[News] In the Rubble of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich “Puertopians” Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle Over How to Remake the Island

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 20 13:12:50 EDT 2018


  In the Rubble of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich
  “Puertopians” Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle Over How to Remake the

Naomi Klein - March 20, 2018

Like everywhere else in Puerto Rico, the small mountain city of Adjuntas 
was plunged into total darkness by Hurricane Maria. When residents left 
their homes to take stock of the damage, they found themselves not only 
without power and water, but also totally cut off from the rest of the 
island. Every single road was blocked, either by mounds of mud washed 
down from the surrounding peaks, or by fallen trees and branches. Yet 
amid this devastation, there was one bright spot.

      A Solar Oasis

Just off the main square, a large, pink colonial-style house had light 
shining through every window. It glowed like a beacon in the terrifying 

The pink house was Casa Pueblo, a community and ecology center with deep 
roots in this part of the island. Twenty years ago, its founders, a 
family of scientists and engineers, installed solar panels on the 
center’s roof, a move that seemed rather hippy-dippy at the time. 
Somehow, those panels (upgraded over the years) managed to survive 
Maria’s hurricane-force winds and falling debris. Which meant that in a 
sea of post-storm darkness, Casa Pueblo had the only sustained power for 
miles around.

And like moths to a flame, people from all over the hills of Adjuntas 
made their way to the warm and welcoming light.

Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly 
transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It 
would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any 
other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to 
Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws — and draw on 
its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most 
critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its 
airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen 

Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo’s radio station was able 
to continue broadcasting, making it the community’s sole source of 
information when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out 
everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, 
rooftop solar power didn’t look frivolous at all — in fact, it looked 
like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more 
Maria-sized weather shocks.

Visiting Casa Pueblo on a recent trip to the island was something of a 
vertiginous experience — a bit like stepping through a portal into 
another world, a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the 
mood brimmed with optimism.

It was particularly jarring because I had spent much of the day on the 
heavily industrialized southern coast, talking with people suffering 
some of the cruellest impacts of Hurricane Maria. Not only had their 
low-lying neighborhoods been inundated, but they also feared the storm 
had stirred up toxic materials from nearby fossil fuel-burning power 
plants and agricultural testing sites they could not hope to assess. 
Compounding these risks — and despite living adjacent to two of the 
island’s largest electricity plants — many still were living in the dark.

The situation had felt unremittingly bleak, made worse by the stifling 
heat. But after driving up into the mountains and arriving at Casa 
Pueblo, the mood shifted instantly. Wide open doors welcomed us, as well 
as freshly brewed organic coffee from the center’s own community-managed 
plantation. Overhead, an air-clearing downpour drummed down on those 
precious solar panels.

Arturo Massol-Deyá, a bearded biologist and president of Casa Pueblo’s 
board of directors, took me on a brief tour of the facility: the radio 
station, a solar-powered cinema opened since the storm, a butterfly 
garden, a store selling local crafts and their wildly popular brand of 
coffee. He also guided me through the framed pictures on the wall — 
massive crowds of people protesting open-pit mining (a pitched battle 
Casa Pueblo helped win); images from their forest school where they do 
outdoor education; scenes from a protest in Washington, D.C., against a 
proposed gas pipeline through these mountains (another win). The 
community center was a strange hybrid of ecotourism lodge and 
revolutionary cell.

Settling into a wooden rocking chair, Massol-Deyá said that Maria had 
changed his sense of what’s possible on the island. For years, he 
explained, he had pushed for the archipelago to get far more of its 
power from renewables. He had long warned of the risks associated with 
Puerto Rico’s overwhelming dependence on imported fossil fuels and 
centralized power generation: One big storm, he had cautioned, could 
knock out the whole grid — especially after decades of laying off 
skilled electrical workers and letting maintenance lapse.

Now everyone whose homes went dark understood those risks, just as the 
people in Adjuntas could all look to a brightly lit Casa Pueblo and 
immediately grasp the advantages of solar energy, produced right where 
it is consumed. As Massol-Deyá put it: “Our quality of life was good 
before, because we were running with solar power. And after the 
hurricane, our quality of life is good as well. … This was an energy 
oasis for the community.”

It’s hard to imagine an energy system more vulnerable to climate 
change-amplified shocks than Puerto Rico’s. The island gets an 
astonishing 98 <https://www.eia.gov/state/print.php?sid=RQ> percent of 
its electricity from fossil fuels. But since it has no domestic supply 
of oil, gas, or coal, all of these fuels are imported by ship. They are 
then transported to a handful of hulking power plants by truck and 
pipeline. Next, the electricity those plants generate is transmitted 
across huge distances through above-ground wires and an underwater cable 
that connects the island of Vieques to the main island. The whole 
behemoth is monstrously expensive, resulting in electricity prices that 
are nearly twice the U.S. average.

And just as environmentalists like Massol-Deyá had warned, Maria caused 
devastating ruptures within every tentacle of Puerto Rico’s energy 
system: The Port of San Juan, which receives so much of the imported 
fuel, was thrown into crisis, and some 10,000 shipping containers full 
of much-needed supplies piled up on the docks, waiting to be delivered. 
Many truck drivers couldn’t make it to the port, either because of 
obstructed roads, or because they were struggling to get their own 
families out of danger. With diesel in short supply across the island, 
some just couldn’t find the fuel to drive. The lines at gas stations 
stretched out by the mile. Half of the island’s stations were out of 
commission altogether. The mountain of supplies stuck at the port grew 
ever larger.

Meanwhile, the cable connecting Vieques was so damaged it has yet to be 
repaired six months later. And the power lines carrying electricity from 
the plants were down all over the archipelago. Literally nothing about 
the system worked.

This broad collapse, Massol-Deyá explained, was now helping him make the 
case for a sweeping and rapid shift to renewable energy. Because in a 
future that is sure to include more weather shocks, getting energy from 
sources that don’t require sprawling transportation networks is just 
common sense. And Puerto Rico, though poor in fossil fuels, is drenched 
in sun, lashed by wind, and surrounded by waves.

Renewable energy is by no means immune to storm damage. At some Puerto 
Rican wind farms, turbine blades snapped off in Maria’s high winds 
(seemingly because they were improperly positioned), just as some poorly 
secured solar panels took flight. This vulnerability is partly why Casa 
Pueblo and many others emphasize the micro-grid model for renewables. 
Rather than relying on a few huge solar and wind farms, with power then 
carried over long and vulnerable transmission lines, smaller, 
community-based systems would generate power where it is consumed. If 
the larger grid sustains damage, these communities can simply disconnect 
from it and keep drawing from their micro-grids.

This decentralized model doesn’t eliminate risk, but it would make the 
kind of total power outage that Puerto Ricans suffered for months — and 
which hundreds of thousands are suffering still — a thing of the past. 
Whoever’s solar panels survive the next storm would, like Casa Pueblo, 
be up and running the next day. And “solar panels are easy to replace,” 
Massol-Deyá pointed out — unlike power lines and pipelines.

In part to spread the gospel of renewables, in the weeks after the 
storm, Casa Pueblo handed out 14,000 solar lanterns — little square 
boxes that recharge when left outside during the day, providing a 
much-needed pool of light by night. More recently, the community center 
has managed to distribute a large shipment of full-sized solar-powered 
refrigerators, a game-changer for households in the interior that still 
don’t have power.

Casa Pueblo has also kicked off #50ConSol, a campaign calling for 50 
percent of Puerto Rico’s power to come from the sun. They have been 
installing solar panels on dozens of homes and businesses in Adjuntas, 
including, most recently, a barbershop. “Now we have houses asking us 
for support,” Massol-Deyá said — a marked shift from those days not so 
long ago when Casa Pueblo’s solar panels looked like eco-luxury items. 
“We’re going to do whatever is at reach to change that landscape and to 
tell the people of Puerto Rico that a different future is possible.”

Several Puerto Ricans I spoke with casually referred to Maria as “our 
teacher.” Because amid the storm’s convulsions, people didn’t just 
discover what didn’t work (pretty much everything). They also learned 
very quickly about a few things that worked surprisingly well. Up in 
Adjuntas, it was solar power. Elsewhere, it was small organic farms that 
used traditional farming methods that were better able to stand up to 
the floods and wind. And in every case, deep community relationships, as 
well as strong ties to the Puerto Rican diaspora, successfully delivered 
lifesaving aid when the government failed and failed again.

Casa Pueblo was founded 38 years ago by Arturo’s father, Alexis 
Massol-González, who was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for 
environmental leadership in 2002. Massol-González shares his son’s 
belief that Maria has opened up a window of possibility, one that could 
yield a fundamental shift to a healthier and more democratic economy — 
not just for electricity, but also for food, water, and other 
necessities of life. “We are looking to transform the energy system. Our 
goal is to adopt a solar energy system and leave behind oil, natural 
gas, and carbon,” he said, “which are highly polluting.”

