Abolish the debt that is drowning Puerto Rico

We need to organize for immediate disaster relief for Puerto Rico–but we can also expose and oppose the debt disaster that came before the hurricanes.

Families begin to rebuild after the hurricane in Patillas, Puerto Rico (Andrea Booher | Wikimedia Commons)

Families begin to rebuild after the hurricane in Patillas, Puerto Rico (Andrea Booher | Wikimedia Commons)

SOCIALIST WORKER supports President Trump in his call to cancel Puerto Rico’s punishing debt.

We can pretty much guarantee you’ll never see the first five words of that sentence here ever again–and the supervisors of the “adult day care center” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are obviously trying like hell to make sure we never have reason to.

But it says a lot about the Wall Street-made catastrophe that has plagued Puerto Rico for years before Hurricane Maria that even a reactionary fanatic like Trump didn’t think twice before stating the obvious.

“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” Trump said in an interview last week with Geraldo Rivera of Fox News. “I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”

“Wall Street promptly freaked out,” Politico reported the next day. That was an understatement. Heavy trading on the normally stable bond market pushed the value of Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds–already devalued to 56 cents on the dollar after the island effectively declared bankruptcy earlier this year–down to 37 cents on the dollar.

The White House then “move[d] swiftly to clean up Trump’s seemingly offhand remarks,” Politico continued. Again an understatement. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was rushed in front of a television camera to tell CNN: “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that.”

Just to make sure Wall Street got the message that no one in the Trump administration had any intention of doing what the head of the Trump administration had just said, Mulvaney was more explicit–and more contemptuous of the Puerto Rican people–in a second interview with Bloomberg: “We are not going to bail them out. We are not going to pay off those debts.”

Anyone want to bet that Trump doesn’t talk about “saying goodbye” to Puerto Rico’s debt again?

But the simple fact is that justice demands exactly that: The cancelation of all of Puerto Rico’s debt repayments, by the action of the U.S. government, taking responsibility for the Wall Street loan sharks who inflicted the damage in the first place.

Puerto Rico is caught in the same kind of debt trap that has ensnared poor countries in hock to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank–or more advanced economies like Greece, at the hands of European bankers and bureaucrats. The aim is to force vulnerable societies to knuckle under to the will of the ruling class.

And now, the devastation of neoliberal policies has made Puerto Rico’s crisis following Hurricanes Irma and Maria much, much worse.

People who want to show solidarity with Puerto Rico today will rightly focus on ways to provide immediate relief to communities desperate for food, water and critical supplies. SW hopes its readers will raise what money they can to donate to grassroots efforts–see the What You Can Do box with this article.

But we have another job to do now, while Puerto Rico lingers in the media spotlight: expose the debt trap that made the island more vulnerable when Maria struck and demand that it end.

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IN MAY of this year, Puerto Rico’s government went to federal court to file for the equivalent of bankruptcy on a debt that includes over $74 billion in repayments on government bonds and $49 billion in pension obligations. But in return for immediate relief, Puerto Rico will have to abide by even harsher austerity dictates.

The debt burden–which is larger than the annual economic output of the island when pension obligations are added in–is one consequence of a recession that has lasted for more than a decade.

The economic slump began when Corporate America–after many years of making super-profits off operations in Puerto Rico, particularly pharmaceutical production–abandoned the island after favorable tax incentives for investment were phased out starting in the early 2000s. Annual corporate investment in Puerto Rico peaked at 20.7 percent of gross domestic product in 1999–it has fallen to under 7.9 percent as of 2016.

Successive governments–whether led by New Progressive Party, which is aligned with the U.S. Republicans, or the Popular Democratic Party, tied to the Democrats–imposed policies that were guaranteed to make the crisis worse: neoliberal austerity.

Social spending was cut drastically–reductions in the island’s education budget led to hundreds of schools being closed, for example. Public-sector workers have been under intense pressure, with tens of thousands of layoffs and attacks on their unions. Regressive taxes have been hiked, making the sales tax of 11.5 percent higher than any U.S. state.

A succession of state assets were privatized on terms guaranteed to benefit the private purchasers: Back in the 1990s, conservative Gov. Pedro Rosselló González sold off hospitals that were part of a public health care system that was once fairly accessible and affordable at around half their market value.

Austerity measures propelled the vicious circle: Continuing economic decline made shortfalls in government revenues worse, leading to more spending cuts and regressive taxes that caused further economic contraction, and on and on.

The consequences even before Hurricane Maria were dire: Official unemployment is 11.7 percent, well over double the rate in the U.S. as a whole. Just under half of people on the island live in poverty, including three in five children.

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THROUGH IT all, debt was the straitjacket to make sure Puerto Rico didn’t stray from austerity.

Faced with declining revenues as a result of the contracting economy, various branches and agencies of the Puerto Rican government issued bonds to raise money–but these came not only with the usual obligation to repay the cash with interest, but increasing pressure to intensify neoliberal measures.

The vultures of Wall Street were eager to set up the increasingly complex bond issues. They paid better than most municipal issues, and interest on income from Puerto Rico bonds is exempt from city, state and federal taxes.

But the biggest gamblers on Wall Street see more than a tax loophole in the suffering of the people of Puerto Rico. A 2015 report from the Hedgeclippers.org website paints an ugly picture:

Several groups of hedge funds have bought up large chunks of Puerto Rican debt at discounts and have also pushed the island to borrow at extremely favorable terms for creditors. Hedge fund managers are also recommending the implementation of austerity measures.

Known as “vulture funds,” these investors have followed a similar game plan in other debt crises, in countries such as Greece and Argentina. The spoils they ultimately seek are not just bond payments, but structural reforms and privatization schemes that give them extraordinary wealth and power–at the expense of everyone else.

