained so until the end of the study’s period in mid-February, among populations referred to by researchers as “low socioeconomic development municipalities.” For poorer inhabitants of the island generally, the chance of death was 60 percent higher.

A graph included in the study shows that, while the death toll increased among all layers of the population between September and October 2017, it rose far more sharply for the poorer layers of the population and continued to increase between October 2017 and February 2018, even as it leveled off for wealthier social layers.

The finding only confirms that Maria, like all natural disasters, served to lay bare the conditions of poverty, social crisis and inequality that existed before the storm ever made land.

The study also found that men over the age of 65 continued to confront a higher rate of deaths through the end of the survey period.

The George Washington researchers warned that, had the study continued, it would almost inevitably have tracked a continuing elevated death rate for these layers of the population, particularly given the protracted conditions of deprivation on the island, with a lack of electricity continuing for some until only weeks ago.

A proposed second phase of the George Washington study would aim at recording the names of those who died and providing in each case a cause of death, based on an examination of death certificates as well as interviews with families and medical personnel. The Puerto Rican government has yet to fund this stage of the inquiry.

The Trump administration responded to the latest death toll estimate with its inevitable brutish callousness. At a White House meeting Tuesday, Trump praised his administration for doing a “fantastic job” in Puerto Rico, despite the incontrovertible evidence that thousands were left to die because of its criminal negligence and insufficient aid.

The grotesque self-praise from the White House echoes the tone adopted by Trump when he staged a brief visit to Puerto Rico just two weeks after the storm, throwing paper towels to storm victims and congratulating the island’s governor and other officials for having avoided a “real catastrophe like [Hurricane] Katrina,” which claimed over 1,800 lives in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He repeated the official death toll of 16 being put out by authorities in San Juan at the time. At the time, millions of people were still digging out from the storm, and everyone knew that far more people had lost their lives.

In addition to the widespread popular hatred for Trump and the US authorities, there is intense anger against Governor Rosselló and his local administration for failing to reveal the real scope of the tragedy inflicted upon the island’s population and to secure the resources needed to confront it.

The George Washington study contained damning criticism of local authorities, pointing out that their emergency planning contemplated only a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, leaving them grossly unprepared for Maria, which hit Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm. It also faulted a lack of communications between local and central authorities, and said, in relation to the number of deaths, that “information was intentionally held to evade blame.”

In an interview published Wednesday by San Juan’s leading daily, El Nuevo Día, Rosselló repeated at least seven times—by the paper’s count—that he had confronted an “unprecedented catastrophe,” in an attempt to justify the failure of his administration in the face of the disaster. Asked about his complicity with Trump in grossly underestimating the death toll and affirming that Puerto Rico had avoided a “real catastrophe,” Rosselló responded, “I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. Hindsight is 20-20.”

The reality is that the government in Puerto Rico, together with the Trump administration and both the Republicans and Democrats in Washington, has been focused—both before and after Maria struck the island—not on ameliorating conditions of poverty and social deprivation, but on extracting profits for Wall Street bondholders under conditions of the island’s fiscal bankruptcy. It is estimated that Puerto Rico, still confronting the protracted health emergency wrought by Maria, will pay $1.4 billion on debt restructuring over the next six years, an amount that significantly exceeds the entire budget of the island’s Health Department.

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‘Disaster Capitalism Strikes Again!’: Puerto Rico’s High Court Gives Green Light to Charter Schools, Vouchers


New ruling overturns finding by lower court that charters and vouchers—part of the island’s education overhaul post-hurricane—were unconstitutional.

Education historian Diane Ravtich called the new ruling from Puerto Rico's high court a "victory for rapacious billionaires" and charter proponents like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Education historian Diane Ravtich called the new ruling from Puerto Rico’s high court a “victory for rapacious billionaires” and charter proponents like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/flickr/cc)

Puerto Rico’s controversial plan to overhaul the island’s education system moved forward after its high court issued a ruling this week overturning a lower court’s finding that charter schools and vouchers were unconstitutional.

