Nine months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island faces another potentially devastating hurricane season, while much of its infrastructure and land still remain in tatters.
The Category 5 hurricane that ripped through the Caribbean last fall not only caused nearly 5,000 deaths, but also exposed the fragility of the island’s social, political, and economic underpinnings. The truth behind Maria’s devastation and the United States’ laggard response to the hurricane lies in centuries of colonial exploitation—first by Spain and then by the United States—and in its perpetual subjugation to the whims of American elites.
There is little that distinguishes Puerto Rico from an American colony. Since its acquisition of the island in 1898, the United States has gradually stripped Puerto Rico of any political agency through a web of legal cases, laws, and arbitrary categorizations intended to keep the island politically weak, and economically dependent on mainland products—and its poor, brown, “foreign” population distanced from their mainland compatriots.
Hurricane Maria exposed for the world to see what Puerto Ricans have known for centuries: Washington treats Puerto Rico as little more than a captive market from which the United States extracts profits. Although Puerto Rico is an island bathed in sunlight and lashed by winds and waves, it imports 98 percent of its energy from mainland fossil-fuel companies. And despite its fertile soil and lush tropical landscape, Puerto Rico buys around 90 percent of its food from mainland agribusiness companies.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, it eviscerated fields of monocrops and shattered Puerto Rico’s already derelict electric grid. Many of the almost 5,000 deaths that resulted from Maria were due not to the storm’s whipping winds or flash flooding, but to the mass power outages and food shortages that ensued, a result of the government’s closing of hospitals and neglect of the electric grid, necessitated by US-imposed austerity measures.