LAS PIEDRAS, PUERTO RICO – In this second part of her interview with MintPress News, Professor Déborah Berman-Santana’s focus turns to the cynical manipulation of post-Maria recovery efforts. The effect so far has been to enrich the powerful and delay return to normal life for millions of Puerto Ricans. You can read part one of Berman-Santana’s conversation with MintPress News here, or listen to audio recording of the interview below.
MPN: Hurricane Maria left a trail of destruction in its wake. However, you have argued that the real disaster is what has followed in the aftermath of the hurricane, with the particularly poor relief and recovery efforts which have followed. How would you describe the nature of these efforts?
DBS: One way to describe them would be to compare recovery efforts from major (generally, Category 4 or 5) hurricanes in Cuba with those in Puerto Rico. Cuba has been hit with seven major hurricanes since 2000, the latest being [a direct hit from] the Category 5 Hurricane Irma, just one week before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. By contrast, it has been 80 years since a major hurricane made a direct hit on Puerto Rico. Keep in mind that, unlike with earthquakes, you have plenty of warning that a hurricane is coming, and at least 48-hours notice that it will be major or that a direct hit is probable.
Despite the serious wind and especially water damage, including in Havana, Cuba lost only 10 people, had sufficient medical personnel, food-aid and recovery for farmers, electrical workers, and construction brigades, to quickly restore essential services and get the country up and running.
Very briefly and without going into details: Cuba is an independent country that exercises its own sovereignty and whose priority is to take care of its population’s basic needs in the present while planning for the future. They are about as well prepared as a country reasonably can be for natural disasters. They are also always the first country to offer disaster aid in the Caribbean region.
Puerto Rico is Cuba’s opposite: as a colony of the U.S., it exercises no sovereignty, and its government is run by lackeys whose priority is to enrich the local oligarchy while pleasing the colonial masters in Washington and Wall Street. While there has been a genuine outpouring of support from individuals, organizations, and some city or state governments in the U.S. — and especially the large Puerto Rican diaspora — recovery efforts are dominated by the same interests that have been pillaging the island’s natural and human resources since the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898.
MPN: What are some examples of how recovery efforts have been stymied or even sabotaged by the authorities?
DBS: In general, Puerto Rico’s colonial status prevents it from accepting aid from other countries unless the U.S. gives permission. Our regional neighbors such as Cuba offered immediate medical aid; Venezuela offered diesel and gasoline; Mexico offered electrical engineers and the Dominican Republic offered food. All made offers within a few days after the hurricane. The U.S. would not allow the first three and put the fourth through a time-consuming bureaucracy. Immediate disaster aid was delayed until a serious crisis developed in several towns and the island of Vieques, and finally, the U.S. intervened with a continually increasing presence of the U.S. military and a host of U.S. agencies.
Probably the best example of how colonialism and capitalism continue to wreak more havoc than the hurricane is the case of the electric energy service. Puerto Rico’s electric energy authority (known in Spanish as AEE and in English as PREPA) is a public corporation. It has been a major target of political corruption and of privatization efforts by Wall Street among other vultures. An entire chapter of the PROMESA law — in which the U.S. Congress created the dictatorial Fiscal Control Board, or junta — is devoted to finding and fast-tracking “critical infrastructure” projects to increase private energy generation, even though Puerto Rico currently has at least twice the energy generating capacity that it needs. Profit is mainly centered in the generation and not the distribution of energy.
In addition, the strongest and most militant of Puerto Rico’s remaining unions represent the electric energy workers. The politics of austerity have been shrinking the numbers of workers and reducing their supply of needed equipment and supplies for at least 10 years but especially in the past five, when Puerto Rico’s debt became a public issue. Much routine maintenance, such as pruning trees around the transmission lines, was nearly abandoned for lack of personnel, so even small storms have caused regular blackouts throughout Puerto Rico for several years.