“Disaster capitalism strikes again!” commented education historian Diane Ravitch, who also called it a “victory for rapacious billionaires, [Education Secretary and charter school proponent] Betsy DeVos, and DFER [Democrats for Education Reform].”

“Instead of putting the PR economy on a path to recovery,” Ravitch added, “the disaster capitalists will give them charters and vouchers.”

The legal challenge was brought forth by teachers’ union La Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR),  soon after the Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed into law “education reform” legislation creating a charter schools pilot program in 10 percent of public schools and offering private school vouchers to 3 percent of students. The plan has been promoted heavily by Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s non-Puerto Rican Education Secretary.

“To say charters are public schools when they are going to be administered, directed, and controlled by private hands is clearly an illegal and unconstitutional contradiction,” AMPR president Aida Diaz said at the time.

In response to the new ruling, Providence Journal education reporter Linda Borg posed a question on social media:


Linda Borg@lborgprojocom

Courts have ruled that charter expansion can go forward in Puerto Rico. will be curious to see if the island becomes fully chartered like NoLa after the hurricane.

Also referring to post-Katrina New Orleans, Jeremy Aponte, a member of the Boston Teachers Union’s Puerto Rican educators group and Jessica Tang, president of the union, recently wrote, about how the devastating  in 2005 “was used as an opportunity for the dismantling of a public education system that primarily served low-income black students.”

They described the transformation as a failure for the community:

Currently there is not a single public school in the New Orleans School District. The purported successes of the charter school movement have not come to fruition. Charter schools have maintained segregation, decreased accessibility to local schools, and have underserved students with special needs. They have reduced the number of veteran black teachers and administrators from the impacted communities in a favor of teachers with no background, connection, or cultural competency in the predominantly black school district.

“Puerto Rico must be able to develop a public education system that serves the needs of the communities and the people who call Puerto Rico home. The temporary exodus of families, due to the lengthy rebuilding process, cannot become an opportunity to pillage the public education system,” they argued.

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A video version of Naomi Klein’s new book “The Battle for Paradise.”

The situation in a nutshell:

Grassroots efforts are thriving in the face of extraordinary challenges.

Official efforts are failing – deliberately.


One reliable place to send help:


Image result for puerto rico cartoon



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Puerto Rican anger builds as study reveals 4,654 hurricane deaths


Translation of the sign: The lack of a prompt response by the government caused the death of thousands, while thousand remain without lights .Photo: Lela Santiago-twitter.com

Translation of the sign: The lack of a prompt response by the government caused the death of thousands, while thousand remain without lights. Photo: Lela Santiago-twitter.com

Hundreds of Puerto Ricans placed the shoes of their dead loved ones on the marble plaza of San Juan’s Capitol building on June 1, in remembrance of the thousands that died due to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. This was the people’s response to a study released two days earlier revealing the death toll from the hurricane to be 70 times the government’s estimate.

The action was a moving tribute to the 4,654 who lost their lives. It was also an angry protest against the Puerto Rican government of Governor Ricardo Rosselló for denying the magnitude of the deaths, and against La Junta, Puerto Rico’s name for the Washington-appointed board of Wall Street bankers that has imposed harsh austerity on Puerto Rico, holding back the island’s recovery from Maria.

Remembering the cousin, the friend, the aunt who died

Luis Vasquez, who was at the memorial, remembered finding his father’s decomposing body two weeks after the hurricane hit. Vasquez had disposed of his father’s possessions, so he placed his own shoes on the steps. “We already threw all of his shoes away,” Vázquez said, standing barefoot on the hot marble. “So I put my own, and I’m going to leave them there,” he said in an interview with NPR.

In solidarity, Puerto Rican activists convened a Twitter protest using the hashtag #4645Boricuas and asked people on June 1 to individually name those that died. Throughout June 1 and continuing for days, people used the hashtag to remember that cousin that committed suicide several months after Maria hit;  the friend who died alone because no one was able to reach her in time; the father who was found dead for reasons the family will never know.