His message particularly resonates 45 miles to the southeast, in the 
coastal community of Jobos Bay, near Salinas. This is one of the areas 
coping with a slew of environmental toxins 
much of it stemming from antiquated fossil fuel-burning power plants. As 
in Adjuntas, residents here have seized on the post-Maria electricity 
failures to advance solar power, through a project called Coquí Solar. 
Working with local academics, they have developed a plan that would not 
only produce enough energy to meet their needs, but would also keep the 
profits and jobs in the community as well. Nelson Santos Torres, one of 
Coquí Solar’s organizers, told me they are insisting on solar skills 
training “so that community youth can participate in the installation,” 
giving them a reason to stay on the island.

When I visited the area, Mónica Flores, a graduate student in 
environmental sciences at the University of Puerto Rico who has been 
working with communities on renewable energy projects, told me that 
truly democratic resource management is the island’s best hope. People 
need to have a sense, she said, that “this is our energy. This is our 
water, and this is how we manage it because we believe in this process, 
and we respect our culture, our nature, everything that is supporting us.”

Six months into the rolling disaster set off by Maria, dozens of 
grassroots organizations are coming together to advance precisely this 
vision: a reimagined Puerto Rico run by its people in their interests. 
Like Casa Pueblo, in the myriad dysfunctions and injustices the storm so 
vividly exposed, they see an opportunity to tackle the root causes that 
turned a weather disaster into a human catastrophe. Among them: the 
island’s extreme dependence on imported fuel and food; the unpayable and 
possibly illegal debt that has been used to impose wave after wave of 
austerity that gravely weakened the island’s defenses; and the 
130-year-old colonial relationship with a U.S. government that has 
always discounted the lives of Puerto Rico’s black and brown people.

If Maria is a teacher, this emerging movement argues, the storm’s 
overarching lesson is that now is not the moment for reconstruction of 
what was, but rather for transformation into what could be. “Everything 
we consume comes from abroad and our profits are exported,” said 
Massol-González, his hair now white after decades of struggle. It’s a 
system that leaves debt and austerity behind, both of which made Puerto 
Rico exponentially more vulnerable to Maria’s blows.

But, he said with a mischievous smile, “we look at crisis as an 
opportunity to change.”

Massol-González and his allies know well that they are not alone in 
seeing opportunity in the post-Maria moment. There is also another, very 
different version of how Puerto Rico should be radically remade after 
the storm, and it is being aggressively advanced by Gov. Ricardo 
Rosselló in meetings with bankers, real estate developers, 
cryptocurrency traders, and, of course, the Financial Oversight and 
Management Board, an unelected seven-member body that exerts ultimate 
control over Puerto Rico’s economy.

For this powerful group, the lesson that Maria carried was not about the 
perils of economic dependency or austerity in times of climate 
disruption. The real problem, they argue, was the public ownership of 
Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, which lacked the proper free-market 
incentives. Rather than transforming that infrastructure so that it 
truly serves the public interest, they argue for selling it off at 
fire-sale prices to private players.

This is just one part of a sweeping vision that sees Puerto Rico 
transforming itself into a “visitor economy,” one with a radically 
downsized state and many fewer Puerto Ricans living on the island. In 
their place would be tens of thousands of “high-net-worth individuals” 
from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. mainland, lured to permanently relocate 
by a cornucopia of tax breaks and the promise of living a five-star 
resort lifestyle inside fully privatized enclaves, year-round.

In a sense, both are utopian projects — the vision of Puerto Rico in 
which the wealth of the island is carefully and democratically managed 
by its people, and the libertarian project some are calling “Puertopia” 
that is being conjured up in the ballrooms of luxury hotels in San Juan 
and New York City. One dream is grounded in a desire for people to 
exercise collective sovereignty over their land, energy, food, and 
water; the other in a desire for a small elite to secede from the reach 
of government altogether, liberated to accumulate unlimited private profit.

As I traveled throughout Puerto Rico, from sustainable farms and schools 
in the central mountain region, to the former U.S. Navy base on Vieques, 
to a legendary mutual aid center on the east coast, to former sugar 
plantations-turned-solar farms in the south, I found these very 
different visions of the future sprinting to advance their respective 
projects before the window of opportunity opened up by the storm begins 
to close.

At the core of this battle is a very simple question: Who is Puerto Rico 
for? Is it for Puerto Ricans, or is it for outsiders? And after a 
collective trauma like Hurricane Maria, who has a right to decide?

      Invasion of the Puertopians

Earlier this month, in San Juan’s ornate Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, the 
dream of Puerto Rico as a for-profit utopia was on full display. From 
March 14 to 16, the hotel played host to Puerto Crypto, a three-day 
“immersive” pitch for blockchain and cryptocurrencies with a special 
focus on why Puerto Rico will “be the epicenter of this 
multitrillion-dollar market.”

Among the speakers was Yaron Brook, chair of the Ayn Rand Institute, who 
presented on “How Deregulation and Blockchain Can Make Puerto Rico the 
Hong Kong of the Caribbean.” Last year, Brook announced that he had 
personally relocated from California to Puerto Rico, where he claims 
he went from paying 55 percent of his income in taxes to less than 4 

Elsewhere on the island, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans were 
still living by flashlight, many were still dependent on FEMA for food 
aid, and the island’s main mental health hotline was still overwhelmed 
with callers. But inside the sold-out Vanderbilt conference, there was 
little space for that kind of downer news. Instead, the 800 attendees — 
fresh from a choice between “sunrise yoga and meditation” and “morning 
surf” — heard from top officials like Department of Economic Development 
and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera about all the things Puerto 
Rico is doing to turn itself into the ultimate playground for newly 
minted cryptocurrency millionaires and billionaires.

It’s a pitch the Puerto Rican government has been making to the private 
jet set for a few years now, though until recently it was geared mainly 
to the financial sector, Silicon Valley, and others capable of working 
wherever they can access data. The pitch goes like this: You don’t have 
to relinquish your U.S. citizenship or even technically leave the United 
States to escape its tax laws, regulations, or the cold Wall Street 
winters. You just have to move your company’s address to Puerto Rico and 
enjoy a stunningly low 4 percent corporate tax rate — a fraction of what 
corporations pay even after Donald Trump’s recent tax cut. Any dividends 
paid by a Puerto Rico-based company to Puerto Rican residents are also 
tax-free, thanks to a law passed in 2012 called Act 20.

Conference attendees also learned that if they move their own residency 
to Puerto Rico, they will not only be able to surf every single morning, 
but also win vast personal tax advantages. Thanks to a clause in the 
federal tax code, U.S. citizens who move to Puerto Rico can avoid paying 
federal income tax on any income earned in Puerto Rico. And thanks to 
another local law, Act 22, they can also cash in on a slew 
<http://businessinpuertorico.com/en/profit/individual-investors> of tax 
breaks and total tax waivers that includes paying zero capital gains tax 
and zero tax on interest and dividends sourced to Puerto Rico. And much 
— all part of a desperate bid to attract capital to an island that is 
functionally bankrupt.

To quote <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=oueuFOssfVc> 
billionaire hedge fund magnate John Paulson, owner of the hotel in which 
Puerto Crypto took place, “You can essentially minimize your taxes in a 
way that you can’t do anywhere else in the world.” (Or, as the tax 
dodger’s website Premier Offshore put 
<http://premieroffshore.com/changes-puerto-ricos-act-20-act-22/>s it: 
“All the other tax havens might as well just close down. … Puerto Rico 
just hit it out of the park … did the best set ever and dropped the mic.”)

With just a 3 1/2-hour commute from New York City to San Juan (or less, 
depending on the private jet), all it takes to get in on this scheme is 
agreeing to spend 183 days of the year in Puerto Rico — in other words, 
winter. Puerto Rican residents, it’s worth noting, are not only excluded 
from these programs, but they also pay very high local taxes.

Manuel Laboy used the conference to announce the creation of a new 
advisory council to attract blockchain businesses to the island. And he 
extolled the lifestyle bonuses that awaited attendees if they followed 
the self-described “Puertopians” who have already taken the plunge. As 
Laboy told The Intercept, for the 500 to 1,000 high-net-worth 
individuals who relocated since the tax holidays were introduced five 
years ago — many of them opting for gated communities with their own 
private schools — it’s all about “living in a tropical island, with 
great people, with great weather, with great piña coladas.” And why not? 
“You’re gonna be, like, in this endless vacation in a tropical place, 
where you’re actually working. That combination, I think, is very powerful.”

The official slogan of this new Puerto Rico? “Paradise Performs.” To 
underscore the point, conference attendees were invited to a 
“Cryptocurrency Honey Party,” with pollen-themed drinks and snacks, and 
a chance to hang out with Ingrid Suarez, Miss Teen Panama 2013 and 
upcoming contestant on “Caribbean’s Next Top Model.”

Mining cryptocurrencies is one of the fastest growing sources of 
greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, with the industry’s energy 
consumption rising by the week. Bitcoin alone currently consumes roughly 
the same amount of energy per year as Israel, according to the Bitcoin 
Energy Consumption Index 
<https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption>. The city of 
Plattsburgh, New York, recently adopted a temporary ban 
on cryptocurrency mining after local electricity rates suddenly soared. 
Many of the crypto companies currently relocating to Puerto Rico would 
presumably do their currency mining elsewhere. Still, the idea of 
turning an island that cannot keep the lights on for its own people into 
“the epicenter of this multitrillion-dollar market” rooted in the most 
wasteful possible use of energy is a bizarre one and is raising mounting 
concerns of “crypto-colonialism.”

