Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, but massive debt and a crumbling infrastructure put the island in crisis long before the storm, says Monxo Lopez, a professor at Hunter College
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Puerto Rico is devastated in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The island is without power, and mostly without communication and this could last for months. But the crisis Puerto Rico faces is not just the result of this disaster but very much human made. Monxo Lopez is a professor at Hunter College in the Department of Africana/Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. Professor, welcome. MONXO LOPEZ: Thank you, and thank you for having me. AARON MATÉ: Let’s start with what you know right now about where the situation is at in Puerto Rico just two days after Maria hit the island? MONXO LOPEZ: Yes, this really, really desperate situation. We have people that went to the airport this morning. And they’ve been told that at the earliest, they would be able to fly out or in to the island on Tuesday. So, we have no way of getting goods to the island at the moment. And I’m talking about…I’m talking about FEMA. I’m talking about the military. I’m talking about private NGOs. It’s a really, really desperate situation in terms of relief efforts. In terms of communications, we haven’t heard from, many of us haven’t heard from our families. And so it’s been, I believe, three days now. And many of us have had no communication whatsoever with whole regions of the island. There are towns that we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know if there are casualties. We don’t know their needs. And so it’s a really dire situation. AARON MATÉ: And let’s start with the electricity. Now, Puerto Rico’s power utility has been struggling for many years, in heavy debt and has been paying off its debt, and not investing in the vital infrastructure that it needs to service the island. Can you talk about the connection between this history and what the island is facing now? MONXO LOPEZ: Yes, listen, I’m a progressive left wing activist, really. So that’s what even the governor of Puerto Rico, who is right wing and ever since the pro-statehood, pro-American forces in the political spectrum of Puerto Rico. He’s saying right now that the cuts and the fragility of our utilities in terms of electricity, it’s due to the debt situation and basically, the situation where we’ve been privileging paying the debt and paying the people… rather than buttressing and supporting the polit… And so, when you have a right wing, pro-American governor telling you that for the unity of our electricity network and of our aqueduct network to work,it’s due to the debt situation. That’s saying something. AARON MATÉ: So, professor, just explain that for people who aren’t familiar with this background. Why is Puerto Rico paying off these vulture funds? MONXO LOPEZ: Yes, well, it’s a very complicated story. But long story short, Puerto Rico has been, for all intent and purposes, has been placed under a receivership. We, the Puerto Rican people are able to vote for their own governor and their elected officials and so on, so forth, but the US Congress, under President Obama, imposed a fiscal control board that, it’s basically the, they’re an organization, an institution running the … They’re an elected people that come from the banking, the finance industry, and everything of any significance, that is done or approved by the government of Puerto Rico by the elected officials in Puerto Rico, has to be vetted and approved by the fiscal control board. And that receivership, the main purpose of that receivership is to assure that the people that have loan money at chart loan interest to the Puerto Rican government, throughout the years, get prioritized. And we see in the payments for the money of the loan to the governments of Puerto Rico. And so one situation here, very key, is that we really have not audited that debt. So, there are figures thrown around, 70 million, 90 million, 70 billion, 90 billion dollars, 150 billion dollars, we really don’t know. We really don’t know who owes that debt. We don’t know the constitutionality of that debt. And we don’t even know to whom we owe that debt in full because the vulture funds and some people within the government of Puerto Rico have made it impossible for the Puerto Rican people to audit that debt and to have clarity and transparency about the debt. So, that’s where we are right now. Paying a debt in the dark. And on the receivership so that vulture funds, hedge funds, managers here in New York City get their goodies and other Puerto Rican people are suffering there dearly for it. And this year again exposes that. AARON MATÉ: So, I just want to stress what the impact of this background is now on the utility and how that is making this power crisis worse. So, PREPA, the utility has lost something like 30% of its workforce since 2012, mostly in skilled labor. People that are