Serious underestimation of death toll

The memorial and Twitter protest come after a Harvard Study published in the New England Journal of Medicine put the death toll of Hurricane Maria at an estimate of 4,645 deaths from the time the hurricane hit the island on September 20, 2017 to December 31, 2017. Researchers surveyed 3,299 random homes in Puerto Rico and each respondent was asked about death and the causes of death. The result was then compared to the mortality rate from the same period the year before.

The findings revealed a serious underestimation of the hurricane deaths by the government, with the new mortality estimate 70 times the official death toll of 64. In the Harvard study, a third of all deaths were attributed to delayed or interrupted access to proper medical care and the lack of basic utilities such as electricity. These conditions have continued way past December, and are still not resolved, indicating that storm-related deaths continue to this day.

In an interview with Rising Up with Sonali, Rosa Clemente, a mainland-based Puerto Rican activist who made a film exposing the extent of the crisis in Puerto Rico post Maria, recounted that in the months after the Hurricane, hospitals were so overwhelmed with patients and the lack of electricity that they had to prioritize patients who were dying, leaving others to their fate.

Clemente also stated that the lack of access to clean water–something not mentioned directly in the Harvard Study–also contributed to the death toll. “When you don’t have access to clean water, everything else falls apart,” she said.

Eyewitness accounts of Puerto Ricans who have gone from the mainland to do their own investigation of conditions reveal people still living in demolished homes without electricity, as well as contaminated water in many areas and resulting vermin infestations, which bring disease.

Trump, Rosselló have not accepted new figures

Since the Harvard study was published May 30, neither the Puerto Rican government nor the Trump administration has issued a response accepting the new estimates. In fact, Governor Rosselló tried to put the blame on others, exclaiming in a press conference that he would investigate if any agencies were concealing documents.

Back in December, when earlier studies and reports put the death toll at about 1,000, Rosselló refused to accept those estimates and said that the government would conduct its own independent study. Yet to this day the findings of such independent study were never made available to the public, and worse of all, there is no evidence to suggest such a study was even conducted by the government. Eight months after the disaster the official death toll remains 64.

FEMA helps cruise line, not Puerto Ricans

Back in October Trump boasted on Twitter that everything in Puerto Rico was “under control.”  He said that FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency, and the military had done a “great job,’”and all buildings had been inspected for safety. It has recently come out that FEMA paid Carnival Cruise Line $75 million to house about 2,000 federal aid workers in a half empty ship for four months. This is more than it gave Puerto Rican families in direct aid to rebuild their homes during that time frame.

Thousands still without electricity

The Puerto Rican government announced plans to restore power to 95 percent of the island by December 2017, but that did not happen. In April, seven months after Maria hit, most of the island was still without power, and one power outage put the whole island back in the dark. As of June 1, 11,000 remain with no electricity at all, and the fragility of power grid means rolling outages in many places.

Hospitals are overcrowded and have had to deal with shortages of basic medicines and supplies such as oxygen. They cannot provide adequate health care without electricity. Many still do not have the power capacity to consistently run ventilators, sterilize equipment, refrigerate perishables or run operating theaters, among other things. It has been reported that people are dying in hospitals rather than recovering due to the power crisis.

Government’s response is more austerity

The response to this crisis has not been more aid, but more austerity. Rosselló, seen as a puppet of Washington, responded to the power crisis by revealing plans to privatize the Puerto Rican power company PREPA. This would line the pockets of Wall Street banks and corporations, but bring major hikes in utility prices to the people of Puerto Rico.

In fact, the privatization of PREPA is part of La Junta’s plan to defund and privatize what remains of Puerto Rico’s public assets. Proposed cuts target welfare recipients, public sector workers and retirees. Labor “reforms” would weaken worker power and increase unemployment. Moving to privatize education, over 300 schools have been closed, leaving students without schools and teachers without jobs. When teachers and other workers took to the streets to protest on May 1, they were met with brutality by police officers and private security cops under Rosselló ’s direction.