In part to allay these fears, Puerto Crypto made a last-minute name 
change to the less imperial “Blockchain Unbound,” though it didn’t 
stick. Moreover, for some in the crypto crowd, the appeal of relocating 
to Puerto Rico goes well beyond Laboy’s version of paradise. Post-Maria, 
with land selling for even cheaper, public assets being auctioned at 
fire-sale prices, and billions in federal disaster funds flowing to 
contractors, some distinctly more grandiose dreams for the island have 
begun to surface. Now rather than simply shopping for mansions in resort 
communities, the Puertopians are looking to buy a piece of land large 
enough to start their very own city — complete with airport, yacht port, 
and passports, all run on virtual currencies.

Some call it “Sol,” others call it “Crypto Land,” and it even seems to 
have its own religion: an unruly hodgepodge of Ayn Randian wealth 
supremacy, philanthrocapitalist noblesse oblige, Burning Man 
pseudo-spirituality, and half-remembered scenes from watching “Avatar” 
while high. Brock Pierce, the child actor turned crypto-entrepreneur who 
serves as the movement’s de facto guru, is known for dropping New Age 
aphorisms like, “A billionaire is someone who has positively impacted 
the lives of a billion people.” Out on a real estate expedition scouting 
locations for Crypto Land, he reportedly 
crawled into the “bosom” of a Ceiba tree, a magnificent species sacred 
in many indigenous cultures, and “kissed an old man’s feet.”

But make no mistake — the true religion here is tax avoidance. As one 
young crypto-trader recently told 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OV1C4gFFVE&t=2s> his YouTube audience, 
before moving to Puerto Rico in time to make the tax-filing deadline, “I 
had to actually look it up on the map.” (He subsequently admitted 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJCWpLJm3ew> to some “culture shock” 
upon learning that Puerto Ricans spoke Spanish, but instructed viewers 
thinking of following his lead to put a “Google translator app on your 
phone and you’re good to go.”)

The conviction that taxation is a form of theft is not a novel one among 
men who imagine themselves to be self-made. Still, there is something 
about rapidly becoming rich from money that you literally created — or 
“mined” — yourself that lends an especially large dose of 
self-righteousness to the decision to give nothing back. As Reeve 
Collins, a 42-year-old Puertopian, told the New York Times, “This is the 
first time in human history anyone other than kings or governments or 
gods can create their own money.” So who is the government to take any 
of it from them?

As a breed, the Puertopians, in their flip-flops and surfer shorts, are 
a sort of slacker cousin to the Seasteaders 
<https://www.seasteading.org/>, a movement of wealthy libertarians who 
have been plotting for years to escape the government’s grip by starting 
their own city-states on artificial islands. Anybody who doesn’t like 
being taxed or regulated will simply be able to, as the Seasteading 
manifesto states, “vote with your boat.”

For those harboring these Randian secessionist fantasies, Puerto Rico is 
a much lighter lift. When it comes to taxing and regulating the wealthy, 
its current government has surrendered with unmatched enthusiasm. And 
there’s no need to go to the trouble of building your own islands on 
elaborate floating platforms — as one Puerto Crypto session put it, 
Puerto Rico is poised to be transformed into a “crypto-island.”

Sure, unlike the empty city-states Seasteaders fantasize about, 
real-world Puerto Rico is densely habited with living, breathing Puerto 
Ricans. But FEMA and the governor’s office have been doing their best to 
take care of that too. Though there has been no reliable effort to track 
migration flows since Hurricane Maria, some 200,000 people have 
reportedly left 
the island, many of them with federal help.

This exodus was first presented as a temporary emergency measure, but it 
has since become apparent that the depopulation is intended to be 
permanent. The Puerto Rican governor’s office predicts that over the 
next five years, the island’s population will experience a “cumulative 
<http://www.aafaf.pr.gov/assets/newfiscalplanforpr-01-24-18.pdf>” of 
nearly 20 percent.

The Puertopians know all this has been hard on locals, but they insist 
that their presence will be a blessing for the devastated island. Brock 
Pierce argues (without offering any specifics), that crypto-money is 
going to help finance Puerto Rican reconstruction and entrepreneurship, 
including in local agriculture and energy. The enormous brain drain 
currently flowing out of Puerto Rico, he says, is now being offset with 
a “brain gain,” thanks to him and his tax-dodging friends. At a Puerto 
Rico investment conference, Pierce observed 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VQrKcj2pjw> philosophically that “it’s 
in these moments where we experience our greatest loss that we have our 
biggest opportunity to sort of restart and upgrade.”

Gov. Rosselló himself seems to agree. In February, he told a business 
audience in New York 
<https://www.ft.com/content/8b16e158-1421-11e8-9376-4a6390addb44> that 
Maria had created a “blank canvas” on which investors could paint their 
very own dream world.

      An Island Weary of Outside Experiments

The dream of the blank canvas, a safe place to test one’s boldest ideas, 
has a long and bitter history in Puerto Rico. Throughout its long 
colonial history, the archipelago has continuously served as a living 
laboratory for prototypes that would later be exported around the globe. 
There were the notorious 
experiments in population control that, by the mid-1960s, resulted in 
the coercive sterilization of more than one-third of Puerto Rican women. 
Many dangerous drugs have been tested in Puerto Rico over the years, 
including a high-risk version of the birth control pill containing a 
dosage of hormones four times greater than the version that ultimately 
entered the U.S. market.

Vieques — more than two-thirds of which used to be a U.S. Navy facility 
where Marines practiced ground warfare and completed their gun training 
— was a testing ground for everything from Agent Orange to depleted 
uranium to napalm. To this day, agribusiness giants like Monsanto and 
Syngenta use the southern coast of Puerto Rico as a sprawling testing 
ground for thousands of trials 
<https://www.counterpunch.org/2009/06/23/puerto-rico-biotech-island/> of 
genetically modified seeds, mostly corn and soy.

Many Puerto Rican economists also make a compelling case that the island 
invented the whole model of the special economic zone. In the ’50s and 
’60s, well before the free-trade era swept the globe, U.S. manufacturers 
took advantage of Puerto Rico’s low-wage workforce and special tax 
exemptions to relocate light manufacturing to the island, effectively 
road testing the model of offshored labor and maquiladora-style 
factories while still technically staying within U.S. borders.

The list could go on and on. The appeal of Puerto Rico for these 
experiments was a combination of the geographical control offered by an 
island and straight-up racism. Juan E. Rosario, a longtime community 
organizer and environmentalist who told me that his own mother was a 
Thalidomide test subject, put it like this: “It’s an island, isolated, 
with a lot of nonvaluable people. Expendable people. For many years, we 
have been used as guinea pigs for U.S. experiments.”

These experiments have left indelible scars on Puerto Rico’s land and 
people. They are visible in the shells of factories that were abandoned 
when U.S. manufacturers got access to even cheaper wages and laxer 
regulations in Mexico and then China after the North American Free Trade 
Agreement was signed and the World Trade Organization was created. The 
scars are etched too in the explosive materials, uncleared munitions, 
and diverse cocktail of military pollutants that will take decades to 
flush from Vieques’s ecosystem, as well as in the small island’s ongoing 
health crisis 
And they are there in the swaths of land all over the archipelago that 
are so contaminated that the Environmental Protection Agency has 
classified 18 of them as Superfund sites, with all the local health 
impacts that shadow such toxicity.

The deepest scars may be even harder to see. Colonialism itself is a 
social experiment, a multilayered system of explicit and implicit 
controls designed to strip colonized peoples of their culture, 
confidence, and power. With tools ranging from the brute military and 
police aggression used to put down strikes and rebellions, to a law that 
once banned the Puerto Rican flag, to the dictates handed down today by 
the unelected fiscal control board, residents of these islands have been 
living under that web of controls for centuries.

On my first day on the island, at a meeting of trade union leaders at 
the University of Puerto Rico, Rosario spoke passionately about the 
psychological impact of this unending experiment. He said that at such a 
high-stakes moment — when so many outsiders are descending wielding 
their own plans and their own big dreams — “we need to know where are we 
heading. We need to know where is our ultimate goal. We need to know 
what paradise looks like.” And not the kind of paradise that “performs” 
for currency traders with a surfing hobby, but that actually works for 
the majority of Puerto Ricans.

The problem, he went on, is that “people in Puerto Rico are very fearful 
of thinking about the Big Thing. We are not supposed to be dreaming; we 
are not supposed to be thinking about even governing ourselves. We don’t 
have that tradition of looking at the big picture.” This, he said, is 
colonialism’s most bitter legacy.

The belittling message at the core of the colonial experiment has been 
reinforced in countless ways by the official responses (and 
nonresponses) to Hurricane Maria. Time after humiliating time, Puerto 
Ricans have been sent that familiar message about their relative worth 
and ultimate disposability. And nothing has done more to confirm this 
status than the fact that no level of government has seen fit to count 
the dead in any kind of credible way, as if lost Puerto Rican lives are 
of so little consequence that there is no need to document their mass 
extinguishment. As of this writing, the official count of how many 
people died as a result of Hurricane Maria remains at 64, though a 
thorough investigation 
by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and the New York 
Times put the real number at well over 1,000. Puerto Rico’s governor has 
announced that an independent probe will re-examine the official numbers.

