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Vol. 81/No. 37      October 9, 2017

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Social disaster leaves people without electricity, water

The social disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico is magnified many times over because it is a U.S. colony. Well before hurricanes Irma and then Maria hit, the state-owned electrical grid and other infrastructure were in disarray. Basic maintenance had been shunted aside as the colonial regime was directed by Washington to prioritize making payments on its $74 billion debt to wealthy bondholders.

Puerto Rico’s economy has been “adjusted” by its colonial masters in Washington for decades to meet the interests of U.S. capitalists. Starting in the 1940s U.S. companies there were exempted from many taxes, which, coupled with low wages, led pharmaceutical and other bosses to set up shop on the island. In the 1990s many hospitals, telecommunications and some hotels were privatized.

After World War II the emphasis on agriculture was destroyed in the interests of expanding manufacturing. Today 85 percent of the island’s food is imported.

In 2006 Congress dumped the main tax breaks, accelerating plant shutdowns under the impact of the worldwide economic crisis. Under the notorious Jones Act, all maritime cargo to Puerto Rico from U.S. ports has to travel on U.S.-built, U.S.-owned ships, greatly increasing the cost of goods on the island.

Of the island’s population of some 3.5 million today, only 1 million have a job. And the colonial government is bankrupt.

When the hurricanes hit, the government in San Juan had done next to nothing to prepare. It didn’t even place satellite phones in government offices outside San Juan, leaving most towns without any means of communication for days after Maria battered the island.

“They never came to clean anything. We did. They didn’t come to pick up the branches or nothing,” San Juan resident Eric Gil, 54, said in a video on the Miami Herald website Sept. 21. “We are working. Not the government.”

Four days after the storm, mayors from around the island made their way to San Juan to meet with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. They reported that many shelters, with thousands of people, still had no electrical generators and had run short of water and food.

At the same time, El Vocero reported that thousands of containers with basic necessities were stuck at the docks, because of a lack of fuel for trucks, no storage points and no distribution plan.

One thing Washington made sure arrived was the return of military police and cops from the mainland to keep an eye on the population. They also called up more than 1,000 National Guardsmen who were assigned to distribute food — but they gave out just four bottles of water and two GI-style rations per person in Barrio Obrero Sept. 24. They were the lucky ones. With bridges out and many roads blocked, much of the country is only accessible via helicopter.

The lack of electricity is life threatening. Insulin for diabetics has to be kept cool. People wait for hours on line to buy strictly rationed bags of ice or a little bit of diesel to fuel generators. That is, if you can afford a generator — and find one to buy.

As much as 80 percent of this year’s crops from yam and sweet potato to banana and coffee were decimated. Dairy farmers who salvaged their herds are pouring milk down the drain because there are no trucks to pick it up and no way to keep it cool.

Storm’s ‘positive’?

But officials of the colonial regime’s agriculture department told the New York Times that the destruction could be positive because it will give them a chance to “modernize” farming, which translates into profits for larger capitalist farmers.

The disdain the U.S. rulers and their colonial regime have for working people is captured by what happened in Toa Baja, where as many as nine people drowned. Authorities released water from the Lake Plata reservoir through five floodgates at 8 p.m. Sept. 20, sending water overflowing the riverbanks, but gave no advance warning to those downstream.

Gabriel Diaz, a university student who was at home in Toa Baja at the time, told the Militant by phone from San Juan Sept. 22 that it was only after homes were flooding that emergency personnel arrived and said to evacuate.

Meanwhile, the Guajataca dam in the northwestern part of the island is cracked and in danger of collapse. Gov. Rosselló ordered some 70,000 people in the towns of Isabela, Quebradillas and parts of San Sebastián to evacuate. But as of Sept. 25 it was unclear how many people had left.

Absence of government action

In the absence of government action, “everybody is pitching in,” Diaz said. “It’s individuals and groups who are clearing the roads, cleaning up, machete in hand. That’s why I was able to travel from Toa Baja to San Juan.”

This has been true everywhere hit by the recent hurricanes — working-class solidarity in the midst of government indifference and capitalists’ search for opportunities to make a buck.

On Sept. 21, Gov. Rosselló announced a curfew, which runs from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. “It’s to protect private property,” Díaz said, “And it’s really the state putting an obstacle in the way of collective solutions. Many people won’t even know there’s a curfew and could end up in confrontations with the police.”

“We’re going to need lots of aid,” Díaz said. But he said he’s concerned the government and the U.S. appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board — which was imposed on Puerto Rico to ensure maximum payment on the debt — will use the crisis to privatize the electric company, and replace affordable housing with luxury homes.

To add insult to injury, some 200 storm victims sheltered at the San Juan convention center were evicted out the back door Sept. 26. They were bused to the Nilmarie Santini gymnasium, which had no electricity, air conditioning, cold water or hot food. The reason: to make room for 2,000 U.S. agents and volunteers who arrived to “help,”

Many capitalist investors see dollar signs when they think of government aid coming into Puerto Rico after the storm. One “wealth manager” told a columnist at the Washington Post last summer things were looking up for investors in Puerto Rico. “The only thing we need now is a hurricane,” she half-joked. But it wasn’t a joke. She was talking about the openings for profit that would open for the construction industry and investors. Buy stock in Home Depot, she advised.

Related articles:
Puerto Rico crisis product of capitalism, colonial rule
Massive aid to Puerto Rico! End US colonial rule!
How revolutionary Cuba responds to hurricanes
Cuban gov’t offers electrical workers to Puerto Rico
Miami: SWP campaigns amid hurricane’s carnage
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