Governor Rosselló, La Junta, and Washington are to blame for the death of the 4,645 Puerto Ricans from September to December and for the thousands more that most surely have died in 2018 from Maria related-causes, and that will continue to die.

What will happen now? When Hurricane Maria hit in September, Puerto Rico did not have an emergency plan in place. Eight months later, with another hurricane season beginning, there is still no plan. Puerto Rico’s recovery from Maria still has a long way to go, and its infrastructure has been even further weakened by U.S. banks.

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Deadlier Than Katrina and 9/11: Hurricane Maria Killed 4,645 in Puerto Rico, 70 Times Official Toll


Image result for Puerto Rico CARTOON

A stunning new study by researchers at Harvard has revealed the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria may be 70 times higher than the official count of 64. The new research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says the death toll is at least 4,645 — and perhaps as many as 5,740. President Trump has so far not responded to the new study. But in October, during a visit to Puerto Rico, Trump boasted about the low official death count. With a death toll of at least 4,645, Hurricane Maria would become the second-deadliest hurricane in US history — behind only the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which killed as many as 12,000 people in Texas. The Harvard study found that “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane, a finding consistent with the widely reported disruption of health systems. Health care disruption is now a growing contributor to both morbidity and mortality in natural disasters.” For more we go to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we speak with Omaya Sosa, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, where she is a reporter. Her latest article is headlined, “Puerto Rico Government Did Not Prevent Most Hurricane María-Related Deaths.”


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico. A stunning new report by researchers at Harvard has revealed the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be 70 times higher than the official count. The official death toll still stands at 64, but the new research says the death toll is at least 4,645, and perhaps as many as 5,740. The Harvard study was published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has so far not responded to the new study. But in October, during a visit to Puerto Rico, Trump boasted about the low official death count.

PRES. TRUMP: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you have thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we have spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overbearing, nobody has seen anything like this. And what is your death count as of this moment? Seventeen?

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen certified.

PRES. TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people — all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: With a death toll of at least 4,645, Hurricane Maria would become the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind only the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed as many as 12,000 people in Texas. The Harvard study surveyed almost 3,300 randomly selected Puerto Rican households and found mortality rates leaped 62 percent from September 20th through the end of 2017, compared with the prior year. Researchers counted not just deaths directly from storm injuries such as falling debris, but also those who died due to storm-related delays in medical treatment for injuries, infections, and chronic illnesses.

AMY GOODMAN: The survey found “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane, a finding consistent with the widely reported disruption of health systems. Health care disruption is now a growing contributor to both morbidity and mortality in natural disasters.”

Well, for more, we go to San Juan, Puerto Rico where we are joined by Omaya Sosa, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, where she is a reporter. Her latest article is headlined, Puerto Rico Government Did Not Prevent Most Hurricane MarÌa-Related Deaths. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Omaya. Can you start off by talking about the significance of this Harvard study? At the time it was said something like 60 people were dead. Now this number of between 4,600 and 5,700 people.

OMAYA SOSA: Good morning, Amy. Good morning, Juan. Thanks for having me here with you again. It is very important — it is significant because there is finally a prestigious institution saying what we have been saying for eight months. Everybody is shocked. We are not shocked. We have been saying that the numbers were much higher since the week after the hurricane in September. As early as the first week of December, we had already said that the first month, there was more than 1,000 casualties.

So I am really glad people are finally listening. Things are still really bad. As you said, last week we published a story about the situation in hospitals and healthcare facilities in Puerto Rico, and how they contributed to this high death toll. The situation is still bad in some places, the result of decades of neglect from the government to the healthcare system as a whole.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Omaya, I wanted to know if you could expand on that? Because first of all, the study only goes through December 31st of 2017. Clearly, there were many areas in Puerto Rico that did not even have electricity into January and February, so the study doesn’t even cover that area. But can you talk about what has happened to the healthcare system in Puerto Rico, especially the privatization efforts that occurred in the 1990s?

