For years, Puerto Rico has been hammered by capitalism’s ongoing economic hurricane, and now Hurricane Maria has devastated the island. Some 3.5 million people have been left without electricity, without phones, and with little or no food, water, housing or medical care. As this is being written, many people are condemning the federal response to Puerto Rico’s desperate pleas for help as too slow and too little.
“The aid is too slow. They say it is coming from the United States, but who are they giving it to, because I haven’t received any at my house,” San Juan resident Joselyn Velasquez told the Chicago Tribune.
“After Georges hit us (in 1998) they responded quickly. But now? Nothing. We need water and food,” said Maria Rodriguez of Yabucoa.
Puerto Rico, like much of the global economy, has been in recession since 2006. Since 2006, the number of employed persons fell 21%, and manufacturing employment fell 38%. Average incomes are only one-third the mainland average, and the unemployment rate is double that of the continental US. Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is 46%. And the island now has $123 billion in debt—$74 billion in public debt, and $49 billion in pension obligations.
The Wall Street bondholders have taken steps to get their money despite the suffering of the people. Puerto Rico, essentially a US colony, is now run by a seven-member, unelected federal Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) appointed by Washington under a law passed in 2016. The FOMB is similar to the emergency managers imposed on Detroit and Flint, Mich. Creation of the FOMB meant the end of democracy in Puerto Rico—the board has broad powers to impose financial and budget decisions on the island’s people.
Even before the dictatorial FOMB was created, previous island governments imposed budget cuts. The FOMB earlier this year proposed further cuts which would increase water rates while cutting funds to schools, public-sector jobs and pensions, health care spending, and the university system. Even with such cuts, the big bondholders are suing to demand that they be paid more, no matter how much the people must suffer. People have been fighting the austerity plans with marches and demonstrations.
Trump, who last year said he opposed any “bailout” for Puerto Rico, mentioned the island’s billions in debt “owed to Wall Street and the banks” in a Sept. 25 tweet, where he said the debt “must be dealt with” regardless of the hurricane. The mayor of San Juan replied by saying we must “put people above debt.”
In the wake of Maria, no doubt the corporate vultures will be swooping in, with the federal government’s help, to seize control of public assets like Puerto Rico’s electric utility. We can expect the bondholders will still demand payment.
Meanwhile, the people suffering from both Maria and the economic hurricane are left to fend for themselves. As a society we have the resources to provide immediate help and to restore Puerto Rico both physically and economically, and indeed to care for all our people. We must demand that the government be the people’s government; it can serve the corporations or the people, but not both.