Disaster gentrification in Puerto Rico

Paradise for a wealthy few, the continuation of a long colonial nightmare for the long neglected majority of Puerto Ricans.


On May 1st, international worker’s day, just 8 months after being battered by Hurricane Maria and amid vows of further austerity to pay down the territory’s $70 billion in previous debt, the financial district of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, was the scene of angry protests. One large group of demonstrators, a small number of whom later threw projectiles at police lines, were met with such a massive dispersal of tear gas and pepper spray that some police themselves had to receive treatment for exposure to the chemicals.

The confrontation, which resulted in 13 arrests, began when police in riot gear put up barricades to stop one large group of marchers from walking up Ponce de Leon Avenue toward the territory’s legislature. Police then reportedly blocked exit routes, essentially keeping the protesters penned in for what William Ramirez, executive director of Puerto Rico’s ACLU branch told Mother Jones magazine was, “hours,” adding, “It was all a setup, it was all planned. They created the situation that led to this conflict.”

It wasn’t the first time that protesters had been met with questionable police tactics during May Day demonstrations in San Juan, especially after more than a decade of austerity. As reported in the article cited above, there was a federal review of the actions of authorities in 2017 that found, “excessive force and pervasive civil rights and liberties violations” by law enforcement.

The mainstream American media, including the cable news networks (besides Fox, of course), did a pretty good job covering the trials of ordinary Puerto Ricans in the immediate wake of Maria, which caused over $90 billion in damage and, according to multiple sources, may have led to more than 1,000 deaths.

However, aside from the business press, which takes an odd view of these things, these has been very little coverage since the hurricane of the actions of Puerto Rico’s government, led by Ricardo Rossello of the New Progressive Party (which is pro- U.S. statehood and leans Democratic in mainland terms) and its sometime friend, sometime nemesis, the Financial Oversight and Management Board (appropriately called ‘La Junta’ by locals) created by former President Obama in 2016 to deal with the territory’s debt crisis.

La Junta’s unaccountable leadership consists of four members picked by Republicans Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, one each selected by Democrats Nancy Pelosi and then Senate minority leader Harry Reid and a final one chosen by former President Obama. As might be expected, all of the members of the board are considered “creditor friendly”.

While successive territorial administrations must take the largest portion of the blame for their fiscal irresponsibility over many years, as Ryan Cooper of The Weekexplained in March of last year, ordinary Puerto Ricans are being unfairly penalized for financial shenanigans that primarily benefited outside interests, “The fact that Puerto Rican debt is exempt from federal, state, and local taxes… led Wall Street to offer extremely generous loans (to serve as a vehicle to stash cash tax-free), which papered over the economic problems for a time.”

Dismantling public schools: Charters, closures and cuts

Well represented at the May Day protests were the territory’s teachers, who, just as in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere on the U.S. mainland where educators have been taking to the streets over the last few weeks, are concerned about cuts to their salaries and budgets. Puerto Rican educators face the added concern of widespread school closures and the layoffs that are sure to accompany them.

In January, as part of his government’s fiscal plan, Governor Rossello announced that 305 out of a current total of 1,100 schools will be closed. This is in addition to the almost 180 shuttered last May before Maria hit, and the 150 more closed between 2010 and 2015. The closures came just before the government heralded a charter school pilot project that, “will be implemented in 10 percent of schools across the U.S. territory.”

While the continuing exodus from the island makes some school closures inevitable, with 14,000 students estimated to have left just within the first two months after the storm, pushing charters as a ‘reform’ so soon after the disaster is reminiscent of what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now, almost all that city’s schools are for profit charters or independent religious schools.

Then there is the belief among many educators and some interested observers that for profit schools don’t usually take a holistic approach to education being focused on ‘results’, which currently means standardized test scores. They also have a history of failing special needs students.

As Edwin Morales Laboy of the Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) explained in an article translated for The Socialist Worker, “This reform aims to impose a training system through which independent thought and critical thinking are removed from teaching, and everything is standardized. Teachers go from teaching for life to teaching to the test, with all of the emotional and psychological consequences that may have for students.”

Neighborhood schools are also in many cases one of the glues that binds communities together and indeed, throughout Puerto Rico they opened their doors to shelter citizens from Hurricane Maria.  Charters have already shown elsewhere that in many cases they feel no such obligation to the communities they operate in.

As Jeremy Mohler wrote on Medium in late February, “As Hurricane Irma approached Florida last September, residents of all ages huddled in shelters set up in government buildings, schools and other well-built structures. But only a handful of the state’s 654 charter schools were available because their leaders decided not to open them or the school buildings weren’t required to meet construction guidelines for hurricane protections.”

Creating a new ‘Puertopia’ for the rich?

While Gov. Rossello earned some praise for his opposition to a few of the measures demanded by La Junta, including pension cuts for public employees, last Monday an agreement was finalized to avoid a court battle between the territory’s government and the 7 member board.

One of the new austerity measures being foisted on American citizens there as a result of the agreement is a work requirement that will be put in place for the territory’s food-assistance program for the poor. To understand the impact that this could have, it’s important to note that, while Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, at 45%, poverty there is closer to the regional rather than the mainland American norm. Taking food assistance from people who live in rural areas and don’t have access to regular employment seems especially cruel with recovery from Maria slow moving in many of these areas.

Adding insult to injury, shortly after the May 1st protests and with just two weeks until this year’s hurricane season begins, the army corps of engineers announced its imminent withdrawal from the Commonwealth, despite the fact that power has not been restored for as many as 16,000 households. Puerto Rico’s grid is in such rough shape that there was an island wide power outage a little more than a month ago on April 18th, due to an accident that damaged a transmission line, once again pitching the whole territory into darkness for a full day.

Making the situation even more precarious for ordinary citizens, Rossello’s government plans to privatize PREPA, the Commonwealth’s power utility. Considering the utility’s $9 billion in debt, it seems likely that residential rates will soar after any privatization, especially with repairs left unfinished on the grid.

While gentrification in the traditional sense is more of a neighborhood phenomenon where poorer residents in geographically desirable areas are forced out by development and rising rents, we may learn in Puerto Rico what happens when this is done to an entire society. As many have noted, the main problem with gentrification is that it erases the unique character of the neighborhoods thus transformed. The world would be poorer if something similar happened in the territory, with Maria and possible future storms blamed for it.

Since last September, City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimates that more than 135,000  Puerto Ricans have left for the U.S. mainland out of a pre-storm population of 3.4 million. Many of those protesting on May Day told the few outlets that covered it that they were concerned that the austerity measures would get so bad that many more would be forced to leave.

At the same time that many of its citizens are leaving, successive governments have offered incentives to the wealthy to get them to relocate to the territory for at least half of the year. Residents of Puerto Rico already pay no federal taxes if they live there 180 days out of the year and the government before Rossello’s, waived most local taxes as well, to encourage the 1% to come and live in storm proof luxury hotels and developments that weathered Maria’s onslaught much better than poorer neighborhoods and rural areas.

Many of these ‘Puertopians’ as Naomi Klein has called them, seem to have dreams of a kind of libertarian paradise where the only remaining inhabitants will be those without the means to leave. Those that remain will likely find that the only available work is in low wage service jobs (the minimum wage is USD $7.25, less for those under 25), often accommodating the needs of these new elites. Paradise for a wealthy few, the continuation of a long colonial nightmare for the long neglected majority of Puerto Ricans.


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