OMAYA SOSA: Well, Puerto Rico used to have a public healthcare system that, let’s say in the ’70s, was a model even to the world. By the ’90s, it had many problems but it still had a leveled let’s say comprehensive healthcare system, where you had primary healthcare facilities that were public, then you had secondary and tertiary. And they were all over the island in an ordered, organized system. And in the ’90s, because they were losing a lot of money — the government was losing a lot of money with the healthcare facilities and they had many other kinds of problems with supplies and so forth — they privatized most of the system, leaving only the San Juan hospitals mainly and some minor centers around the island.

So most of the hospitals in Puerto Rico are private now, and this hurricane struck in a moment where that was not reorganized, let’s say. The government had no control over the hospitals on the rest of the island, and when they started trying to see how they could order the system, they had really no way. They had no plan.

So besides this privatization thing, the government has also a responsibility over the private hospitals. They license these hospitals, they regulate these hospitals, and they are supposed to inspect these hospitals at least every two years. We found out that around 40 percent of the hospitals had not been inspected. We found places — it’s hospitals and healthcare facilities; it’s not only hospitals. So you have 70 hospitals as a whole. With minor facilities and elderly homes that are also considered healthcare facilities, it is 400.

We found out there were some of these places that were not inspected for eight years, let’s say. So there’s on one hand the privatization of facilities that left the government without any plan of where to channel the patients in this crisis, in this emergency, and then you have the situation that the private hospitals were not being inspected as they should be. We asked for all of these reports. No surprise, they did not give us access to the reports, so we don’t even know which ones they inspected, what these reports said. It is part of, as you’ve seen, a trend from this government to not give any information on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: You are suing for the mortality data?

OMAYA SOSA: Yes, we are, actually. That was a big problem — the mortality data was one of the main problems we encountered when we started investigating this in September. It still is. The Harvard report mentions this. Not even they got the data after December. The government has not made public any data at all since December. And we have been suing the government since February for the complete set of the mortality data so we can know what happened after December in Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Omaya, why do you feel, from your investigation of this tragedy, that the government has maintained this clearly false death toll of at first 16, then 64, and even now, even though it has commissioned its own study, keeps delaying putting that study out of what the actual death toll was? Why do you think that is?

OMAYA SOSA: I think in the beginning, it just was a matter of looking good, that they were being effective in their response. Because they knew this was happening from week number two. It is negligence that they have not attended the situation with the seriousness it needs. They could have prevented many, many deaths. Because if from September, first week of October, you know what’s going on and you take charge of the situation, how many deaths could have been prevented? The data we have that goes until November only shows that deaths were still spiking in November. So many could have been prevented.

In the end, when nothing — they had no other choice — in December, data was so clear that mortality had spiked so much in their own data — the governor had to admit that their numbers were wrong and commissioned the study. But still, I don’t think there’s a real will to find out what is going on. We are already in the new hurricane season. We have no information. The study is still not ready — the one commissioned by the governor — and we cannot prepare for the next season.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of Jaime Plá, president of the Puerto Rico Hospital Association. The Association claims the Puerto Rican government never established a special protocol to handle deaths during Hurricane Maria.

JAIME PLÁ: All deaths are clinical. In other words, if they want to make a determination like after Hurricane Maria, the death count in Puerto Rico increased by 43 percent, and I make a correlation that I’m going to put that number into the Maria death toll statistics, fantastic. I don’t have a problem with that. But I need to be responsible. And from the hospital’s point of view, I can’t ask them to make a diagnostic determination that a death had to do with anything other than a clinical reason, because that is the way we’ve always worked. In terms of specific deaths, I believe if they want to justify a series of deaths, they have to implement a protocol of how this will be done, and they have to cite a legal justification to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Omaya Sosa, if you can respond to Jaime Plá, the president of the Puerto Rico Hospital Association? He was speaking to your Center for Investigative Journalism.

