Mike Phipps reviews The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico takes on the Disaster Capitalists, by Naomi Klein, published by Haymarket
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it wiped out 80% of the island’s agriculture and its entire power grid. But the real disaster wasn’t just the hurricane - it was the vulnerability of the islanders resulting from government corruption, forced privatisations and the abandonment of vital infrastructure imposed on them by the US, “all to pay bondholders a $73 billion debt that was patently unplayable, illegal and illegitimate.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, while ordinary Puerto Ricans were still living by flashlight, US corporations were relishing the opportunities created by the devastation. Plans were drawn up for an offshore tax haven for ‘high net-worth individuals’ with many fewer indigenous people living there.
In particular, the island’s authorities are keen to attract crypto-currency traders. Mining crypto-currencies is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse emissions on the planet, with Bitcoin alone consuming the same amount of energy a year as Israel. As Klein says, “The idea of turning an island that cannot keep the lights on for its own people into ‘the epicenter of this multi-billion market’ rooted in the most wasteful possible use of energy is a bizarre one.”
To make way for the influx of the new colonists, some 200,000 people have reportedly left Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, many with government help. The idea of a ‘blank canvas’ on which to project bold new ideas has a long history in Puerto Rico, from the 1960s experiments in population control that resulted in the forced sterilisation of more than one third of the island’s women, to the testing of dangerous drugs on locals. Napalm, depleted uranium and Agent Orange were all trialled here in areas still contaminated. One community activist, whose own mother was a Thalidomide test subject, told the author; “It’s an island, isolated, with a lot of non-valuable people.”
The expendability of people in Puerto Rico is reinforced by the official response to Hurricane Maria. No government body has yet counted the dead in any credible way - nor done much else. It is Puerto Ricans themselves who have set up communal kitchens, cleared the streets and rebuilt schools, reports Klein.
The thrust of her earlier book The Shock Doctrine was that governments use the destruction and disorientation caused by natural disasters to accelerate their neo-liberal agendas. Sure enough, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the island’s Governor announced the privatisation of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Two days later came a fiscal plan that closed two thirds of government agencies and 300 schools - in preparation for opening the entire education system to privatisation, as happened after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. More privatisation of infrastructure will follow.
The drive for these measures comes from the unelected board of US-appointed officials that was empowered in 2016 to monitor Puerto Rico’s parlous finances - and who effectively veto anything the island’s elected representatives want to do. This nakedly colonial arrangement has had Puerto Rico on a rigid austerity diet, cutting pensions and healthcare and closing hundreds of schools.
Yet there is widespread popular support for a repudiation of the debt, as over half of it was accumulated in violation of Puerto Rico’s constitution. Revolt was mounting, with 100,000 people demonstrating against austerity on May 1st 2017. Then the hurricane hit. Given the desperate plight of so many people, rebuilding the anti-austerity coalition is an immense challenge.
Many Puerto Ricans believe there is more than incompetence behind the shabby way they have been pushed to the limits of endurance. One US firm with ties to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had just two full-time staff when it landed a $300 million contract to rebuild the electricity grid. This example is not atypical.
Yet the islanders continue to resist. In March 2018, 16,000 teachers staged a one-day walk-out against privatisation , the first political demonstration since Maria.
The book stops there, but the struggle continues. In April, police used pepper gas against teachers opposing the school closures and on May Day dozens of protesters were brutalised in a coordinated attack by police. Meanwhile Trump continues to insist that only 64 people died in the Hurricane, rather than the hundreds who did.
The malign neglect of the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of this disaster is an expressive illustration of its colonial relationship to the world’s most powerful country. Naomi Klein has done a brilliant job in conveying the hope and solidarity amid the devastation.