Resisting Debt And Colonial Disaster In Post-Maria Puerto Rico


The devastating impact of two major hurricanes in 2017 and their ongoing aftereffects reveal the inequalities that have long marked the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Following the storm’s passage, when the media showed images of Puerto Ricans standing in the rubble of their homes or drinking from contaminated bodies of water, a narrative emerged that the U.S. government needed to step up recovery efforts because “Puerto Ricans are Americans.” The reality, however, is that American citizenship has seldom extended bodily protection or sympathetic recognition to racially and economically marginalized others under the dominion of the United States.

This was true following Hurricane Katrina, when Black residents of New Orleans’ low-income communities were left to die in the flooding, or stranded on rooftops waiting for help that never came. And, after Hurricane Maria, it is true for those Puerto Ricans who continue to live without electricity and struggle to survive only to be told by the current U.S. President that “they want everything done for them.” Citizenship provides little refuge because it always carries within it violent cleavages and deadly exclusions that reinforce structures of racial, economic, and colonial domination.

Narratives about Puerto Ricans as a people spatially situated within the territorial “protection” of the United States also tend to hide the fact that the United States did not come to Puerto Rico in order to offer assistance, but to take territory and assume strategic military position in the Caribbean through force. Conversations in the contexts of U.S. media, politics, and everyday life are predicated on a myth that the United States has failed to deliver aid; these conversations hinge upon an untenable contradiction: the expectation that the United States is going to rescue that which it plundered.

The call for the U.S. government not to “abandon” its 3.4 million citizens in Puerto Rico and leave them to deal with the aftermath of the storm on their own raises a number of questions with significant political implications. On the one hand, it implicates the U.S. in creating the conditions that allowed Hurricane Maria to have such a destructive impact in Puerto Rico. For instance, if it was U.S. imposed austerity measures that gutted the public sector and contributed to fragility of the power grid, then doesn’t the U.S. have a responsibility to Puerto Rico to aid in recovery efforts? In other words, what debt — monetary or otherwise — might the United States owe to Puerto Rico as a result of the island’s ongoing colonization and its effects? Activists’ calls to “release the aid” in response to congressional inaction on a relief package for the island in the weeks following the storm subvert the idea of Puerto Rico as chronically indebted by asserting that it is in fact Puerto Rico that is owed, and the U.S. that owes. It is a demand grounded not in the entitlements of citizenship, but rather in the calls for accountability and redress on the part of the colonized.

On the other hand, calls for the U.S. not to abandon Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria should give us pause as we consider how both U.S. and local elites could exploit this moment to undercut growing demands for greater self-governance, and even independence, that arose in response the debt crisis and the imposition of a Fiscal Control Board to oversee the island’s finances. The calls for greater U.S. involvement and presence on the island following Hurricane Maria help to reinforce the idea that Puerto Ricans are ill-equipped to govern themselves or respond to moments of crisis in an effective and intelligent manner. Reviving old colonial tropes, the U.S. is called upon to intervene in order to save Puerto Ricans from themselves. In the media and public discourse, Puerto Ricans are presented as lazy, irresponsible, impetuous, corrupt, and unable to administer their own affairs. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, there were some in the U.S. and Puerto Rico who called for greater involvement of the U.S. military in recovery efforts, particularly aid distribution. Some justified the militarization of disaster assistance in Puerto Rico by arguing that it would sidestep the island’s corrupt local officials and get help to those who most needed it. Such demands recast U.S. military personnel as benevolent and honest, normalizing their presence on the island and obscuring their role in the continued colonization of Puerto Rico. The result is that American liberals and some Puerto Ricans have positioned U.S. intervention as both essential to relief efforts in Puerto Rico and an “entitlement” of American citizenship. U.S. intervention in Puerto Rico, however, has been anything but benevolent.

Engineered, Not Abandoned ///

The discourse of abandonment is instrumental to continued U.S. colonization and possession of Puerto Rico. It rests upon a circulation of images that show Puerto Ricans — and other non-Puerto Rican residents of Puerto Rico, important to note — in varying states of dispossession. In other words, audiences see buildings shattered in pieces, empty rooms without a roof, empty refrigerators and cupboards, and mudslides covering neighborhoods. But this imagery of abandonment entirely misses shared experiences, beginning with the raw terror of a massive hurricane, and followed by the suffering, grief, and loss that cannot be simply repaired with emergency aid. The uncounted number of people, into the thousands, that died without medicines or care (and the profound effects of trauma) exceeds — nay, not simply exceeds, but completely scrambles — the boundaries of what the mistaken imagination of abandonment can include within its bounds.The post-hurricane suffering is instead integral to an entirely different sense of a historical debt that the imperial power owes to its colony. This gruesome archive of suffering, melancholy, and pain corresponds with the long tail of colonization, accumulating the plunder by Spain with that of the United States. Merely treating Puerto Ricans as American citizens that “deserve” to have the “same” benefits as Americans confuses things because it inverts the math; it misses how hegemonic whiteness cannot relate to the experience of Puerto Ricans. Americans holding political weight, especially, could never identify with such accumulated colonial grief (and neither can diasporic Puerto Ricans in the halls of government). It was precisely the same strain of a repeating grief that Americans could not name or sense around, for example, Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, in which almost half of the victims were Puerto Ricans.