OMAYA SOSA: I have to say he is actually right. There’s no — the governor and the government was the one that had to take charge of this and put out an executive order ordering the hospitals and the doctors to do this in a certain way, and they never did. They still haven’t fixed the protocol. They have admitted the protocol is just simply wrong and it is not working. And I have to repeat, I think there is a lack of interest from the government to really make this happen. It has been months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Omaya, in terms of the federal response in Washington to the hurricane, what is, from your sense, the level of aid that has actually reached Puerto Rico? Not what Congress votes or what President Trump says in a press conference, but of the aid that has actually reached the people of Puerto Rico in their efforts at recovery.

OMAYA SOSA: Too little, too late. We still have about 100,000 people here without electricity, and it has been eight months. I don’t think that would have happened in any of the states. I’m sorry, but it is unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, as we wrap up, Omaya, if you can describe the condition of Puerto Rico right now?

OMAYA SOSA: It is much better in terms of places with electricity and with the basic services, but it is still hanging on a thread. Many places lose electricity or lose water service weekly or biweekly, a couple of times each week. The situation — but that is just going to basics. When you go to the situation in general, it is far from getting back on its feet. A lot of unemployment. The streets are in very bad conditions. It is difficult just driving around San Juan and the island. Amy, you were here, so you saw the conditions, what the infrastructure is in. Everything is just, you know, hanging in there.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for joining us. Omaya Sosa, co-founder of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. The latest report, Puerto Rico Government Did Not Prevent Most Hurricane MarÌa-Related Deaths.

Special thanks to WIPR public television in San Juan, which like many PBS stations around the country also plays Democracy Now! daily, where Omaya is broadcasting from today. And next Wednesday we will have a special on Puerto Rico. This is Democracy Now!. When we return, Glenn Greenwald joins us. Stay with us

Posted in USA, Puerto RicoComments Off on Deadlier Than Katrina and 9/11: Hurricane Maria Killed 4,645 in Puerto Rico, 70 Times Official Toll

Puerto Rico still in crisis, yet FEMA is ending food and water aid


Photo credit: Joe Plette

On Jan. 30, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would end food and water aid to Puerto Rico. Over four months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island nation is still facing a massive humanitarian crisis.

In another inhumane display of callousness, FEMA announced on Jan. 24 that it was cutting off housing funds for dozens of Boricua families from the island now living in Connecticut hotels. This reversed a announcement just days before that FEMA would extend the program. Families are scrambling to find a place to stay or face homelessness in the middle of one of the coldest Northeast winters.

Back in October, Congress passed a disaster relief bill that gave Puerto Rico a $4.9 billion dollar loan, as opposed to a grant, which was given to other areas affected by last year’s deadly hurricane season. But on Jan. 9, FEMA and the Treasury Department announced that this loan would not be given through the Community Disaster Loans Program, due to the island nation’s current balance of $1.7 billion for ongoing operations. Essentially, the Trump administration has determined that Puerto Rico isn’t already poor enough to need this loan!

Government corruption and colonialism

At the same time, almost 3,000 pieces of material necessary for electrical repairs were discovered in a warehouse in Palo Seco during an early January raid led by federal officers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA were both responsible for the distribution of these critical materials and both are to blame for this inexcusable oversight.

All of this, coupled with FEMA’s announcement Jan. 30, makes it clearer than ever before that the U.S. government has zero concern for Puerto Rican lives.

A worsening humanitarian crisis

About 40 percent of the population still doesn’t have power, widespread infrastructural damage hasn’t been fixed, and there is a major lack of access to clean running water. While the island’s capital of San Juan and other metropolitan areas have mostly been restored, more rural areas have been widely ignored. Puerto Ricans in the countryside and on the adjacent islands of Vieques and Culebra haven’t seen a dollar of federal aid and remain entirely cut off from the nation’s main electrical grid.

Half a million families are homeless, with 30,000 families enduring the winter with tarps covering the holes in their roofs.

