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It Wasn't Just A Hurricane That Destroyed Puerto Rico

Our lack of attention to the poverty of Caribbean nations has left them vulnerable in a way we would never accept for our own neighbors.

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There’s an eye at the center of every hurricane. The catastrophic destruction of Puerto Rico at the hands of Hurricane Maria also has a string of injustices at its core — injustices that all Americans should reflect on as the recovery begins.

Our lack of attention to the poverty of Caribbean nations has left their people incapable of investing in the kind of infrastructure that might better withstand a natural disaster. That general neglect has been coupled with a more specific one in Puerto Rico’s case: In recent years, as part of sweeping cuts to the government budget, many public services were slashed, including preventative maintenance of the electricity network. That meant trees were left untrimmed and allowed to intertwine with power lines — with disastrous results. After a big storm in the United States, the power company may have one break in the lines every few miles from a downed tree. In Puerto Rico today, the lines are broken every few yards.

My parents lived in Puerto Rico when they were first married; my dad was stationed there during the Korean War. I have been going to the island almost every year since I was 3 years old. There are old family friends I have still not been able to reach, even though they live in or near San Juan, the most populous and developed city on the island.

On Tuesday, I received an email from one old friend, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan. Phone and internet connections flicker on and off in the capital, he wrote; the fragility of the nation and its infrastructure is visible everywhere.

“The country has virtually collapsed,” he said. “There is widespread devastation. Overwhelming! Thousands of families have lost their homes. Electricity has disappeared across the island. As I write these words I am sitting in darkness.”

And that’s in the city. Reports from more remote locations are dire. He tells me about a home for the elderly, with 90 residents, run by Carmelite nuns in Trujillo Alto, an exurb of San Juan. They have no potable water. Along the mountainous spine of the Puerto Rico, whole towns are cut off, the roads washed out and the cell towers down, homes buried by mudslides.

Puerto Rico was in the midst of an economic meltdown well before Maria roared ashore — and that meltdown is intimately connected to decisions made in Washington. In 2006, special tax breaks for US companies operating in Puerto Rico were fully phased out, 80,000 jobs were lost, and the economy began to not merely stagnate but contract, in a decade-long recession. Thanks to favorable US tax treatment of its bonds, Puerto Rico’s government was able to borrow money to finance basic operations throughout the recession. The debt mounted, but the economy did not rebound.

Last year, the government announced it was unable to pay the $70 billion in accumulated debt. But by then, public spending had already been cut to the bone.

“Before the hurricanes, almost 60% of kids in Puerto Rico lived in poverty and the island was already reeling from hurricane-like blows in the form of austerity,” said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on debt issues in the developing world. “Austerity measures cut health care, education, and social services on the island. Austerity bleeds hope and breeds despair among a people that have suffered so much.”

LeCompte has been working with religious, business, and labor leaders, both on the island and in Washington, for more than two years, helping them to craft solutions to the fiscal crisis that would not further harm the poor. He played a key role in fashioning PROMESA, the bill passed by Congress to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, and he said critics of the legislation fail to grasp what it achieved at a time when there were no better options.

The law has two main achievements, he said. “First, it prevented predatory vulture funds from buying the island's debt cheap to profit off the crisis and make a bad situation even worse. Second, the legislation created a bankruptcy process that can cut all of Puerto Rico's debt, a process that can take into account the impacts of the hurricane.”

Indeed, a resolution to the fiscal crisis is even more pressing as the island starts rebuilding from Hurricane Maria. “Aid must go to the people of Puerto Rico, and not be siphoned off by bondholders,” said Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “Until the bankruptcy court resolves the debt crisis under the terms of PROMESA, there is no guarantee that the money would not flow right back out of Puerto Rico to Wall Street. And the idea that hedge funds could profit from aid to Puerto Rico is morally obscene.”

Maria destroyed the antiquated power grid on the island, which only gets about 1% of its electricity from sustainable sources, even though it has ample potential for solar and wind power. Most electricity is produced by diesel generators, powered by fuel that must be shipped to the island. This inefficient system makes electricity wildly expensive — so pricey, in fact, that when the ships laden with diesel dock in San Juan to unload their cargo, they avoid plugging into the local electricity grid as they would elsewhere. Instead, they save money and just use their onboard electric generators.

Puerto Ricans pay about 45 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity. “Here in Massachusetts, where we have some of the highest rates in the continental US, we pay 15 cents per kilowatt hour,” said John Hanselman, managing principal at Brightfields Development, a solar energy developer that has considered projects in Puerto Rico. The devastation from Maria, he said “is an opportunity to build the energy economy of the future,” running through a checklist that includes buying modern, high-quality transmission cables to burying those cables underground and constructing durable solar and wind powered generators.

“Puerto Rico could become one of the most exciting solar markets in the world,” he said. “The technology could spread throughout the Caribbean. Unfortunately, there has never been any indication from this White House that they have any interest in renewables.”

In 2011, Hanselman was invited by the EPA to explore capping 30 landfill sites that were threatening the island’s water supply, and then covering the capped landfills with solar panels. He met with the mayors, assessed the many technical issues such as water mitigation, and secured the funding. But the staff at the local power authority, PREPA, kept putting up roadblocks and he finally gave up trying to bring the projects to fruition.

“It was a difficult process to endure,” Hanselman said.

Puerto Rico has been failed by its own government, by the overlords in Washington, by the vulture fund managers all too happy to prop up its finances with bond issues that could never be repaid. Now, Mother Nature has dealt it a harsh and crushing blow. In the next few days and weeks, the situation could become worse: Desperate people often turn to desperate measures.

On the other hand, there is much to hope for: If the bankruptcy court moves quickly, if the Trump administration grasps that rebuilding an energy infrastructure around fossil fuel is the definition of insanity, if the Puerto Rican people are given the assistance they need, first to survive and then to rebuild, and if entrenched interests on the island would make way for the common good, then the social justice issues that have conspired to make the island especially vulnerable might finally get a hearing. Obviously those are a lot of ifs.

The wealthy countries of the global north tend not to pay much attention to the poor nations of the global south. Social justice has fallen out of fashion. Global financial markets fret about their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, not to the suffering visited upon those left behind or by the side of the road. Americans would not tolerate paying 45 cents per kilowatt hour, nor uncapped landfills near their water supply reservoirs, still less being placed at the mercy of vulture fund capitalists with the power to force austerity on an already poverty-stricken people. But if it only affects the Americans who happen to live in Puerto Rico, we in the States will move on to more important things, like the latest micro-outrage on Twitter.

The Puerto Rican people are not the kind to give up easily, however. “I have been told of and have seen many beautiful gestures of kindness and solidarity among so many people, helping people, even strangers, in need,” wrote Archbishop Gonzalez. It remains to be seen if the human spirit’s roots will endure these storms or will, like the palm trees along the highways of Puerto Rico, become uprooted and cast away by the winds of injustice or indifference.

Michael Sean Winters is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. He is the author of Left at the Altar: How Democrats Lost The Catholics and How Catholics Can Save the Democrats and God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right.

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