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Hurricane damage in Puerto Rico is result of capitalism, US colonial rule



Retirees at weekly pension protest at electric authority offices in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Fiona Sept. 21. They said, “Neither Fiona, Luma, or Junta will stop our struggle.”

“Once again we’re resisting the onslaught,” Lenis Rodríguez said by phone from Yabucoa, one of the hardest hit areas in the eastern part of the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico Sept. 20. He was referring to hurricanes Fiona, which made landfall there Sept. 17, and Maria, which devastated the island almost exactly five years before. Rodríguez works at a pharmaceutical company and is a well-known community organizer.

“It’s people in the community who are helping each other, not the government,” he said, from repairing damaged homes to providing meals for storm victims.

Even though the damage from Fiona, a Category 1 storm, was less than from Category 4 Maria, massive flooding and 85 mph winds did considerable damage. Some came on top of destruction from Maria that has never been repaired.

Beside what was done to people’s homes and vehicles, many agricultural crops were destroyed.

As in past storms working people were left to their own devices. The government did almost nothing to organize evacuations of the most threatened areas in advance, simply warning residents to “activate your emergency plan” and telling them to remain indoors. That was of little help in the face of the 30 inches of rain that inundated the island, especially in the southern and eastern regions.

The damage was a lot worse than it had to be in Yabucoa, Rodríguez said. “The municipal government didn’t even make sure the drainage ditches were cleaned out” before the storm hit.

The storm knocked out drinking water and electricity for most of the island. As of Sept. 20, more than half the population of 3.2 million people were still without both of them. For decades the government-owned electrical company has skimped on maintenance, didn’t replace antiquated equipment, and took few measures to protect power lines and stations from the frequent tropical storms.

Volunteers start cleanup activities in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Sept 21. In face of colonial government’s inaction, working people have come to each other’s aid to confront storm’s impact.

A year ago the government turned control of the electrical grid over to Luma, a U.S.-Canadian private business venture, claiming this would pave the way for solving the problems. The new setup has served mostly to line the pockets of Luma’s owners.

After Hurricane Maria the local government received $3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fishermen, Julio Angel Morales Alicea, secretary of the Yabucoa Fisherman’s Association, told the Militant. “Where did that money go? It didn’t go to help us.”

The crisis has gotten worse since then, he said. “That storm cleaned out the sea floor. Now we have to go out farther to fish and the catch has gotten smaller.” But the prices fishermen pay for supplies have skyrocketed. “I used to pay $15 for fuel for the boat. Now I’m paying $40 to $50. A spool of fishing line went from $24 to $100.

“The politicians don’t care about us,” Morales said.

Farmer Javier Colón lost a good part of his banana crop near Yabucoa. He also has 200 head of cattle, but hasn’t been able to check up on them. He’s hoping the government will provide help for buying seeds to replant crops destroyed by Fiona, but the colony “is not really in our hands,” he said.

Colón rents his farm and grazing land from the Puerto Rican government. “They won’t reduce the rent after a disaster. They say the Junta won’t allow it.” The Junta is the Financial Oversight and Management Board that was imposed by former President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress in 2016 to maximize payment to capitalist bondholders for the government’s more than $70 billion debt.

FBI attack in Puerto Rico

Because of the storm the Cuba Solidarity Committee of Puerto Rico postponed a planned Sept. 17 picket line in San Juan to denounce FBI harassment of participants in last July’s Juan Rius Rivera Solidarity Brigade to Cuba and to call for an end of the U.S. economic war against the Cuban Revolution.

The U.S. rulers’ political police visited or called nearly 60 people in Puerto Rico at the end of August, claiming they just wanted to talk. Some agents said they were investigating “criminal activity” or “infiltration” of the brigade by Cuban security.

The committee immediately responded to the FBI operation. It made sure brigadistas knew there was no reason to talk to the FBI, held a press conference and called for letters of support.

“Since then we haven’t heard of any more calls or visits by the FBI,” Milagros Rivera, president of the committee, told the Militant. “But we can’t let down our guard. We don’t know if they’re planning to initiate a frame-up.”

“What we do is legal,” Rivera said. “We have no commercial relations with Cuba. We bring humanitarian aid. In our last brigade we traveled to Cuba on U.S. airlines following all the regulations.”

At the annual Grito de Lares pro-independence demonstration coming up on Sept. 23, the committee is on the speakers list and plans to invite people to sign up for next year’s brigade to Cuba. That brigade will take part in actions commemorating the 70th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncada Barracks, which marked the opening of the Cuban Revolution and the 125th anniversary of the U.S. military invasion and its imperialist domination of Puerto Rico.

“The disgrace Puerto Rico faces is not from the hurricanes,” Rivera said. “It’s the capitalist policy of the rulers of our country. They take no responsibility for planning or preparation. The resources and aid that is sent are stolen. In Utuado five years after Hurricane Maria, they still hadn’t replaced the temporary bridge with a permanent one. Five years! The temporary one collapsed from Fiona.”

That’s the opposite “of the way it’s done in Cuba,” she said, the result of the socialist revolution there. In Cuba the revolutionary government mobilizes working people in advance of major storms, organizing evacuations, and ensuring people who need to get to shelters well before the storm make landfall. Their slogan is, “No one is left on their own.”

Rivera said that the storm destruction won’t stop people from standing up to the capitalist government and to U.S. colonial rule. She pointed to weekly protests by retirees in front of the government electric authority offices. They sent out a message saying, “Neither Fiona, Luma, or the Junta will stop our struggle. The picket line is on for Sept. 21.”

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