If we put some responsible optimism into practice, I have no doubt that Puerto Rico will rise again after the terrible lashing of Hurricane Maria. But if we fail to recognize the historical context in which this natural phenomenon occurs, it will be difficult to begin with a clean slate in order to build, at long last, the country that we all want.
Between the early-morning hours of Wednesday, September 20th, 2017 and nightfall of that same day, Hurricane Maria tore our country out of the present day and transported it back to the days of San Ciriaco, San Felipe and San Ciprián legendary hurricanes. The importance of those three hurricanes lies precisely in the historical moments in which they occurred.
San Ciriaco devastated the island on August 8th, 1899, one year after the United States invasion, and it caused 3,369 deaths and irreparable damage to crops and infrastructure. The disaster wrought by this hurricane allowed the occupying forces to take over total administrative control of the island.
San Felipe, in 1928, and San Ciprián, in 1932, heightened the poverty that the country was already experiencing during the years of the Great Depression. The construction of military bases, the social programs that were part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the concession of certain political powers to Puerto Rico, such as the election a governor, were part of this historical period.
Maria, for its part, delivered the final death blow to an imaginary country built by the architects of the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico after the end of the Second World War. The United States’ proposal, which was met with at least partial acceptance by the United Nations, had been that this “Commonwealth” solution would resolve the colonial problem of the relationship established with the island after the 1898 invasion.
As the Commonwealth, we became the display case of democracy and progress, touted as an example of the ideal relationship with the U.S. to which countries should aspire in the Cold War era. Little by little, the display case began to crack. It was patched up here and there to keep it together: tax exemptions for companies that invested in the island, food stamps, birth control, the promotion of immigration, loans and more loans, until it finally shattered in 2006.
Between June 8th and 9th, 2016, in fewer hours even than the onslaught of Maria, actions taken by the three branches of the United States government left the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico every bit as devastated as the country is at this very moment. We’re back to the days of San Ciriaco when, at the end of his brief reign, the military governor, General George Davis, wrote to Washington and said: “The island was occupied by force, and the people have no voice in determining their own destiny.” This assertion was formalized, 117 years later, before the United States Supreme Court in the case of the People vs. Sánchez Valle; a gift from the White House to the people of Puerto Rico on Christmas Eve, 2015.
Let’s come now to the present. The new government of Ricardo Rosselló acknowledged, in June of 2017, that the public debt, upwards of 140 billion dollars if we include what is owed to the retirement systems, was unpayable, and he requested bankruptcy protection under section three of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). Under this law, a fiscal control board was imposed on the country with the goal, by means of severe austerity measures, of balancing the budget and, in so doing, securing funds to pay bondholders.
If we fail to understand this historical context, the ongoing disaster of the other hurricane that has been beating us down socially, politically and economically over the past decades and has left the island bankrupt we won’t be able rise and rebuild in any meaningful and lasting manner.
Maria pulled the cloak off an island that has attempted to hide the fact that we are the most unequal country in America and the fifth most unequal in the world, one in which the poorest 10% accounts for scarcely 0.2% of the country’s income and the richest 20% controls 60% of that income. A country in which 46% of the population lives below the poverty line. An island that imports 85% of what it consumes and, as obligated under the Cabotage Law (also known as the Jones Act) passed in 1920, must do so using exclusively the most expensive cargo ships in the world, those belonging to the United States Merchant Marine.
Although Maria’s winds lashed everyone equally, rich and poor, it is already evident that the heaviest burdens of death, suffering, limitations and destruction will be borne by the poor.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal happening that feeds my hope that, after hitting bottom, our county will say: time for a clean slate, and it will rise, this time, stronger than ever and conscious that the mistakes of the past must not be repeated.
I took a tour of the few highways that are even the least bit passable and, more than anything else, what I noticed was the huge number of enormous trees, yanked out of the ground, their roots exposed for all to see, and those still standing upright, not a single leaf left on them. I saw no birds, and even the song of the coquí frog seemed to have gone silent. Yet, two days later, the birds began to fly about, looking for new branches upon which to perch and the coquís started singing with greater gusto than ever. I have no doubt that if we let them, those trees torn from the ground would dig their roots back into the nearby earth.
Nature shows us the path to follow: we must be reborn. But this rebirth is not a matter for some far off future moment. The time is now. I can see it happening already. It is in the generosity that has been the leading force in the poorest neighborhoods to the enclaves of luxury homes; I feel it in the immediate solidarity we have seen from the other part of our country that lives in the United States; it’s in the words of those who prophesize that this is the moment to do what must be done, a moment that can no longer be deferred; it’s in the interest the youth have taken in agriculture; in the cultural expressions that continue to be the backbone of our identity; in the university students who refuse to allow neoliberal hurricane winds to dismantle our first educational institution; it’s in the defense of the environment in Peñuelas, Arecibo, Adjuntas, and everywhere that man’s devastation outdoes nature’s.
With responsible optimism we will rise. This is the moment. There is no other.
This is the first of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell for Cronicas www.24semanas.org Puerto Rico-Mexico Resilience Fund
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