But there is a flipside to these painful revelations. Puerto Ricans now 
know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there is no government that has 
their interests at heart, not in the governor’s mansion, not on the 
unelected fiscal control board (which many Puerto Ricans welcomed at 
first, convinced it would root out corruption), and certainly not in 
Washington, where the current president’s idea of aid and comfort was to 
hurl paper towels into a crowd. That means that if there is to be a 
grand new experiment in Puerto Rico, one genuinely in the interest of 
its people, then Puerto Ricans themselves will have to be the ones to 
dream it up and fight for it — “from the bottom to the top,” as Casa 
Pueblo founder Alexis Massol-González told me.

He is convinced that his people are up to the task. And ironically, this 
is in part thanks to Maria. Precisely because the official response to 
the hurricane has been so lacking, Puerto Ricans on the island and in 
the diaspora have been forced to organize themselves on a stunning 
scale. Casa Pueblo is just one example among many. With next to no 
resources, communities have set up massive communal kitchens, raised 
large sums of money, coordinated and distributed supplies, cleared 
streets, and rebuilt schools. In some communities, they have even gotten 
the electricity reconnected with the help of retired electrical workers.

They shouldn’t have had to do all this. Puerto Ricans pay taxes — the 
IRS collects some $3.5 billion from the island annually — to help fund 
FEMA and the military, which are supposed to protect U.S. citizens 
during states of emergency. But one result of being forced to save 
themselves is that many communities have discovered a depth of strength 
and capacity they did not know they possessed.

Now this confidence is rapidly spilling over into the political arena 
and with it, an appetite among a growing number of Puerto Rican groups 
and individuals to do precisely what Juan E. Rosario said has been so 
difficult in the past: come up with their own big ideas, their own 
dreams of an island paradise that performs for them.

      “Welcome to Magic Land”

Those were the words that greeted me at a bustling public school and 
organic farm carved into the hillside in Puerto Rico’s spectacular 
central mountain region, a place known for its towering waterfalls, 
crystal natural pools, and electric green peaks.

After driving for an hour and a half through communities still badly 
battered by the hurricane, the scene did feel strangely enchanted. There 
were smiling children harvesting a crop of beans and wandering through 
stands of sunflowers. There were young men and women sawing lumber and 
busily erecting several new structures, stopping periodically to share 
ideas about how to get the farm working to maximum potential. And in a 
region where many are still relying on inadequate government food aid, 
there were older women preparing mountains of vegetables and fish for a 
sumptuous communal meal.

The mood was so upbeat and the efficiency so undeniable that I had a 
feeling similar to the one I had at Casa Pueblo — as if I had stepped 
through a portal to that parallel Puerto Rico, a place where both the 
ecological and economic lessons of Hurricane Maria were being powerfully 

“We do agro-ecological farming,” Dalma Cartagena told me, pointing to 
the rows of spinach, kale, cilantro, and much more. “Kids from third 
grade to eighth grade do this work, this beautiful work.”

Cartagena — a trained agronomist with braided gray curls and a yogic 
smile — is most passionate about how farming has helped her students 
overcome the trauma of a storm that was so ferocious, it felt as if the 
natural world had turned against them. Running her fingers through a 
stand of medicinal flowers, she said, “After Maria, we encourage the 
students to touch the plants and let the plants touch them because 
that’s a way of healing the pain and anger.”

When students watch plants grow that they planted from seeds, it’s a 
reminder that despite all of the damage inflicted by the storm, “You are 
part of something that is always protecting you.” The apparent rupture 
between themselves and the land begins to heal.

Eighteen years ago, Cartagena took charge of this farm in the 
municipality of Orocovis as part of the Puerto Rico Education 
Department’s embattled “agriculture education program.” Connected by a 
short pathway to a large local middle school, Escuela Segunda Unidad 
Botijas I, students spend part of each day on the farm, listening to 
Cartagena explain everything from the nitrogen cycle to composting. 
Dressed in neat school uniforms complemented with mud-caked rubber 
boots, they also learn the practical skills of “agro-ecology,” a term 
referring to a combination of traditional farming methods that promotes 
resilience and protects biodiversity, a rejection of pesticides and 
other toxins, and a commitment to rebuilding social relationships 
between farmers and local communities.

Each grade tends to their own crops from seed to harvest. Some of what 
they grow is served in the school cafeteria, some is sold at market, and 
most goes home with the students.

Concentrating through heavy, black-framed glasses as she shelled a pile 
of beans, 13-year-old Brítany Berríos Torres explained, “My mom can make 
them, or she can give them to my grandmother so she can stop worrying 
about ‘What am I going to cook my daughters?’” With so much need on the 
island, doing this work, Torres said, “I feel as if we are throwing a 
rope to humanity.”

All of this makes this public school’s farm a relative anomaly in Puerto 
Rico. As a legacy of the slave plantation economy first established 
under Spanish rule, much of the island’s agriculture is industrial 
scale, with many crops grown for export or testing purposes. Roughly 85 
percent of the food Puerto Ricans actually eat is imported.

With her unique school, which the government has tried to shut down 
several times, Cartagena is determined to prove that this dependency on 
outsiders is not only unnecessary, but a kind of folly. By using farming 
techniques and carefully preserved seed varieties adapted to the region, 
she is convinced that Puerto Ricans can feed themselves with healthy 
food grown in their own fertile soil — as long as there is sufficient 
land available for a new and existing generation of farmers with the 
knowledge to do the work.

This lesson of self-sufficiency took on very practical urgency after 
Hurricane Maria. Just as the upheaval revealed the perils of Puerto 
Rico’s import-addicted and highly centralized energy system, it also 
unmasked the extraordinarily vulnerability of its food supply. All over 
the island, industrial-scale farms growing mono-crops of banana, 
plantains, papaya, coffee, and corn looked like they had been flattened 
with a scythe. According to Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture, 
more than 80 percent of the island’s crops were completely wiped out in 
the storm, a $2 billion blow to the economy.

“A lot of conventional farmers right now are starving, even though they 
have amazing amount of land,” Katia Avilés, an environmental geographer 
and agro-ecological farming advocate, told me. “They didn’t have 
anything to harvest because they had followed the Department of 
Agriculture’s instructions” and literally bet the farm on a single, 
vulnerable cash crop.

Food imports, meanwhile, were in no better shape. The Port of San Juan 
was in chaos, with shipping containers filled with desperately needed 
food and fuel sitting unopened. For weeks, the shelves at many 
supermarkets were virtually empty. Remote areas like Orocovis fared the 
worst: stranded because of blocked roads and insufficient fuel, it took 
over a week or more for food aid to arrive. And when it came, it was 
often shockingly inadequate: military-style rations and FEMA’s now 
boxes filled with Skittles, processed meats, and Cheez-It crackers.

On Cartagena’s small farm, however, there was nutritious food to share. 
The storm had knocked down the greenhouse and her outdoor classroom, and 
the wind had claimed the bananas. But many of the crops the students had 
planted were fine: the tomatillos, the root vegetables — pretty much 
everything that grows low to the earth or underneath it.

“We never closed the farm. We stayed here working,” Cartagena said, 
“cleaning up and doing the compost, the way we could.” Within days, 
students began crossing the mountains by foot to help out, carrying food 
home to their families. They planted flowers to try to lure back the bees.

There was other help too. On the day I visited, the land was crowded 
with about 30 farmers who had traveled from across the United States, 
Central America, Canada, and Puerto Rico to help Cartagena and her 
students rebuild and replant. The visitors were part of a wave of 
international “brigades 
that had been going from farm to farm rebuilding chicken coops, 
greenhouses, and other outdoor structures, as well as replanting crops, 
an ambitious effort organized by Puerto Rico’s Organización Boricuá de 
Agricultura Ecológica, the U.S.-based Climate Justice Alliance, and the 
global network of peasants and small farmers, Via Campesina.

Jesús Vázquez, an environmental justice advocate, food sovereignty 
activist and local coordinator of the brigades, told me that Cartagena’s 
experience was not unique. In the days after Maria, farmers and 
community members helped one another across the island. And those rare 
estates that still used traditional methods— including planting a 
diversity of crops and using trees and grasses with long roots to 
prevent landslides and erosion — had some of the only fresh food on the 

Yucca, taro, sweet potato, yam, and several other root vegetables are 
nutrient-rich staples of the Puerto Rican diet, and because they grow 
underground, where the high winds couldn’t touch them, most were almost 
entirely protected from storm damage. “Some farmers were harvesting food 
a day after the hurricane,” Vázquez recalled. Within a few weeks, they 
had hundreds of pounds of food to sell or distribute in their communities.

