In a phenomenon we like to call “Disaster Capitalism the Shock Doctrine”, a disaster strikes, public sympathy is awakened, and there are grand pledges to “build back better,” bringing justice to those who have just lost everything. And yet almost immediately the emergency atmosphere becomes the pretext to push through a wish list for big polluters, real estate developers, and financiers at the expense of those who have already lost so much. We call them 'Disaster Capitalists'. Right now you can bet 'Disaster Capitalists' are circling Puerto Rico, but this time they may not get their prey.
FEMA has announced more than $500 million in aid to Puerto Rico, including $285 million to help restore electricity and water services. The Senate also tentatively approved a $36.5 billion overall hurricane relief package that includes aid for Puerto Rico.
The fact that the House-approved relief package contains $5 billion in loans for the island, rather than grants, is a special kind of cruelty and supports our modern day 'Disaster Capitalist' Industry.
Today, Puerto Rico, is an island already suffering under an un-payable $74 billion debt (and another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations) and Puerto Ricans understand all too well that debt is not relief. On the contrary, it is a potent tool of perpetual impoverishment and control from which relief is urgently needed.
The very fact that the House of Representatives bundled that loan into its sweeping multi-disaster bill is symbolic of a deep fear that has lurked in the background for many Puerto Ricans ever since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck. The fear is that however much islanders are suffering in the midst of their ongoing humanitarian emergency, it’s the phase after the emergency passes that could be even more perilous. That’s when policies marketed as reconstruction could well morph into their own kind of punishment, leaving the island more unequal, indebted, dependent, and polluted than it was before the hurricanes hit.
The Senate version of the bill rejects requests from the powerful Texas and Florida congressional delegations for additional money to rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, whose state’s citrus industry endured significant losses during Irma, sought to add $3 billion in immediate agriculture assistance to the measure, but was denied by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said money for crop losses would be in subsequent aid measures.
While Florida and Texas won't receive monies directly from this bill, it is obvious by McConnell's response that they'll get their money from another, yet to be written, bill and you can rest assured it won't be in the form of a loan and almost certainly be a grant of monies to the states of Florida and Texas. Meanwhile Puerto Rico will be loaned monies and indebted even further.
'Disaster Capitalists' are planning how to carve up Puerto Rico economically in much the same way as New Orleans was after Katrina hit. Just look at all the public schools and public housing that was closed and torn down and is now being rebuilt into commercial properties while basic housing is neglected.
If there is some good news, it’s this: Puerto Ricans are wise to 'Disaster Capitalism' tactics. They know all too well that their island’s debt crisis, fueled by Wall Street’s hunger for tax-exempt bonds, was systematically exploited to extract brutal “reforms” from workers and students who played no part in driving up the debt. They know that the debt crisis was used to strip Puerto Ricans of their most basic democratic rights, putting the island’s finances in the hands of an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board — referred to locally as “La Junta.”
Which is why, as soon as hurricanes Irma and Maria struck, many Puerto Ricans were on the lookout for how these disasters would be exploited for private gain. The destroyed electricity grid would be seized upon to argue that the whole system should be privatized, while the destroyed homes would be the opening to auction off more land for golf courses and vacation homes.
But what if Puerto Ricans design the recovery for Puerto Rico instead of Washington and Wall Street? Under the banner of a “just recovery” for Puerto Rico, thousands have come together to design a bold and holistic plan for the island to be rebuilt as a beacon for a safe, resilient, and thriving society in the era of accelerating climate chaos, spiraling economic inequality, and rising white nationalism.
A Just Recovery for Puerto Rico will require meaningful debt relief, as well as a waiver and full review of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to as the 'Jones Act', the shipping law that requires that all goods entering Puerto Rico from the mainland arrive via U.S. ships, dramatically driving up costs and limiting options.
The Merchant Marine Act is a United States federal statute that provides for the promotion and maintenance of the American merchant marine. Among other purposes, the law regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. Section 27 of the Jones Act deals with cabotage (coastwise trade) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. The act was introduced by Senator Wesley Jones and also defines certain seaman's rights.
It also means that, whenever possible, aid money should go directly to Puerto Rican organizations and communities because it’s not only bankers and shipping companies that extract wealth from poor communities. So, too, can well-meaning aid organizations, which have transformed far too many disaster zones into playgrounds for the 'Non-Profit Disaster Capitalist Industrial Complex'.
One just has to look at Haiti to see all that is wrong with 'Disaster Capitalism'. It’s a process that siphons vast sums of money into overhead, hotels, and translators; drives up local prices; and casts affected populations as passive supplicants rather than participants in their own recovery. For a just recovery to be possible in Puerto Rico, what happened in Haiti after the earthquake cannot be allowed to repeat.
Meanwhile in Washington, President Donald Trump: I think we’ve done a really great job, and we’ve had tremendous cooperation from the governor. And we are getting there. And people are really seeing the effort that’s been put into Puerto Rico. It’s been a very, very difficult situation for many people. I will say that. … It hit right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There’s never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10.