After the passage of Hurricane Maria through Puerto Rico, the island was literally left in pieces, although it is not only this natural phenomenon that is to blame for the current crisis faced by Puerto Ricans.
In order to learn more about what has happened over the last four months following the impact of Maria, and the Caribbean island’s economic crisis, Granma spoke with Edwin González, delegate to the Puerto Rico Mission in Havana, a member of the Hostosiano National Independence Movement, a political organization founded in the Cuban capital in 1966 by Puerto Rican independence leader Juan Mari Brás.
How much damage was caused by Maria in Puerto Rico?
There is talk of more than 90 billion dollars in costs after the passage of this hurricane in Puerto Rico. Before Maria struck, the island already had a debt of more than 70 billion dollars, which remains the case today. In addition, 250,000 homes were damaged.
How has the recovery progressed in terms of the essential aspects of life for the population?
The recovery has been a real disaster. The fundamental problem after Maria was the total collapse of the electrical system, both physical and operational. Due to the inefficiency of the colonial government and the fact that electric power operations are in private hands, only 60% of Puerto Ricans currently have electricity, and this means that not all people in the same town have power.
Seventy-two percent of the population already has drinking water, although not under normal conditions, but through pumps. This means that we have to restructure this supply network, which after the passage of the cyclone saw 700 million dollars in damages.
With regard to communications, only 60% are active.
The inefficiency is not only a government problem, but is due to existing privatizations. All that modernity that was sold to Puerto Rico collapsed from one day to the next, without electricity, internet, water, radio, information for the population, or gasoline.
Regarding the educational sector, classes recently commenced on January 8 and half of schools still have no power, due to the inefficiency of the colonial government. Only 60% of the school system is operating at this time.
There are currently 6,000 to 8,000 fewer students in classrooms, compared to the previous year, because all these families went to the United States, to their relatives’ homes. They initially migrated temporarily and have spent almost four months there; they have not been able to return to Puerto Rico due to the disaster following the hurricane.
After Hurricane Maria, what do you think are the most obvious consequences of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. free associated state?
The indifference and slowness on the part of the United States government to restore the island to normality. A clear example was what Donald Trump said during his visit to our island: Puerto Rico has “thrownourbudget a little out of whack.”
The majority of the pro-independence sector in the nation has viewed that United States attitude in terms of contempt, negligence, which has affected the life of the population too much.
After the passage of Hurricane Maria, the U.S. government sent 10,000 soldiers and a corps of engineers to Puerto Rico, who did virtually nothing to alleviate the crisis.
In the port there were 1,200 containers with food, without the capacity for distribution to supermarkets. That is to say, the government was inoperative and insolvent in this sense; to have the containers in the port and not distribute their contents to the victims, with truckers present, who waited for orders on what to do with those goods, and received none. Then they distributed a little box of water and put several photos on Facebook, but that did not show the reality.
Another important aspect, in this sense, is that everything that could happen in Puerto Rico’s future must go through the United States Congress. They appoint the Financial Oversight Board, which is now in force in the nation, where natural disaster has been combined with colonial ruin.
How has the migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States since Hurricane Maria developed?
In three months, 200,000 Puerto Ricans went to the United States, but very few have officially established themselves there. Many of them have no job, are in shelters or are in relatives’ homes.
How have the negotiations advanced with the Financial Oversight and Management Board, which seeks to guarantee compliance with Wall Street creditors?
The colonial government has not been able, firstly, as a colony of the United States, to renegotiate the debt of 74 billion dollars, due to the economic dependence on that nation, which will collect its debt, regardless of the hurricane.
The official position of the U.S. government on the debt, with or without the storm, is that it was generated by the colony and that it must be paid. It will be added to the reported deficit of 90 billion dollars caused by Hurricane Maria last September. The U.S. government will start to collect all that money as soon as the country recovers.
Prior to Hurricane Maria, that was already approved by the Financial OversightBoard, which is in charge in Puerto Rico, rather than the governor Ricardo Roselló. There is also a suggestion that all the money that has arrived from Washington will be handled by this entity and not by the Puerto Rican government directly.
After the many steps taken by the Puerto Rican administration to lobby the U.S. Congress on the debt payment, the only loan approved by this entity is $4.7 billion dollars. This money was intended for the government to be able to operate during these past months, until the beginning of the year, but it has not yet reached the island, that is, the credit line has not been implemented in this regard.
What are some of the problems regarding the functioning of the Puerto Rican government that came to light after the passage of Hurricane Maria?
The corruption of officials of the current Puerto Rican government who “got their hands dirty” through fraudulent contracts, economic vice and favoritism regarding companies. The U.S. government sees that and says: How are we going to provide money for this bad administration? Therefore, there is great caution in Congressional formalities regarding the allocation of funds to Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria brought to light the Puerto Rican reality, which had been sold as a showcase for the Caribbean, a country that was “great,” for being part of the United States.
This devastation brought to light the real Puerto Rico: the number of houses in disrepair, the landslides, the terrible planning of all infrastructure such as roads, bridges, building urbanizations where they should not be, due to bad planning.
What was the official death toll after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico?
The government officially said 64 dead, but in my opinion they are trying to cover up the number of deaths, because the more deaths, the greater the disaster. Those who lost their lives, for example, in a hospital, because there was no electricity, also died as a result of the natural disaster caused by Maria. They are not counting the deceased, or do not want to do so, so a mishandling of the figures can be seen. There are several media outlets in the United States and Puerto Rico itself that have accounted for more than a thousand deaths, but it is regrettable that the colonial government has taken that position of not facing reality in this regard.