Visual economies of media and entertainment are premised on surveying the damage. This is, in itself, a colonial accounting. There is some degree of irony and comedic sadness in the way that American reporters like David Begnaud, who has emerged as a righteous voice for honesty about the state of the disaster, try to put percentages on what is missing in Puerto Rico. How much electricity, water, or services are restored to their levels from pre-storm levels? The irony is that water or energy in Puerto Rico before the storms was never neutral. Puerto Rican infrastructure has been there to accomplish, principally, two things: supply federal government and military installations, and serve Wall Street banks in terms of lending for suburban growth, hotels, and “white-elephant” projects. The notion that Puerto Rico could somehow go back to some state of normalcy is inherently absurd or surreal, even. The narratives of abandonment confuse colonialism for development. The magnitude of loss and grief in Puerto Rico — add to it, furthermore, the continual Puerto Rican experience of splintered families, migration, longing, and homesickness — is not legible in and through colonial accounting. If it were, the entire enterprise of such restorative calculations would be rendered laughable, because the equation would have to be flipped into the ledger of the colonized.

That is to say, the colonial accounting to bring the territory “back to normal” does not want to know and is not dedicated, in any way, to such particularity or texture as what are the complicated experiences of survivors. The absent assistance could never repay what one could think of as an “inconsolable debt” that the United States (and its former enemy of Spain) have with Puerto Rico — ”inconsolable” because it is an ongoing trauma that sterile “development” cannot repair.

Rejecting Colonial Intervention: No One Will Save the People Except the People ///

Long before Hurricane Maria hit, it was clear to many Puerto Ricans that neither the local nor federal government were there to serve their needs. This became particularly salient for many as the debt crisis on the island deepened. The local and federal governments worked together to impose austerity measures that made cuts to essential social services, such as housing, education, health, and public-sector employment, impacting wide swaths of Puerto Rican society, but particularly the island’s most vulnerable.

As people lost their jobs and pensions and schools and hospitals were shuttered, it became painfully obvious that the needs of capital were more important than the needs of the people. In response, long-time as well as newer grassroots organizations turned their attention towards addressing the growing insecurity that colonial capitalism wrought people’s everyday lives. These organizations, collectives, and informal groups not only tried to address the urgent needs arising in their communities as a result of the crisis unfolding on the island but also sought to model a new kind of Puerto Rican society that was based in the principle of autogestión, or self-management. Autogestión proceeds from the idea that the communities themselves are best able to assess and address their own needs. In other words, if given the space and resources, communities can solve the issues that confront them through solidarity and mutual support.

After Maria struck, it was these grassroots organizations that sprang into action refusing to wait for local or federal aid. When deliveries of international aid, including food, water, medicine, and other basic necessities, were stuck in shipping containers in the Port of San Juan due to poor planning and government bureaucracy, activists created Solidarity Brigades that helped to clear roads of debris and distribute food and water on their own to isolated communities around the island. Before access to potable water was restored, the Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (BSO), or Solidarity Brigade of the West, traveled to dozens of towns creating water oases and teaching residents how to use the water filtration systems that they distributed. In addition to distributing water filtration systems, the BSO distributed food, medicine, and solar lights to communities throughout the western part of the island. As water and electricity have slowly been restored to the island’s west coast and interior region, the BSO has started to work with local farmers to replant their crops and create more sustainable irrigation systems.

The BSO is just one part of a much larger Red de Apoyo Mutuo Autogestionada, or Self-Managed Mutual Aid Network, which has gained increased attention and support following Hurricane Maria. This network is made up of groups like the feminist public health organization Taller Salud, which has been working in the low-income and predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican community of Loíza for more than three decades, as well as groups like El Hormiguero, a mutual aid center focused on political education and empowerment that has been operating in a reclaimed building Río Piedras for a little over a year. Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (CAMs), or Mutual Aid Centers, have proliferated around the island, based on the model of the Comedores Sociales, or Solidarity Kitchens, which have been combating food insecurity and providing social and educational community spaces since 2013. While the CAMs and other organizations and groups that make up the Red aided in distributing necessities, tarping roofs, clearing paths to isolated, rural areas, and engaging in other urgent relief efforts, they also provided necessary gathering spaces where people could process the trauma they had experienced or discuss solutions to the challenges now facing Puerto Rico. For instance, after distributing hundreds of hot meals over the course of the day, a CAM might screen a film, host a workshop on political organizing, or even provide free acupuncture in the evening. These efforts are ancillary to the survival programs of the Red, by bringing people together in these communal spaces to emphasize individual and collective care for one another in a holistic sense.

The network of solidarity and mutual aid groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Maria refuse the narrative that only U.S. intervention can save Puerto Rico. They reject the promises of citizenship’s protection for the lie it has always been in Puerto Rico, and instead emphasize “que es el pueblo que va salvar el pueblo” — or that it is the people who will save the people. These groups did not emerge from state abandonment post-Maria; rather, many of these groups were created to respond to the deeply entrenched and long-standing problems created by colonial capitalism in Puerto Rico. The patterns of exclusion, exploitation, and extraction that many of these groups struggled against before Hurricane Maria have only intensified, making their work all the more necessary at this critical juncture. The mounting frustration with colonial governance on the island holds within it a promise of transformation, and activists are equipped with a radical praxis grounded in solidarity to help realize that promise.