Avilés, Vázquez, and Cartagena all work with Organización Boricuá, a 
network of farmers who use these traditional Puerto Rican methods, 
passing them down through the generations, “campesino to campesino,” as 
Avilés put it. But after decades of U.S. government policy that equated 
campesino life with underdevelopment and set Puerto Rico up as a captive 
market for U.S. imports, all that remains, Avilés said, are “islands” of 
these agro-ecological farms scattered through the archipelago’s three 
inhabited islands.

For 28 years, Organización Boricuá has been connecting those farming 
islands to one another, advocating for their interests and publicly 
making the case that agro-ecology should form the basis for Puerto 
Rico’s food system, capable of providing “adequate, affordable, 
nutritious, and culturally appropriate food” for the entire population, 
Vázquez explained. The group has also been warning about the dangers of 
chokepoints in Puerto Rico’s highly centralized system, with almost all 
of its food imports shipping out of a single port 
in Jacksonville, Florida (which itself was slammed 
by Hurricane Irma last September), and roughly 90 percent 
of the food arriving at one entry point: the Port of San Juan. “We’ve 
always been saying within our movement that that’s a problem because of 
climate change,” Vázquez told me. After all, if something happens to the 
port, “then we’ll be doomed.”

Given the strength of the corporate agricultural lobbies they were up 
against, getting these kinds of messages through to the public has been 
an uphill battle. Their opponents painted them as backward relics, while 
imports and fast food were modernization incarnate. But Maria, which was 
powerful enough to rearrange local geology, has changed the political 
topography as well.

Overnight, everyone could see just how dangerous it was for this fertile 
island to have lost control over its agricultural system, along with so 
much else. “We didn’t have food, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have 
electricity, we didn’t have anything,” Avilés recalled. But in 
communities that still had local farms, people could also see that 
agro-ecology was not some quaint relic of the past, but a crucial tool 
for surviving a rocky future.

Now Organización Boricuá is joining with many others who have been 
constructing their own “islands” of self-sufficiency — not just farms, 
but also solar powered oases like Casa Pueblo, as well as mutual aid 
centers and groups of educators and economists with plans for how Puerto 
Ricans can confront international capital and remake their economy and 
public institutions. Together, this network of grassroots Puerto Rican 
movements is laying out a plan for a new Puerto Rico, one in which 
residents play a greater role in shaping their own destinies than they 
have at any time since the island was colonized by Spain in 1493. “It’s 
just one fight,” Katia Alverés said, “which is, how do we make sure that 
we have a just recovery and that for the future, we’re not going to fall 
as hard as we did this time?”

And there will be a next time. I spoke with Elizabeth Yeampierre, 
executive director of UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based 
organization, who was also in Puerto Rico as part of the climate justice 
brigades. She was preoccupied with the knowledge that hurricane season 
would begin again in just a few months. “It’s impossible to talk about 
what happened in Puerto Rico without talking about climate change,” 
which, by causing oceans to warm and sea levels to rise, is sure to 
bring more record-breaking storms. “It would be foolish for us to think 
that this is the last storm, that there aren’t going to be other 
recurring extreme weather events.”

She also said that Puerto Ricans — by drawing on long-protected 
indigenous knowledge about what seeds and tree species can survive 
extreme events, as well as the kind of energy and sturdy social 
structures that can withstand these shocks — are creating a model not 
just for the island, but for the world. A way to “start really thinking 
about how you prepare for the fact that climate change is here.”

But if Puerto Rico’s people’s movements are going to have a chance to 
provide this kind of global leadership, they will need to move fast. 
Because they aren’t the only ones with radical plans about how the 
island should transform after Maria.

      Shock-After-Shock-After-Shock Doctrine

The day before I walked through that portal in Orocovis, Gov. Ricardo 
Rosselló delivered a televised address from behind his desk, flanked by 
the flags of the United States and Puerto Rico. “While overcoming 
adversity, we also find great opportunities to build a new Puerto Rico,” 
he announced. The first step was to be the immediate privatization of 
the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as PREPA, one of the 
largest public power providers in the United States and, despite its 
billions of dollars in debt, the one that brings in the most revenue.

“We will sell PREPA’s assets to the companies that will transform the 
power generation system into a modern, efficient, and less costly system 
for our people,” Rosselló said.

It turned out to be the first shot in a machine-gun loaded with such 
announcements. Two days later, the slick, TV-friendly young governor 
unveiled his long-awaited “fiscal plan,” which included closing more 
than 300 schools and shutting down more than two-thirds of the island 
government’s executive-branch entities, going from a total of 115 to 
just 35. As Kate Aronoff reported 
<https://theintercept.com/2018/02/03/puerto-rico-debt-fiscal-plan/> for 
The Intercept, this “amounts to a deconstruction of the island’s 
administrative state” (so it’s no surprise that Rosselló has many 
admirers in Trump’s Washington).

A week after that, the governor went on television again and unveiled a 
plan to crack open the education system to privately run charter schools 
and private school vouchers — moves Puerto Rico’s teachers and parents 
have successfully resisted several times before.

This is a phenomenon I have called the “shock doctrine,” and it is 
playing out in Puerto Rico in the most naked form seen since New 
Orleans’s public school system and much of its low-income housing were 
dismantled in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while the 
city was still largely empty of its residents. And Puerto Rico’s 
education secretary, the former management consultant Julia Keleher, 
makes no secret of where she is drawing inspiration from. One month 
after Maria, she tweeted that New Orleans should be a “point of 
reference,” and “we should not underestimate the damage or the 
opportunity to create new, better schools.”

Central to a shock doctrine strategy is speed — pushing a flurry of 
radical changes through so quickly it’s virtually impossible to keep up. 
So, for instance, while most of the meager 
media attention has focused on Rosselló’s privatization plans, an 
equally significant attack on regulations and independent oversight — 
laid out in his fiscal plan 
<http://www.aafaf.pr.gov/assets/newfiscalplanforpr-01-24-18.pdf> — has 
gone largely under the radar.

And the process is far from complete. There is a great deal of talk 
about more privatizations to come: highways, bridges, ports, ferries, 
water systems, national parks, and other conservation areas. Manuel 
Laboy, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development and commerce, 
told The Intercept that electricity is just the beginning. “We do expect 
that similar things will happen in other infrastructure sectors. It 
could be full privatization; it could be a true P3 [public-private 
partnerships] model.”

Despite the radical nature of these plans, the response from Puerto 
Rican society has been somewhat muted. No large-scale protests greeted 
the first wave of Rosselló’s rapid-fire announcements. No strikes in 
response to his plans to radically contract the state and roll back 
pensions. No uprisings against the Puertopians flooding into the island 
to build their libertarian dream state.

Yet Puerto Rico has a deep history of popular resistance and some very 
radical trade unions. So what is going on? The first thing to understand 
is that Puerto Ricans are not experiencing one extreme dose of the shock 
doctrine, but two or even three of them, all layered on top of one 
another — a new and terrifying hybridization of the strategy that makes 
it particularly challenging to resist.

Many Puerto Ricans told me that the latest chapter in this story really 
begins in 2006, when the tax breaks that had been used to attract U.S. 
manufacturers to the island were allowed to expire, prompting a 
devastating wave of capital flight (and demonstrating just how 
precarious it is to build a development policy based on tax giveaways). 
This was such a deep shock to the island’s economy that in May 2006, 
much of the government, including all the public schools, was 
temporarily shut down. That was the first punch. The second came when 
the global financial system melted down less than two years later, 
dramatically deepening a crisis already well underway.

Broke and desperate, the Puerto Rican government turned to borrowing, in 
part by using its special tax status to issue municipal bonds that were 
exempt from city, state, and federal taxes. It also purchased high-risk 
capital appreciation bonds, which will eventually rack up interest rates 
ranging from 785 to 1,000 percent 
<https://www.scribd.com/document/357673061/Broken-Promises>. Thanks in 
large part to these kinds of predatory 
financial instruments, borrowed under conditions that many experts argue 
were illegal under the Puerto Rican Constitution, the island’s debt 
exploded. According to data compiled by lawyer Armando Pintado, 
debt-service payments, including interest and other profits paid to the 
banking industry, increased fivefold between 2001 and 2014, with a 
particularly marked spike in 2008. Yet another shock to the island’s 

And so, in an all-too-familiar story, an atmosphere of crisis was 
exploited to force severe austerity on a desperate people. In 2009, 
Puerto Rico’s governor passed a law declaring an economic “state of 
and used it to lay off more than 17,000 public sector workers and strip 
negotiated benefits and raises from many more — this at a time when 
unemployment was already 15 percent. As has been the case everywhere — 
these policies have been imposed in recent years from the U.K. to Greece 
— it didn’t bring the island back to growth and health. It pushed it 
deeper into joblessness, recession, and bankruptcy.

It was in this context that in 2016, Congress took the drastic measure 
of passing the PROMESA law that put Puerto Rico’s finances under the 
control of a newly created Financial Oversight and Management Board, a 
seven-person body appointed by the U.S. president, six of whom appear 
not to live on the island. The board, which is essentially charged with 
overseeing the liquidation of Puerto Rico’s assets to maximize debt 
repayments and approving all major economic decisions, is known in 
Puerto Rico as “La Junta.” For many, the name is a commentary on the 
fact that the board represents a kind of financial coup d’état: Puerto 
Ricans — unable to vote for president or Congress but forced to live 
under U.S. laws — already lacked basic democratic rights. By giving the 
fiscal board the power to reject decisions made by Puerto Rico’s elected 
territorial representatives, they were now losing the weak rights they 
had won, marking a return to unmasked colonial rule.