Watch | The head of Puerto Rico Electrical Workers’ Union on the Whitefish corruption probe
There was also a media campaign blaming blackouts and supposedly “astronomical” rates on the service being public, and promoting privatization and “choice” as the solution for both. Private energy plants only provided between 10 to 15 percent of energy while actually functioning less reliably than the public plants. Additionally, the coal-burning plant of AES [Applied Energy Systems, a multinational corporation based in the United States] provoked protests for multiple environmental, economic, and legal violations. What Hurricane Maria did was simply give the final push toward the entire energy system’s collapse.
In addition to the offers from Cuba and Mexico to send electrical worker brigades, the U.S. association of electric power workers (the APPA, or American Public Power Association) offered to send as many as 17,000 workers to help put the power lines back up and get the system running quickly. They do this frequently throughout the U.S. The only requirement was for Puerto Rico’s government to issue a formal request for mutual aid and pay $25 million for materials.
Had the offer been accepted, the main lines at least would probably already have been up and running by the middle of October. But the government did not even bother to respond to the offer! Nearly a month after the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s government-appointed director of AEE, Ricardo Ramos, claimed that he didn’t answer because he didn’t have internet or phone access for two weeks — which is not believable of course since the government has always had access. He also said that they didn’t have access to $25 million — another unbelievable claim, as we shall see.
Most of Puerto Rico’s big plants are located on the south coast, while the capital San Juan is on the north coast. Of course, a major need is to reconnect the transmission lines through the interior mountains from south to north. But auxiliary north-coast plants should have been online.
The big and publicly owned Palo Seco plant, just west of San Juan, was shut down by the government and federal agencies in August due to alleged structural danger, which the union has challenged. The plant survived the hurricane quite well, and according to workers and the PR Engineers Board, it could be pressed into service within a few weeks. The government disputes this and instead is renting two emergency mobile plants for six months at $35 million, putting them right next to the Palo Seco plant. They still haven’t managed to put these plants online.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would be in charge of restoring Puerto Rico’s electric system. And AEE awarded a contract to direct the work to a tiny (two-employee) company established in Montana in 2015 called Whitefish Energy! We know now that the contract is for $300 million! Does Puerto Rico have so much money to pay out for a contract? Perhaps not. But the government expects its contracts to be paid through FEMA, which in turn would get funding from a congressional aid package currently being debated.
It turns out that, like the company that landed the $300 million contract, the Trump administration’s secretary of the interior [Ryan Zinke] is from Whitefish, Montana. The company has been very slow to recruit and send electrical worker brigades to Puerto Rico. Workers will be paid hundreds of dollars per hour plus hundreds more daily for housing and food. Contrast this with Puerto Rico’s unionized public servants in the electric energy sector who make $20 to $30 per hour. The company apparently also did not have permits for some of the services they were offering.
Part of the fallout from this scandal is that the U.S. Congress is now debating whether to give the junta even more power over Puerto Rico, blaming the scandal entirely on the ineptitude and corruption of the Puerto Rican government. Apparently, they can’t trust the “natives” to “spend our money.” Democrats are also using Puerto Rico to make the whole disgusting U.S. response to Puerto Rico all about Trump, as they prepare for midterm elections.
Recently, some more details of the contract with Whitefish have been leaked. The leaks have revealed that the terms and numbers in the contract are not subject to review by Puerto Rico or the federal government, and will not be audited. They have also revealed that FEMA approved the contract (and presumably plans to pay with money from the congressional aid package that has not yet been approved). FEMA denies approving the contract, at least not the final version that included the “no review/audit” clause. This scandal has gone viral even in the mainstream U.S. media.
Even more recently, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, announced he will ask AEE to cancel the Whitefish contract. Is it too little, too late? Whitefish and AEE claim that cancellation could delay energy up to three months. The workers’ union says this is not true, adding that the contract was canceled after two major tasks were completed, which Whitefish has billed at a rate of $11 million after just three weeks, and that FEMA has been warned they might not reimburse expenses without an audit.
