We still do not know how many people in Puerto Rico have died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The sheer devastation on the island has made surveying the extent of the damage exceedingly difficult, especially in isolated mountainous municipalities. We must remember that people have not only been ravaged by the hurricane, but also by the the unavailability of vital utilities and services and the shamefully slow response of the Trump administration to the growing humanitarian crisis. Much of the island is expected to be without electricity for six months, and according to the Washington Post, “Doctors across Puerto Rico say that many patients…are arriving at hospitals in deteriorating condition because they waited too long to seek treatment, in many cases because they couldn’t find the gas to drive” (Washington Post, “Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis nowhere more obvious than at hospitals,” 09.28.2017). This begs the question: How many people waited too long to seek treatment and never made it to the hospital?
While this remains unclear, there is one thing we know with crushing certainty: Puerto Rico was already in a state of profound economic and social crisis before violent waves pummeled its shores.
A deadly confluence of U.S. colonial policy, corrupt dealings between local elites and U.S. corporations, the end of a construction boom, the Great Recession and deindustrialization has left an island of 3.4 million with an unpayable debt—roughly $74 billion—that is estimated to be above 107 percent of GDP next year. This number looks all the worse when additional figures are considered: an unemployment rate of 12 to 13 percent, a labor force participation rate of 40 percent, the firing of 30,000 government employees in 2009 and cuts to the University of Puerto Rico’s budget of $900 million ranging from $241 million to $512 million by 2026.
In 2015, Puerto Rico attempted to restructure its unsustainable debt burden by passing the “Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act,” which would have allowed eligible public entities to directly negotiate with their creditors. However, the U.S. government struck this down because federal bankruptcy law does not confer upon Puerto Rican municipalities the same right to declare bankruptcy and restructure debt that U.S. cities and towns have. Any remaining illusions of Puerto Rican sovereignty were dispelled by this act of imperialism, and Puerto Rico was at the mercy of Wall Street.
Ruling out the possibility of the Puerto Rican government addressing its financial crisis as a sovereign democratic body, the federal government instead imposed upon the island a technocratic regime of austerity through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016. An unelected, seven-member board of four Republicans and three Democrats— the majority with ties to the financial sector and/ or the Puerto Rican right wing—now lords over the island’s economy. The board may intervene in Puerto Rican financial affairs and direct negotiations with creditors. Its self-defined goal is to lead Puerto Rico to “fiscal responsibility and access to the capital markets,” while its policies contain cuts to education, healthcare and more—with no promise of federal money to ease the debt burden.
PROMESA has only served to exacerbate the economic crisis because the long-term fiscal health of Puerto Rico rests not only on adequately servicing depth, but also in making the necessary investments for long-term growth. Adequate healthcare, wages and education are essential. Furthermore, Keynesian-style spending has a far more successful record of stimulating economies and expanding opportunity than does austerity. Today, Portugal has seen successes through a rejection of austerity, while Greece, which accepted austerity, continues to flounder. By further entrenching austerity in Puerto Rico, PROMESA has provoked social and economic dislocation in a society where the young increasingly move to the mainland because they cannot find opportunity at home and the old live in fear that they will not be taken care of.
If this was ever a case for an end to austerity before Hurricane Maria, it is doubly strong now. There is no way that Puerto Rico can recover without substantial public spending and debt relief. The potential for providing Puerto Ricans with work through rebuilding their home bolsters the case for a Keynesian solution. Already the mainland is set to receive thousands of families seeking refuge. Continuing a policy of austerity will ensure that they reluctantly stay there and that ever-increasing numbers of young people will leave the island for good, leading to a diminished tax base for the island government, which will make it even more difficult to address the financial situation.
Unsurprisingly, it does not appear that the Trump administration will take the proper steps to aid Puerto Rico. Donald Trump, in predictable fashion, has displayed a disgusting lack of sympathy for the Puerto Rican people. Addressing Puerto Rico’s economy, he tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble” (Twitter, 09.25.2017). During his first press conference in Puerto Rico, he callously said, “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. We’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico” (The Hill, “Trump: Puerto Rico has ‘thrown our budget a little out of whack,’” 10.3.2017).
All of this disregard for Puerto Rico’s dire circumstances at the same time as his tax reform proposal would increase the deficit by $2 trillion over 10 years and disproportionately favor the wealthy. There is enough money to make the rich richer but no money to bail out Puerto Rico.
The Republican-led Congress, with its anti-social safety net and anti-Latinx stances, will not adequately address the island’s existing structural issues, and the Democrats cannot be counted on without substantial pressure from the grassroots. It must be remembered that the Obama administration passed PROMESA with little resistance from the Democrats. In the face of government inaction, it is up to progressives to center Puerto Ricans and their demands. I have seen Puerto Ricans protesting austerity and la junta during marches in Poughkeepsie and New York City, but have rarely seen such demands from non-Puerto Ricans.
If non-Latinxs and non-Muslims can chant “no ban, no wall,” why not “no ban, no wall, no PROMESA?” Such an approach can shift the Democratic Party towards an anti-PROMESA stance just as a similar grassroots push has made single-payer health care more widely accepted within the party.
All these efforts must be informed and strengthened by deepening solidarity with ongoing social and political movements in Puerto Rico, such as the student groups that shut down the University of Puerto Rico for two months in an anti-austerity strike and the Citizen Front for Auditing the Debt. We must seize upon the awareness created by Hurricane Maria or forever regret our inaction.