Unsurprisingly, the fiscal control board promptly placed Puerto Rico on 
an even more wrenching austerity diet. It demanded deep cuts to pensions 
and public services, including health care, as well as a laundry list of 
privatizations. The school system was particularly hard-hit in this 
period. Between 2010 and 2017, roughly 340 public schools were shut 
down; arts and physical education programs were virtually eliminated in 
many elementary schools; and the board announced plans to slash the 
University of Puerto Rico’s budget in half.

Yarimar Bonilla, a Rutgers University associate professor who had been 
conducting a major research project on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis before 
Maria hit, told me there is no way to understand the post-Maria shock 
doctrine strategy without recognizing that Puerto Ricans “were already 
in a state of shock and severe economic policies were already being 
applied here. The government had already been whittled down and people’s 
expectations for the government had already been very much whittled 
down.” By early 2017, she pointed out, parts of San Juan looked very 
much like they had been hit by a hurricane — windows were broken, 
buildings were boarded up. But it wasn’t high winds that did it; it was 
debt and austerity.

Perhaps the most relevant part of this story, however, is that by 2017, 
Puerto Ricans were resisting this shock doctrine strategy with 
organization and militancy. There had been resistance at earlier stages, 
including a general strike in 2009. But in the months before Maria 
struck, Puerto Rico saw some of the strongest and most unified 
opposition in the island’s history.

A popular movement calling for an independent audit of the debt was 
quickly gaining ground, spurred by the conviction that if its causes 
were closely examined, as much as 60 percent of the more than $70 
billion Puerto Rico supposedly owes would be found to have been 
accumulated in violation of the island’s constitution and is therefore 
illegal. And if a large part of the debt is illegal, not only would it 
need to be erased, the fiscal control board would need to be dismantled, 
and debt could no longer be used as a cudgel with which to impose 
austerity and further weaken democracy. According to Eva Prados, 
spokesperson for the Citizens Front for the Audit of the Debt, in the 
year before Hurricane Maria, 150,000 Puerto Ricans added their names to 
a call 
to audit the debt, and thousands participated in vigils calling for 
“light and truth 

And then there was the mounting revolt against austerity. Last spring, 
students at the University of Puerto Rico’s 11 campuses staged a 
historic strike that lasted more than two months, protesting plans to 
raise tuition while their school’s budget was being slashed, as well as 
the broader austerity agenda. A faculty group launched a major lawsuit 
against the fiscal control board alleging that the deep cuts to the 
university were an illegal attack on an essential service. Then, on May 
1, 2017, many of Puerto Rico’s labor and social movements converged into 
one angry cry, when roughly 100,000 people took to the streets to demand 
an end to austerity and an audit of the debt — by some estimates, the 
second-largest protest in Puerto Rico’s history.

It was clear that this movement had authorities worried. After several 
banks were vandalized, the state launched an intense crackdown against 
the key organizations involved in the May 1 anti-austerity mobilization, 
threatening them with costly lawsuits and jailing several activists.

In this atmosphere of heated resistance, with many calling for 
Rosselló’s resignation, several of the more draconian plans seemed to 
stall. The cuts to the university were in question, as were some of the 
bigger-ticket privatizations. The secretary of education, meanwhile, had 
been forced to scale back the number of planned public school closures. 
Not every battle was won, but it was clear that there would be no 
all-out shock doctrine-style makeover of Puerto Rico without a fight.

Then came Maria, and all those same rejected policies came roaring back 
with Category 5 ferocity.

      Desperation, Distraction, Despair, and Disappearance

The jury is still out as to whether this latest attempt at the 
shock-after-shock doctrine approach will actually work. If it does, it 
will not be because Puerto Ricans suddenly overwhelmingly approve of 
these policies. It will be because the tremendous impact of the storm 
has disassembled life for millions of people, making the reconstitution 
of the pre-storm, anti-austerity coalition a herculean challenge.

It’s helpful to break the extreme state of shock that is being exploited 
into four categories: desperation, distraction, despair, and disappearance.

Desperation because the relief and reconstruction efforts have been so 
sluggish, so inept, and so apparently corrupt that they have 
understandably instilled a sense in many that nothing could be worse 
than the status quo. This is particularly true for electricity. Even 
among those that have had their power restored, many are experiencing 
regular blackouts. They are also hearing daily threats from their 
governor that the whole island could wind up back in the dark again at 
any point because PREPA is so broke that it can’t pay the bills; in some 
parts of the island, water is being rationed for similar reasons. It’s 
circumstances like these that make the prospect of privatization more 
palatable. With the status quo so untenable, anything at all can seem 
like an improvement.

Related to this is distraction: Daily life in Puerto Rico remains an 
immense struggle. There are repairs to be done to damaged homes, and 
byzantine, time-devouring bureaucracies to navigate to help pay for 
them. For those who still don’t have electricity or water, there are the 
interminable lineups required to receive aid. Many workplaces still 
remain closed, making paying the bills yet another huge logistical 
hurdle, if it’s possible at all. Add all this together and for many 
Puerto Ricans, the mechanics of survival can take up every waking hour — 
a state of distraction not very conducive to political engagement.

For many, the burdens of survival have been so onerous, and future 
prospects seemingly so bleak, that a deep despair has set in — indeed it 
is reaching epidemic proportions. Callers making credible threats to 
take their own lives overwhelmed 
the island’s 24-hour mental health hotline in the months after the 
hurricane. According to a government report, more than 3,000 people who 
called the line between November 2017 and January 2018 reported having 
already attempted suicide — a 246 percent 
increase over the previous year.

For Yarimar Bonilla, these figures represent not just the impacts of 
Maria, devastating as they have been, but rather the cumulative effects 
of many compounding blows. “Puerto Ricans had already undergone a huge 
amount of trauma due to the colonial relationship to the United States,” 
most recently during the debt crisis. Then came the storm, which 
literally ripped the lid off the agony that so many households had been 
quietly enduring. With cameras poking into homes that had their roofs 
torn apart, Puerto Ricans found themselves looking into one another’s 
lives, and they saw not just storm damage, but also punishing poverty, 
untreated illness, and social isolation. As Bonilla put it, “There’s a 
real sorrow here in a place that used to be known for its joy.”

Today, she says, there may not be rioting in the streets, but that 
should not be confused with consent. The apparent passivity is at least 
partly the result of so much pain being directed inward.

The same desperate circumstances have forced hundreds of thousands of 
Puerto Ricans to make the wrenching decision to simply disappear from 
the island. They vanish daily onto planes headed for Florida and New 
York and elsewhere in the mainland United States. Many of them have had 
the direct help of FEMA, which built what the agency called
an “air bridge 
airlifting people off the island and boarding others onto cruise ships. 
Once on the mainland, they were provided with funds to stay in hotels 
(supports set to expire on March 20).

Bonilla says this approach was a political choice — much as it was a 
choice to fly and bus the residents of New Orleans to distant states 
after Hurricane Katrina, often offering no way to return, a process that 
permanently changed the demographics of the city. “Instead of helping 
people here, providing shelters here, bringing more generator power to 
the places that need them, getting the electric system up and running, 
they’re encouraging people to leave instead.”

There are several reasons why evacuation may have been heavily favored 
by Washington and the governor’s office. The disappearance of so many 
people in such a short time, Bonilla explained, “operates as a political 
escape valve, so right now you don’t have people protesting in the 
streets because a lot of the people who are really desperate for medical 
care or who had real needs where they couldn’t live without electricity 
have just left.”

The exodus also conveniently helps create the “blank canvas” that the 
governor has bragged about to would-be investors. Elizabeth Yeampierre 
helped welcome and support many of her fellow Puerto Ricans when they 
arrived in the United States. But when I spoke with her on the island, 
she said that her “biggest fear” is that the evacuation will be a 
prelude to a massive land grab. “What they want is our land, and they 
just don’t want our people in it.”

Many Puerto Ricans I spoke with are similarly convinced that there is 
more than incompetence behind the various ways they are being pushed to 
the limits of endurance.

It’s helpful to break the extreme state of shock that is being exploited 
into four categories: desperation, distraction, despair, and disappearance.

Desperation because the relief and reconstruction efforts have been so 
sluggish, so inept, and so apparently corrupt that they have 
understandably instilled a sense in many that nothing could be worse 
than the status quo. This is particularly true for electricity. Even 
among those that have had their power restored, many are experiencing 
regular blackouts. They are also hearing daily threats from their 
governor that the whole island could wind up back in the dark again at 
any point because PREPA is so broke that it can’t pay the bills; in some 
parts of the island, water is being rationed for similar reasons. It’s 
circumstances like these that make the prospect of privatization more 
palatable. With the status quo so untenable, anything at all can seem 
like an improvement.