It’s been obvious for several years that Puerto Rico’s debt burden is unpayable, but the hedge-fund vultures are counting on enforcers in the form of the U.S. government.

A law pushed through Congress last year by Barack Obama and the Democrats established a seven-person Fiscal Control Board with broad powers to direct government agencies on the island and dictate laws and policies. It has ordered, for example, exemptions to federal standards on the minimum wage, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

To top it off, the seven members of the board include some of the same financiers who imposed neoliberal policies and arranged the deals that caused the debt burden.

Bondholders may still be forced to take a “haircut”–that is, accept less than what they are owed on Puerto Rico’s bonds. But the mission of the Fiscal Control Board is to make sure working people on the island, not investors, pay as much of the price as possible.

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ALL THIS “reads like the 21st century equivalent of the metropolitan looting of wealth from the colonies,” as Lance Selfa wrote for SocialistWorker.org after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico head on.

And we know who the looters and their accomplices are.

The hedge-fund parasites who are trying to inflict more suffering on Puerto Rico rather than lose a penny from their investment gambles should face pickets outside their offices. Members of Congress–Republican and Democrat alike–should be greeted at public events by solidarity activists demanding that they remove the noose that is strangling the island.

There is much work to be done to organize for immediate relief in Puerto Rico after the hurricane catastrophe. But the left has an opportunity to also expose and oppose the unnatural disaster that came before Irma and Maria.

We may not hear any more about canceling the debt from Donald Trump, but we can raise our own voices to demand that this crushing burden be lifted off the people of Puerto Rico.



Puerto Rico is facing an historic crisis

Puerto Rico is facing one of the worst human disasters in its history following two powerful hurricanes that devastated the island. The scale and scope of the crisis are still not fully known. What is clear, however, is that Puerto Rico’s colonial overlords in Washington are determined to do as little as they can to help the victims. The federal response has been painfully slow and totally inadequate to meeting the island’s needs.

Donald Trump added insult to injury last weekend when he lashed out at the mayor of San Juan on Twitter for daring to appeal for more federal aid. Trump complained that Puerto Ricans “are not able to get their workers to help” and “want everything to be done for them.” Meanwhile, in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, protesters took to the streets to demand immediate emergency relief. In the midst of this developing situation, two Puerto Rican artists and activists, Jael Pimentel and Yara Liceaga-Rojas, talked with Dorian B.about the crisis–and about resistance on the island.

Families line up for water in Puerto Rico

Families line up for water in Puerto Rico

WHAT ARE conditions like on the ground in Puerto Rico? How severe is the humanitarian crisis?

Jael: There are many parts of the country outside the San Juan metro area that are completely without electricity, without any form of communication. Their roads are blocked and in many cases their situation is unknown.

Yara: There are massive infestations of mosquitos and rats because of the accumulation of rotting garbage. There were many animals killed during the storm, and they haven’t been removed. At several cemeteries that were badly flooded, bodies have been forced from their graves by the water and are now just lying out in the open. Conditions are seriously unsanitary.

Many people are ill. The lack of air conditioning in the hospitals is leading to the spread of bacteria and bacterial infections. There are many hospitals in really bad condition, so much so that family members of patients are no longer being let in because it’s unsafe.

Jael: Not only that, but people have no food. I have a cousin who waited in line for four hours. She was given three cans of spaghetti for five people.

Yara: Supermarkets are empty. Gas is being rationed out. You have to wait up to seven or eight hours in your car to get gas, only to be sold $10 to $15 of gas.


Several grassroots organizations are taking donations to support ongoing efforts to bring immediate relief in Puerto Rico, reach the most vulnerable populations and foster an equitable rebuilding of the island. SW urges its readers to prioritize these grassroots efforts over mainstream NGOs.

— Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico

— Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund

— Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico (donate via Paypal to cdpecpr@gmail.com).

— Feminist Solidarity Post-Hurricane Relief Fund organized by Colectiva Feminista

Jael: There are endless lines for everything. I really want to stress this because someone like my father, who is 85 years old, has tried to wait in lines twice already, but has had to leave because of his physical condition. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. one day to cue up for five hours to get gas. The elderly simply cannot stand in line for five hours. There are many people who are unable to access a lot of basic supplies.

HOW MUCH do we know about the loss of life so far?

Yara: The number of dead is far higher than the current official count, which as of this interview is 16. There are no mechanisms in place to actually locate and count the dead. So we really don’t know the number, and it could climb into the hundreds.

The Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has written a report on the overwhelming number of critically ill people in Puerto Rico’s hospitals. But not only that–they spoke with hospital officials who informed them that there are dozens of deceased people in hospital morgues around the country, who are not yet included in the official count because no one has been able to register or identify them. With little or no air conditioning, these bodies are also quickly decomposing.

Jael: There are many people who have died in remote places. Their families and friends are burying them because there’s no way to transport them to hospitals in town. You know you’re supposed to register the bodies of the deceased, but in an emergency situation like this, you have to either bury the person or leave them on the ground.

This is a full-scale public health crisis. And the U.S. government is really not doing anything to address it. There are medical organizations that could be sent, helicoptered in, to different parts of the island to bring medical professionals who are trained to treat people and provide emergency relief. But that isn’t happening.

People with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable right now. They can’t go out and wait in these five-, six-, seven-hour lines for a couple of cans of spaghetti. What is happening to people in this situation? We don’t yet know. There is still so much we have to find out.

There’s also a shortage of medication. Puerto Rico has high rates of diabetes. There are also a lot of cancer and HIV patients who aren’t receiving medication or treatment. Often this is because the medication needs to be refrigerated, and there is no power for that. For people who depend on daily medication, the health consequences are frightening.

