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disaster communism

Disaster capitalism rages in Puerto Rico

By Keith Leslie - Socialist Action, October 26, 2017

“The only thing we need now is a hurricane.” These were the words of a financial advisor in Puerto Rico this summer, anticipating the business opportunities the devastation of a hurricane would produce.

This framework—which understands disaster as an opportunity for profit—is not unusual. As Naomi Klein showed in her famous book, “The Shock Doctrine,” capitalism exploits both natural and manmade disasters as a chance to tear down social reforms, privatize public services, and implement neoliberal economic policies.

From the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile to post-Katrina New Orleans, we have seen the program and tactics of disaster capitalism persist and expand. Today, we can see the same forces seeking to bring disaster capitalism to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The most immediate disaster capitalist proposals for privatization came after Hurricane Irma. The storm did not hit Puerto Rico directly, but knocked out power to more than a million people. The executive leadership of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, PREPA, warned that the island might face power outages for six months or more. This immediately prompted calls for the privatization of PREPA on the grounds that it was inefficient and incompetent. In fact, PREPA was able to restore power for most of its customers within a few weeks.

PREPA’s current executive leadership was installed through an agreement with its creditors after the previous, anti-privatization administration was ousted. Four of the board’s seven members had signed a letter in June calling for PREPA’s privatization. The Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union, which represents PREPA’s workers, accused the leadership of exaggerating its estimates and delaying the deployment of available workers to promote the prospects of privatization.

Hurricane Maria, with a far more devastating impact on Puerto Rico, has likewise intensified the disaster capitalist pressure. The calls for PREPA’s privatization have intensified. They have also been joined by the likes of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, who has attempted to put a green veneer on this push by proposing to build a renewable grid in Puerto Rico—but on a privatized basis.

One of the key objectives of advocates of PREPA privatization is the breaking of the electrical workers’ union. Musk has a history of opposing union drives at Tesla and elsewhere. The fiscal control board installed in Puerto Rico by Washington has invoked a legal provision that would allow it to approve public-private partnerships with almost no public or environmental review.

Of course, Hurricanes Irma and Maria were not the start of austerity and privatization programs in Puerto Rico. Even before the hurricanes, Puerto Rico faced a debt of $74 billion—more than 70% of its GDP—as well as nearly $50 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA. PROMESA established a fiscal control board with broad authority over Puerto Rican finances and over its elected government.

The main causes of this debt crisis include massive tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals in Puerto Rico. Restrictions on the Puerto Rican government and economy due to its status as a U.S. colony have also contributed. This includes the Jones Act, which restricts non-U.S.-flagged ships’ ability to ship goods to Puerto Rico but also extends beyond it: when Puerto Rico attempted to raise taxes on large corporations that imported goods, Walmart successfully sued to block the tax in a U.S. federal court on the basis of federal law.

Nonetheless, the austerity program in Puerto Rico has fallen squarely on the poorest and most vulnerable: the fiscal control board has cut public health spending by a third, lowered the minimum wage for workers below the age of 24 to $4.25 an hour, raised utility bills, cut the public pension system, and closed public schools.

The hurricanes, however, have enabled the intensification of this ruling-class offensive. Demands for the cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt by the U.S. Congress have been bluntly rejected. In fact, the majority of the disaster relief allocated to Puerto Rico by the House is in additional loans of more than $5 billion, rather than grants, as is typical for disaster relief to U.S. states. In the same bill, the House cancelled $16 billion in loans for the National Flood Insurance Program—but not a dollar of Puerto Rico’s debt. Such “disaster aid” will only indebt Puerto Rico further and expand the austerity demands from the fiscal control board.

Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists & Jones Act

By Steve Zeltser - Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, October 26, 2017

KPFA WorkWeek Radio-Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists & Jones Act
WW10-24-17 Puerto Rico Labor Action By US Unionists And Jones Act

https://soundcloud.com/workweek-radio/ww10-24-17-puerto-rico-labor-actio...
WorkWeek looks at the ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico for survival. We interview NNU CNA Alta Bates nurse Gregory Callison about his solidarity action and that of the NNU-CNA to help the people of Puerto Rico. The union sent a delegation of over 50 nurses. We also interview retired ILWU Local 10 longshoreman Jack Heyman. Heyman talks about the Jones Act and why it coming under attack.
Additional media:

Power for Puerto Ricans, Not Private Investors

By Johanna Bozuwa - Common Dreams, October 23, 2017

“The whole of Puerto Rico is like this. I don’t think we are the only ones like this… We will survive,” Jose Torres, a resident of Puerto Rico, told an NPR reporter in late September. As a diabetic without access to medicine, he’s been working hard to keep up his blood sugar levels. Not an easy task when his fridge and stove don’t have power.

