On Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was devastated by Maria, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 miles per hour, only two weeks after receiving tropical-storm winds from Hurricane Irma. According to official estimates by Puerto Rico’s government, Maria left close to $94 billion in damages.
The storm knocked out practically the entire power grid, as well as the great majority of cellular antennas and towers, crippling the island’s telecommunications system. About 200,000 houses were damaged by Irma or Maria, leaving thousands without a roof over their heads. As of mid-December, no one seems to know how many families and businesses remain in the dark. But we do know that entire townships and large sections of metropolitan San Juan are still without electricity.
The human, financial and environmental costs of the lack of power are enormous. There are an estimated 500,000 diesel and gasoline generators in use, but that option is cost-prohibitive for lower-middle-class families and for small businesses. Besides electricity, there are problems with another essential service: potable running water. According to official numbers, 91 percent of the population has access to running water, but many isolated areas are still without service. Moreover, there are questions about the quality and safety of the water that is now running in the pipelines.
This calamity has come at a difficult time for Puerto Rico. With a crushing public debt of over $70 billion, the government is literally bankrupt.
This calamity has come at a difficult time for Puerto Rico. With a crushing public debt of over $70 billion, the government is literally bankrupt. It functions under the supervision of a Federal Oversight Board and a special bankruptcy court, established by Congress as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016. But the commonwealth has been suffering from a severe economic crisis since 2006. About 44 percent of the island’s population were living below the federal poverty lineevenbefore Maria, and the Center for Census Research at the Cayey Campus of the University of Puerto Rico estimates that the poverty level may now hit 60 percent. Unemployment has also grown, since many businesses have been unable to reopen after the storm. According to Puerto Rico’s Labor Department, the island lost 31,600 jobs during the month of October alone.
Not surprisingly, emigration has increased significantly. Between 2006 and 2016, Puerto Rico lost 525,769 inhabitants, falling from 3.9 million to 3.4 million people. Over the next two years, it may lose another 400,000 people. Many younger families and professionals are leaving; this depopulation means a reduced tax base and increased poverty. For example, there are 15,000 licensed physicians registered in Puerto Rico, but many have left to practice elsewhere without canceling their local licenses. In 2016 alone, 600 physicians did cancel their licenses and move to the U.S. mainland, where many find attractive opportunities. To this list of calamities we now add the possibility that the new tax law will cost Puerto Rico thousands of manufacturing jobs.
While the main responsibility for renewal belongs to the Puerto Rican people, the mainland United States has its share of moral responsibility for the dire situation of the island.
We often speak of “natural disasters,” but I take exception to that phrase. Disasters are hardly ever purely natural. Perhaps the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was a purely natural disaster; it affected the lives and homes of everyone, poor and rich, in that unfortunate city. But for the most part, natural events do not affect everyone in the same way. Those who are in better socioeconomic positions are better protected than those who are worse off. It has been that way here after Maria. The hurricane affected daily routines and access to services for practically everyone in Puerto Rico, but those in weaker social positions are suffering more. Maria removed the delusions of prosperity and first-world status that blinded so many to the realities of Puerto Rico: the fragility of its infrastructure, the high levels of social inequality (higher than in any of the 50 states), and decades of governmental mismanagement, corruption and colonialism. It is a time of reckoning. Hard as it is, this moment can be salutary—a kairos—if we decide to deal with the harsh truth in a responsible and visionary manner.
Puerto Rico needs to regenerate. This is not only a matter of physical and financial reconstruction but also an ethical overhaul of our lives. We in Puerto Rico need a culture of integrity and solidarity, both in government and in the private sector. Renewal needs to begin at the grassroots level, and there are several actors that can have pivotal roles in this renewal from below, including the media, academia, religious organizations and other third-sector initiatives. They are called to foster an agenda of change, social responsibility and solidarity beyond our traditional local political parties and divisions.
We Puerto Ricans need to take on the lion’s share of responsibility. But those on the mainland United States cannot remain aloof. The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, and it has kept its colonial power over the island ever since. U.S. citizenship was granted to island residents in 1917, but Washington continues to exercise full sovereignty over Puerto Rico; we do not vote for the president and have only a nonvoting member in Congress.
It is true that Puerto Ricans, and U.S. and foreign companies doing business in Puerto Rico, do not pay federal income tax for income generated from Puerto Rican sources (a fact some use to justify our lack of parity in federal, social or infrastructure programs). But with few exceptions, everyone gainfully employed in Puerto Rico pays federal payroll taxes. Puerto Ricans have also served in every war fought by the United States since World War I. While the main responsibility for renewal belongs to the Puerto Rican people, the mainland United States has its share of moral responsibility for the dire situation of the island.
How can the United States contribute to a sustainable future for Puerto Rico? First, we need to raise awareness on the mainland about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Second, the long-term solution does not lie solely in social welfare programs, as essential as they might be at the present time, but in economic development. Economic development is the basis for the third point in the agenda: a process of decolonization for Puerto Rico, whether that means statehood or independence. In the 21st century, colonialism does not serve the interests of either Puerto Rico or the United States.