IN THE midst of this crisis, there have been many reports about relief supplies sitting in ports that aren’t getting to those in need. Why aren’t these materials being distributed?

Yara: The government authorities at the ports are refusing to distribute the donations, the food and the supplies arriving on the island. This is where the large military presence comes in.

The U.S. military and state national guards are supposedly being mobilized to distribute these supplies all across the archipelago. From what we know, this distribution hasn’t happened yet. What we are constantly hearing from everyone who can post online is that barely anything is being distributed.

Jael: When food arrives at the ports, instead of treating it as emergency supplies, the authorities are going through a long, bureaucratic process. They check every shipping container and make sure their contents meet requirements and regulations, which takes a very long time, especially now when much of that has to be done manually rather than electronically.

But this situation urgently demands a different approach. Officials at the ports must release these containers and distribute the goods because people are dying.

The other point is that the authorities and shipping companies claim that there are not enough drivers to distribute the goods. But we’ve heard multiple stories of people being turned away at the ports when they show up with their own trucks because they’re told they don’t have the right kind of license.

All of the reports that we’ve heard repeat the fact that people are extremely frustrated and angry with the government–the federal government as well as the government of Puerto Rico–and that people are taking matters into their own hands to organize relief themselves.

CAN YOU describe some of what ordinary Puerto Ricans are doing to organize relief?

Yara: People are getting very creative in organizing various kinds of solidarity. Some arts communities, like El Local or Casa Taller, have been making and distributing food. The infrastructure of gas and stoves has collapsed. So these organizations have been giving out meals for free.

People have been going to San Juan’s main financial district, the Milla de Oro, to find buildings with functioning electricity. They’re bringing power strips down there and helping people charge their phones. It’s also one of the few remaining spaces with Internet, where people can communicate with family and friends, both on and off the archipelago.

The initiative to bring power strips to the financial district is quite brilliant because people really don’t have any way to charge their phones, which is the only means of communication with the United States. Most of the information that we know has come through speaking with friends and family on the phone or looking at the things they’ve posted on social media.

Jael: It’s important to emphasize that people are forming many grassroots organizations. Those are the organizations that we’re trying to find ways to donate money to, because that’s what they need.

Yara: And, of course, we also have to recognize that many people are also trying to leave the island right now to escape to safety. But in response, the airlines have jacked up ticket prices to several times the normal cost. So it’s very hard for most people to leave.

And this brings up another issue, which is that, as you might imagine, the crisis unfolding right now is not touching everyone on the island. The rich and the big business owners are doing fine.

The owner of one of the island’s biggest malls, the Plaza las Américas, has electricity in their mall. But it’s closed to the public. The wealthy are hiring others to supply them with generators, water supplies and other materials, while people around them are suffering.

CAN YOU talk about this crisis is affecting the millions of Puerto Ricans who live in the diaspora in the continental U.S.?

Yara: Here in the U.S., we are working really hard to do what we can for our friends and family on the island. Doing this interview is an important part of that work, because people in Puerto Rico really want people here to know what is actually happening. The full story is not reaching the mainstream news.

There are many people who until this day do not know the status of their family members. Many people in Puerto Rico are actually asking those in the U.S. for information about what’s going on, because they can’t gain access to information themselves.

Jael: At the same time, many people on the island have taken it upon themselves to check on the family members of people in the diaspora. People have offered their help through social media and gone to the houses of friends and relatives, which those of us here in the U.S. are trying to reach. One man did this for me and assured me that my parents are okay, after several days of not hearing from them.

Those of us who live in the diaspora have more political rights. We can vote in presidential elections and impact state politics, and we can apply pressure through protests and other actions.

The main demands that I think we need to call for are the cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt and the repeal of the Jones Act.

There is no way Puerto Rico can recover from this disaster without canceling the debt. Before the storm, people were already going through immense suffering because of the destruction of the social infrastructure due to the onerous debt and austerity measures. The situation was already so bad. Now it’s gone over the edge.

The second thing is that we must demand the repeal of the Jones Act. This law, which forces all incoming ships to first dock in the U.S., not only damages the recovery effort, it makes economic stabilization very difficult. Our taxes are higher, the prices of consumer are goods are higher, and our commercial relationships are restricted. We can’t be economically independent under these conditions.

THE ONGOING reality of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. How do you think this colonial relationship is impacting the current disaster?

Jael: We have to recognize the connection with colonialism. This is why the Jones Act was passed into law–to deny Puerto Ricans access to anything that the U.S. doesn’t approve of. Trump has lifted the Jones Act for only 10 days. Ten days is nothing. It’s going to take a lot of time to get to and treat all of the people on the island who are starving and suffering. That’s not enough time.

We continue to feel like the United States wants to keep Puerto Rico trapped, wants to keep it locked in an imperialistic relationship and isn’t doing enough to help on the ground. Not nearly enough. The U.S. state can go to any country, invade it, find oil and all kinds of things. They organize and do it. And for Puerto Rico, they’re not doing anything.

Yara: I think that both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments are scared that people on the island will soon begin to resist, to resist what is happening.

People on the ground are living in shock right now. This shock has different stages, from the initial shock to the mobilizations in the streets. People are protesting, because there is obviously no plan, no strategy by the authorities to resolve this crisis, and the situation is quickly deteriorating. Both the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico have failed miserably.

Jael: It’s incredible to watch Trump say that Puerto Rico is hard to reach because it’s in a “big ocean.” He has clearly shown that he has no respect or regard for the people of our country, and he couldn’t care less what happens to us. His response has been absolutely deplorable.

I also want to say that one of the main arguments we’ve heard so far is that Puerto Ricans deserve to be helped because we are American citizens. That may be true, but it’s a bad argument to lead with. We deserve to be helped not because we’re citizens, but because we’re human beings. We have fundamental rights that are being totally violated in this crisis.


