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Puerto Ricans call out ‘disaster capitalists’ taking advantage of their suffering

Puerto Rico even contracted out a study of the number of people who died.

On December 23, 2017, a mother holds her nine-month-old baby, at their makeshift home, under reconstruction, after being mostly destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
On December 23, 2017, a mother holds her nine-month-old baby, at their makeshift home, under reconstruction, after being mostly destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A government that fails to provide a plausible estimate of deaths from a disaster engenders little confidence in its ability to help the survivors. That’s the predicament Puerto Ricans find themselves in after their government put the official death toll from Hurricane Maria at 64 people.

More than seven months after the hurricane devastated the island, neither Puerto Rico’s government nor the federal government has released an updated figure. News organizations and independent researchers have attempted to fill the void by calculating death counts on their own.

“Time after humiliating time, Puerto Ricans have been sent that familiar message about their relative worth and ultimate disposability,” author Naomi Klein writes in her new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists.

“Nothing has done more to confirm this status than the fact than no level of government has seen fit to count the dead in any kind of credible way, as if lost Puerto Rican lives are of so little consequence that there is no need to document their mass extinguishment,” Klein contends.

One independent researcher counted 1,085 more deaths than Puerto Rico’s certified count — and that number covers only the period from September 20, 2017 when Maria initially struck the island, through the end of October 2017. It’s highly likely that number has risen since November 1.

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Still today, a humanitarian emergency exists in Puerto Rico. More than 50,000 people are still without power. Tens of thousands of people are still without water.

Even when these residents get their power and clean water restored, the future doesn’t look bright for Puerto Rico. Among many changes for the worse, the government wants to cut retirement benefits, loosen pro-worker labor laws, and close schools.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than a month — on June 1 — and Puerto Rico is still far from getting the lights back on for the entire island. Potentially even more troublesome are the recent major blackouts that have highlighted the fragile nature of Puerto Rico’s entire electric grid. A tropical storm, nowhere close to the magnitude of Hurricane Maria, could once again threaten the island’s entire grid.

Residents of Puerto Rico have demonstrated incredible patience over the past seven months since Hurricane Maria struck the island. On May 1, though, Puerto Ricans decided enough was enough. They protested the government’s botched recovery effort and the government’s proposed spending cuts on basic needs.

The residents — organized by unions, community, education, political, environmental, and religious organizations — also protested efforts to use the hurricane as an excuse to privatize government services on the island.

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“The disaster capitalists, the Trump administration and even leaders in our own local government want to force the people of Puerto Rico to sell off our public assets in order to meet unjust debt obligations to international banks,” Jose Menendez, chair of the Puerto Rican chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement this week. “We will not allow Hurricanes Maria and Irma to be used as an excuse to rob the people of Puerto Rico of our most valuable assets.”

Certain members of Congress are supporting efforts by Puerto Rico Gov. Richard Rossello to use the devastation from the hurricane as a reason to privatize parts of the Puerto Rican economy. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is traveling to Puerto Rico this week to survey the island’s recovery in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

Even before Maria struck the island, supporters of privatizing government services were campaigning to turn the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the island’s government-owned electric utility, over to private investors.

Last summer, long before Hurricane Maria hit, members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico — a board created by Congress to restore fiscal strength to the island — concluded that privatization was the only answer for lifting PREPA out of its financial hole.

Among bankers and many of Puerto Rico’s governing elite, the financial control board is viewed as an instrument for further cementing their power. Many ordinary Puerto Ricans, however, see the actions of Bishop and the control board — popularly known as “la junta” — as a threat to their democratic rights.

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Proposals to privatize PREPA come on the heels of an initiative to weaken the powers of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, the independent entity charged with oversight of PREPA. The proposed changes could turn the commission into a political entity and could strip any oversight of PREPA or a privatization process.

Opponents of privatization believe a prized asset such as PREPA should remain in the hands of Puerto Ricans and should not be sold off for far less than its true value in order to meet “unjust debt obligations to international banks.” The corruption that has plagued the electric utility can be rooted out without going private, they contend.

Since its inception almost 80 years ago, PREPA has been an entity owned and operated by Puerto Ricans. Many fear that selling the utility to a big investor-owned utility on the mainland or a European energy conglomerate would further erode the diminishing autonomy Puerto Ricans have over life on their island.

“As Puerto Rico’s past experiences have shown, savings promised by private operators do not always materialize. The priority now should be an overhaul of PREPA that establishes a strong and accountable regulator to oversee the process of rebuilding a more efficient and resilient electric grid to serve the people of Puerto Rico,” Lara Merling, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in an analysis of PREPA privatization efforts for the NACLA Report on the Americas, a magazine that covers Latin America’s relationship with the United States.

Claims that privatization will create a quick fix to Puerto Rico’s economic and electrical woes are not backed by evidence, according to Merling. Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority has twice privatized the management of its water services, and both attempts had disastrous results, Merling wrote.

And yet, in a statement released earlier this year, Utah congressman Bishop believes the privatization of Puerto Rico’s government-owned electric utility will be a “key component” of the island’s future recovery.

Other lawmakers on the mainland don’t believe the devastation should be used as an excuse to race toward privatization of services and infrastructure. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, noted it’s been nearly six months since Bishop’s committee, which has primary jurisdiction over recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, held a hearing on the disaster.

“Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the federal government has presided over one of the slowest and least effective post-hurricane recoveries in recent memory,” Beyer wrote in a letter on Tuesday sent to Bishop.

Beyer listed several issues that should be examined by the committee, including the exodus of residents from the island, the lack of access to housing, school closures, and the “unsupported” privatization of the PREPA.

In her book, Klein compares what’s happening in Puerto Rico to what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina delivered a devastating blow to the city. New Orleans’ public school system and its low-income housing were dismantled in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while the city was still largely empty of residents.

Last November, Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher called New Orleans’ post-Katrina education reform a “point of reference” for the island.

Along with plans to find buyers for the island’s government-owned electric utility system, officials are talking about privatizing highways, bridges, ports, ferries, water systems, and national parks, Klein warned.

Puerto Rico even farmed out the counting of the number of people who have perished as a result of the hurricane. In February, Puerto Rico’s governor announced that a research team at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., will conduct a study to estimate the number of deaths tied to Hurricane Maria.

The governor signed an executive order in January for “a more factual, transparent accounting of the deaths tied to the hurricane,” the Milken Institute said in a news release. The study, with a new count of the number of people who died, is expected to be completed in June.