It has been almost a month since Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Since then, most of the island’s 3.4 million residents have been without electricity or running water. The power grid was effectively destroyed, with only 7 percent back online to date. This means that the entire system, from generation to distribution, will need to be rebuilt. The question now is: how?

While the unfolding human catastrophe on the island takes precedence, in the longer-term Puerto Rico has the opportunity to revolutionize their electricity system. Powered by renewables, a resilient and sustainable system can be built that genuinely puts the Puerto Rican people in charge of their energy. But, instead, the government is threatening to privatize electricity and bring in mainland investor-owned utilities to do the job. Elon Musk’s proposal for Tesla to power the island with renewables could be just the accelerant privatization needs.

Maria hits a Puerto Rico already in Crisis

Lackluster relief efforts in the wake of Maria are indicative of the United States’ treatment of the commonwealth as a second-class citizen. In direct contrast with aid packages to Texas and Florida that got equally pummelled by recent storms, Puerto Rico’s aid has been slow and relatively ineffectual so far. President Trump even blamed Puerto Rico for its inability to rebuild and threatened to cut off aid.

For one hundred years Puerto Ricans have had an uneasy relationship with the United States—while citizens, they lack any voting power in Congress and the US has effectively pushed the island into a state of economic depression through unfair trading rules, limited self-governance, and lack of access to the same benefits as other Americans. For decades, Puerto Rico mostly survived off tax breaks that brought American corporations onto the island to avoid federal corporate taxes. In the ‘90s, President Clinton got rid of those tax breaks. With it came the mass exodus of mainland corporations. This has contributed to a situation where the commonwealth is $70 billion dollars in debt and 45 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Trade rules effectively limit the island from buying goods not from the US mainland. During the New Deal, that meant  79 cents out of each dollar paid in wages was spent importing food, clothing, fuel, and other goods, effectively sending all the injected cash right back to the mainland corporations. During Maria, it meant other countries were stopped from shipping aid that the country so desperately needed for days. This included one of the major things they needed: fuel.

Puerto Rico relies almost totally on imported oil, which is one of the most polluting, least efficient fuel types. Only 2 percent of all electricity is generated from renewables. Electricity is also prohibitively expensive, costing 21.4 cents/kWh in comparison to 11 cents/kWh on the mainland. Much of this difference is because so much energy needs to be imported. It also means that when the island is cut off from shipments, it doesn’t have access to its fuel source.

Puerto Rico and the Jones Act Conundrum

By Jack Heyman - CounterPunch, October 23, 2017

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, the whole transportation and communication infrastructure went down- the power grid, bridges, roads, cell towers- devastating the entire island. Most people are still without the basic necessities of life, a month later. Emergency logistics are dysfunctional and telephone service barely exists.

FEMA’s bumbling for one month has looked like a rerun of a Keystone Cops movie. Although the marine terminals were loaded with commercial cargo since before the hurricane, there was no way for workers to reach the port facilities nor power to operate the port safely.  Day after day cargo sat idle as people’s desperation for water, food and life-saving medicine mounts. The early death toll was 48, but NPR has reported an additional 49 deaths since the storm and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting found 69 hospitals had morgue at  “capacity” as isolated towns and villages are reached the death toll will climb.

The Jones Act Under Attack……Anew 

Often when a major accident occurs the mainstream media are quick to blame workers. However, in the case of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, many liberals and leftists have joined in the union bashing charging the Jones Act, which is supported by maritime unions, with stopping vital shipments of aid. While it may be true that Jones Act cargo may cost more, it is not true that the Act (which requires that shipping between U.S. ports be in U.S.-registered vessels) is preventing necessary aid from reaching the people. However, no such protectionist U.S. laws, including the Jones Act, should be imposed on the colony of Puerto Rico, and that goes for the U.S. imperialist embargo on  trade with Cuba and trade sanctions on Venezuela and Russia as well.

The fact is there are plenty of U.S. bottoms to sail to the island. The Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the Department of Defense (DOD) manage 300 commercial vessels. And there are 4 Jones Act shipowners, Horizon, Sea Star, Crowley and Trailer Bridge that operate 5 container vessels and 12 barges on the Puerto Rico trade.

The blame for the lack of transportion and distribution of vital goods lies squarely with the U.S. government and its colonial oppression of Puerto Rico.

