An excellent article by David González for The New York Times. To quote Pablo Delano, “In a nutshell . . .”
After a month of silence since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Edwin Aponte finally made contact last week with the world beyond his town of Coamo. It came via a Facebook post, a simple check-in from afar that his friends celebrated as if it brought news that they had hit the lottery. Sure, he had no water, power and little food. Nor did he have his apartment, which was flooded. But he had hope. “Coamo was hit hard,” he wrote, “but we will be reborn stronger than ever.”
The devastation is widespread and heartbreaking, he said a few days later by phone. The first glimpse he got of federal emergency workers, he said, was 12 days after the hurricane. Some military rations and a case of water were dropped off at his childhood home on day 33. By then, people were getting desperate, he said, with some resorting to theft while tempers flared over minor dust-ups. Like thousands of other Puerto Ricans, he is leaving for Florida, at least until water and power are restored.
But as he reconnected with friends and caught up on the news, he grew angry. Why the delayed response? Would President Trump allow a state to go weeks without water or power? How did Whitefish Energy, a two-person company in Montana, land a $300 million no-bid contract to rebuild the island’s power grid? The task ahead is gargantuan, as are the challenges. If anything, he said, now is the time to enlist the Puerto Rican diaspora, some 5.4 million people, to push their Congressional representatives to help the island’s 3.4 million residents.
“We are talking so much time and money to do the proper thing,” Mr. Aponte said. “The Trump administration wants to turn around and put a Band-Aid on this. We need the diaspora to pressure Congress and make sure they step up. Nothing the diaspora does alone can finance what is needed. People have to call their representatives and tell them to vote yes on any bills for Puerto Rico assistance.”
Mr. Aponte knows about large-scale reconstruction. Before returning to Puerto Rico to help a relative manage several properties, he had spent 25 years on the mainland doing quality control work on major projects like highways, airports and subways. Before that, he had been in the Air Force and, before that, at Yale (where we met in the late 1970s).
He is both alarmed at what has happened, and not. The island had already been reeling from a brain drain as a result of an economic crisis triggered by the island’s crippling $73 billion debt. He likened that burden to the economic millstone the French left on their once-enslaved colonial subjects in Haiti after the 1804 independence rebellion. The French demanded 150 million French francs – later reduced to 90 million francs, or about $40 billion in today’s dollars – in compensation for lost property.
“Haiti could never rise above that,” Mr. Aponte, 58, said. “This is what is happening to Puerto Rico. We have an unpayable debt. I have been saying this for a while, but this is like a third world country.”
This is where the diaspora can help. While the island has a nonvoting member of Congress, stateside Puerto Ricans have voting representatives who can advocate for their concerns, including debt relief, financial aid and the lifting of maritime laws that make imported everyday items more expensive. They can also put pressure on lawmakers to ensure that the rebuilding process is transparent and not a victim of the island’s culture of patronage and back-scratching.
The relationship between the two communities has never been a full partnership, said Hector Cordero-Guzmán, a professor of public and international policy at Baruch College. “The island’s political and economic elites have seen the diaspora as a convenient lobbying entity to be activated on behalf of the homeland when the homeland feels it needs them,” he said. “It has been a transactional relationship and, at times, paternalistic.”
Yet, as he and others point out, the diaspora is already helping, not just with rallies, protests and fund-raising events, but by providing direct aid to friends and family on the island — even taking them in and resettling them in places like Orlando, Fla., or New York City.
“With growth and migration, the boundaries as to who is from there and who is from here are blurred, if not erased,” said Mr. Cordero-Guzmán, who is among a group of scholars who has been convened by Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies to examine policy and research issues related to the reconstruction effort. “Things are changing in a way that highlights the political and economic role of the diaspora.”
Marta Moreno-Vega, who runs the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in East Harlem, said it was nothing less than her duty to defend the island. She thinks that what is happening in Puerto Rico — from the lack of water and power to ill-equipped hospitals and meager emergency rations — goes beyond a humanitarian crisis. “It is a crime against humanity,” she said. “As a people, we have to stand up for humankind. This country, a colonial power, is not standing up. We don’t know how many people are dying. Tell me the most advanced country in the world can’t get helicopters, generators and water filtration there in a matter of weeks. We need to develop a massive response to the lack of response by the government to its citizens. Its colonial citizens.”
As he prepared to leave, Mr. Aponte, like many others, wondered if the sluggish and inadequate emergency response was not by design. Land, he said, was now less expensive, and outside investors had been circling even before the hurricane.
“For me, Mother Nature just helped the gringos move forward to where we will be a minority in our own land,” he said. “This will become Hawaii, an overpriced place controlled by white people while bomba dancers do demonstrations for tourists.”
[Photo above: A show of solidarity on East 105th Street in El Barrio in Manhattan. Credit: David Gonzalez/The New York Times.]
See original article at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/nyregion/on-the-mainland-a-duty-to-help-puerto-rico.html