As has been extensively reported since the storm hit, the relief and 
reconstruction efforts have been a nonstop procession of almost 
impossibly disastrous decisions. A key contract to supply 30 million 
went to an Atlanta company with a record of failure and a staff of one 
(only 50,000 meals were delivered before the contract was canceled). 
Desperately needed relief supplies sat for weeks in storage, both in San 
Juan and Florida, where some became rat-infested 
Materials key to rebuilding the electrical grid also sat in warehouses 
for unknown reasons. Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based firm with ties to 
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, had just two full-time staff when it 
landed a $300 million contract to help rebuild the electricity grid (the 
contract has since been canceled).

Then there were the common-sense measures that were simply ignored. As 
many pointed out, the Trump administration could have swiftly sent in 
the USNS Comfort, a massive floating hospital, to ease the strain on 
failing health care facilities. Instead, the ship was sent in late, sat 
nearly empty for weeks, and then was ordered withdrawn 
in November, with power still out on half of the island. Similarly, 
instead of relying on two-bit contractors like Whitefish, or notorious 
profiteers like Fluor, which has cashed in on disasters from 
post-invasion Iraq to post-Katrina New Orleans, PREPA could have 
requested that other state electrical utilities send workers to Puerto 
Rico and help with the rebuilding — its right as a member of the 
American Public Power Association. But it waited more than a month 
before putting in the request.

Each one of these decisions, even when they were ultimately reversed, 
set recovery efforts back further. Is this all a masterful conspiracy to 
make sure Puerto Ricans are too desperate, distracted, and despairing to 
resist Wall Street’s bitter economic medicine? I don’t believe it’s 
anything that coordinated. Much of this is simply what happens when you 
bleed the public sphere for decades, laying off competent workers and 
neglecting basic maintenance. Run-of-the-mill corruption and cronyism 
are no doubt at work as well.

But it’s also true that many governments have deployed a 
starve-then-sell strategy when it comes to public services: cut health 
care/transit/education to the bone until people are so disillusioned and 
desperate that they are willing to try anything, including selling off 
those services altogether. And if Rosselló and the Trump administration 
have seemed remarkably unconcerned about the nonstop relief and 
reconstruction screw-ups, the attitude may be at least partly informed 
by an understanding that the worse things get, the stronger the case for 
privatization becomes.

Mónica Flores, the University of Puerto Rico graduate student 
researching renewable energy, said the whole experience has been like 
watching a car wreck in slow motion. Like so many others, Flores said it 
felt impossible to take on these systemic issues when you have lost your 
home, when you are living out of your car, when you are going to 
friends’ houses to shower. “You’re trying not to fall apart … and people 
are immobilized because they’re scared, because they’re lost, because 
they’re just trying to survive.”

Many Puerto Ricans point out that the promises of lower prices and 
greater efficiency that would flow from privatizing basic services are 
contradicted by their own experiences. Private telephone companies have 
provided poor service in many parts of the archipelago, and a water and 
sewage system sale in the ’90s proved so economically and 
environmentally disastrous 
<https://www.citizen.org/puerto-rico-guinea-pig-water-privatization>, it 
had to be reversed less than a decade later. Many fear this experience 
will be repeated — that if PREPA is privatized, the Puerto Rican 
government will lose an important source of revenue, while getting 
stiffed with the utility’s multibillion-dollar debt. They also fear that 
electricity rates will stay high, and that poor and remote regions where 
people are less able to pay could well lose access to the grid altogether.

Even so, the governor’s pitch has proved persuasive for some because 
privatization is not presented as one possible solution to a dire 
humanitarian crisis, but as the only one. As Casa Pueblo and Coquí Solar 
are attempting to show, this is far from the truth. There are other 
models — implemented successfully in countries like Denmark and Germany 
— that would greatly improve Puerto Rico’s broken and dirty state-run 
utility, while keeping power and wealth in the hands of Puerto Ricans. 
But advancing such democratic models requires the political 
participation of a population that has a lot of other things on its 
plate right now.

There is reason to hope, however, that a post-Maria shock-resistance may 
be starting to take root. Mercedes Martínez, the indomitable head of the 
Federation of Puerto Rican Teachers, has spent the months since the 
storm crisscrossing the island, warning parents and educators that the 
plan to radically downsize and privatize the school system relies upon 
their fatigue and trauma.

While visiting a still-closed school in Humacao, in the eastern region, 
she told a local teacher that the government “knows we’re made of flesh 
and bones — they know that human beings get worn out and discouraged.” 
But, she insisted, if people understand that it is a strategy, they can 
defeat it.

“Our job is to motivate people to know that it’s possible to resist 
things as long as we believe in ourselves.” This was more than a pep 
talk: In the few months after Maria, the secretary of education 
attempted to keep dozens of schools from reopening, claiming they were 
unsafe. The teachers feared it was a prelude to closing the schools for 

Again and again, parents and teachers — who had, in many cases, repaired 
the buildings themselves — successfully fought to protect their local 
schools. “They occupied the schools, reopened them without permission; 
parents blocked the streets,” Martínez recalled. As a result, more than 
25 schools were reopened that the government had tried to close for good 
after the storm.

That’s why Martínez is convinced that no matter what is written in the 
governor’s fiscal plan and no matter what privatization laws have been 
introduced, it is still possible for Puerto Ricans to successful resist 
the shock doctrine. Especially if the pre-storm coalitions rebuild and 

On March 19, teachers across Puerto Rico held a one-day walkout to 
protest the plans to shrink and privatize the island’s school system, 
the first major political demonstration since Maria. And talk of a 
full-blown strike is growing louder.

I asked Martínez if her members feared taking action that would disrupt 
the lives of families that have already been through so much. She was 
unequivocal. “Absolutely not. Our feeling is, how can the government add 
more pain to children’s lives by shutting down their schools, taking 
away their teachers, and setting up a privatized system that favors 
those who already have the most?”

      The Islands of Sovereignty Converge

On my last day in Puerto Rico, we climbed another mountain and stepped 
through yet another portal. I was traveling with Sofía Gallisá Muriente, 
a Puerto Rican artist I had first met in the Rockaways in the aftermath 
of Superstorm Sandy, where she had been part of the grassroots relief 
effort known as Occupy Sandy.

We’d been scaling treacherously narrow roads on the east coast of the 
island, taking various wrong turns because many signs were still down, 
looking for the community center in the village of Mariana. Finally, we 
asked a man on the side of the road for directions. “You mean the 
breadfruit festival? It’s right up there.”

We found ourselves in a clearing with hundreds of people from across the 
archipelago, gathered on folding chairs under a large, white tent. From 
up here, looking down the valley to the sea, we could see precisely 
where Maria first made landfall.

As the roadside confusion suggested, this was indeed the site of an 
annual festival that celebrates a large, starchy, and nutritious fruit, 
one that attracts hundreds of people for food and music to this village 
in the municipality of Humacao every year. But after the area was left 
without food aid for 10 days, only to get boxes filled with Skittles, 
the festival’s kitchen facilities were harnessed for a different use: 
Women who usually do the cooking for the festival came together, pooled 
whatever food they could find, and made hot, healthy meals for about 400 
people a day. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. They 
are doing it still.

Renamed the Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (the Mutual Aid Project of 
Mariana), the center has become a symbol 
of the miracles Puerto Ricans have been quietly pulling off while their 
governments fail them. In addition to the communal kitchen, which 
brought the neighborhood together around meals, the project started 
organizing brigades to go out and clear debris. Next, they set up 
programing for kids, since the schools were still closed.

Christine Nieves, a dynamic thinker who left a post at Florida State 
University’s business school to move back to the island a year before 
the storm, is one of the forces behind this project. She and her 
partner, musician Luis Rodríguez Sánchez, used their contacts off-island 
to turn the community center into a functioning hub, with solar panels 
and backup batteries, a Wi-Fi network, water filters, and rainwater 

Since Mariana still doesn’t have power or water, the mutual aid center 
at the top of the mountain has become yet another energy oasis, the only 
place to plug in electronics and medical equipment. The next stage for 
the project, Nieves told me, is to extend solar power to other buildings 
in the community in a micro-grid.

The biggest challenge, she said, has been helping people to see that 
they don’t need to wait for others to solve problems — everyone has 
something they can contribute now. They might not have food or water, 
she went on, but people know how to do things. “You know electricity? 
Actually, we have a problem that you can help us with. You know 
plumbing?” That’s a skill they can put to use, too.

This process of discovering the latent potential in the community has 
been like “opening your eyes and all of a sudden seeing ‘Oh wait, we’re 
humans and there’s other ways of relating to each other [now that] the 
system has stopped,’” Nieves said.

I came here to see this remarkable project, but also because on this 
day, Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana was hosting several hundred 
organizers and intellectuals from across Puerto Rico, as well as a 
couple dozen visitors from the United States and Central America. 
Convened by PAReS, a collective of University of Puerto Rico faculty 
members involved in the anti-austerity struggle, the meeting had been 
billed as a gathering of organizations and movements “against disaster 
capitalism and for other worlds.”

It was the first time movements had gathered across such a broad 
spectrum since Maria changed everything. And many observed that it was 
the first chance they had had in months to step back, take stock, and 
strategize. “We organized the gathering in this post-Maria moment to be 
able to look at each other, talk, and see if we could come together at 
this crossroads to create a different future,” Mariolga Reyes-Cruz, a 
PAReS collective member and a contingent faculty at the Río Piedras 
campus, told me.