The important point, I think, is that every delay in restoring the energy system further depresses the economy, keeps people out of work, and promotes increased emigration, which further hurts the economy. Worst of all is that it has already cost lives through impaired hospital services, lack of water because of problems with emergency generators, and a host of other issues.
MPN: Is the Whitefish scandal the only scandal which has arisen out of the post-Maria recovery?
DBS: No, there are other examples. For instance, Cobra Energy received a $200 million contract. Cobra’s parent company is Mammoth. According to its own website, Mammoth calls itself “[a]n integrated, growth-oriented oilfield service company serving companies engaged in exploitation and development of North American onshore unconventional oil and natural gas reserves.” In this case, “unconventional” certainly includes fracking among other ruinous practices, since basically nearly all easily-obtainable oil and gas reserves are practically gone.
Additionally, Fluor Corporation, which already held a $240 million contract, just had its contract increased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to $840 million! This came after the COE claimed it doesn’t award contracts, which is a bald-faced lie. Among other things, Fluor is the company that built the AES coal plant in Puerto Rico. Small world!
MPN: How has the so-called “junta” responded to the hurricane aftermath and the recovery efforts?
DBS: The junta announced it will hold a “public” meeting on October 31, but did not make the location of the meeting widely known. They have been lobbying hard in Congress to be the administrators of the aid package. They also named as “receiver” (that is, dictator) of AEE their current director of critical projects, a “Puerto Rico-born” U.S. military man named Noel Zamot.
Part of this is due to the scandal with the Whitefish contract and Congress and media attention. But I think it just gives them the excuse to try to do directly what they always wanted: take control of the AEE, dismantle and sell it, without bothering with the Puerto Rico government lackeys.
The outcome of the meeting is that the junta has requested that all aid and recovery planning for Puerto Rico be channeled through them, bypassing the fiction of the Puerto Rican government.
MPN: What is the status of Puerto Rico’s debt at this time? What has changed following the hurricane?
DBS: Everything has changed and nothing has changed. The federal bankruptcy judge continues to preside, although in New York City instead of San Juan. The judge received, among other petitions, a request to place the entire AEE issue (debt, function, etc.) in the hands of the junta’s just-named receiver.
A big issue is whether any of the “aid” (which likely will mostly go to contracts in exchange for political favors) can be sequestered by the creditors. President Trump said recently (and also said during his presidential campaign) that Puerto Rico’s debt was unpayable and should be written off. Actually, [the debt] belongs to the “sovereign,” that is, to the U.S. government.
As Trump’s close friend is hedge funder John Paulson, who has been buying up properties in Puerto Rico for several years, I would ask whether Trump’s write-off proposal is meant to help vultures like Paulson, instead of the people of Puerto Rico.
The junta has also commissioned an “audit” of Puerto Rico’s debt, which began in September. They told the AEE to prepare a report on its “plan for saving money.” Now? Seriously? When the previous plan included not storing materials and not hiring enough workers to do maintenance, both of which are largely responsible for the delay in restoring power?
MPN: What do you believe the end goal of United States authorities is with regards to Puerto Rico? And what do you make of their apparent indifference with regard to the recovery efforts on the island?
DBS: The end goal of the creditors, of course, is to recoup and profit from their investment in Puerto Rican bonds. They have actually been lobbying to be paid out of any aid packages that are approved. The visible and growing presence by the U.S. military makes me question whether the prevailing arguments that Puerto Rico’s strategic value to the U.S. had diminished were at least premature. Keep in mind that Puerto Rico is around 500 miles away from Venezuela’s oil fields and reserves, possibly the most extensive in the world.
The U.S. government — and to a large extent the public as well — has never evidenced any concern for the well-being of the people or the environment of Puerto Rico. Efforts to depopulate Puerto Rico began with the response to another ruinous hurricane in 1899: devaluation of the local currency and a forced change to the dollar, which ruined local businesses, allowed buying up of land for almost nothing, and forced mountain populations to become sugar cane workers on the coast (controlled by New York banks), or emigrate to corporate fields in other countries. Sterilization of up to 35 percent of Puerto Rican women without informed consent, as well as birth control experiments, was U.S. policy until the 1960’s.
