San Juan—As Donald Trump’s rule-by-disinformation strategy intensifies, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, a reeling Puerto Rico is becoming more of a sideshow for his callous stereotyping and ruthlessness. He is subjecting the island’s citizens to layers of anguish, at once revealing the resourcefulness of a sturdy rural culture and the banality of government by public relations. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are suffering that all-too-human affliction, the desperate need to connect.
One of the enduring images from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria is people crowded together near outposts of cable or wireless companies, trying to get a signal so they can communicate. By now most people know that their friends and loved ones have survived; that they may in some cases have water but almost never electricity; that they may need precious medications, or may have stood online at their local pharmacy for hours to get them; that they may have lost all or part of the roof to their home. Survivors have seen their neighborhoods strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, discarded mattresses, and refrigerators; have spent hours trying to get cash out of the few working ATMs in their area or—now a less common complaint—waiting in a gas line.
Sustaining contact on an island littered with fallen power lines and cell-phone towers is difficult, and it contributes to a pervasive feeling of disconnection and chaos. This island is full of people suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine finally reaching the remote mountaintop home of a close friend or relative, who sits there with a municipal government–issued packet of crackers, applesauce, and bottled water, looking up at you watery-eyed and saying, “I was wondering whether you even wanted to talk to me anymore.” The disconnection has exposed the inadequate response of the federal government as well as Puerto Rico’s executive branch, led by Governor Ricky Rosselló.
“The problem is that Hurricane Irma allowed the local government to exploit public relations and say ‘Look how well we responded to the storm; this has been a success,’” said Heriberto Martínez, an economist, radio host, and occasional political consultant, in a packed San Juan cafe. “Apparently they wanted to maintain the same standard after Hurricane Maria, and when they realized it was unmanageable, they started to look for help outside, but they wasted a week already. What has happened in that week was the self-efforting of the people, who went out on the streets with tools and small cranes to clear streets and roads.”
So it was with Melvin Encarnación, a neighbor of my mother’s in Barrio Barcelona, a remote community near the El Yunque Rain Forest. Just a day after Maria hit, he organized a brigade of local residents to clear with machetes the road that connected with 191, the artery that leads to the entrance of the rain forest park. After hours of work in hot, humid conditions, they trekked up 191 to a well that was operated by barrio residents, cutting through an intense tangle of flayed foliage. Within days of the hurricane, water was restored, just as it was in the days following Irma.
Puerto Rico has a rickety infrastructure, with an electrical grid powered by fossil fuels and tied together by a system of highways and roads that make transportation by anything other than gas-consuming vehicles inconvenient. Puerto Ricans today, unlike the islanders who slowly emerged from two powerful hurricanes in 1928 and 1932, cannot simply go back to the land. We must think carefully about how to rebuild by drawing more on the island’s natural resources—our fertile land and deep maritime ports—and connecting communities with solar and wind energy, rather than merely rebuilding what had already existed.
Martínez calls this economía ecológica, an economic system that is a subset of an ecological system. We have to recognize that what used to be considered a positive development from a traditional economic perspective—say, a garbage incinerator—generates a negative social cost and thus actually fosters underdevelopment. The idea of ecological economy that Martínez and University of Puerto Rico (UPR) economist Joseph Vogel have promoted could be applied to two crucial areas: the battered agricultural sector and the energy-production sector.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the communications system has contributed to the distortion of politics here and the meager and insulting responses from the Trump administration. The president’s visit will be remembered, of course, for the infamous paper towel–tossing photo op, his series of inane comments about how the recovery effort has been going, and the use of the military. While military vehicles have been helpful in distributing diesel fuels as well as the generators dependent on diesel, the Army’s presence has generated nonplussed reactions from locals—a far cry from the visceral, welcoming response to the stories of sacrifice and survival of community members.
The Class and Geographical Divide
The longstanding rift between metro San Juan and its far-flung municipalities is clearer after Maria, as urban areas like Condado and Guaynabo have their power slowly return, while the countryside remains blanketed in darkness and, often, desperation. Puerto Rico is famous for its gated communities, but in many cities and towns the social divide is marked by a kind of convivencia, or “living together,” where better-off residents live in close quarters with their poorer neighbors. This is evident in San Juan, where the posh Ocean Park community, which was flooded for days, is just a block or two away from neighborhoods like Barrio Machuchal, which has a large elderly and poor population.
