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Hurricane Maria four years later

Decolonization obstructed

Paul Figueroa analyzes the state of settler colonialism and disaster capitalism obstructing self-determination for Puerto Rico four years after Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Maria unearthed not only gross inequities of Puerto Rican colonial status but endless possibilities for disaster capitalists to exploit the situation. They have done so particularly through federal and local policies that encourage their relocation to Puerto Rico, and the privatization of Puerto Rican essential public services to corporations from the United States.

Four years after the hurricane, these policies have resulted in an influx of settler colonialists whose veracity has not been seen since the Spanish or U.S. invasions of the islands centuries ago. However, the United States has taken a renewed interest in resolving Puerto Rican colonial status, for example, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act presented by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez. These two paradigms beg the question: how can the U.S. propose decolonization while also subjugating Puerto Rico to the most extreme elements of colonialism?

Hurricane Maria destroyed the Puerto Rican electric grid, leaving the island entirely without electricity. Reconstruction of the grid was widely criticized as slow and arduous, and parts of the island were without power for over a year. The electric grid was nationalized under the publicly-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) at the time of the hurricane. Angel Jaramillo, president of the main electric workers union on the island, has said that PREPA was once “one of the most successful public corporations in the United States and Latin America” and “an example of modernity and efficiency” but it was dismantled by special interests that favored privatization.

Both the Donald Trump and local Ricardo Rosselló administrations used the stagnant and politicized reconstruction process to open the door for disaster capitalists. Rosselló passed legislation to privatize PREPA in 2018. Trump then withheld $13 billion in reconstruction funds for the electric grid that were essentially conditioned with the guarantee of privatization. By June of this year, PREPA was now owned by LUMA Energy, LLC., a consortium of Houston-based Quantum Services and the Canadian company ATCO. Wayne Stensby was named its CEO. The policy of privatization heralded by the past administrations put Puerto Rican wealth and natural resources in the hands of U.S. corporations. It also divided management among themselves in positions once occupied by regular Puerto Rican workers, essentially creating a modern readaptation of the settler plantation economic model used in past colonial eras.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite image of Category 4 Hurricane Maria as it made landfall near Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, around 6:15 a.m. EDT on September 20, 2017. Photo: NOAA Satellite.

Privatization of  PREPA is the largest example of the dismantling of Puerto Rican public services and patrimony. This disaster capitalist model has been repeated on smaller scales with the privatization of the maritime transportation service, parts of the education sector, and the sale of natural reserves and historical sites—nearly exclusively to U.S.-owned limited liability companies, non-profits, and individual investors. While privatization of PREPA and other aforementioned assets were specific targets of the Post-Maria disaster capitalist scheme, their dismantling was facilitated by broader laws to attract a wider audience of investors and corporations.

When many Puerto Ricans were celebrating the holidays in the dark after the onslaught of Hurricane Maria, Trump signed into law the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on December 22, 2017. The Act created Opportunity Zones designated by the Department of Housing and Development which aim to incentivize investment in distressed communities by establishing tax havens there. Due in no small part to efforts of housing rights and community activists concerned about implications the zones would have for gentrification, only 25 percent of a given U.S. state can be declared an Opportunity Zone. Puerto Rico was granted an exception and 98 percent of its territory is an Opportunity Zone for U.S. investors. A 2020 report by the Center for American Progress states that the law “will not produce equitable or sustainable development for distressed communities” and calls it “government-sanctioned gentrification driven by the capital gains of America’s wealthiest investors.” The Puerto Rican Department of Economic Development and Commerce however claims the law “opens up an immense world of opportunities to boost the growth of the country’s economy.” The department even offers potential Opportunity Zone recipients access to the properties inventory to industrial and commercial lots as well as raw land at the end of their welcome presentation.

The 2017 federal law is in addition to the local Acts 20/22. Foreign investors, 93 percent of whom are from the U.S., pay only a 1 to 4 percent annual income tax, with a 90 percent property tax exemption, a 60 percent exemption from patents and municipal taxes, and a 100 percent exemption on passive income. While Acts 20/22 were passed in 2012, before Hurricane Maria only 1,332 individuals were granted decrees for the law. In the four years since the hurricane, that number has more than tripled, and Act 20/22 recipients have bought more than $1.2 billion of property across the island. Both federal and local laws paved the way for the collective capital of more than three million Puerto Ricans to fall in the hands of just a few thousand U.S. investors.  In Puerto Rico, gentrification is not just state-sanctioned but openly and willfully promoted. Here hurricane survivors are not just victimized by climate displacement but they are additionally burdened by direct and cultural displacement as well.

The incongruencies of these policies that seek to both recolonize and decolonize Puerto Rico are not lost and many, and there are clear fronts of resistance. The progressive Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) tentatively supports Ocasio-Cortez and Velázquez’s Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which seeks to build consensus around decolonization through a status assembly. PIP has also presented legislation to put a detente to policies of settler colonialism. Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón has presented measures to reverse the LUMA contract in the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. In the Puerto Rican Senate, María de Lourdes Santiago has presented legislation to abolish Acts 20/22, decrying the laws as “modern colonial apartheid.” Sympathy for Puerto Rican independence has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the 700 percent growth of the PIP between the 2016 and 2020 elections. Both legislators and their party understand that a true decolonization process means empowering Puerto Rican people to control their economy and resources; especially if that process ends with Puerto Rican independence, which they favor.

It is inconceivable that Puerto Rico can undergo any real decolonization process while simultaneously being subjugated to state-sponsored settler colonialism, wherein the settler colonialists have an especially vested interest in its perpetuation. The U.S. must urgently address Puerto Rican political status and the right to self-determination. However, true self-determination and decolonization for Puerto Ricans are impossible if the United States does not first surrender policies of settler colonialism and economic dominion over the people.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS. Modified by Tempest.

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Paul Figueroa View All

Paul Figueroa is an educator and academic. He ran for San Juan City Council for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and is Co-Chair of the PIP LGBTIQA+ Caucus.