Austerity worsens Puerto Rico’s pain

By Peter John Cunningham

I still remember being excited before Hurricane Ivan, the first major storm to pass through Jamaica since Hurricane Gilbert devastated the island in 1988, almost 30 years beforehand. Ivan hit the country in September of 2004, a few months after my ninth birthday. The preparatory process thrilled me: buying sheets of plywood to board up the windows, stocking up on food, necessities, medical supplies and random goodies, and even moving the chicken coop into a spare room out back to protect the birds. At nine, the most appealing part of the whole affair was the prospect of days, or even weeks, without school; I could hardly believe my luck. As the storm battered the island, we retreated into our safeguarded home and waited to assess the damage.

The wind and rain roared and crashed for hours and hours, but thankfully our home survived. Many others were not so lucky. My excitement quickly disappeared in the aftermath of the storm, as the devastation became apparent. The final death toll stood at 17, while the storm cost the country approximately USD $575 million in property damage, not to mention the destruction of infrastructure; we were without power for one week, and without running water for longer than I can remember.

A quick drive around Mandeville, our quiet town nestled in the country’s inner hills, confirmed my parents’ worst fears. Roads flooded higher than the bonnet of our car, humungous trees blown onto the houses they once shaded and countless other visual examples of the destruction opened my eyes to the real consequences of a powerful storm. That was 2005, when category five hurricanes were rather rare and never struck twice in quick succession. Today, the scientific consensus is that the effects of climate change significantly strengthen already-powerful storms, a process that will undoubtedly worsen as climate change becomes more pronounced.

In the space of two weeks, two hurricanes above category four, Irma and María, struck another Caribbean island, Puerto Rico. The hurricanes left the island in a state of humanitarian crisis, with no option but to reach out to the United States and the international community for help. One would think that the country’s status as a U.S. territory would motivate a swift, efficient response to the crisis. Despite the Trump administration’s lauding of the relief efforts, the response by the U.S. government has been slow and inadequate, in stark contrast to the prepared and swift responses to Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida respectively. The President has gone so far as telling the suffering people of Puerto Rico that they are lucky to not have “faced a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina” and has verbally lambasted the mayor of San Juan over her criticism of the U.S. response. With this unstable political atmosphere in mind, Puerto Rican officials must feel as though they must tread lightly or risk losing out on further aid from the U.S.

When viewed in the context of the existing U.S.-Puerto Rican economic and social relationship, the lackluster response by the U.S. government is not particularly surprising. The “special situation” of Puerto Rico has never included full citizenship rights for people living on the island, while the imposition of restrictive economic laws by the federal government since the acquisition of the territory have created a heavy dependence on the mainland economy and contributed to increased indebtedness. The combination of this economic dependence and questionable decisions by Puerto Rico’s political leaders have forced the island to shoulder nigh-insurmountable debts in recent years. In the face of this worsening debt crisis, the U.S. imposed new austerity measures on the island, hampering development and undermining social and economic rights on the island. Before either of the recent storms touched Puerto Rico, the country already faced a serious social crisis. The damage caused by the hurricanes has only served to bring these existing issues to light.

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló told reporters that it may take months to restore power to the island due to an outdated power grid, which is emblematic of infrastructural problems that occur when a territory managing strict austerity measures is battered by natural disaster. The U.S. government has far, far more to do in the relief and rebuilding efforts for the battered island. Whether the Administration will face that responsibility is, of course, another question.

Born in Jamaica, Peter John Cunningham is a fifth-year undergraduate at Northeastern University. He is currently a work-study Research Assistant at PHRGE. 


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