by Al Simpson
On September 28th, Donald Trump said: “The governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we’re doing. . . . The governor said we are doing a great job. . . . We have had tremendous reviews from government officials . . . and this morning, the governor made incredible statements about how well we’re doing. . . . So everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico, we’re very proud of it. . . . I think we’ve done a really good job . . . and we are going to do far more than anybody else would ever be able to do and it’s being recognized as such.”
Just maybe this is a bit of exaggeration, or maybe there really was an intent to do something other than a great job. The President did not fail to remind Puerto Ricans of their $74 billion debt to the US.
Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria on September 20 and 21, and on Friday, September 29, the U.S. finally started to coordinate aid to the Island after it suspended the Jones Act the day before. The Jones Act, which made it much harder to transfer emergency goods to the Island, states that any goods ferried port-to-port in the U.S. must be carried by American vessels and crew or the recipients must pay extra taxes, tariffs and fees. Jones is only one factor that combined to make the cost of living 13% higher than on the mainland. Everything got worse since 2006, when the US Congress let tax breaks for businesses in PR expire, and they left. The only break Puerto Ricans got since was to make borrowing easier, and since then PR has had to institute tax increases to pay off the debt to US banks, and cut back on public services and infrastructure. The fragile electric and communication and health care systems, among others, have made the devastation so much worse.
WHAT WILL THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY BE?
On Thursday, September 28, the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, was dispatched toward Puerto Rico as part of the large military intervention on the Island. Other amphibious assault vessels, such the USS Wasp, will also be sent. Although the move has been presented as a necessary response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, it is also aimed at containing possible civil unrest. In addition to the 1,500 troops of the Puerto Rican National Guard currently involved in rescue efforts, thousands more US Army and National Guard soldiers will be sent. This will be one of the largest US military interventions in Puerto Rican history. The ostensible purpose of the military operation is to make up for the collapse of physical infrastructure that has left vital supplies sitting in Puerto Rican ports with no means of getting them to the people in the Island’s interior.
The military effort is under the command of Brigadier General Richard Kim, whose previous tenure includes combat tours in Iraq and most recently in Afghanistan. He is currently Deputy Commanding General of the United States Army North Division. He will be in charge of the entire US “recovery” operation in Puerto Rico with responsibility over the military, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), other government agencies, and the private sector, thus effectively superseding the local government.
History of the US and PR
Puerto Rico has long been of use to the US military; the US annexed it in the Spanish American War of 1898. In 1917 citizenship was granted to the islanders, which allowed 18,000 to be drafted into WW1. In 1941, the U.S. established military bases in the islands of Vieques and Culebra. For over 60 years, the U.S. Navy used Vieques for target practice in Navy bombing exercises, dropping napalm, Agent Orange, and between 300 and 800 tons of depleted uranium-tipped ammunition. In total, the Navy dropped nearly 3 million pounds of bombs on Vieques, until stopped by mass protest in 2003. One must wonder if a plan for military bases in a less populated Puerto Rico might be part of the thinking of Washington now.
LONG TERM EFFECTS, EXACERBATED BY RACISM
Just consider the conditions on October 1 according to the New York Times:
“Life remains far from normal on the island, 11 days after the storm made landfall. The electricity system was devastated, and it could be months before residents get back regular electric service. The governor said that more than 720 of the island’s 1,100 gas stations had reopened, but there are still shortages and distribution problems. Some stations in San Juan had short lines of customers on Sunday, but others in outlying areas were still choked with lines that stretch hundreds of cars long. According to a Puerto Rican government website tracking the recovery, 11 percent of cellphone towers are working, and 5 percent of the electric grid. Authorities said that 46 of the island’s 48 dialysis centers were operating, using diesel-fueled generators. Nine hospitals now have regular electricity service restored, and dozens more are running on generator power.”
There is concern about epidemics in coming weeks caused by toxic sewage, and other pollutants.
According to the Associated Press, President Trump said of Puerto Ricans: “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” But this a racist lie! In effect calling Puerto Ricans lazy. Puerto Ricans are trying the best they can under difficult conditions. Only recently, after almost 10 days, were supplies finally delivered. The Puerto Rican People are getting things done!
Comedores Sociales in Caguas provides food for 500 people each day, and Calle Salud Salud in Loíza, prepare 300 lunches. Doctors and nurses are visiting every home to assess and treat residents’ medical conditions. In Utuado, people cleaned up a street and rebuilt it to span a river.
“We need, one, relief that does not come with strings attached. We don’t need any more loans with high interest. We need repair and investment for 119 years of exploitation and then the amount of money that has been made off Puerto Rico. We need the repeal of the Jones Act and all other laws that limit the capacity of Puerto Rico to be a sustainable place to live. We need demilitarization of humanitarian help, and allow the people of Puerto Rico, not just here, but in the United States, to be able to share their solidarity and their help in a horizontal, direct way, without trying to control at a moment where lives are at stake. We need a commitment to just rebuilding, no displacement, no evictions. We’re already hearing from communities where FEMA is telling them that they cannot rebuild their home where it currently is. And that is starting to lift up grave, grave questions about what is the agenda behind telling people who have lived in a place for a very long time, in a moment like this, that they cannot rebuild their home there. We need debt relief. And we need to end colonialism, which is at the heart, it is at the core, of this issue. (Interview with Xiomara Caro Diaz, director of New Organizing Projects at the Center for Popular Democracy, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/10/2/san_juan_activist_after_hurricane_maria)
Feeding 1000s of people by residents and World Central Kitchen
This is in sharp contrast with Trump’s racist remark. Unfortunately, I have heard this ignorant trash repeated.
One woman I know told me that Puerto Ricans are lazy. I said right away: “You think so, then prove it to me.” Racism should be challenged right away. Racism smooths the way for workers to be exploited. Whether it’s steering minority workers into low paying and dangerous jobs in factories, racial and ethnic discrimination in housing and other types of exploitation, racism is a main tool of the capitalists to divide and exploit the working class. It must be fought.
Puerto Rico was a poor Island, even before the hurricane. Now with a destroyed infrastructure, the Island has no way to pay its debts and will be under the control of Wall Street for some time to come. Already one hears talk of privatizing sectors like electricity. Unlike Ukraine, where for strategic reasons the U.S. assists with its debts, there will be no such help for Puerto Rico. Even natural disasters are not handled in an efficient fashion, despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens.
Conclusion: Puerto Rico’s residents are aware of the neglect and studied incompetence they are receiving from Washington, and there may be protests struggles against the “great job” that is being perpetrated on them. So, it not surprising that a military response was made. It’s important to understand that the problem is NOT Donald Trump – look at the horrors that transpired in Haiti during the time Obama was President. This included a Cholera epidemic that was brought in by UN troops! Under capitalism, third world countries and similar areas are neglected and viciously exploited. Only the strength and unity of workers around the world can put an end to capitalist racism and exploitation.
Al Simpson is a mathematician who lives in the United States.