vital to keeping up and improving the infrastructure that the island needs. And it also means that because they’re paying off this debt, they have to cut back on basics like cutting tree lines, right? That, Yes, sorry. Go ahead. MONXO LOPEZ: No, yes. You know, it’s a very common situation nowadays all over the world. Basically, these people, these vulture funds are leaning on the government with everything they have. They have bought the support through lobbying efforts in the US Congress. And they’re leaning as hard as they can on the government of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico to force them in the usual neoliberal privatization dynamics that we’ve seen not work anywhere. You know? And so, listen. The hurricane is exposing the colonial trappings that Puerto Rico is under. It is a colony of the United States. Private interests in the United States, very powerful private interests in finance, also the US military, they want Puerto Rico to remain a colony of the United States. And this hurricane has blown away all the trappings of the colonial infrastructure. It’s super transparent what’s going on. It’s clear that this is a human made catastrophe. You know? Obviously, we haven’t had these super storms, never in the Caribbean since we are keeping records of hurricanes in the Caribbean around the 1850s. We haven’t had a category five hurricane touch ground in the Caribbean. This year we’ve had already, two. And so, that’s also a human made catastrophe. That’s due to global warming. Rich countries all over Europe and the developed countries in the world are responsible for global warming. And the people are on the receiving end, like in vulnerable areas like the Caribbean, you have situations like the poorest in Puerto Rico, that it’s making really, really, basically impossible for the people in Puerto Rico to face this catastrophe with any chances of winning. AARON MATÉ: Let me read you a couple of newspaper items, just to underscore this further. Okay, so there was a piece in the Wall Street Journal in June. And the headline is simply, “For Sale: Puerto Rico.” And the first sentence is: “Puerto Rico has no cash and can’t borrow money anymore. So it is looking to sell itself off in parts.” And one of those parts is the utility that we’ve been talking about. There’s another piece that just appeared in the Washington Post and it’s by a Rutgers professor, Yarimar Bonilla. And she describes talking to a local wealth manager in Puerto Rico. And the wealth manager says this: “The only thing we need now is a hurricane”. And Bonilla adds, “She was referring to how such natural disasters bring in federal money for rebuilding and often become a boon to the construction industry. As I left her office, she encouraged me to buy stock in Home Depot”. So, Professor Lopez, I’m wondering if you can talk about this. Now, because aid might be coming in whether there are some people on the island who stand to profit from this, and what is the answer to an island that’s already been struggling so hard to assert control over its own affairs now being further devastated by this awful disaster? MONXO LOPEZ: Yes, well, like here in the diaspora of the United States, we are mounting a campaign to demand that the companies that have profited for decades, made billions of dollars off Puerto Rico and off Puerto Ricans, such as Delta Airlines, American Airlines, Jet Blue and the big retail shops like Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot, that they have, they make a lot of business in Puerto Rico, that they lend a hand to the Puerto Rican people. Listen, it’s gonna sound dramatic but it is what it is: These people, all of these multinational companies either lend a hand now so that Puerto Rico can survive and they can keep selling in the long term, their goods and their services to Puerto Rico or they will make a quick buck and run out of business in Puerto Rico in the next year or two. Either they help the island now or they will have to close shop. And so, we are asking, mostly at the moment, we’re asking the big retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Amazon and Costco to ne: to sell at cost all items that are gonna be dedicated for the relief effort in Puerto Rico. Okay, so no profit for them in selling any items for the relief effort. Number two: For them to match whatever people buy during the relief effort. So, if I buy a gas stove for these people to offer, to give to us, a gas stove in a matching scheme so we can maximize the help to Puerto Rico. And three: If applicable, to offer free shipping. So we don’t want to pay for, we don’t want to waste monies in shipping costs that should be going to the people of Puerto Rico. AARON MATÉ: Monxo Lopez, we’re gonna stay on this story. And we hope you can come back on to join us soon. Monxo Lopez is a professor at Hunter College in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. Professor, thank you. MONXO LOPEZ: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.