Where the wind blows: The Unincorporated Territory of Puerto Rico and Recovering from Disaster

By Marissel Hernández-Romero and Ryan Hamilton / Especial para La Pupila / Foto: César J. Pérez Lizasuain

In the wake of hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico faces the biggest disaster of its modern history. The disastrous aftermath is not only the consequence of a hurricane, but is also the result of the poor infrastructure, economic troubles and political uncertainty that Puerto Rico has confronted over the last 100 years.

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the U. S. and all of its population are US citizens and as such can benefit from US federal actions, such as the federal government declaring the island a major disaster zone, assuring financial support to recover from the hurricane. Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. and its relationship with other parts of the United States is politically unequal. The problem of being an unincorporated is that the island is subjected to the decision of the Congress not taking into consideration the needs of the people of Puerto Rico and even when inhabited by U.S. citizens the U.S. Constitution does not apply directly. Our colonial political status has the island in an economic, social, political and legal impasse.

Puerto Rico’s unequal position in the U.S. has produced two legal obstacles that stand in the way of the island’s recovery: the Cabotage Laws and the Financial Oversight and Management Board, legitimized through PROMESA. Both of these legal impositions are absurd and brutal. The Cabotage Laws or the Jones Act of 1920 protect the domestic shipping industry, prohibiting the entrance and trade of goods between the island and other countries. The laws require Puerto Rico to only use the U.S. merchant marine, which in recovering time like this one, prevent the island to acquire/supply itself of food and other goods much needed. This is concerning since most of the food consumed in the island is imported and by limiting the option during this period could provoke a shortage. Not to mention that US merchant marine is one of the most expensive in the world that in times of scarcity is brutal to the island.

Likewise, PROMESA, an imposed legislation attending the economic problems that is not paired with hurricane relief. PROMESA requires that Puerto Rico repay a debt, which people in Puerto Rico see as illegal since this debt grew to unsustainable levels thanks to government officials releasing long-term bond to cover up the deficits. This debt is required by PROMESA to be repaid before essential services affecting health, education, public transportation, and housing among others can be provided, risking the lives of thousands of U.S. citizens. Local newspapers have already report that the bondholders are worried of not receiving their payment. Beside the debt need to be audit, the Federal and Local government should address every cent and every effort to the reconstruction and the social-economic revitalization of our island.

The austerity and cuts to the public sphere that the Federal government has imposed us in Puerto rico with PROMESA and Cabotage worsened social inequality and that exacerbated Maria’s impact. The people of Puerto Rico are more vulnerable now than ever as the full cost of the damage to the region is yet to be calculated. After the worst of the storm had passed an estimated 3.4 million residents remained without electricity and 65% of the population without access to potable water. The force of the winds left thousand of families without communication within and outside of the island. The recovery efforts are expected to last months, maybe years.

As recovery efforts are organized and much needed aid reaches the island there is an opportunity to reflect upon other issues that are central to the island’s recovery. While we must now reconstruct, we must also reflect not only on the hurricane, but also on the consequences of Puerto Rico’s unequal political relationship to the rest of the United States, and how Puerto Rico can go forward. Here are more steps the Federal government can take: 1) Declare a moratorium on the repayment of the debt that has ransacked local coffers and made crucial services unavailable to most Puerto Ricans. 2) Halt the Cabotage laws imposed by the US. Only if this two conditions are met Puerto Rico will be able to recover in a fast-paced manner.  

Meanwhile, one of the best ways readers can help is to support local organizations that are already active in these communities. Fellow citizens in Puerto Rico are in urgent need of support.

As scholars who work with Puerto Rico, we recommend the following list of aid organizations:

  • Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas: www.casapueblo.org
  • Comedores Sociales: https://www.cdpecpr.org/comedores-sociales-de-puerto-rico
  • Salud y Acupuntura Para el Pueblo: https://www.facebook.com/saludacupunturapr/
  • Colectivo Agroecologico Guakia: https://www.facebook.com/guakiapr/
  • Taller Salud: http://www.tallersalud.com/
  • Vive Boriken: http://www.viveboriken.org/
  • Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos: https://www.facebook.com/casajuliapr/
  • Caritas Puerto Rico: http://www.caritas.org/where-car…/latin-america/puerto-rico/

  • Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico: https://www.fcpr.org/

  • ConPRmetidos: https://www.generosity.com/…/maria-irma-puerto-rico-real-ti…

  • Campamento Contra Cenizas de Carbon: https://www.facebook.com/nocenizasdecarbon/
  • Vieques en Rescate: www.viequesenrescateinc.com
  • Sierra Club de Puerto Rico: https://www.facebook.com/SierraClubPR/
  • Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martin Peña: www.martinpena.org
  • Campamento Contra La Junta: https://www.facebook.com/CampamentoContraLaJunta/
  • Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas: https://www.facebook.com/seacabaronlaspromesas/
  • Enlace Latino de Accion Climatica: https://www.facebook.com/ELACPR/
  • Centro Mujer Barranquitas: https://www.facebook.com/centromujer.barranquitas
  • Iniciativa Comunitaria: http://www.iniciativacomunitaria.org/

  • MariaFund mariafund.org
  • Santa Barbara and CenCal Hurricane Maria Relief: https://www.generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/santa-barbara-and-cencal-hurricane-maria-relief
  • ISER Caribe Facebook page@isercaribe
  • Federación de Maestros: https://www.gofundme.com/solidaridad-victimas-huracan-maria