A recent report found that suicide rate has increased 16 percent since the end of 2017, with about one Puerto Rican taking their own life every day. Health professionals and doctors attribute this spike to the horrific aftermath of the hurricane.

Dr. Kenira Thompson, head of mental health services at the Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, told Newsweek, “A lot of patients are presenting severe mental health issues since the storm and the number of patients in our clinic has increased dramatically. Not one person that has lived through the storm can’t say they weren’t touched by what happened.”

Patients face issues including PTSD, clinical depression, and severe anxiety. Like most of the aid and restoration following Maria, the majority of the mental health clinics and resources are in the big cities like San Juan which leaves out those in the countryside and in poorer areas.

Mass exodus to mainland

As expected, Maria’s aftermath has included a massive wave of migrants seeking an opportunity to rebuild their lives and care for the families in the U.S.. In early January, the Florida state government estimated that over 280,000 Puerto Ricans have sought refuge in that state since the hurricane hit on Sept. 20. Of course, this figure does not account for the estimated hundreds of thousands more Boricuas who have migrated to other states. Cities like New York and Chicago already have large communities of Puerto Ricans who have migrated over the years due to increasing financial hardships on the island, but it’s clear that the hurricane has caused a sharp increase in migration.

That Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship plays a huge role in the swiftness and magnitude of migration from the island. The increasingly dismal situation in Puerto Rico guarantees that the rate of migration will not slow down anytime soon.

The Shock Doctrine

Canadian journalist Naomi Klein coined the term “shock doctrine” to describe how political and economic elites opportunistically use states of emergency to push their unpopular agendas and cash in on communities reeling from a crisis. This idea is also known as “disaster capitalism,” and Puerto Rico is a shining example of this disgusting practice at work.

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello recently announced that the Electric Power Authority will be privatized, a dream realized for corrupt politicians and the billionaire American energy companies they serve who have long expressed their appetite for control of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.

Boriquas take action

Last week, the government announced a bill that would allow cities to hire their own contractors, as municipalities across Puerto Rico still wait for federal repair crews to arrive. In the Boriqua spirit of collectivity and resourcefulness, some municipalities have decided to take matters into their own hands by assembling repair brigades made up of retired and jobless electricians. In the province of San Sebastian, a group of electricians have formed the Pepino Power Authority with the goal of restoring power to the entire municipality by the end of January. The crew has already restored electricity to 250,000 homes.

Unsurprisingly, their initiative has been with met with resistance by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority who accused the city of thwarting its monopoly. San Sebastian Mayor Javier Jimenez Perez admits that he did, but argues that they have taken sufficient security measures and at the end of the day, they haven’t been given much of a choice in their dire circumstances.

“The initiative arose because of how slow we saw the reinstatement of the service by the PREPA, in combination with the state of mind of our people. The name was something we put to this movement: Pepino Power Authority is the initiative they take in a town when government agencies do not have the capacity to be responsive to a need,” said Jiménez Pérez to endi.com.

On January 11, workers and residents in the city of Toa Alta took the streets to protest the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s slow and mismanaged response to the power crisis. At that time, 65 percent of the city was still without electricity, including 20 businesses.

Pa’lante, Siempre Pa’lante! Forward, Always Forward!

The incredible resilience and optimism of the Puerto Rican people in the face one of its worst natural disastrous and economic crises is evident. While the U.S. government continues to oppress and sell out the population for profit, Boricuas continue to fight back. With Governor Rossello’s recent announcement privatizing the electric grid, it’s clear that the situation for Puerto Ricans on the island will continue to get worse. FEMA’s negligence of refugees in the states shows that Boricuas will be forced to struggle no matter where they turn.

Boricuas have struggled, since the Spanish conquistadors landed in Boriken in 1493. The fight to end the colonization of Puerto Rico goes on. This struggle for liberation needs to be supported by everyone.

Posted in Puerto RicoComments Off on Puerto Rico still in crisis, yet FEMA is ending food and water aid

Media Ignoring Puerto Rico’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ Makeover


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


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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