Wall Street demands Puerto Rico pay up

By Rafael Azul
5 October 2017

A day after Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, where he contemptuously told survivors that they were not facing a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and that their demands for emergency aid were throwing the US budget “out of whack,” administration officials made it clear there would be no debt relief for the hurricane-ravaged US territory.

Trump tossed out paper towels and other supplies at a local church in what might be described as the billionaire president’s “let them eat paper towels” moment. With 95 percent of the island’s residents without power, half the population without clean water, a lack of gasoline and medical supplies, and a death toll, which is officially 34 now and potentially hundreds more, the president said the condition on the island due to the federal response was “nothing short of a miracle.”

This contrasts sharply with a statement of the UK-based anti-hunger organization Oxfam, which said last week that it would provide relief to the island because of the Trump administration’s “slow and inadequate” response.

Prior to the visit, Trump sat down with Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera. In a pre-recorded interview, which was aired Tuesday night, the president blurted out that it was likely that Puerto Rico’s massive debt would have to be wiped out due to huge recovery costs now estimated to be $90 billion.

“We are going to wipe that out,” declared the president in reference to Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt obligation. “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” Trump said in pseudo-populist fashion. “I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs but whoever it is you can wave goodbye to that.”

The president’s remark produced a sell-off on Wednesday of Puerto Rico’s defaulted bonds, which dropped from 56 percent of face value to 36 percent.

Administration officials rushed to downplay the president’s remarks and reassure the vulture capitalists which control the island’s debt.

Trump’s own budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, told CNN, “I wouldn’t take it word for word with that. We are not going to deal right now with those fundamental difficulties that Puerto Rico had before the storm.”

The head of the government’s Office of Management of Budget made it clear that there was no plan to relieve the island of its debt burden. “Puerto Rico’s going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances.”

In other words, Puerto Ricans did this to themselves. Storm or no storm, they must pay up.

In fact, the island’s massive debt is the result of its colonial legacy, a decades-long economic recession resulting from runaway US corporations seeking cheaper labor elsewhere, and the financial looting of the island by Wall Street which has long profited from buying up its high risk and high return debt.

In June 2015 then Puerto Rican governor Alejandro Padilla, declared Puerto Rico was in a “death spiral” because its debt is “not payable… There is no other option… this is not politics, this is math.” Having already imposed draconian austerity measures, Padilla demanded concessions from debt holders.

However, the Promise Act, passed by the Obama administration, mandated that the debt crisis would be resolved with ever more savage austerity measures that involve the dismantling of public budgets and social services. The Promise Act imposed a non-elected Financial Oversight and Management Board that would administer Puerto Rico’s budget and distribute the debt payments among debt holders.

The appointed members were front men for powerful financial interests. For example, two of its members, José Ramón Gonzalez and Carlos García came straight out of Banco de Santander, one of the banks that, operating in the middle, between Puerto Rico and the hedge funds, profited greatly from designing “financial instruments” and then selling them to investors.

And not just Banco de Santander; other Wall Street banks, including the infamous Goldman Sachs helped convince Puerto Rican officials to borrow more at terms that have been described as “payday loans” in a report by the Refund America Project.

The report describes how a $4.3 billion loan quickly morphed into a $33.5 billion debt, through the mechanism of compounded interest. It suggests that this portion of the debt violated Puerto Rican law and amounted to “unconstitutional debt” that can justifiably be repudiated. Tellingly, the current administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló refused to cooperate with this study.

“We plan to do more with less,” was the phrase Rosselló used this June to describe his administration’s plan to deal with Puerto Rico’s financial implosion. He then went on to list the various austerity measures and job cuts that had already been enacted since he took office this January.

The Puerto Rican government’s $74 billion in tax-exempt bond debt to hedge funds and wealthy investors is the result more than ten years of negative economic growth, at the rate of about two percent per year, and mass emigration of skilled and professional workers in the context of some three decades of deindustrialization.

Prior to the storm the official rate of unemployment was 11.5 percent. Forty-six percent of all households existed under a dismal poverty line. One-third of workers were ineligible for Social Security benefits. A record 400,000 Puerto Ricans have left since 2007 with another 240,000 are expected to leave by 2025.

Retirees are among the most vulnerable. Three years ago, the Puerto Rican government changed the retirement system that guaranteed public sector workers a full pension after 30 years of employment to a system that forces workers to work up to 15 additional years for full benefits.

Driving the discussion in the bankruptcy court over further public pension cuts is the fact that the system is scheduled to run out of money this July, leaving some $50 billion owed to retirees unpaid. It is anticipated that ten percent or more may by slashed from existing pensions. Caps on Medicare imposed by the federal government force many seniors to pay more for their medical care

Had the US Federal Reserve bank adopted the same criteria toward Puerto Rico that it did toward Wall Street financial institutions behind the 2008–2009 crash and deemed “too big to fail,” it would have bought up Puerto Rico’s toxic assets long ago. That never happened and now the suffering people on the island are to be squeezed again.

Instead, the working class in Puerto Rico and on the US mainland should demand the cancellation of the debt and an end to the plundering of public assets. The Wall Street banks and other giant financial institutions should be transformed into public enterprises democratically controlled and collectively owned by the working class.

Only in this way can the necessary hundreds of billions be poured into Puerto Rico to repair and update the electrical power grid, the water system and flood control system, roads and schools, which are essential for the functioning of a modern society.


Trump’s photo-op in Puerto Rico

By Rafael Azul
4 October 2017

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving millions without electricity, water and other basic necessities, US President Donald Trump did a quick fly-in and fly-out Tuesday to pronounce what a wonderful job his administration has done to address the crisis.