People gathered here from all the parallel worlds I visited during my 
time in Puerto Rico, all the islands hidden away in these islands. I saw 
farmers from Organización Boricuá, determined to show that given the 
right supports, they can feed their own people without relying on 
imports; solar warriors from Casa Pueblo and Coquí Solar, who have 
seized the moment to push a rapid transition to locally controlled 
renewables; teachers who have organized their communities to keep their 
schools open. And tired and muddy members of the solidarity brigades 
that had come to help rebuild.

Key leaders from last year’s surge of anti-austerity activism were here 
too — organizers from the student strike, the lawyers and economists 
calling for an audit of Puerto Rico’s debt, trade union leaders and 
academics who had been researching alternatives for Puerto Rico’s 
economy for a long time.

After a brief welcome, the organizers assigned discussion themes before 
breaking everyone up into smaller groups spread out in clusters on the 
mountaintop. Snippets of conversations floated up from these working 
groups: “We need reinvention not reconstruction” … “We can’t just defend 
the public as if it’s inherently good” … “We need a moratorium on any 
attempt to fast-track private schools” … “A just recovery means not just 
responding to the disaster, but to the underlying /causes/ of the disaster.”

Surveying the scene, Christine Nieves told me that that it felt like “a 
dream come true that we didn’t know we had.” She added, “I think we’re 
going to look back to this moment” — when such a wide diversity of 
groups, most of whom did not know each other before the storm, all came 
together “in this beautiful, open space, wondering how do we create an 
alternative and building toward an alternative” — and realize that this 
was the moment when things shifted from despair to possibility.

As the groups reconvened to share their findings, it was possible to 
detect an emerging synthesis — or at least, a better understanding of 
how the various fronts on which Puerto Ricans are fighting fit into a 
larger whole. The debt must be audited because by calling its legality 
into question, the case to abolish the anti-democratic fiscal control 
board, and all of its endless demands for “structural reforms,” grows 
stronger. And that’s crucial because Puerto Ricans can’t exercise their 
sovereignty if they are subject to the whims of a body they had no hand 
in electing.

For generations, the struggle for national sovereignty has defined 
politics in Puerto Rico: Who favors independence from Washington? Who 
wants to become the 51st state, with full democratic rights? Who defends 
the status quo? So it seems significant that as discussions unfolded in 
Mariana, a broader definition of freedom emerged. I heard talk of 
“multiple sovereignties” — food sovereignty, liberated from dependence 
on imports and agribusiness giants; energy sovereignty, liberated from 
fossil fuels and controlled by communities. And perhaps housing, water, 
and education sovereignty as well.

What also seemed to be growing was an understanding that this 
decentralized model is even more important in the context of climate 
change, where islands like this one will be buffeted by many more 
extreme events capable of severing centralized systems of all kinds, 
from communication networks to electricity grids to agricultural supply 

The day ended with shared food cooked in the community kitchen: rice and 
beans, mashed taro, stewed cod, home-brewed rum flavored with every 
fruit in the island’s rainbow. Next came live trovador music and dancing 
until long after dark. As volunteers helped clean up the kitchen, an 
elderly neighbor arrived to quietly plug in his oxygen machine and have 
a chat with friends.

Watching this mass meeting segue seamlessly into a party, I was reminded 
of Yarimar Bonilla’s observation that amid Puerto Rico’s epidemic of 
despair, “the people who seem to be doing the best are those who are 
helping others, those who are involved in community efforts.” That was 
certainly true here. And it was true, too, of the young people I met in 
Orocovis, bursting with pride about how they were able to bring food 
home to their families.

It makes sense that helping would have this healing effect. To live 
through a profound trauma like Maria is to know the most extreme form of 
helplessness. For what felt like an eternity, families were unable to 
reach one another to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead; 
parents were unable to protect their children from harm. It stands to 
reason that the best cure for helplessness is … helping, being a 
participant, rather than a spectator, in the recovery of your home, 
community, and land.

This is why the shock doctrine, as a political strategy, is more than 
just cynical and opportunist — “it’s cruel,” as Mónica Flores said to me 
through tears. By forcing people to watch as their shared resources are 
sold out from under them, unable to stop it because they are too busy 
trying to survive, the disaster capitalists who have descended on Puerto 
Rico are reinforcing the most traumatizing part of the disaster they are 
there to exploit: the sense of helplessness.

      Race Against Time

Earlier in the day in Mariana, one speaker had described the challenge 
they faced as a kind of race between “the speed of movements and the 
speed of capital.”

Capital is fast. Unencumbered by democratic norms, the governor and the 
fiscal control board can whip up their plan to radically downsize and 
auction off the territory in a matter of weeks — even faster, in fact, 
because their plans were fully developed during the debt crisis. All 
they had to do was dust them off and repackage them as hurricane relief, 
then release their fiats. Hedge fund managers and crypto-traders can 
similarly decide to relocate and build their “Puertopia” on a whim, with 
no one to consult but their accountants and lawyers.

Which is why the “Paradise Performs” version of Puerto Rico is moving 
along at such a rapid clip. For instance, I interviewed Keith St. Clair, 
a fast-talking Brit who moved to the island to take advantage of the tax 
breaks and began investing in hotels. He told me that he had met with 
the governor shortly after Maria. “And I said, ‘I’m gonna double down, 
I’m gonna triple down, I’m gonna quadruple down, because I believe in 
Puerto Rico.’” Looking out at the virtually empty Isla Verde Beach in 
front of one of his San Juan hotels (“a 90 percent tax-exempt 
property”), he predicted, “This could be Miami, South Beach. … That’s 
what we are trying to create.”

The grassroots groups here in Mariana are entirely unconvinced that 
becoming a fly-in bedroom community for tax-dodging plutocrats 
represents any kind of serious economic development strategy. And they 
fear that if this post-disaster gold rush is allowed to continue 
unchecked, it will foreclose the very different versions of paradise 
they are daring to imagine for their island.

Land is scarce in Puerto Rico, especially prime farmland. If it all gets 
snapped up for more office towers, malls, hotels, golf courses, and 
mansions, there will only be scraps left for sustainable farms and 
renewable energy projects. And if infrastructure spending is poured into 
toll-road highways, high-priced ferries, and airports, there similarly 
won’t be anything left for public transit and a local food system. 
Moreover, if energy privatization goes ahead, it could become 
prohibitively costly for local communities to pursue the solar and wind 
micro-grid model. After all, private utility companies from Nevada to 
Florida have successfully pressured their state governments to put up 
roadblocks to renewables, since a market in which your customers are 
also your competitors (able to generate their own power and sell it back 
to the grid) is distinctly less profitable. Rosselló’s fiscal plan 
already floats the idea of a new tax that would penalize 
communities that set up their own renewable micro-grids.

All of these are fateful choices. Manuel Laboy, Puerto Rico’s secretary 
of economic development, said that the decisions made in this window 
“are going to basically set the principles and the conditions for the 
next 50 years.”

The trouble is that movements, unlike capital, tend to move slowly. This 
is particularly true of movements that exist to deepen democracy and 
allow ordinary people to define their goals and grab the reins of history.

It’s a very good thing, then, that Puerto Ricans are not beginning to 
build this movement for self-determination from scratch. Indeed, they 
have been preparing for this moment for generations, from the height of 
the independence struggle to the successful battle to kick the U.S. Navy 
out of Vieques, to the anti-austerity and anti-debt coalition that 
peaked in the months before Maria.

And Puerto Ricans have also been building their future world in 
miniature, on those islands of sovereignty hidden throughout the 
territory. Now, in Mariana, those islands have found each other, forming 
their own parallel political archipelago.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, who attended the Mariana summit, believes that 
despite all the devastation being visited on Puerto Rico, her people 
have the fortitude for the battles ahead. “I see a level of resistance 
and support that I didn’t imagine was going to be possible,” she said. 
“And it reminds me that these are the descendants of colonization and 
slavery, and they are strong.”

In the weeks after I left the island, the 60 groups represented in 
Mariana solidified into a political bloc that they named JunteGente (the 
People Together) and have had meetings all over the archipelago. 
Inspired by different models around the world, they have begun drafting 
a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a 
common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico. It is grounded in 
an unabashed insistence that despite centuries of attacks on their 
sovereignty, the Puerto Rican people are the only ones who have the 
right to dream up their collective future.

And so, six months after Maria revealed so much that didn’t work and a 
few important things that did, Puerto Rico finds itself locked in a 
battle of utopias. The Puertopians dream of a radical withdrawal from 
society into their privatized enclaves. The groups that gathered in 
Mariana dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — 
with each other, within communities, and with the natural systems whose 
health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future. In a very real 
sense, it’s a battle between sovereignty for the many versus secession 
for the few.

For now, these diametrically opposed versions of utopia are advancing in 
their own parallel worlds, at their own speeds — one on the back of 
shocks, the other in spite of them. But both are gaining power fast, and 
in the high-stakes months and years to come, collision is inevitable.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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