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One year after Hurricane Maria, counting the dead is one of many challenges that Puerto Rico faces under massive debt, crippling austerity, and disaster profiteers. Aaron Maté speaks to writer and educator Rima Brusi and Carla Minet of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

One year after Hurricane Maria, there is virtually no dispute that thousands of people lost their lives in Puerto Rico. A Harvard study earlier this year says the storm likely killed more than 4600. And ahead of Maria’s first anniversary, the Puerto Rican government officially acknowledged a toll of at least 2975. But there is one notable exception in the White House. President Trump recently said Democrats had inflated the toll to make him look bad. And FEMA director Brock Long made the rounds on cable news to downplay the numbers.

BROCK LONG: And it’s frustrating. Those studies, the Harvard study was done differently than the George Washington study, or this study or that study. And the numbers are all over the place. So the George Washington study looked at what happened six months after the fact. And you know what happens is – and even in this event you might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working. You know the other thing that goes on – there’s all kinds of studies on this that we take a look at. Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody.

AARON MATE: The Trump administration’s death toll denial has at least garnered some media attention. But it’s one of many tragedies that Puerto Rico is facing one year after Hurricane Maria. Well, joining me are two guests; Rima Brusi is a writer, educator and advocate, she’s formerly a faculty member at the University of Puerto Rico. And Carla Minet is executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico. Welcome to you both.

Carla, I’ll start with you. What do we know at this point about the death toll? Your group was on the story from the beginning, reporting that the early numbers were a huge undercount. Every study since then has corroborated your findings. What do we know today?

CARLA MINET: Well, we still know very little. What we have is the recent George Washington University report that says that around more than 3000 people died. But it’s another estimate. They haven’t done like an epidemiology kind of study. What we did is that we did a journalism investigation. We recently published the most complete database that has 487 cases of verified cases of people that died because of the hurricane, following the CDC guidelines. So that database is online, and there you have the most complete list and testimonies of the family members of the people that died because of the hurricane, though still no official new numbers have come out.

AARON MATE: And what do you think accounts for a sizable number of the deaths that came in the days and months after the hurricane, the people who didn’t die immediately in the storm?

CARLA MINET: Most of the deaths that we have been documenting our debt from people that died the next weeks and months following the hurricane. They died because of the lack of medical services, lack of medicines, lack of electricity to get their medical treatment, problems in hospitals, infections sepsis, lack of the possibility of having dialysis, and the kind of deaths that are considered related, but not directly, to the hurricane. But since the CDC still considers them related to a hurricane although they are indirectly related.

AARON MATE: And Rima Brusi, as you look at the media coverage of Hurricane Maria one year later, there was recently a round of commemorations, what’s your sense of how Puerto Rico is being covered today and what issues do you think are being most overlooked?

RIMA BRUSI: Well, there’s a lot of journalists and a lot of writers in general that are doing a really good job, a really nice job on that, are making a big effort to get at the roots of the crisis and to cover the issue in depth. Now that said, the mainstream press in general has a tendency to focus on the hurricane in itself as an isolated natural disaster and to portray Puerto Ricans as victims of a natural disaster and nothing else. Whereas there’s many processes that not only make a disaster much worse, like Carla was saying, in terms of debts and the impact in a general sense. Most of that predated the hurricane and had come from before, from 2015.

The stating by the local government of the debt unpayable, and by the reaction of the bondholders and by reaction the federal government and their decision to impose the Junta de Control Fiscal, this fiscal management board that is pretty much all-powerful, and that has an impact on the way things happen in every financial institution in Puerto Rico nowadays. So I guess what I’m saying is that journalists covering Puerto Rico sometimes do not go into the issue. So they don’t understand the economic roots and the ideological roads of many of the things that they’re covering, as if they were only a consequence of Hurricane Maria. No, there’s a lot of stuff going on from before. Stuff that places like the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, where Carla works, were covering before the hurricane.

AARON MATE: And for people who are unfamiliar with some of those structural issues, can you give us a brief survey and your assessment of where they are now? We’re talking about an island 72 billion dollars in bond debt. About 50 billion dollars when it comes to pension obligations. But what a lot of people don’t know is the strong connection that these huge obligations have to Wall Street.

RIMA BRUSI: Absolutely. Wall Street is not particularly concerned about the pension engagements part. But as soon as the governor in 2015 declared the debt unpayable, a group of … I think it was 34 hedge funds and vulture funds hurried, in a very rushed manner commissioned this report, and in about eight to ten pages sort of made a set of recommendations to the Puerto Rican government. Demands, really, more than recommendations because they reflect the demands later made in court by the same group of debtholders. And these demands included a number of austerity measures.

They want labor reform, they want education reform. And when they say education reform, they focus on two very specific things. They wanted to reduce the budget of the public university and they wanted to reduce, and I’m quoting almost verbatim, the number of teachers working in the K-12 system. So very early in the game, two years before the hurricane, already there was an agenda of closing schools, of attacking labor, of reducing union power or eliminating unions or undermining unions. All those things predated the hurricane.

So now the we are further debilitated by the hurricane, those measures are even more dangerous and undermine Puerto Rico’s ability to recover and to recover economically, and also frankly emotionally, from the hurricane. Now the overall frame for this, of course, is a frame that combines disaster capitalism, which I think a lot of your viewers are familiar with that the kind of framework, and the approach after disasters to sort of make a profit out of it by different actors. And then in the case of Puerto Rico, there’s also colonialism. We are powerless to take our own measures, in political terms, against disaster profiteering because the local government has pretty much no power. The federal government’s power trumps any decision the Puerto Rican government can make.