The Jones Act may pass on higher prices to an impoverished colonial people and that should not be, but there is another aspect to this question. Some of the most reactionary forces of the U.S. ruling class are trying to use the Puerto Rican hurricane relief crisis to get rid of the Jones Act, not because it would aid Puerto Rico but because it provides jobs for shipbuilders and seamen in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Much left opposition to the Jones Act comes from ignorance of the law and a knee jerk reaction to appear “anti-imperialist”. What it shows is their disconnect with the working class and blindness toward the capitalists’ machinations.

Capitalists and their news media often claim that good union wages cost the public higher prices.  That’s the mantra of Walmart and the non-union big box stores who extol their “virtues” of the profit system. The danger is that this cacophony, unwittingly supported by “progressives”, could lead to repeal of the entire U.S. Jones Act, a longtime campaign of the right wing, anti-union National Review, Senator John McCain and most of the Wall Street banksters.

The 1920 Merchant Marine Act or the Jones Act as it is known was promulgated to protect the American shipbuilding and seafaring industries.

The Jones Act does not include the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands nor should it include the colony of Puerto Rico. Both should be independent. However, it should remain intact for the continental U.S.  Calling to free Puerto Rico from the restrictions of this U.S. cabotage law is part of the struggle for independence, but to call for abolition of the Jones Act in the U.S would mean the destruction of maritime unions and the loss of hard-won union jobs.

A People’s Recovery: Radical Organizing in Post-Maria Puerto Rico

By Juan Carlos Dávila - The Indypendent, October 18, 2017

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — After Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, most telecommunications services collapsed, particularly cell phones and internet providers. People struggled for days to contact their loved ones, and although there have been some improvements, making a call, sending a text message, and connecting to the Internet is still a challenge in most areas.

Only certain analog and satellite telephones managed to survive the category-four hurricane, and the landline of Cucina 135, a community center located next to San Juan’s financial center, was one of them.

“Having a phone line was an invaluable resource,” said Luis Cedeño, spokesperson for El Llamado, an organization focused on providing support and unifying social movements in Puerto Rico. El Llamado (The Call) is supported by the Center for Popular Democracy and is led by a group of organizers from different sectors, including artists, communicators, social workers and student leaders.

The second day after the hurricane, El Llamado began calling Puerto Ricans in the diaspora from the landline of Cucina 135 to organize relief efforts independent of government agencies or big NGOs like the Red Cross. Cucina 135 is based in a small house that has been converted into a communal kitchen and meeting space. El Llamado now oversees Cucina 135, which serves as a gathering point for activists in a post-Maria Puerto Rico where they can exchange information and coordinate relief efforts. The main concern of organizers coming into the space was the mobilization of thousands of U.S. troops to the island who were not distributing the much-needed aid, but controlling it. Meanwhile, prices soar and people go hungry.

'People Are Dying' But Trump Gives Himself Perfect '10' for Puerto Rico Response

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, October 19, 2017

Despite an estimated one million people still living without drinking water, 80 percent of the island wihout electricity, and fresh reports that people are "dying" on the island, President Donald Trump stirred outrage on Thursday by giving himself a perfect "ten" on his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico.

"The people in Puerto Rico are dying," said National Nurses United (NNU) vice president Cathy Kennedy, who returned Wednesday from a two-week relief trip with the union's Registered Nurses Response Network (RNRN). "Nurses have been going out into communities, where all they ask for is water and food. And when you have to make a decision of who’s going to get the food today or the water — we shouldn't have to do that. The United States is the richest country in the world; Puerto Rico is part of the United States."

Yet Trump told a different story about the recovery in the Oval Office on Thursday, speaking to reporters as Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rossello looked on.

"I would give myself a ten," he said. "We have provided so much, so fast."

"Trump's callous, self-appointed grade reflects everything that is wrong with the alleged relief effort in Puerto Rico," Bonnie Castillo, director of National Nurses United's Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), told Common Dreams via email.

Open Letter to the People of the United States From Puerto Rico, a Month After Hurricane María

By Rafael Bernabe and Manuel Rodríguez Banchs - Counterpunch, October 20, 2017

Dear Friends:

By now you have surely heard about the catastrophic impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, as well as the slow and still inadequate response by U.S. federal agencies, such as FEMA.

A month after María, dozens of communities are still inaccessible by car or truck. Close to 90 percent of all homes lack electricity. Half lack running water. Many of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million residents have difficulties obtaining drinking water. The death toll continues to rise due to lack of medical attention or materials (oxygen, dialysis) or from poisoning caused by unsafe water.

The failures of U.S. agencies might come as no surprise, since the federal response (including FEMA’s) to other disasters, such as for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, was as slow and inadequate.

