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Vol. 81/No. 38      October 16, 2017

(lead article)

Puerto Rico: ‘Colonialism causes the most damage’

“The hurricanes caused a lot of damage, but not as much as colonialism has,” longtime independence fighter Rafael Cancel Miranda said by phone from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 28. “We’ve been suffering under the hurricane of Yankee colonialism for more than 100 years.”

The former political prisoner was referring to Washington’s exploitation of the natural resources and labor power of working people in the U.S. colony, transferring the wealth to U.S. corporations, and squeezing even more out now to pay the colonial regime’s $74 billion debt to bondholders.

Although Washington has sent thousands of troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, the pace of restoring services, opening roads, and providing food, water, electricity and fuel has been painfully slow.

“Not far from where I live there’s a 10-story building for retirees. There’s no electricity. They can’t get water,” Cancel Miranda said. It’s worse outside San Juan in towns and rural areas. Two weeks after the storm many rural areas had not received water or food.

“This is a tragedy, especially for workers and for those with few economic resources,” he said.

It’s a similar story in all the colonies and semicolonies of the United States, Britain, France and the Netherlands in the Caribbean because the imperialist powers and colonial regimes work to suck even more wealth out of workers and farmers.

Capitalist social relations turn the effects of disasters like hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, or Mexico’s earthquakes, into catastrophes for working people.

And, like in Puerto Rico, workers and farmers in the rest of the Caribbean are being ravaged by the disastrous effects on them caused by the worldwide capitalist economic crisis and exacerbated by wealthy bondholders demanding debt payments.

Before Irma and Maria hit, the treasury of the U.S. Virgin Islands “had barely enough cash to keep the government funded for three days,” the New York Times reported. Unemployment was more than twice the U.S. average. The debt of nearly $2 billion was higher per capita than Puerto Rico’s. Its pension system was on the verge of bankruptcy. And the colonial government had used up funds set aside for relief from hurricanes and other natural disasters to meet other expenses.

Barbuda was almost 90 percent destroyed by the storms and all its 1,800 residents had to be evacuated to Antigua — with help of the Venezuelan government. Gaston Browne, prime minister of the former British colony of Antigua and Barbuda, has asked for a moratorium on its $15.8 million debt to the International Monetary Fund. But the IMF says it would rather loan the government more money instead.

Some of the islands in the Caribbean play special roles in world capitalist profit gouging. Tax and other loopholes in the British Virgin Islands mean that more than 400,000 capitalist enterprises worldwide are registered there, with some $1.5 trillion in assets. Though workers in the British colony face a disaster from the hurricane, with at least 70 percent of the homes and other buildings there destroyed, the tax shelter profit business was up and running again within days.

Cancel Miranda described the carnage facing working people in Puerto Rico before the storms. “The truth is, brother, even before Hurricane Maria, there were children here who went to bed hungry,” he said. “There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of street vendors at the stoplights. That’s the wonder of being a colony.”

And much of the damage “could have been avoided,” he said. Over the last decade, the colonial regime has laid off thousands of government workers, including at the electric company, which cut back on maintenance to pay its debt.

No electricity for months
More than 80 percent of the electrical lines were destroyed by Hurricane Maria, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the UTIER electrical workers union, told the Militant Sept. 30. And outside San Juan there was almost no phone service. “The government and the electric company didn’t prepare for the storms,” he said. “The workers, the linemen, were ready to get the system back up, but the company hasn’t provided the equipment, the materials, the cables, the cranes, transport.”

For two weeks after the storm, thousands of containers of food, and merchandise for Walmart and other stores clogged the ports because of a lack of diesel and warehouse space, while thousands of people were without basic necessities. Drivers showed up at the convention center in San Juan in answer to the call by the local government only to be turned away.

It wasn’t until Sept. 30, CNBC reported, that enough trucks finally began arriving at the port, clearing out the backlog, opening space for more aid to arrive.

President Donald Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz got into a long-distance fight over who was more responsible for the disorganization and lack of progress in recovery in Puerto Rico. In fact, both were right. No level of government — from Washington to Puerto Rico — was prepared or mobilized to meet the needs of working people. When Trump visited the island Oct. 3, the two smiled and shook hands.

Revolutionary Cuba shows the way
In sharp contrast, the revolutionary government in Cuba led workers and farmers to prepare for the hurricanes in advance, minimizing loss to life and property, including evacuating 1.8 million people before the storms made landfall. Reconstruction is well underway. The government reported Sept. 29 that nearly 100 percent of electricity was back up after repairing 3,600 poles, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) of electric lines, and more than 1,300 transformers.

To rebuild more than 14,000 destroyed homes and 23,500 damaged ones the government is offering loans, grants and subsidized construction materials. Many fields are already being replanted with quick growing crops.

The Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC) has called for a national mobilization of voluntary work Oct. 7 to advance “redoubling our efforts to erase as quickly as possible the consequences of this destructive event.”

When workers and farmers made a revolution in 1959, led by Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement, they took control of the government and began to mobilize to meet their needs, they transformed themselves. They take responsibility for each other and offer solidarity and whatever they have to others in distress. While fighting to restore power in Cuba, the revolutionary government offered to send four brigades of electrical workers and a fully equipped mobile hospital with 39 doctors to help in Puerto Rico. The U.S. rulers haven’t responded.

“We have heard of Cuba’s offer,” Cancel Miranda said. Jaramillo, the electrical union leader, said he had heard about it too.

It could be six months before most of Puerto Rico has electricity. Puerto Rico and Cuba show the difference between capitalism and socialism, Cancel Miranda said. “In Cuba working people are united. They were prepared in advance, they had shelters ready. They depend on themselves.”  
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