Trump’s entourage included his wife Melania, some cabinet members, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Jenniffer González, chairwoman of the Puerto Rico Republican Party and the island’s nonvoting member of the US House of Representative.

The president’s handlers made sure that Trump—who clearly did not want to be there—appeared in public as little as possible to prevent any opportunity for public protest. After a little more than four hours, the president flew off, an hour ahead of schedule.

The people the president did speak to were preselected. He visited an upscale neighborhood in Guaynabo, west of the capital city of San Juan, which has been one of the fastest areas to have electricity, communication and other services restored. At a local church, he threw rolls of paper towels out to a crowd in the most demeaning fashion, later saying, “There’s a lot of love in this room, a lot of love. Great people.”

During his press conference, however, Trump could hardly contain his contempt for the population of the US territory. The recovery effort and the current situation on the island, he claimed, was “really nothing short of a miracle,” adding that it was nothing like the “real catastrophe” that occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Following the press conference, Trump visited the Muñoz Rivera housing project in Guaynabo. One of the housing project residents, Raúl Cardona, told Trump “he should visit the central parts of the islands, where a lot of people have no food, no water, where a lot of people have died. What he saw in Guaynabo was nothing compared to the rest of the island,” Cardona told the ElNuevo Día newspaper about his words with Trump.

Only four percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents have power, more than half do not have clean water, and many residents are washing in rivers. With temperatures in the 90s, the lack of air conditioning and medical attention could lead to further fatalities, particularly among the elderly and infirm. Roads are blocked with debris and standing water is attracting mosquitos that can carry deadly diseases.

Thousands remain in shelters, gasoline is scarce, ATMs are out of money, and many of the supplies sent to the island have been left on docks because of the lack of diesel for trucks. Public schools, which suffered devastating destruction, may not open for six months or more, officials have said.

Trump repeated the official claim of 16 hurricane-related fatalities. After the president left, Governor Ricardo Rosselló raised the death toll to 34. The number of fatalities is expected to grow once rescuers reach more isolated rural and mountainous areas.

Earlier in the morning, the island’s Secretary of Public Health Héctor Pesquera announced there were more than 100 cadavers in hospitals around the island, which are currently being examined to determine if they died as a result of the hurricane, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.

Governor Rosselló—the MIT-trained politician who was a Clinton delegate during the Democratic Party convention last year—dutifully suppressed this information during Trump’s visit. The president later praised Rosselló for “not playing politics.”

Trump previously denounced Puerto Rican residents for the massive debt owed to the Wall Street banks, which is the result of the island’s colonial legacy, a decades-long economic recession and wholesale looting by financial speculators who control Puerto Rican debt. Rosselló and his predecessors have imposed savage austerity measures, and the island, which declared bankruptcy last May, is currently under the dictatorship of a financial oversight board imposed by the Obama administration.

During a press conference, Trump—who is proposing the largest tax cut for corporations and the rich in history—complained that the recovery effort was costing the US government too much money. “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Rosselló, who has revised upward his government’s estimate of the cost of rebuilding the island’s infrastructure to $90 billion, is seeking a low-interest emergency line of credit as soon as possible, saying otherwise the government will run out of public funds by next week.

Trump has complained that Puerto Rican residents are not helping themselves enough and are essentially expecting government handouts. Last week he poured scorn via text message from his luxury golf course on local officials, including the mayor of San Juan, for complaining about the slowness of the administration’s response.

Shortly after Trump had left the island, US federal authorities denied Puerto Rico’s petition that recipients of food stamps (which are used by 46 percent of the population) be allowed to purchase meals in fast-food restaurants, given the scarcity of food in the island’s supermarkets.




Trump to Puerto Rico: Your lives don’t matter

 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

30 September 2017

Almost two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, all basic forms of social infrastructure in the US territory have completely collapsed.

Addressing the press yesterday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said that she watched in horror as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Elaine Duke called the government’s response to the hurricane a “good news story.” Duke added that she was “very satisfied” with the government response and praised the “limited number of deaths.”

To the contrary, Cruz warned, “something close to a genocide” is unfolding in Puerto Rico due to the government’s failed response. She “begged” Trump to fix the botched relief effort, adding, “We are dying here.”

That such a state of affairs could exist in a territory of the world’s wealthiest country is another unanswerable indictment of American capitalism, which has proven itself again and again incapable of addressing the most basic social needs of the population.

The financial aristocracy has responded with total indifference to the immediate needs of millions of desperate, impoverished people fighting for their lives on the island territory. Its primary concern is not saving lives in Puerto Rico but passing tax cuts in Washington. To the extent that Puerto Rico registers on its political radar, it is for the purpose of using the disaster to secure debt payments for the island’s Wall Street creditors and advance its austerity regime both in Puerto Rico and on the US mainland.

President Trump called the response “amazing” on Thursday and added on Friday, “It’s been incredible the results we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”

The contrast between these callous statements and the terrible reality exposes the oligarchic character of American social life. Aloof from and unconcerned with the needs of the masses of people, the ruling elite evinces a total disdain for human life.

Details of the disaster zone are beginning to emerge more clearly. One hundred percent of the power grid is inoperable and will not be fixed for six months. Ninety percent of homes are damaged. Forty-four percent of the population of 3.5 million is without drinking water.

Most of the island has no cell phone reception. Hospitals are running out of medications, diesel for generators and clean water. Food reserves are running low. Pumps for toilets and bathing have failed. Eighty percent of crops were destroyed.

The sewage system is broken and floodwaters have spread human and chemical waste across the island. Instances of waterborne diseases are growing and the mosquito population is exploding. Officials and relatives have not been able to make contact with many impoverished villages inland. ATMs and credit cards do not work, making it practically impossible to buy food without cash.