You may have also heard President Trump state that Puerto Rico was dealing with a debt crisis before the hurricane and that its electric grid had been allowed to deteriorate. As far as they go, these statements are true.

But President Trump also tweeted suggestions that Puerto Rican workers are lazy and that FEMA and other agencies cannot remain in Puerto Rico forever. This spins the notion that Puerto Ricans are themselves to blame and should not expect any more handouts. Trump aims to build a wall between us, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise either, by portraying us as a burden, as illegitimately claiming resources to which we have no right.

Through the media you may have also heard that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens as well as a nation, a people with its own identity and culture, under U.S. colonial rule since 1898. Sometimes these facts generate confusion regarding Puerto Rico’s relation with the United States.

Dear friends, contrary to what the President would have you believe, Puerto Rican workers are neither lazy, nor do they want everything done for them (as he also tweeted). They wish for the same things that most American working people want: jobs and adequate income; appropriate housing, education, health services and pensions; dependable infrastructure and livable neighborhoods, along with protection of the environment. Working people in the United States and Puerto Rico share the same interests. We have common needs. The effort to rebuild Puerto Rico should help us understand this fully, regardless of the political path Puerto Rico eventually follows, be it toward independence, statehood or some form of sovereign association with the United States. To better understand this joint agenda, we’d like to share a few historical facts.

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States since the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Rico was legally defined as unincorporated territory, a possession but not part of the United States, under the plenary powers of Congress. Although Congress has reorganized the territorial government over the years, up to the 1952 creation of the present Commonwealth status, the colonial nature of the relationship has remained unchanged. Puerto Ricans elect their governor and legislature, but they only attend to insular matters. We remain subject to both federal legislation and executive decisions, even though we have no participation or representation in their elaboration. Since 1898, Congress has never, we repeat, never consulted the Puerto Rican people in a binding plebiscite or referendum on whether to retain the present status, become independent or a state of the Union. Having retained its plenary powers, Congress should assume responsibility for a territory it claims as a possession: yet it has often skirted that responsibility. This again should come as no surprise, as Congress has often ignored and overlooked many unjust situations in the United States (affecting workers, women, African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, among others), unless activism and mobilizations forced it to do otherwise.

But colonialism has an economic, as well as a political, dimension. After 1898, Puerto Rico’s economy came under the control of U.S. corporations. Puerto Rico then specialized in producing a few goods for the U.S. market. One consequence has been the constant outflow of a significant portion of the income generated in Puerto Rico. At present, around $35 billion leave annually. This is around 35 percent of Puerto Rico’s Gross Domestic Product.

This capital is not reinvested and does not create employment here in Puerto Rico. Thus, Puerto Rico’s one-sided, externally controlled and largely export-oriented economy has never been able to provide enough employment for its workforce: not when sugar production was the main industry; not in the 1950s and 1960s with light-manufacturing that came and often went; not today, through capital intensive operations, among which pharmaceuticals are the most important.

This dependent and colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s economy lies at the root of the high levels of unemployment, not the alleged laziness of Puerto Rico’s workers, an old racist stereotype now taken up by President Trump.

At present, Puerto Rico has a 40 percent labor participation rate. That is to say, 60 percent of its working-age population is out of the formal labor market; they have abandoned all hope of finding a job. Of the 40 percent that are still in the labor market, around 10 percent are officially unemployed.

Mass unemployment depresses wages, which deepens inequality, and creates high levels of poverty. This helps explain the persistence of the wide gap in living standards with the U.S. mainland. After more than a century of U.S. rule, Puerto Rico’s per capita income is half that of the poorest state, Mississippi. Around 45 percent of the people in Puerto Rico live under the poverty level.

Lack of employment has resulted in considerable migration to the United States, with the Puerto Rican population stateside now at 5 million. Historically, Puerto Ricans have been incorporated into the U.S. working class as one of its discriminated and over-exploited sectors, along with African-Americans and other fellow Latinos. Deeply connected and concerned with the situation of their homeland, they are also part of a multi-racial and multi-national U.S. working class.

Given the levels of poverty, it is not surprising that many in Puerto Rico participate in federally funded welfare programs. That is to say: considerable public funds are spent to partially mitigate the dire consequences of a dysfunctional colonial economy. To put it otherwise: the present situation, while profitable for a few corporations, is a disaster for both Puerto Rico and U.S. working people. Therefore, it is in the interest of both that Puerto Rico acquires an economy capable of providing for its inhabitants without requiring such compensations.

It’s Time for Disaster Communism

By Rahula Janowski - The Indypendent, October 13, 2017

The fires here are still uncontained. Over 8,000 people have already lost everything and while I pray that no one else loses their home or is harmed in the fires, that looks unlikely. Where are all these people supposed to go? There is no affordable housing here in the Bay area.