One of the borders between Machuchal and Ocean Park is Calle Loíza, which is currently undergoing a renaissance not unlike that of Bushwick, Brooklyn, with cafes and art galleries driving a vibrant youth-culture scene. Mariana Reyes, who is the leader of La Calle Loíza, Inc., a nonprofit that tries to keep a reverence for local residents and Afro-Caribbean culture in the midst of the area’s revitalization, is a bit rattled when I meet her at a Chinese restaurant across the street from the apartment she shares with her husband, folkloric plena musician Héctor Matos. She has been using the organizational capability of La Calle Loíza to help send out volunteers to take inventory on what residents need, often trying to connect with relief efforts of diaspo-Ricans on the mainland.
“We’re trying to get a mattress for one of our 90-year-old neighbors,” she said, visibly strained from both Irma and Maria. “We organized a brigade of construction workers in the neighborhood to clear the streets—anything we can do.” She and her husband were also in the process of raising funds for the bar-restaurant they own and operate, which is ironically called La Junta, the same sobriquet used for the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which currently controls Puerto Rico’s budgetary process and debt restructuring. The restaurant was named after a group of ex-UPR students who coalesced in New York in the 1990s: university professors, artists, and workers who remain in contact as they participate in a circular migration between New York and Puerto Rico.
“It’s hard,” said Reyes, who was tending to her small child as Matos spoke to the Jazz Foundation of America, who seemed willing to donate to repair the major damage to La Junta, which also doubles as a music and theater performance space. “We are people with some means, though by no means wealthy; but I think about the average people who live here. The people we employ are mostly at the poverty level and now have no job and no source of income, and maybe the roof flew off their house. What are they going to do?” Reyes worries how—after the gasoline shortage and diesel-distribution problems are solved, and ATMs and hospitals struggle back to full operation—people will react to a new normal of shuttered businesses that will not recover; neighbors lost to illness, death, and migration; and the prospect of sporadic electricity and spotty cellular service.
At the same restaurant, Luis Fernando “Peri” Coss drops in with his wife and child, and while he displays his usual sardonic side, he laments that the building housing the communications department at UPR, which he runs, is irreparable. He had just come back from salvaging the remnants. “I lost a lot of archives I have—ruined,” he says. “We saved about 90 computers, but that’s it. Classes are supposed to begin next week, but…” The university has suffered extensive physical damage. It had already experienced gaps in instruction because of last year’s student strike, and now it’s threatened with removal of accreditation for some programs. UPR suffered severe budget cuts in the latest fiscal plan agreed to by the administration and the FOMB.
Almost everyone I spoke with is considering leaving Puerto Rico, even if their hearts are not in it. Many say they are staying only because they have an elderly relative whom they can’t abandon and who stubbornly wishes to remain. The postal worker in charge of the annex in the small town of Palmer, where my mother receives her mail, looked at me sadly and said, “I wish I could leave, but I can’t. What’s coming I can’t imagine and am afraid may be very difficult. Of course you should take your mother back with you. You’re doing the right thing.”
Neritza Sánchez, who works as an administrator at Universidad Nacional de San Juan online education program, was eager to speak with me as I sat writing in a local cafe with electrical power. She had been on the phone for half an hour completing an application for aid from FEMA, which she was told would take 20–30 days to process. She’d come to the cafe because she has no cell reception and no electricity in her home, in the La Riviera section of Rio Piedras, a San Juan district.
“Our kitchen had two inches of water, I can’t go online to check the home insurance that we have, and my sister lost part of her roof in Arecibo,” she said almost matter-of-factly. “I’ve gone two weeks without work, which they say they’ll pay me for. I’ve considered leaving, but I don’t really want to. I love it here.” Sánchez was born in Brooklyn and went to elementary school in Bushwick until she was 8 years old. Her father lives in the remote town of Gurabo, which was flooded. He’s struggling to maintain his supply of medications and is living with a neighbor who lost his roof. “I don’t know,” she said. “If I think of leaving, it has to do with how long I’ll be without power, getting a paycheck. I’m afraid that the new normal is going to be scarcity and anxiety.”
