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disaster socialism

Corporate profiteers plunder Puerto Rico

By Roberto Barreto - Socialist Worker, December 20, 2017

CORPORATIONS ARE making out like bandits from hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. The wheeling and dealing behind the scenes is enriching the few, to the tune of millions of dollars in government contracts, at the expense of the many on the island.

The vultures are making off with millions in contracts that include inflated rates of pay, which were agreed upon through a highly suspect and corrupt process. The elites are also trying to get away with privatizing the few public services that we have left.

But these aren't even the worst aspects of the whole contracting process in Puerto Rico today. The main problem with these deals and government-awarded contracts is that they hold back desperately needed reconstruction efforts at every step of the way. The politicians and business people are squandering time and resources while Puerto Rico continues to reel.

Facing Massive Discrepancy, Puerto Rico Governor Demands Recount of Hurricane Maria Deaths

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, December 18, 2017

Following numerous reports that Hurricane Maria's death toll in Puerto Rico has been drastically under-counted by more than one thousand casualties, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ordered an official recount of deaths related to the storm.

"This is about more than numbers, these are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families," said Rosselló in a statement on Monday. "Every death must have a name and vital information attached to it, as well as an accurate accounting of the facts related to their passing."

Analysis by the New York Times has shown that the hurricane has led to far more casualties than the 64 that have been officially reported. While relatively few deaths may have been directly caused by the storm, the Times found that between Maria's landfall on September 20 and early December, 1,052 more Puerto Ricans had died than had over the same period of time in 2016.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), based on the island, found an even bigger discrepancy, reporting that 1,065 more people had died in September and October than in the previous year—a rise in mortality that could only be attributed to the storm, said the group. CPI blamed the huge gap in reporting on "the poor methodology being used to analyze and account for cases."

The higher-than-reported death toll is likely related to a lack of clean drinking water for many residents and the power outage that is still affecting nearly a third of the island.

While President Donald Trump insisted in early October that 16 people had died as a result of Hurricane Maria, 556 more deaths than usual had been counted by demographers since the storm. Around the same time, at least one million people were resorting to drinking water from Superfund sites and hospitals were struggling to care for people with diabetes, kidney disease, and other conditions, amid the power outage.

Rosselló has previously stood by the official count of 64 deaths. On social media, critics praised his call for a review of the death toll.

The Invisibility of Poverty in Puerto Rico

By Oscar Oliver-Didier - CounterPunch, December 11, 2017

It has been more than two months since Hurricane María, a catastrophic category four hurricane, took a heavy toll on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and dismally affected its local residents. People in the mainland saw pictures and videos of entire communities being physically disconnected due to bridges collapsing and roads being covered with debris. The news cycle kept repeating how extremely difficult it was to send rescue teams and aid to these heavily hit areas. And it is pretty common to know by now that any form of communication was basically inexistent—due to cellphone towers being torn down by strong winds—and that 100 percent of users were left without electricity right after the storm. Although some improvements have occurred, to this date, not much has changed. Only a little over half of the island has recovered electrical power—mostly intermittently.

Even though it has lost its persistent media coverage, what this dire aftermath and the subsequent relief and recovery effort have revealed is the island’s century-old unequal colonial relationship with the United States, and the local elites’ role in sustaining it. Recent controversy over the mishandling of the humanitarian crisis after Hurricane María should not surprise anyone. In the territory, as subaltern subjects, Puerto Ricans have been continuously subjected to a capitalist and racial hierarchical system.

These unjust core-periphery relations are a still evolving colonial condition that has made the territory a contested realm for economic extraction and injustices since the U.S. invaded the island in 1898. In fact, there is a similar case that dates back to an 1899 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico called San Ciriaco—after which the U.S. quickly moved to devalue the local currency, raise property taxes, and put in place a corporate takeover of land that unleashed the sugarcane economic boom of this period.

As multiple recent news articles have highlighted, it has also laid bare the extreme inequality and conditions of poverty present throughout the U.S territory. Even the politically vocal Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz pronounced recently in an interview that: “We will no longer be able to hide our poverty and our inequality with palm trees and piña coladas.”