It’s time for some disaster communism, disaster socialism, some disaster anarchism. We know the speculators are drooling and champing at the bit right now. There are so many ways for them to make a profit from a tragedy. If we move forward in an individualist way, in a capitalist way, each family’s loss and struggle will be theirs alone. It will be horrific. It will not end well for anyone except those for whom things always end well, those who can use money to wipe their butts but never have a dime to spare.

What if we took a different route?

What if we expropriated every housing unit in San Francisco that is currently unoccupied for all but two vacation weeks a year and housed people whose homes in from Santa Rosa were incinerated? What if every illegal Airbnb unit was handed over to displaced families? What if law enforcement came under immense public pressure to ignore property laws and refused to evict squatters?

The 600-foot Millennial Tower in San Francisco has made headlines as it slowly sinks and leans by the centimeter against the skyline. The minuscule tilt has sent wealthy condo owners dialing their attorneys. But maybe, for those displaced, life in a leaning tower will be better than a shelter, a chance to experience a little lopsided luxury for a while?  

What if we socialized our housing or, at a minimum, all our unoccupied housing?

The possibilities are endless and it’s time. It’s time to shift gears. I mean, it’s been time. If the bankers, developers, landlords, the capitalists who have done so much harm already can see this crisis as an opportunity, maybe we should too — a chance to build a new world from the ashes of the old.

Time for Disaster Socialism

By Nato Green - San Francisco Examiner, October 15, 2017

The fires are not contained. The bodies haven’t been found. It’s time to talk about politics …

During and in the immediate aftermath of tragedies, we are told it’s not the time for politics. As a nation, we love the spectacle of what author Teju Cole called “the white-savior industrial complex,” in which justice is replaced by a “big emotional experience that validates privilege.” While we take a respite from breathing this week, let’s try justice instead.

On the West Coast, our historically unprecedented drought was followed by historically unprecedented fires. The South and the Caribbean are being ravaged by historically unprecedented hurricanes. It’s either God’s wrath for squandering a perfectly good planet, or our own squandering a perfectly good planet — and it’s becoming uninhabitable.

Try as they might, politicians did not summon fires, storms or earthquakes. However, our craven politics certainly increased the likelihood that these calamities would occur and be horrendous. Politics ensured the inadequacy of the disaster response and, we may confidently anticipate, utter neglect of the effort necessary to rebuild and restore people and lands so traumatized or to mitigate further disasters.

Scientists told us this was coming, and we didn’t listen, because driving was too fun and the beef too delicious. We know what happens next. It’s what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism.” Corporations made fortunes ignoring the risks and now will make another fortune on the back end. Capitalism is a protection racket. While we heal and grieve, savvy businessmen seek to use our collective anguish to further privatize and profit and deregulate in the name of recovery. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Louisiana legislature handed the public school system to the charter school industry, with predictably wretched results for students.

The market can’t be allowed to lead the response to the fires, because the market is the problem. We knew that impending climate change meant these related cataclysms. Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t want to ban oil drilling or fracking. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that half of the increase in forest fires is from climate change. Yet, just last year, Gov. Brown vetoed SB 1463, a bipartisan bill to improve inspection of power lines and address higher risk of wildfires because of neglected power lines next to dead trees. Reports have suggested that PG&E power lines were the probable spark of the fires, which spread so ferociously because California is getting hotter and drier.

Fixing, regulating and preventing are a known and ongoing cost, whereas betting against worst-case scenarios is lucrative business for a quarterly return.

In Santa Rosa, more than 2,800 homes have been destroyed in a region with insufficient affordable housing; the city was trying to figure out how to build another 5,000 units. In one rental listing in Santa Rosa, the landlord hiked the rent more than 30 percent immediately after the fire started. Left to its own devices, will the market build the housing needed by the people affected? Or will it build for rich future residents and let those who lost everything fend for themselves?

We need a People’s Fire Recovery Plan, a “disaster socialism” to answer disaster capitalism. The people and land affected by the fires need to get whatever help they need, regardless of cost. The crisis is an occasion to demand what we needed last week — aggressive regulatory oversight to protect public health and safety, adequate funding of public services for first, second and third responders, physical and mental health care. Burning down a lot of real estate means there’s plenty of space to rebuild affordable housing and public transit. We need urban planning that prepares for more ecological adversity.

The old Industrial Workers of the World union song “Solidarity Forever” had a fitting lyric: “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” In 2017 California, we are learning the hard way that the Wobblies meant literal ashes. Get ready for the birthing.

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