Another wave of rural depopulation after World War II created the large Puerto Rican diaspora. This, plus intensive media and schoolbook portrayals of PR as overpopulated, gave rise to our great independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos’ saying that “they want the cage but not the bird.”
Is the current U.S. response to Hurricane Maria part of this century-old plan? Might there be interest in making an ethnically cleansed Puerto Rico into a Caribbean version of Hawaii, where the native population makes up less than 20 percent of the total and are its poorest residents? I leave the readers to reach their own conclusions.
MPN: In the midst of the chaotic situation that followed Hurricane Maria, political prisoner Nina Droz was apparently transferred, along with other female inmates, to a facility in the mainland United States, specifically in Florida. What is her current status, as far as you know?
DBS: The federal prison near San Juan suffered damage from the hurricane. All of the female prisoners were transferred to the federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. That facility provokes painful memories for Puerto Ricans, as in 1978 an activist named Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal, who was serving a sentence for protesting the U.S. Navy occupation of Vieques, was murdered in his cell in that prison.
Nina was arrested on May 1, and has still not been sentenced. She is effectively being held in administrative detention. After a month in prison, she was advised to accept a plea bargain, which she did. Her sentencing date has been postponed several times, with the latest being sometime in November.
MPN: Has there been any organizing or any sort of response on the part of the people of Puerto Rico, in response to the disaster and to the poor recovery efforts that have followed?
DBS: The number one response to actually help Puerto Rico recover has been from people in their own communities — cleaning up, moving posts, trying to shelter neighbors, community kitchens, sharing private generators, etc. Our diaspora is also doing everything possible to get supplies to us, and to organize themselves to come and help us. Just recently, for example, a cousin who lives in California came to my house with donations of supplies from friends, which we will take to our local community radio station where community groups go to drop off or pick up donations.
The U.S. Postal Service is barely functioning [in Puerto Rico]. People in the U.S. pay extra money to mail packages but they are simply not arriving, at least not outside of San Juan. Other shipments get stuck in the port or airport, mired in federal bureaucracy. We also have a major problem in that cell phone service is spotty and in many areas nonexistent. For example, in order to get my messages, make calls, and access email I have to drive west to another town until I find a signal. I am at this moment writing with one finger on a small smartphone.
Problems of communication are severely hampering our organizing efforts. I often find out late about projects, protests, news, etc., and only through social media and alternative media sources. In addition, radio is limited, as the stations are running on emergency generators. I do have family needs to attend to (including repair of damage from the hurricane) so it is a real challenge to get my chores done and then find time to drive in search of a cell signal.
I will mention that there have been lots of protests by parents and teachers because Julie Keleher, the American head of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, is dragging her feet in allowing schools to reopen. She is claiming that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to individually certify each school’s suitability, something they’ve never done before and do not have enough personnel to do. Puerto Rico also has plenty of its own engineers and other suitable personnel.
But rumor has it that Keleher is trying to drag it out until November 20, because if the schools are all closed for at least two months, FEMA can reimburse expenses, including teachers’ pay. Imagine keeping students out of school to add to parents’ problems, while teachers need to work! This is further pressure to make people want to leave Puerto Rico.
MPN: What is the biggest challenge, in your view, that the people of Puerto Rico are currently facing?
DBS: Our first challenge is to survive! To not give in to the panic promoted by the media and turn the current emigration wave into a stampede. To believe in ourselves and not give in to the colonial mentality of impotence, of feeling incapable of solving our own problems without help from those who have been largely responsible for our situation.
We need to support the already existing efforts towards agro-ecological renovation to reduce our dependence on imported food — which, among other issues, is unhealthy and increases our problems with diabetes, kidney failure, and other “colonial” diseases.
To promote small-scale solar and other renewable forms of energy, not huge corporate boondoggle solar and wind farms on our precious agricultural land — most of which were destroyed by the hurricane, as they are far more vulnerable than small projects.