The relief effort has been a grotesque display of indifference and incompetence. A government capable of moving trillions of dollars worth of manpower and equipment across the world to wage war has proven unwilling and unable to mobilize emergency aid to an island less than three hours from New York City by plane. The American ruling class is far better at killing than at saving lives.

The government blocked the delivery of tons of foreign shipments of food and medical aid on the basis of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from transporting goods between US ports. Only on Thursday—a week and a half after the storm hit—did the Trump administration waive the Jones Act restrictions for Puerto Rico, and even then only for a brief ten-day window.

Up to 10,000 shipping crates full of food, fuel, water and medical aid have sat for days in Puerto Rico’s ports. The Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for dispersing the goods through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had no plan to disburse these items.

Many roads, long neglected by cuts to infrastructure spending on the island, are impassible. The wind wiped out aboveground phone lines and cell towers and destroyed Puerto Rico’s power plants, which are a median 44 years old. Trucks cannot deliver fuel to power generators because they do not have enough fuel to make the drive.

Local officials in rural towns complain that the government is not delivering necessary relief even where the roads are intact. Roberto Ramirez Kurtz, Mayor of Cabo Rojo, told National Public Radio, “The Roads are open. I’ve been able to come here. So why haven’t we used this to [transport goods]?”

As a result, the death toll continues to rise. Though the official total is between 15 and 19, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) wrote that this drastically underreports the number of fatalities. It puts the figure in the hundreds or higher. Sources told the CPI that “bodies are piling up” at morgues and hospitals across the island.

Again and again, storms and natural disasters lay bare the irreconcilable antagonism between the social needs of the population and the money-grubbing parasitism of the rich. While trillions are made available for war, surveillance, police militarization and corporate giveaways, the ruling class claims there is “no money” to protect the poor and working class from being killed en masse by wind and rain.

Never letting an opportunity go to waste, Trump shrugged off the growing death toll and threatened to withhold emergency funding as a bargaining chip to demand that Puerto Rico pay a higher proportion of its debts to Wall Street creditors in ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.

In a speech Friday before a room of corporate CEOs salivating over his proposed tax cuts, Trump said: “Ultimately, the Puerto Rican government will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort [that] will end up being one of the biggest ever will be funded and organized. And what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island.”

Trump expresses in a more explicitly thuggish form what the financial aristocracy is thinking. While the Democrats raise token opposition to Trump’s handling of relief efforts on the grounds that the administration is moving “too slowly,” it is not just one presidential administration that is to blame, but the entire for-profit capitalist system.

Though the military is ostensibly being mobilized to help with the relief effort, the real purpose is to intimidate or crush social opposition fueled both by the storm and the austerity plan imposed by Wall Street in the island’s bankruptcy proceeding. This has been the US military’s basic role for 119 years as an occupation force on the Island.

The destruction of Puerto Rico raises the need for the immediate expenditure of billions of dollars to save the lives of those at risk of death and disease, and hundreds of billions more to provide resources such as food, water, fuel and medical supplies and rebuild and modernize the social infrastructure. All those who have lost their homes or jobs must be fully compensated and made whole.

This cannot be accomplished under capitalism. It requires confiscating the wealth of the financial aristocracy, nationalizing the banks and corporations to place them under public ownership and democratic control, and reorganizing the US and world economy not for profit, but to meet the needs of the human race.

Eric London


Memento Mori: a Requiem for Puerto Rico

Photo by Chief National Guard Bure | CC BY 2.0

Puerto Rico is not large enough to stand alone. We must govern it wisely and well, primarily in the interest of its own people.

–Theodore Roosevelt

Puerto Rico is dying.

Let those words sink in.

Three and a half million people are without power, water, fuel, food, and support. This isn’t some uninhabited atoll. This is where I grew up. This is where my family lives. This is my home.

And my home is dying.

I have been desperately trying to come up with the right words to express what I feel and what I think for the better part of a day. My social media has as of late provided me with a space to write my remarks, observations, and more often than not, rants about the situation on Puerto Rico. I shared my anxieties when hours, then days passed without a word from my family. I cried in silent sobs at the pictures that slowly started to come out of the island. Despair began to unite the large Puerto Rican diaspora as we comforted each other, and waited as the absolute silence became more and more unbearable.

“Have you heard from…”

“Does anyone have any information about my hometown…”

“My mom, she’s not well, I can’t reach her…”

“I can’t find my partner…”

It was only last Friday when I had proof of life from my family in my hometown of Arecibo. And it was on Sunday that I was finally able to speak to them over the phone. Speak… more like share moments of absolute joy and tears of happiness. Of feeling born again. And with that memory fresh in my mind, I sat down to write.

Nothing came except tears. I’m crying as I write this.

How can one put into words how it feels to be completely powerless as the world I’ve always known slowly turns into Hell for those that I love the most? How can one fully express in words that could convey, in any way, the overwhelming sense of constant pain, of horrible uncertainty, the fear of loss, and the fury over what is, in the end, an unnatural disaster? And how can I live with myself for not being there?

How can I explain to people that Puerto Rico, my home, my island, my heart and soul, is dying?

The fear of death is an eternal companion in these situations. So as my country slowly agonizes, would it be appropriate for me to write a eulogy for its seemingly inevitable death? Perhaps some choice words as a send-off to the oldest colony in the world?  As Donald Trump, the biggest psychopath to occupy the Oval Office so far, finally relents to growing public pressure and announces that federal funds will be made available in full to Puerto Rico, and as more aid slowly makes its way to the island, could I dare hope for a stay of its execution? Or is this just another delay in its pre-ordained death-by-empire?