AARON MATE: Carla, let me ask you about the issue of disaster profiteering, because there was a recent study put out by the Center for a New Economy, which your group has covered, that found that ninety percent of federal contracts for post-Maria recovery have been issued to companies that are outside of Puerto Rico.

CARLA MINET: Yeah, definitely. Everybody has been wondering where this recovery money is going. And we now have just learned that almost 90 percent of this money is going to companies in the U.S. And I think it begs the question; with so much unemployment in Puerto Rico and so much need, so many people eager to work, people that even went to the U.S. and would be willing to come back to the island if they had a decent job, why is this recovery process not being distributed among Puerto Rican companies and Puerto Rican people? So it’s definitely part of this system, this federal system of contracting companies that are on their list. I don’t know if this has a political side. I can suppose it does. But definitely, it’s not being something that is for the benefit of the Puerto Rican economy that’s been for like 12 years now in depression.

AARON MATE: Rima Brusi, as we wrap, you mentioned a bit about some of the attacks on education. And let me ask you about that in the context of your former school, University of Puerto Rico. Can you talk about what has been happening there, and also the impact that cuts to education have on activism? Because it’s my understanding that campuses like the University of Puerto Rico have been sort of the center for so much resistance inside Puerto Rico, so much activism over many, many years.

RIMA BRUSI: So, yes. The university, since 1948 at least, has been very active in terms of leading the resistance, spearheading the resistance against not only disaster profiteering but before that, neoliberal measures, austerity measures and also colonialism and political colonialism in the sense of the federal power over Puerto Rican affairs. So I was not surprised when they became the first target by the Junta de Control Fiscal, the fiscal management board imposed by the federal government through the PROMESA law. As soon as they were officially established, their very first target was the public university. And they basically slashed the public university’s budget by a third. So at that point in time, the university’s budget was determined by a formula in terms of a portion, a percentage, of the Puerto Rico’s budget in general.

So when Puerto Rico was in financial trouble, the budget of the university went down in the same way every other budget for every other agency went down. And this was designed like that in order to protect the university from partisan bickering and from partisan actions. Now that the Junta has decided to cut the university’s budget by a third, the university is more vulnerable to partisanship and to partisan attacks from within, locally. But also outside of that, the federal government has been really unhelpful. Like from all the relief funds that the federal government assigned to relief efforts associated with Hurricane Maria, the University of Puerto Rico, which has 11 campuses and takes care of the majority of students on the island, received only 20 percent.

Now surprisingly, institutions like NYU, New York University, which has a lot of money, and Grand Canyon University, which was until very recently a for-profit and in many ways still is, got a lot of money from Hurricane Maria’s relief funds, even though they were not affected in any way by the hurricane. So this combination of local partisanship and colonialism and the intervention by the federal government, and the way the federal government has decided to distribute their funds, has affected the university to a great degree, to the point where we, and I say we because I consider myself still part of it, are frankly desperate.

Because the university generates 70 percent of all academic knowledge in the island. It generates 90 percent of all peer reviewed and basic research work. It is a bastion for the resistance in Puerto Rico. It is also one of the main motors, and I want to say the main but at least one of the main motors, in terms of upward mobility and economic opportunity for our people. And it’s being handicapped in such a way that we are afraid. And Joseph Stiglitz agrees with us on this and local economists like Jose Carballo-Cueto also do. The handicapping of the University of Puerto Rico is going to have a terrible effect, a terrible impact in terms of Puerto Rico’s recovery.

AARON MATE: As we wrap up, Carla, last question to you. You are the executive director of a Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico. What are the key stories and issues that you have your eye on that you think are going to be shaping the direction that Puerto Rico goes in?

CARLA MINET: So the stories about the bankruptcy process and how it evolves now that we have a new scenario, I think it’s a very important story. Also, how is the federal government going to keep going at this recovery process in this scenario where we have very complex issues to tackle? Not only the economic situation and the devastation created by the hurricane, but the fact that the most impacted issue since the hurricane is the electric grid in Puerto Rico, which is probably the biggest problem in terms of how much it takes to have a new and resilient, as they want to call it, electric grid that is strong enough for the island looking into the future and knowing that we will get many other tropical storms, hurricanes, et cetera, because of climate change and the way we’ve been behaving with nature.

So I think it’s important to understand that all these stories, as Rima said, are very related to the political system in Puerto Rico, the political nature of us being a colony of the U.S., and how that would manifest into every decision that the federal government makes. I think it’s the best way to understand how the decisions are being taken. With the new elections coming up in the U.S. in the next months, I think it is a question of how will that be relevant to Puerto Rico’s case. I think many people are trying to figure that out, if it means something for us. And also, I think that in the end, the most important question is how can Puerto Ricans be the ones deciding their own future, their own recovery process, and not the federal government, not the bondholders, not the U.S. companies coming into Puerto Rico to profit from this disaster.

AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. I want to thank both my guests. Rima Brusi is a writer, educator and advocate, formerly a faculty member at the University of Puerto Rico. And Carla Minet is Executive Director at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico. Thanks to you both.

CARLA MINET: Thank you.

RIMA BRUSI: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Rima Brusi is a writer, educator and advocate. Formerly a faculty member at the University of Puerto Rico and an applied anthropologist at The Education Trust, she is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at CUNY-Lehman College.