Cambridge Community Discusses Cause and Effect of Puerto Rican Crisis

Sarah Beth Campisi's picture

CAMBRIDGE - The Boston area has strong ties to Puerto Rico, and on Feb. 8, some 30 people milled about rows of red plastic chairs on the second floor of the Cambridge Public Library in Central Square — several conversations taking place in Spanish — ahead of the lecture, “Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico: Roots of a Crisis.”

The event began with a historical presentation from Dr. Pedro Reina-Perez. Reina-Perez is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and the director of the Harvard Puerto Rico Winter Institute.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. Maria was a Category 4 hurricane, but Reina-Perez said many still argue that it was a Category 5. Intense rainfall and winds caused destruction and property damage throughout the island.

Today, months after the storm, approximately 1 million people are without power according to Reina-Perez. Some still struggle for access to food and clean drinking water.

Reina-Perez spoke about specific events and factors in Puerto Rico’s history as a U.S. territory that led to Puerto Rican and American governments’ response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Sept. 2017.

Puerto Rico has been set up for a disaster like Maria for decades, Reina-Perez said. United States government policies like the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, have put Puerto Rico at a disadvantage for years, he said. Puerto Rico is also at a disadvantage because while it is a U.S. territory, it is not a state, and therefore does not have senators or representatives in Washington, D.C. Puerto Rico is under federal jurisdiction but has no power over federal legislation.

Aside from these factors, Puerto Rico was already facing several figurative hurricanes, Reina-Perez said. As of 2017, Puerto Rico’s debt totaled $72 billion in bonds, $50 billion in underfunded pensions, and $1.2 billion from the Medicare deficit. Several members of the U.S. Congress and Senate have called for a cancellation of Puerto Rico’s public debts, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“This was a triple fiscal hurricane,” Reina-Perez said.

Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico faced an emigration problem. In 2016, 70,000 people left the island. Unemployment rates of approximately 14 percent, according to Reina-Perez, made it difficult for people to find work.

“People were basically getting on JetBlue to find better opportunities,” Reina-Perez said.

After Maria, over 250,000 people left Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that Puerto Rico’s population of 3.4 million would fall below 3 million by 2050. Just before Maria hit, the projections changed, to show Puerto Rico with less than 3 million in population before 2025.

“And then Maria hit. Before Maria, things were very complex. Then Maria came, and everything came crumbling down,” Reina-Perez said. “Maria was bigger than Katrina. A third of the island is still without electricity. FEMA, according to the Wall Street Journal, was unable to respond to the crisis. And major insurance companies are finding ways to not pay the claims.”

Reina-Perez gave an example of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) allowing a catering contract to a business in Atlanta to provide food to people in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He said local government in Puerto Rico is attempting to appease its people by saying the money from insurance claims and from FEMA is coming.

“There’s something fishy going on,” Reina-Perez said. “To this day, FEMA has not distributed the money. As a result, very little is happening on the island.”

“I have been a historian for 30 years. I specialize in contemporary history, and I still struggle to come up with a path forward. It’s disconcerting. How far are they going to push it?” Reina-Perez said.

After presenting the contributing factors of Puerto Rico’s crisis and the history of its colonization, Reina-Perez was followed by Jovanna Garcia-Soto. Garcia-Soto is a native of Puerto Rico and is Grassroots International’s Solidarity Program Officer for Latin America.

Garcia-Soto visited Puerto Rico three weeks prior in January. She said that both Puerto Rican and U.S. government responses were “deadly, inadequate and shameful.”

“Standard responses leave behind more debt, more pollution and less democracy,” Garcia-Soto said. “Community raised groups are there, they are the ones proposing and working toward recovery and sustainable, long-term rebuilding. The people said, ‘We’re taking this crisis as an opportunity to organize politically in a different way.’ That gave me a lot of hope.”

Garcia-Soto worked with Power PR, a campaign started by the Climate Justice Alliance to support Puerto Rico. Amid that organization, Garcia-Soto worked with Food Sovereignty Solidarity Brigades, the mission of which is to allow Puerto Rico to use agriculture to provide their own food.

The Food Sovereignty Solidarity Brigades aim “[to transform] how we respond to climate change and [allow] Puerto Ricans to take charge of their own recovery.”

Maria destroyed the majority of the crop value in Puerto Rico, and even before the hurricane, over 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s food was imported.

While Reina-Perez struggled with a path forward, Garcia-Soto provided one. Becoming sovereign in several aspects of life is imperative for Puerto Rico to recover and gain back its own political power, Garcia-Soto said. Food, energy, territorial, economic and political sovereignties are some of these necessities, she said.

“The central root of the multiple crises in Puerto Rico is colonialism,” Garcia-Soto said. “We need to face colonialism. That is the core of injustice.”

During the question-and-answer portion after the lecture, Lyn Meza, a Chelsea resident, took Garcia-Soto’s idea of multiple sovereignties a step further.

“Puerto Rico is a colony, but it’s not a colony, but it is a colony. I think there needs to be clarity that the oppression of the Puerto Rican people is not qualitatively different than of the Honduran people or the Mexican people or any of the oppressed people of the world. There needs to be unity. There’s a division between people who have papers and don’t have papers. The Puerto Rican people have the right to independence just like any other oppressed nation,” Meza said.

“The hurricane radicalized the way we look at the island. And in that regard, there’s no going back,” Reina-Perez said.