President Trump’s message to Puerto Rico was clear: pay up and drop dead. The island is expected to pay its imaginary debt for the dubious “privilege” of being an imperial colony in the way it’s always done so: in blood. Wall Street’s interests have priority over securing the very survival of nearly four million people. God forbid that millionaire Wall Street bondholders suffer the horror of payment forfeiture over a minor inconvenience like Hurricane María, only the worst storm in eighty years!

The president initially denied full federal assistance to the island and refused to suspend the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or Jones Act, that has for nearly a century strangled commerce to and from Puerto Rico. Because of this stubbornness an obviously colonial World War One-vintage piece of legal protectionism continues to choke the island as its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves. Colonialism is a self-perpetuating state of exception that thrives on crises precisely because the beneficiaries are always the colonizers and their local flunkies who maintain and benefit from the illusion of “self-governance.”

While Homeland Security steadfastly holds on to its refusal to wave the Jones Act, Herr Trump was later forced by public pressure to amend his remarks on aid, and the USNS Comfort hospital ship is now scheduled to arrive on the island in three to five days (as will our bloviating commander-in-chief himself at some point) any help received from the American imperial mainland now carries with it a stigma, a sense of being a discarded, second-hand lifeline. This is extremely revealing. It’s been over a week since Hurricane María cut a path of destruction in Puerto Rico nearly beyond the scope of living memory, a week that passed before Trump made any remarks at all. It was a week filled by hysterics over kneeling, Russia and North Korea, a week of forgetting that Puerto Rico even existed.

American colonialism is not just confined to its territories or its Native American population. A successful empire can choose to either exalt itself to its population, thereby becoming an object of national pride, or hide itself by dulling that population’s senses and intelligence, negating that it has an empire in the first place. The United States pursued the second path. Successfully, I might add. Puerto Rico’s imperial masters also relied on their own profoundly ignorant population on the mainland that, fueled by the systemic racism on which the United States is built on, and a blinding allegiance to patriotism, considered Puerto Ricans to be just another group of Hispanic vermin. To this day nearly half of Americans do not even know that Puerto Ricans are “fellow citizens”, at least in name. And make no mistake. The white supremacist regime that attacks NFL players and Black Lives Matter activists for having the nerve to protest is the same regime that established the fiscal control board, the biggest killer in Hurricane María’s wake. These things are directly related, and the fiscal control board’s austerity measures ensured that it has blood on its hands.

The United States has perfected its colonialism on the island of Puerto Rico to such a degree that when it decided to take away the island’s limited self-rule, the vaunted “commonwealth”, and instead installed a fiscal control board, it did so with the applause of many islanders. Many Puerto Ricans, conditioned by school, church, political party, and kin to accept their inferiority to the gringo as natural law, felt unfit to govern themselves. We so desired to be our masters that we welcomed punishment for engineered transgressions tailor-made by vulture capitalists in the metropole and on the island itself.

And then came María. The other killer phenomenon to approximate María’s devastation and raw power was Hurricane San Felipe II, in 1928. Yet María’s devastation attacked an island that, in many ways, was in worse shape than the relatively pre-industrial Puerto Rico of the 1920’s. Hurricane San Felipe was nature’s killer. Hurricane María, however, has only exposed colonialism’s murderous true self. There is nothing natural about this killer.

María found the perfect target: an island whose infrastructure was crippled by decades of colonial neglect, the product of an idled and corrupt political class that blindly follows orders from Wall Street and Washington. These quisling parasites, like the island’s cravenly telegenic current governor Ricardo Rosselló, coasted to power on the artificiality of petty political partisanship fostered by the main political parties on the people for decades in order to divide and lord over a population lulled by consumerism, Christian conservatism, and Cold War-era paranoia.

Now that same political apparatus has fallen apart. Long lines await supplies and fuel that are not being delivered. Two deaths were reported at an ICU when its generator failed, drained bone-dry as its diesel fuel never arrived. Governor Rosselló has been busy with a nonstop photo op tour since the hurricane passed. His Facebook page and Twitter account are filled with photos of his smiling face. But it is all smoke and mirrors. More and more mayors are voicing their rage at the lack of supplies. Whole shipments of supplies and fuel await distribution.

The situation has laid bare the reality that there was never a plan put into place. It has also revealed that FEMA has utterly failed in its role. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, acting in every way much more responsibly than our delusional governor, has denounced that FEMA has done the impossible to tie up any aid effort with red tape, asking for interminable memos and paralyzing aid distribution. It is quite telling that at one point in an interview journalist David Begnaud, who’s done a commendable job covering Puerto Rico, briefly mistakenly calls Mayor Yulín “governor”. Deep down, though, I’m sure that when he caught his slip and corrected himself he wished that his momentary lapse would have indeed been fact.

This official paralysis and complete disregard for reality often leaves first responders and National Guardsmen mobilized to help with distribution literally empty-handed. And this crass stupidity is not limited to help on the national level. Cuba has offered help in the form of doctors and a brigade of electrical workers to help shore up and rebuild the island’s ravaged infrastructure. Cuba! Yet cruelly, but predictably, the American government denied them entry on political grounds.

FEMA’s (in)actions border on being criminally negligent, even going as far as kicking roughly 400 refugees out of the San Juan Convention Center in order to conveniently take it over as their center of operations alongside the Puerto Rican central government. Federal and local agencies have become shining examples of feckless inaction, fetid bureaucracy, and unfettered bullshit. In typical Trumpist fashion, FEMA’s response has been to accuse the media of biased reporting, but the true bias is self-evident.

Puerto Rico is dying, yes. It is a victim of the stupidity of its political class and the racist vindictiveness of its colonial masters. Colonialism will always be a humanitarian crisis.

But Puerto Rico isn’t dead yet.