To promote cooperatives and small local businesses, and move away from the “big box” foreign stores such as WalMart. We need to greatly strengthen our community organizations.
And most of all we need to convert these efforts into a real, popular-based, massive campaign to demand that sovereignty over Puerto Rico be in our hands. Not in Washington, not in Wall Street, and not in the hands of the political lackeys and our local oligarchy.
MPN: There has been some controversy recently regarding a spike in deaths in Puerto Rico in September and October, which however have officially not been attributed to the hurricanes, and the very stringent criteria for classifying a death as “hurricane-related.” What have you been hearing on the ground?
DBS: There has been much disinformation, both from officials and from those questioning the official figures. Puerto Rico, on average, has about 1,000 deaths per month (pre-hurricane). According to the Demographic Registry, without Hurricane Maria approximately 80 deaths would have been expected between September 20-30. It was recently announced, however, that between September 20-30, 2017 they recorded 117 deaths. Make of that what you will.
Some of the people questioning the government have been just as bad if not worse. They claim 1.000 hurricane deaths which cannot at all be documented, and this hurts the credibility of those of us who do question the government. You can always question what’s a related death in any country, not only in the “third world.”
MPN: For those who are concerned about Puerto Rico and its people, and who would like to contribute to the island’s recovery, what message would you like to share?
DBS: As far as material aid, I recommend giving monetary donations through PayPal and bank transfers to bona fide, already-existing Puerto Rican organizations, which have a proven track record and the capacity to receive the aid. I will list a few examples below of groups that I can vouch for. Donated supplies and materials are okay if you can verify that they will actually reach those who need it!
But perhaps more important than material aid is actively campaigning. I have a number of suggestions, any and all of which would be helpful and appreciated:
1) Keep Puerto Rico in the news! Letters, phone calls, protests, social media, whatever works.
2) Keep the U.S. government (Congress, the White House) flooded with demands to aid Puerto Rico. Demand the abolition of the cabotage laws limiting shipping to and from Puerto Rico to U.S. ships and U.S. crews. This makes everything at least 40 percent more expensive in Puerto Rico and props up the world’s most expensive and obsolete merchant marine.
3) Demand the repeal of the PROMESA law of 2016, which among other things created the junta. Call for the cancellation of debt. It’s not Puerto Rico’s debt. Let the U.S. pay the creditors if they must, at least pensioners. The vulture hedge funders should get nothing.
4) End efforts to privatize public services, buildings, natural resources. Place a moratorium on mortgage and tax evictions. Protect public education, and especially stop trying to dismantle the University of Puerto Rico system.
5) The U.S. needs to stop blocking efforts to discuss the decolonization of Puerto Rico in the UN General Assembly. Every year for decades, the issue has been approved but the U.S. has blocked it.
6) Debt should be part of negotiations for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, with indemnity for the $1 trillion likely stolen by the U.S. government and U.S. corporations from Puerto Rico since the 1898 invasion.
Independence for Puerto Rico would mean a chance to end the U.S.-imposed separation from the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America, to which we belong. It would also mean that we could open up to the rest of the world on a basis of equality and mutual respect as a sovereign nation responsible for its own decisions. There are of course no guarantees, but at least Puerto Rico deserves the chance to try.
Finally, regarding recovery efforts, I would recommend the following entities:
1) Taller Salud (women and health), the G8 of Caño Martín Peña, and other local, grassroots organizations.
2) Vieques en Rescate, Inc. (VER) — support to Vieques Island community.
3) Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico (sustainable farming): You can donate directly to the Organización Boricuá bank account, Banco Popular Account: #162039034 or by PayPal: [email protected]
4) Centro para el Desarrollo Politico Educativo y Cultural (Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico/community kitchens) PayPal: [email protected]
5) Colectivo Ilé (anti-racist work in Puerto Rico, support to victims of Hurricane Irma and María).
Top photo | A man walks past a boarded up clock repair store in the tourist area of Old San Juan one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP/Carlos Giusti)