It is important to note, however, that Puerto Rico has had a long history of obscuring poverty—especially after the Operation Bootstrap program was implemented in the island during the mid-twentieth century. This expedited modernization project was to become the Cold War’s antithesis to communist Cuba. Deemed a beacon for freedom and a laboratory for democracy in Latin America, huge amounts of federal money were transferred from the mainland to the territory in order to showcase Puerto Rico as capitalism’s success story.

However, this process of modernization was not working hand in hand with a long-term economic project that would actually lift most islanders out of poverty—today, more than 40 percent of residents live under the federal poverty line. By the 1970s, the economy started a downturn, so in 1976 Section 936 of the U.S. tax code was created to grant mainland corporations a tax exemption from their incomes originating from its Puerto Rico subsidiaries. Without a strong local economy—just a huge profit increase for mainland companies—when the tax exemption finally expired in 2006, Puerto Rico was left in economic shambles and has not recovered since.

Remake Puerto Rico’s power grid and create a universal basic income

By Elsie Bryant  - Climate Change News, December 6, 2017

Hurricane Maria, which made landfall at the end of September, left the island of Puerto Rico without energy, as more than three-quarters of its energy infrastructure was lost to the storm.

As Puerto Ricans sought help in restoring power to the people, for green energy enthusiasts, the destruction of Hurricane Maria was an opportunity to rethink – not just rebuild – Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure by going off-grid with solar energy.

Puerto Rico has a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how it gets electricity”, wrote Earther journalist, Brian Kahn; “Solar industry wants to build Puerto Rico’s grid of the future” was the Bloomberg headline. Even the energy and environment minister for the Maldives, Thoriq Ibrahim, weighed in: “Puerto Rico hurricane shows islands must have renewable energy,” he wrote. Elon Musk has been one of the more prominent players in the space, with his company Tesla offering solar systems and batteries.

While any move away from fossil fuels is welcome, we need to think bigger about what resilience could mean for Puerto Rico. There’s an even larger opportunity here to transform Puerto Rico, where before the natural disaster happened, an economic and social crisis has been playing out for nearly a decade.

Puerto Rico’s economy has been in recession for over 10 years, the population is in drastic decline and the household income is less than half of what it is in the poorest US state. All the while, the island’s debt burden continues to grow, making private firms very rich. A resilient Puerto Rico needs not just a new grid but a new economic system, one that is localised and community driven, with Puerto Ricans owning and managing those resources.

This is not a vision that Puerto Ricans are waiting for the wider world to bring to them. Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, head of Utier, the electrical workers’ union in Puerto Rico, told reporters “solar power and wind power in Puerto Rico is really the key to the future of the island’s energy independence”, adding that “all the alternatives have to be owned by the community”.

The benefits of community ownership are clear when the evidence shows that some of the most resilient communities following the hurricane were cooperatives such as the Cooperativa de Vivienda Ciudad Universitaria. The co-op is a community of over 1000 people, who as the Orlando Sentinel reported, “learned to formalise the neighbour-to-neighbour mentality so well that in situations of crisis – such as this one – they don’t have to wait for the government to show up or feel the need to flee”.

Thinking even more radically, the gains of a commons-based solar network, could be extended by advocating that dividends from any energy sold back to the grid could be redistributed to every Puerto Rican as a basic income.

Stay Warm this Winter! Come to Houston and Volunteer with Autonomous Disaster Relief!

By an anonymous contributor - It's Going Down, December 5, 2017

We need…

anti-oppressive people skilled in construction, childcare, squatting, media, cooking, growing food, fundraising, medics, healers, birthworkers, herbalists, artists, musicians, and Spanish speakers.

Houston is the 4th largest city in the US and the heart of the oil industry in terms of both corporate headquarters and industrial infrastructure, but most of the city’s people have always been considered expendable by those powers.

In the days immediately after the storm, disaster communism naturally took hold as neighbors took it upon themselves to organize boat rescues in the absence of any help from the state. For a few weeks, its influence extended beyond the hardest hit neighborhoods and we found ourselves as a small part of a large mobilization. Neighbors helping each other were the biggest force, church groups and liberals were out in large numbers, and even the local fascists were playing at relief work (in their own neighborhoods). Many businesses shared resources, including restaurant kitchens which were used to mass-produce free meals for distribution.

Fourteen weeks after Harvey, those free meals are a distant memory. Thousands of people are newly homeless, or living in unsafe conditions, or crowded in with family – and it’s starting to get cold here at night.

