Hurricane of colonialism ravages Puerto Rico

By Makasi Motema
April 16, 2019

When a hurricane smashes into an island, it destroys everything in its path and carries the remains out to sea. But hurricane damage is trivial compared to the devastation caused by colonialism.

In early April, the white supremacist commander-in-chief sought to deny Puerto Rico aid money for the continued rebuilding process after Hurricane Maria. He claimed that the U.S. had already given Puerto Rico more than its fair share. The reality is that from sugar cane monopolies in 1898 to bond market inflation schemes in 2006, the U.S. has done nothing but take. Hurricane Maria was nothing more than a hammer with which the Yankee empire could further shatter its Caribbean piggy bank.

Puerto Rico has been a target of wealth extraction and a vehicle for military expansion ever since the U.S. took control of the colony from Spain in 1898. Wall Street wasted no time commandeering the economy of Puerto Rico to enrich U.S. agribusiness. And Puerto Rico became an important staging point for invasions and coups that the U.S. launched against other Latin American nations.

More recently, U.S. banks descended on the island to take advantage of its lax regulations, which had been imposed by the U.S. Congress. Banks like UBS have pushed the Puerto Rican government into borrowing billions of dollars to cover basic expenses. The big banks know that, unlike other U.S. jurisdictions, federal law requires Puerto Rico to pay back its debt before covering any other obligations. Further, neither the island nor its public corporations can file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. (Chapter 9 involves the restructuring of municipal debt, such as Detroit filed in 2013.)

U.S. rule puts banks before people

With borrowing and lending driven out of control, collapse was inevitable. But without the ability to declare bankruptcy, Puerto Rico has been strong-armed into depriving its citizens in order to repay the banks. Like any imperial power, the U.S. left this work to unelected viceroys — a seven-member board appointed under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).

Puerto Rican citizens have absolutely no say over who sits on this board, and only a single seat must be filled by someone who actually lives on the island. In spite of this incredibly undemocratic process, PROMESA board members have been empowered to lower Puerto Rico’s minimum wage, close nearly 200 public schools and slash funding for its public university. PROMESA is nothing more than a tool for colonial wealth extraction.

In this light, it’s clear that Hurricane Maria only adds to the tragedy. More than 3,000 people died due to the hurricane and the subsequent damage to infrastructure, but the reaction from Puerto Rico’s imperial masters was heartless.

A recent study showed that in the first nine days after hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, Texas residents received $141 million and Florida residents received $100 million. How much aid money did Puerto Rico receive during the crucial nine days following Hurricane Maria’s landfall? A paltry $6 million. Aid was, and still is, slow in coming to the island. For people of color living in an overseas colony, compassion, like clean water, is in short supply.

White nationalism out in open under Trump

And there is no reason to expect compassion from the current occupant of the White House. President Donald Trump is an open white nationalist who despises people of color. Even though Puerto Ricans have received aid much more slowly than other disaster victims, Trump told Republican lawmakers in March that Puerto Rico had received too much aid.

This is unsurprising from a man who would tear Latinx children from the arms of their mothers and fathers and cage them beneath a filthy overpass. No amount of pain and suffering is enough when the victims are people of color and the perpetrators are white nationalists. As is the case with so much of U.S. policy in the last two years, Trump reveals the white supremacist heart beating beneath the chest of U.S. imperialism. What’s happening to Puerto Rico now is but an extension of what has been done for the last 100 years.

Racists like Trump have always portrayed Puerto Rico as a welfare state that squanders its resources and survives off the generous largesse of the U.S. government. This is, and has always been, imperialist and paternalistic nonsense. The “white man’s burden” is a total lie. In reality, Wall Street has extracted billions of dollars from Puerto Rico through predatory lending; the fruits of Puerto Rican agriculture have enriched U.S. corporations; and every year, Puerto Ricans pump millions of dollars into the U.S. economy because they are forced by law to import nearly all their goods from the states — at a 20 percent markup, no less.

In truth, it is the U.S., like any empire, which parasitically feeds off its colonial victims. The money that Puerto Rico requires to rebuild its infrastructure — an estimated $90 billion — pales in comparison to the wealth that the U.S. has drained from the labor and resources of the Puerto Rican people. But resistance among Puerto Rican activists to these colonial and neoliberal policies is on the rise, and the strength of the U.S. empire is on the decline.

As the power of the people grows and the strength of their oppressors begins to fade, Puerto Ricans may be the ones who cut off the money tap.