Is Puerto Rico Being 'Ethnically Cleansed' for the Superrich?
Two months after the Sept. 20 landfall of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico—like the nearby Virgin Islands—is still in a state of horrifying devastation. The help being offered by the Trump administration is thin to the point of being cruel and unusual.
At this point one must ask: Is Trump’s astonishing lack of aid part of a larger plan to cleanse the islands of their native populations, drive down real estate values and create a billionaire’s luxury hotel-casino-prostitution playground à la Cuba before the revolution?
In other words: ethnic cleansing for the superrich.
There is just one piece of good news: Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., has joined Rep. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands in proposing that Puerto Rico’s electric grid be rebuilt with wind, solar and a network of micro-grids. More than half the original electric grid is still not functioning, with frequent blackouts occurring in areas where the grid is operational.
Amid a widespread green campaign (more on that later), Lieu and Plaskett have asked the public to cosign their letter to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “invest in a more resilient energy infrastructure focused on renewable energy technology and distributed generation.”
One major wind farm on Puerto Rico’s south shore did survive Maria intact, as did the solar array of a local greenhouse business. Elon Musk has revived a children’s hospital by shipping in a solar/battery array that is sustaining the few medical facilities in San Juan with reliable power.
But overall, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are in such horrific shape that it’s hard to dismiss the idea that the weak recovery effort might be by design. Consider this:
● Throughout the islands, U.S. citizens are dying due to lack of clean water. Tens of thousands are still without food, clothing, medical care or even basic shelter.
● A CNN survey of Puerto Rico’s burial services found a minimum of 499 deaths in the wake of the storm. That number cannot begin to cover the entire scope of the casualties, as many of the corpses have never made it to funeral homes. The official government death toll is about 65. When Trump visited the island he proudly put it at 16, complimenting FEMA for keeping it so “low.”
● Despite enormous resources available, the Trump administration has failed to deliver even sufficient tarps to cover rooftops that have been shattered or blown away altogether.
● North Carolina activist Ana Blackburn reported on prn.fm radio’s “Green Power & Wellness Show” that her mother, who lives in central Puerto Rico, is feeding more than 100 people per day at a church kitchen that can barely scrap together enough food for everyone.
● She also confirmed widespread reports that FEMA workers are delivering small quantities of bottled water, but nowhere near enough to prevent desperately thirsty locals from drinking contaminated water from polluted streams and even from designated SuperFund sites (hazardous waste dumps), resulting in widespread sickness and death.
● FEMA has been responding to requests for help by handing people without phone service or electricity a flier with a phone number to call and a website on which to fill out an application.
● Many in Puerto Rico have died because most of the island’s hospitals have no power and cannot provide surgery, dialysis and other basic life-saving services. Insulin and other medicines have spoiled due to lack of refrigeration.
● Because so many businesses were destroyed, unemployment is rampant, and the numbers are impossible to accurately estimate, according to the island’s governor. With so many hotels and other attractions wiped out, revenue from the island’s core tourist industry has disappeared.
● Those who do have work restoring power and providing other emergency services return home at night to homes or apartments with no electric power, no air conditioning, no refrigerated food, no means to cook what they have and partial roofs that leak during the frequent rains.
● A New York Times report estimates that at least 168,000 of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million pre-storm residents have already come to Florida, about half to the Orlando area, and thousands more may be trying to flee. Uncounted numbers of Puerto Ricans have fled to other states. Many, many more are expected to follow.
● Just prior to Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Irma had grazed Puerto Rico and left some 80,000 people without power. They were still blacked out when Maria hit.
● Puerto Rico’s notoriously corrupt public-owned utility soon gave a $300 million contract to a two-year-old, two-person firm based in Whitefish, Mont., to restore a centralized grid. Whitefish is the hometown of Trump’s interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. His son has previously worked for the firm.
● On the ground in Puerto Rico, local workers were ignored in the hiring process. The line workers Whitefish brought in at huge expense were massively overpaid, with high commissions added to their salaries. They were soon showered with rocks and bottles thrown by angry Puerto Ricans. The Whitefish contract was finally cancelled, and the utility chief in Puerto Rico who signed it was forced to resign.
● When Irma and Hurricane Harvey devastated large swaths of Florida and Texas, federal aid and resources poured in with reasonable efficiency. As part of a trans-utility agreement, thousands of trucks and line workers rushed into both regions to restore water and power. Many Texans and Floridians still suffer, but the FEMA response has made a major difference.
● Immediately after Irma ravaged the Caribbean, Trump harped on debts owed by Puerto Rico to Wall Street; critics say this was a pretext for not sending aid.
● Trump also attacked San Juan’s Latina mayor for being allegedly ungrateful and incompetent.
● When he finally visited the island, Trump staged a public meeting at which he tossed packages of paper towels at desperate survivors. He then flew home ahead of schedule.
Trump’s “discovery” that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are surrounded by water did, of course, complicate his administration’s response.
Critics have inevitably raised the issues of race and poverty—along with a possible ulterior motive. On KPFK-Pacifica’s “California Solartopia” Show, longtime activist Joel Segal, a former congressional aide, discussed with me the widespread efforts by independent, safe energy activists that he has helped organize to see the islands’ electric grid be rebuilt with solar, wind and micro-grids.
These, says Segal, would not feed the global warming that will make future storms so powerful. They also would give the islands a reliable electric system at far cheaper prices than the old fossil burners that powered the islands before Irma and Maria.
But in confronting Trump’s non-response to the humanitarian crisis now gripping the islands, Segal also addresses the possibility that the neglect is deliberate.
“There is ethnic cleansing in PR, not enough food, water, medicine, and medical care. People dying in hospitals,” Segal said. “Why? Because they are black and brown people who speak another language. They are not white, therefore, why care about their well-being?”
Segal speculates that while the proposed GOP tax plan would give the rich a $1.5 trillion tax cut, Republicans in Congress do not want to spend $90 billion rebuilding the Caribbean.
In an email to me, Segal added that the hurricane response also might be about stripping the islands of their inconvenient natives and converting them into yet another billionaire’s paradise filled with Trump-type hotels, casinos and sex trade centers.
Even if they are, as Trump complains, surrounded by water.