This is a critical time for anarchists to intervene against the return to normalcy – we do not want to rebuild the old Houston of hyper-individualism and slow death under capitalism. We want to take space opened by the storm and build new ways of supporting each other and relating to each other.

If you can help with that, and you don’t mind camping (with bathrooms/showers, kitchen etc) in a communal setting, get in touch with us at htxautonomy@protonmail.com

Survival on the island of the portable generator

By Judith Lavoie - Socialist Worker, November 28, 2017

IT IS now more than two months after Hurricane Maria struck, and Puerto Rican society is completely reliant on portable electrical generators.

Businesses and services that we thought were back to normal frequently have to close up shop because their generators break down or are in need of maintenance or repair. Everywhere you go, almost all the businesses that are open are only open part time--and even these have to open and close depending on when electricity is available to them.

Doctors have to postpone critical medical services such as CT scans because some generators simply can't sustain the machines.

These days, when we make any kind of plans, they are always tentative, because an unexpected power outage can quickly force us to cancel. These power outages can happen because of yet another failure in the electrical grid or because someone's generator has failed--yet again.

The government insists that 50 percent of homes have had electrical services re-established. They arrive at this percentage by taking the total amount of electricity being generated and estimating the number of homes served based on the island's maximum electrical load.

"This isn't the way it is done," said Matthew Cordaro, a trustee of the Long Island (N.Y.) Power Authority, told El Nuevo Dia. "The first thing you have to do is figure out how many of the distribution lines reach customers and how many have been re-established...What electricity is being generated and sent to the network is not actually being tracked. Instead of this, chaos reigns."

At the beginning of November, in the midst of the controversy about how they calculated the number of homes connected to the grid, the U.S. Department of Energy stopped counting the number of homes without electric service in Puerto Rico altogether.

We saw Puerto Rico's struggle to survive

By Monique Dols and Lance Selfa - Socialist Worker, November 20, 2017

ALMOST TWO months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the island is adjusting to a new reality.

As one activist we met put it, Hurricane Maria ripped the leaves off the trees--and also ripped away the thin veil that barely concealed widespread poverty and immiseration.

The first few weeks after the storm were a period in which people worked just to ensure the safety of their families, comrades and loved ones, using alternative methods of communication to reach people in different areas. With very little support from the government, people pooled their resources to clean out their homes and try to salvage what was salvageable.

As of mid-November, about two-thirds of the island's residents remained without electricity. Although authorities are promising to restore power to 95 percent of residents by mid-December, attempts to repair the electrical grid have already run into many problems and breakdowns.

As a result, many people must rely on power generators for electricity, polluting the air with sound and exhaust. Without reliable electricity, people struggle to preserve and cook food, clean their clothing and keep desperately needed medicine such as insulin.

While 75 percent of the island reportedly had running water as this article was being written, people still line up for hours for bottled water--because it's suspected that water from the tap isn't safe to drink in the wake of the storm. In the Rio Piedras area of San Juan, the tap water ran blue as it flowed from faucets, according to residents.

Shortages of certain products roll through at different moments, creating spikes in prices. For example, right before we arrived, there was a shortage of mosquito repellant, which is now a necessity on the island.

The informal death toll is now around 900, but is likely more since communication is still spotty, reporting is low, and the medical system is still in a state of crisis.

Yet despite this latter crisis, the U.S. Navy medical ship, the USS Comfort--which, when we were there, was anchored in San Juan's port where cruise ships usually dock--is woefully underserving the sick people of Puerto Rico.

With doctors at Centro Médico in San Juan, the main hospital for the island, still operating by flashlight at times, many people wanted to know what you had to do to get admitted to the USS Comfort. The authorities had set up a couple of tents on the promenade next to the dock, and we saw dozens of people--some with walkers or oxygen tanks--lining up in the sweltering heat, presumably seeking treatment.

The common understanding on the island is that the local and federal governments have completely abandoned ordinary Puerto Ricans.

How corporate thieves prey on Puerto Rico

By Christopher Baum - Socialist Worker, November 17, 2017

ALMOST TWO months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, more than 750,000 Puerto Rican homes and businesses remain without electricity.

Yet political and business elites in the U.S. and on the island itself seem more interested in continuing the project of turning Puerto Rico into a cash machine for private companies than in giving the Puerto Rican people the aid they desperately need.

