San Juan mayor warns of the ‘disaster economics’ devastating Puerto Rico

San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz sees big privatization battles ahead in Puerto Rico's future.

Getty Images / Diana Ofosu
Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

To hear Carmen Yulín Cruz tell it, Puerto Rico was hit by two disasters last year.

First, there was the devastation from Hurricane Maria, which crashed ashore last September as a category four storm, killing more than 1,000 people in the weeks after making landfall. In the wake of the storm, Cruz — mayor of the capital city San Juan — became a fixture on televisions around the world, wearing a baseball cap and mud-caked sneakers as she helped distribute food and drinkable water to thousands.

Advertisement

Since then, Puerto Rico has endured a second disaster: a months-long fight for survival as its inhabitants wait, mostly in vain, for the federal relief they say they need to fully recover. At the same time, Puerto Ricans are preparing for the next big storm, with a new hurricane season a mere five weeks away.

The mayor has gained renown for her tenacity helping Puerto Rico’s residents battle bureaucratic inefficiency and the federal government’s seeming indifference to the plight of the island.  

As she wages her fight for more generous support post-Maria, Cruz said she is also trying to prevent the wholesale adoption on the island of what she calls “disaster economics” — the bid to privatize reconstruction, and much of the social fabric on the island as well.

“Disaster economics is using privatization as a means to strip Puerto Ricans of their right to ensure that essential services are democratically distributed,” she said last week in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We have to ensure that we understand what our priorities are.”

“Disaster economics is using privatization as a means to strip Puerto Ricans of their right to ensure that essential services are democratically distributed.”

Those currently in charge of post-hurricane rebuilding have come out in favor of the privatization of some essential services, including schools and energy in some areas. That is an outcome Cruz told Think Progress she is determined to fight. “Disaster economics needs someone who is complacent and complicit,” she said.

Advertisement

One goal is to ensure that Puerto Rico, with hundreds of years of history as a Spanish colony and now and U.S. commonwealth, gains greater self-determination. The island took a step backward in that regard last May, when it defaulted on $70 billion of dollars in debt. The following month, a control board was put in place to manage the island’s financial affairs.

Another focus since Maria has been on repairing Puerto Rico’s dilapidated power grid. The storm left thousands without access to food or potable water, and famously plunged the island into months of darkness. Just a few days ago, the entire island lost power again, a sign of the continued fragility of the power infrastructure and the inadequacy of efforts so far to cobble it back together.

Puerto Rico’s perennial power problem has in itself become a symbol of federal indifference, but at the same time offers motivation to strive for political change. A key part of the fight, Cruz said, is to keep energy as a public good.

If energy is privatized, “what do you think will happen to a very, very small town in the middle of Puerto Rico that has very few inhabitants? It’s not going to be cost effective to supply” them with power, Cruz said.

“We need energy, we need money, but we need commitment — commitment that lasts longer than the news cycle.”

The same holds true for education. Puerto Rico has seen an exodus of a half million people since Maria hit, which has led to the planned closure of hundreds of schools. “What the governor is also doing is privatizing public schools in favor of charter schools and vouchers,” Cruz told Think Progress. She has what she thinks is a better idea.

Advertisement

“How about having, rather than 27 or 30 children per room, an appropriate 15 to 20 children per room, and we can teach them appropriately?” she said.

Hurricane Maria hammered home other painful realities about the way some Americans — including the current political administration in Washington — view the territory. It also has deepened historic resentments over the way generations of Puerto Ricans over generations have felt maligned and mistreated.

Perhaps no single moment of the post-storm recovery did more to deepen those resentments than the visit by President Donald Trump to a relief center a few days after the storm, where he lobbed rolls of paper towels into a crowd that had turned out seeking aid.

“That dark paper towel moment of the American presidency is going to follow Mr. Trump for the rest of his life,” Cruz told Think Progress.

“I believe it has been widely acknowledged by the world that the [U.S.] response to Puerto Rico was unfair, was irresponsible, was inadequate and it cost lives.”

Advertisement

While taking on her high profile fight for the island, Cruz has become one of its most recognizable inhabitants. Her epic battles with Washington have fueled a running Twitter spat with President Trump that only enhanced her fame.

Cruz confirmed to Think Progress that she is considering a run for governor of Puerto Rico, but said she has not yet made up her mind.

She also has created a charity, somebodyhelpus.org — AlguienAyudenos.org — to help fund the relief efforts not financed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Her heroics have not gone unnoticed. Just last week, Cruz made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.

She also last week received an award in Washington from the Ridenhour Foundation, which honored her with its prestigious award for “truth-telling.”

The prize, along with a $10,000 check, is presented each year “to a citizen, corporate or government whistleblower, investigative journalist, or organization for bringing a specific issue of social importance to the public’s attention.” She says the money will go to her charity.

“I have been forever blessed that I had a megaphone, and I used it to save people,” Cruz told ThinkProgress after receiving the award. “I look forward to the day when I don’t have to use it anymore.”