Photo: Hurricane Fiona over the Caribbean. Credit — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Powerful winds and huge rainfall is ravaging Puerto Rico as Hurricane Fiona passes over the island. Rescue efforts are ongoing, and residents fear that the storm has left widespread injury and deaths in its wake.
While hurricanes are natural phenomena, how societies prepare for them and are affected by these storms vary greatly. Over a century of U.S. colonial rule – including cruel policies imposed just in the last few years – has left Puerto Rico ill-prepared for this disaster. This situation is compounded by the federal government’s disinterest in providing adequate relief for the people.
Fiona’s impact has caused a blackout across the entire island. This is especially dangerous for the healthcare sector, which has been forced to depend on unreliable generators to sustain life-saving core functions.
Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has been one of the top targets of colonial profiteers in recent years. Last year, a new, private company called LUMA took over the island’s electrical system, replacing the public utility PREPA. Under LUMA’s control, electricity bills have skyrocketed and service remains poor. Major upgrades to Puerto Rico’s electric infrastructure are critically needed, but LUMA has little incentive to take such measures when it – like all capitalist enterprises – is laser-focused on the next quarter’s profits to please its wealthy investors.
The electricity privatization was imposed in true colonial fashion by decree. Against the wishes of the Puerto Rican people, who protested in large numbers, a body called the “Fiscal Control Board” forced the island to turn over its electrical grid to LUMA.
The Fiscal Control Board was created through a law called PROMESA, which was passed by Congress in 2016. PROMESA was presented as a way to address the island’s debt crisis – a result of the predatory practices of big Wall Street banks. But in exchange for debt restructuring, Puerto Rico had to accept the terms imposed by this unelected group of figures in the pocket of Corporate America.
Housing has been another area affected by the toxic mix of natural disaster and colonialism. In the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017, colonial authorities introduced new tax breaks designed to encourage real estate speculators to turn their sights on the island. As a consequence, residential housing costs have skyrocketed for working class Puerto Ricans.
Hurricane Maria left over 3,000 dead. The disastrous mishandling of the rescue and recovery effort was driven by racist attitudes that have long characterized the island’s U.S. rulers – exemplified by the infamous video of then-president Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd of hurricane victims like he was at a basketball game.
Such criminal inaction and incompetence cannot be allowed to repeat itself amid Hurricane Fiona. Most urgently, massive federal resources should be poured into Puerto Rico to provide comprehensive relief and lasting support for the victims of this storm. While Puerto Rico is blamed for undergoing a debt crisis, it is really Wall Street and the U.S. government that owes Puerto Rico for 120+ years of colonial plunder. This relationship of exploitation can only be fundamentally ended with the independence of the island.