My Fellow Americans: Let us start by acknowledging that it is, indeed, odd, to address you in this way—and not because this is not the State of the Union and I am not the President of the United States.
No, it is odd because we know half of you are unaware that Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. Well, that was at least true a few weeks ago. Hurricane Maria has been quite the educational experience for all of us, hasn’t it?
So no, my fellow Americans, this is not a State of the Union. This is the coffee-fueled rant of a pissed off Boricua.* This is a rant for the island I grew up on and left many years ago, where the highlands produce the best damn coffee you will ever taste. (Do not challenge me on that). This is a rant drenched in salty, raging tears; laced, infused with the beads of the rosary I re-learned to pray as Hurricane Maria hit the island.
(*Boricua: Puerto Rican. From the Arawak or Taino name of the island, Borinquen. This was the first name given to Puerto Rico, a name it had for centuries, until on one November day of 1493, a European washed up on its shores; not just any European, but that one, the one with a penchant for naming things that already had names.)
My fellow Americans, it feels downright surreal these days, being the kind of Americans we Puerto Ricans are. I cannot give dispassionate analysis. I am constantly reading, digesting information from the island, talking to my mother when she has a signal, working with fellow diaspora Boricuas to get aid to Puerto Rico from our small community in Minnesota, racing back and forth, keeping busy to keep from panicking about what is unfolding on the island.
My mind is its own Twitter feed, where moments of despair, hope, loneliness and rage scroll quickly by, changing minute to minute. I stay up late and wake up early, prepare the Yaucono coffee my dad sends my husband and me regularly, read, write and worry. I worry our catastrophe is fading from the news. Are you still paying attention, my fellow Americans?
Here we are, weeks from the calamity that was and remains Maria, and the State of the Island is Desperate. The storm took back to primordial times the territory that was once called by Time Magazine “Democracy’s Laboratory in Latin America.” That was back when the United States could use a good example to showcase for the rest of the hemisphere. You see, don’t be the communists, be industrial and capitalist: Be Puerto Rico!
Maria came long after those days were gone. The Berlin Wall fell, Cuba’s Soviet subsidies ended and that island’s economic crisis began, and the United States—no longer in need of an example of the marvels of capitalism for Latin America or the world—changed the terms of its financial arrangement with Puerto Rico. Bill Clinton ended the tax breaks that enticed US companies, especially pharmaceuticals, to create jobs on the island. Since then, Puerto Rico has lived in permanent crisis, with successive governments taking on more debt and Wall Street predatory lenders happy to provide those payday loans. Maria arrived mid-scene to this horror picture.
As I drink my morning coffee, a headline: Disaster Capitalism Meets Crony Capitalism. That’s the title in my mind’s Twitter feed; the Washington Post’s headline is tamer: “Small Montana firm lands Puerto Rico’s biggest contract to get the power back on.”
With just a handful of employees and no experience taking on such a gargantuan task, Whitefish Energy was given the exclusive contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. They have no experience, but they do have something better: a personal connection to climate-change-denying Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and the private equity firm that funds them was founded by a big Trump donor.
Surely all a coincidence.
They don’t have experience or employees, but they have time to pick a Twitter fight with the mayor of San Juan, threatening to leave her city because she dared demand transparency.
This newest outrage adds to the stream of the past few weeks, a cacophony of horror I review with my morning coffee: The president visits the island, pats himself on the back and throws towels at people; a tweet from the former governor of the island, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, goes viral: an image of doctors performing surgery using the flashlights from their cell phones; Puerto Ricans flood social media of images of sparse aid packs they are given to eat that include Skittles and other candies. Snopes writes up a fact-check that, despite the documented images, goes no farther than “he said/FEMA said.” Hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group, one of the vulture capitalists who bet on the misery of the Puerto Rican people by providing payday (and, in many cases, likely illegal) loans they knew the island could not pay back, declared in a letter to his investors that debt forgiveness for Puerto Rico was “impractical.”
This last one makes me want to throw my coffee cup against a wall. Impractical, Mr. Klarman?
It is impractical that our people are hungry, and there is not enough assistance, that celebrity chefs are doing the work of relief, that people are receiving FEMA meal packets filled with Halloween candy.
It is impractical that our people are thirsty, and they are being given water from wells designated by the EPA as toxic waste superfund cleanup sites.
It is impractical that our people need power, the electric grid is gone, and they are power-less for weeks and months to come, because corrupt island politicians and corrupt federal officials need to make a profit off all this powerlessness.
It is impractical that the outdated and overtly colonial Jones Act of 1920 is still in place, forbidding entry into Puerto Rican ports to any ships other than those flying the US flag, impeding recovery efforts and making island goods more expensive.
It is impractical that this is the moment our island’s misery has become the place where Disaster Capitalism meets Crony Capitalism.
It is impractical that, just weeks into the disaster and in the midst of criminal incompetence, the president of the United States threatens to withdraw aid to Puerto Rico. Sorry, that one is not impractical. It is cruel, it is insane. Like the State of Our Union.
And, yet, in the midst of all of this, the State of the Puerto Rican People is strong. Yes, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans will relocate to the United States, especially Florida (hello, 2020!). From the diaspora, we are becoming experts in delivering aid privately. At every gathering there are tears but still joy, still singing for our island and our culture. Our white, black and brown fellow Americans are stepping up and contributing to reconstruction efforts. We commit to bringing Borinquen back up on her feet: Puerto Rico Se Levanta.
We do it because we must.
NOTE: Thoughts and prayers are nice, action better. Three things you can do: Sign this petition calling for the cancelation of Puerto Rico’s unpayable debt. Call your representatives in Congress, using the Capitol switchboard: (202) 224-3121. Ask them to support bills that waive or repeal the Jones Act of 1920. Support relief efforts, especially those of progressive organizations working directly with low income communities most impacted on the island.