The interventions of Trump and Vice President Pence were met with derision or indifference from many people I spoke with. The president’s infantile behavior has not surprised many, but the spirited response from San Juan Mayor Camen Yulín Cruz has earned her new respect from many locals who had not been fans. “She said some things that had to be said, and people have responded to that,” said Martínez. Pence’s remark about how the coquí, a local tree frog whose sing-songy chirping is one of the cultural symbols of Puerto Rican pride, would sing again was dismissed by many, who insist correctly that coquís have not stopped blasting out their two-tone message.
Pence’s visit had the unpleasant effect of throwing metro-area traffic into complete chaos, prompting the closure of the Baldorioty Expressway, which is something like Manhattan’s FDR Drive. With all surrounding avenues closed, I was forced to drive back toward Old San Juan, which is still without electricity (as opposed to Condado, where billionaire hedge-funder John Paulson has bought the area’s most luxurious hotel). Driving south toward Rio Piedras in the hopes of avoiding traffic, I encountered flash floods that made Avenida Muñoz Rivera a one-lane lake. Pushing on to the old Route 3 on the way back east to the rain forest, a feeling of dread overtook me as I realized that night had fallen and thousands of cars were surging along highways with stoplights that didn’t work.
Amazingly, the anxious civility that has permeated the island kept us all safe, and I maneuvered the painstaking miles through a torrent of headlights, fading cell signals, flooded roadways, and yawning potholes. The landscape had become an unrecognizable blur of fallen trees, twisted highway signs, and mangled electrical wires. Landmarks had become distorted and useless, while entire communities that had been previously invisible now emerged, ghostlike. There was no light anywhere, just a full moon that seemed to swallow all of Route 66.
The Road Ahead
Members of the opposition Popular Democratic Party are lobbying for a federal humanitarian grant of between $15 billion and $30 billion. On Thursday, the House passed a $36.5 billion disaster-relief bill—but it’s for the storms affecting Houston, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as the wildfires affecting the West. And the relief designated for Puerto Rico comes in the form of roughly $5 billion in loans. Not only is it a cruel joke for a territory already drowning in debt; the amount doesn’t figure to leave Puerto Rico with anything close to the $10–15 billion that would seem to be the low end of Rosselló’s expectations.
Rafael Bernabe, who was the gubernatorial candidate for the Working People’s Party in 2016, has proposed that Washington apportion $7 billion this year, with a commitment to a recurrent investment of about $5 billion for several years to come. Bernabe, like many others, has also called for a permanent exclusion of Puerto Rico from the Jones Act shipping-restriction laws. So far, Washington has not shown any inclination to extend its 10-day suspension.
On Thursday, Moody’s issued a report doubting that bondholders could ever recoup the bond investments that make up much of the island’s $72 billion debt. The report estimated that 100,000 homes were destroyed, and said losses could amount to between $45 billion and $90 billion. Many are calling for its reduction, including partial forgiveness, but Bernabe proposes a significant further step. “We’ve been trying to argue for an audit of the debt to determined what is illegal or unconstitutional about it,” said Bernabe. “But in this case, after Maria I think it can be argued that the debt should be annulled, and there is precedent for that. It’s a legal concept called force majeure, in which a debtor finds that the situation has changed fundamentally due to circumstances beyond his or her control. Another principle that could be applied is that of a government that claims a debt could make it difficult to assure the life, well-being, and security of its citizens.”
Noticel editor Oscar Serrano, whom I ran into by chance in San Juan, feels strongly that the fate of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is key to any examination of the island’s immediate future. He cites the recent Twitter exchange between Rosselló and Elon Musk to implement a system of micro-grids that would replace the awkward centralized, south-to-north delivery of power from one source in Guayanilla. It’s unclear what such a move would mean for the authority’s privatization process, set in motion by last year’s PROMESA law.
Bernabe stresses that although Washington’s colonial treatment of Puerto Rico is shot through with racism and indifference, the local government is also culpable for having no emergency contingency for the loss of communication and power, particularly when it comes to vital institutions like hospitals. The lack of planning, and FEMA’s slow response, indicate that both the federal government and the Puerto Rican government are simply not taking natural disasters, exacerbated in recent years by climate change, seriously enough.
Puerto Rico, battered from Humacao in the southeast to the northwest tip of Aguadilla, is collectively pulled over on the side of the road, searching for a signal. The breakdown in communications has also affected alternative political movements and organizing. “Only by acting as a collaborative network can we advance,” said Bernabe. “What we really need are social, collaborative responses to our problems, for the Puerto Rico that we want to reconstruct.”