In fact, something seems to be happening. The lack of governmental aid, the realization that American aid is essentially a fantasy, the uncalled-for curfew that’s tailor made to pacify anxious shareholders stateside and not help the citizenry, and the need to rediscover communal bonds of mutual aid have done something to Puerto Ricans. I confess to standing in awe of the newly found resilience, the furious indignation turned into action, and the unbreakable bonds of basic humanity that have returned with a vengeance. And with it comes a growing sense of indignation, of anger towards our colonial masters. Anger, blessed anger, the engine of political and social change par excellence.

Puerto Rico is dying, but if it survives this and rises once again, it may do so inoculated from the diseased colonial mentality that has crushed its collective spirit for so long. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth thinking about now more than ever. This national tragedy has made Boricuas remember that they can, in fact, do things on their own together. That the often-remarked bravery of Puerto Ricans that many feared lost by colonialism’s savage indoctrination (I confess to being amongst those that felt this way) was always there. That fury and indignation lead to freedom. Like many fellow Puerto Ricans that live in exile, we have come forward to join that life-and-death struggle for our homeland, and we do so together, always loyal.

As the white imperialist invader revels in his pettiness and apathy it becomes clear that the Puerto Rican people must resist and fight back in the best way possible: by surviving and thriving together. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll rid Puerto Rico of the American flag’s stagnating shadow over our island and reduce it to a simple funerary shroud wrapped around the corpse of American colonialism, breaking away from that dying empire once and for all.

More articles by:

Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz is a fifth-year graduate student and doctoral candidate in British and world history at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he specializes in anarchist history. A native son of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he currently resides in Bloomington. He has published in CounterPunch and in the Spanish-language publication Revista Cruce.


Trump’s Deadly Narcissism

CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times

According to a new Quinnipiac poll, a majority of Americans believe that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. That’s pretty remarkable. But you have to wonder how much higher the number would be if people really knew what’s going on.

For the trouble with Trump isn’t just what he’s doing, but what he isn’t. In his mind, it’s all about him — and while he’s stroking his fragile ego, basic functions of government are being neglected or worse.

Let’s talk about two stories that might seem separate: the deadly neglect of Puerto Rico, and the ongoing sabotage of American health care. What these stories have in common is that millions of Americans are going to suffer, and hundreds if not thousands die, because Trump and his officials are too self-centered to do their jobs.

Start with the disaster in Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands.

When Hurricane Maria struck, more than a week ago, it knocked out power to the whole of Puerto Rico, and it will be months before the electricity comes back. Lack of power can be deadly in itself, but what’s even worse is that, thanks largely to the blackout, much of the population still lacks access to drinkable water. How many will die because hospitals can’t function, or because of diseases spread by unsafe water? Nobody knows.

But the situation is terrible, and time is not on Puerto Rico’s side: The longer this goes on, the worse the humanitarian crisis will get. Surely, then, you’d expect bringing in and distributing aid to be the U.S. government’s top priority. After all, we’re talking about the lives of three and a half million of our fellow citizens — more than the population of Iowa or metro San Diego.

So have we seen the kind of full-court, all-out relief effort such a catastrophe demands? No.

Admittedly, it’s hard to quantify the federal response. But none of the extraordinary measures you’d expect to see have materialized.

The deployment of military resources seems to have been smaller and slower than it was in Texas after Harvey or Florida after Irma, even though Puerto Rico’s condition is far more dire. Until Thursday the Trump administration had refused to lift restrictions on foreign shipping to Puerto Rico, even though it had waived those rules for Texas and Florida.

Why? According to the president, “people who work in the shipping industry” don’t like the idea.

Furthermore, although it’s more than a week since Maria made landfall, the Trump administration has yet to submit a request for aid to Congress.

And where’s the leadership? There’s a reason we expect visible focus by the president on major national disasters, including a visit to the affected area as soon as possible (Trump doesn’t plan to visit Puerto Rico until next week). It’s not just theater; it’s a signal about urgent priorities to the rest of the government, and to some extent to the nation at large.

But Trump spent days after Maria’s strike tweeting about football players. When he finally got around to saying something about Puerto Rico, it was to blame the territory for its own problems.

The impression one gets is of a massively self-centered individual who can’t bring himself to focus on other people’s needs, even when that’s the core of his job.

And then there’s health care.

Obamacare repeal has failed again, for the simple reason that Graham-Cassidy, like all the other G.O.P. proposals, was a piece of meanspirited junk. But while the Affordable Care Act survives, the Trump administration is openly trying to sabotage the law’s functioning.

This sabotage is taking place on multiple levels. The administration has refused to confirm whether it will pay crucial subsidies to insurers that cover low-income customers. It has refused to clarify whether the requirement that healthy people buy insurance will be enforced. It has canceled or suspended outreach designed to get more people to sign up.

These actions translate directly into much higher premiums: Insurers don’t know if they’ll be compensated for major costs, and they have every reason to expect a smaller, sicker risk pool than before. And it’s too late to reverse the damage: Insurers are finalizing their 2018 rates as you read this.

Why are the Trumpists doing this? Is it a cynical calculation — make the A.C.A. fail, then claim that it was already doomed? I doubt it. For one thing, we’re not talking about people known for deep strategic calculations. For another, the A.C.A. won’t actually collapse; it will just become a program more focused on sicker, poorer Americans — and the political opposition to repeal won’t go away. Finally, when the bad news comes in, everyone will know whom to blame.

No, A.C.A. sabotage is best seen not as a strategy, but as a tantrum. We can’t repeal Obamacare? Well, then, we’ll screw it up. It’s not about achieving any clear goal, but about salving the president’s damaged self-esteem.

In short, Trump truly is unfit for this or any high office. And the damage caused by his unfitness will just keep growing.

Paul Krugman.