In the weeks following the hurricane, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) signed two highly dubious contracts with private U.S. firms to help with the rebuilding of the island's utilities infrastructure.

The more notorious of the two deals was a $300 million contract with a little-known Montana company called Whitefish Energy, which at the time Maria struck had only two permanent employees--and no experience on any projects even remotely approaching the scale of rebuilding Puerto Rico's power infrastructure.

In fact, as a two-year-old company, Whitefish could claim very little experience of any kind. What they did have going for them, apparently, was ties to the Trump administration's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

This deal was so suspicious that even many congressional Republicans cried foul. In the face of enormous public and political pressure, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced on October 29 that he had instructed PREPA to cancel the Whitefish contract.

The deal still works out pretty well for Whitefish, however. As the New York Times reported, the company will continue to do repair work on the island through November 30.

The contract permits Whitefish to bill PREPA $319 an hour for each worker--of which the workers themselves, according to the Times, will receive between $42 and $100 an hour.

Whitefish is also authorized to charge $412 per worker per day for food and lodging, along with similarly exorbitant rates for equipment and transportation. As the Times notes, all of these figures as far above the norm, even for emergency work in remote areas.

And to top it all off, millions of Puerto Ricans who had their power restored were plunged into darkness again when a high-voltage transmission line supposedly repaired by Whitefish failed again.

Mexico City Earthquake Survivors: “We Had to Organize Ourselves”

By General Coordination of Mexico City Survivors - It's Going Down, November 15, 2017

With the approval of the 2018 Federation Expenditure Budget (PEF), the Chamber of Deputies showed their insensitivity and irresponsibility in dealing with the crisis left by the September 19 earthquake. They missed a historic opportunity to act in solidarity in the face of a national emergency of catastrophic proportions.

By means of mobilization, not by parliamentary will, a Reconstruction Fund (FONREC) of 2.5 billion pesos [roughly $130 million USD] was created. These resources are clearly insufficient for the reconstruction, repair, and reinforcement of the damaged dwellings and buildings.

This budget item, aside from expanding the Natural Disaster Fund, the Natural Disaster Prevention Fund, and the Capital City Fund, has no clear mechanisms nor rules to ensure that the resources land in the affected zones effectively and transparently.

Legislators who backed the 2018 PEF did not consider the situation of survivors as a priority. This is evident from their approval of 38 billion pesos [$1.98 billion USD] to continue bank bailout payments (Fobaproa).

At the same time, the federal representatives “authorized” a 200 million peso [$10.4 million USD] budget for the re-leveling of one of the buildings in San Lázaro [where Congress meets] that was damaged by the quake. It would seem that their sense of responsibility when faced with an event like that of September 19 only stretches as far as the walls of the Legislative Palace.

Furthermore, the Expenditure Budget maintains superfluous spending on perks, travel allowances, meals, and major medical expenses, for which it will designate 26 billion pesos [$1.35 billion USD], which could easily be used for reconstruction.

This disinterest compels us to strengthen our organizational efforts as survivors. Before our mobilization on November 9, a specific line item for reconstruction wasn’t even being considered in the PEF. We had to carry out joint actions for our demands to be made visible.

Protesting in the streets, where we’ve been since the day of the earthquake, we realized that there are many citizens who have demonstrated their support for us and understand our problems. Just as in the rescue efforts, we ask the people of Mexico for their solidarity in our struggle for reconstruction and against the oblivion in which we find ourselves immersed.

We will continue to bring our demands to the respective agencies, federal and local: that public resources be increased in accordance with our needs and used for the tasks of reconstruction, repair, and reinforcement of damaged buildings; as well as the issuance of advisory statements and necessary technical studies into soil mechanics, topographical levels, and materials resistance, among other subjects. Nor do we rule out turning to international agencies.

It’s important to point out that we are looking for solutions for all of the survivors, in their homes just as much as in the schools, hospitals, streets, and other public infrastructure damaged by the earthquake.

It must be underscored that the General Coordination of Mexico City Survivors is nonpartisan and from this moment on we reject all attempts to approach us in order to turn us into political spoils or a business opportunity for real estate developers.

We are citizens who demand the right to a dignified and safe home. In the face of the void displayed by the authorities, at all levels of government, we had to organize ourselves to confront the situation caused by the earthquake.

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