The strange dynamics of survival and growth in a post-catastrophic Puerto Rico
At a panadería in Puntas, somewhere between the coffee pot and the cash register and the glass window of pastries, there’s a small sign.
Out back, the generator roars.
Power’s out. How long? Nobody knows. Sometimes there’s a notice on the AEE website. Sometimes there isn’t. Maybe this time will only be a few hours. That would be good.
It takes a lot of fuel to run a generator, and fuel is costly.
Hurricane María was a real catastrophe, but it’s not the one that Puerto Rico has to recover from.
No, the original catastrophe is hundreds of years old. It looked like Spanish ships on the horizon. It turned into frenzied activity from the new arrivals, attempting to answer one question: How can we make money from this place?
The colonizing country changed, from Spain to the U.S.
But the question didn’t. Puerto Rico has been stripped, pillaged, razed, morphed, and manipulated in the name of profits. Maybe all this economic violence — accompanied, as deemed necessary, by cultural and physical violence — wouldn’t be as bad if the profits benefited the people of Puerto Rico.
But they don’t.
The language of occupancy has changed, from colony to territory.
The methods have changed, from physically enforced slavery and slaughter to a much more sophisticated system.
Taxes and tariffs, limits and legalities, denial and debts. It wraps the islandaround, a heavy chain of bureaucracy and blame. It’s too complex for an individual to navigate. It’s too ingrained in the economic and legal structures to avoid.
Puerto Rico’s position remains the same. It is an occupied territory, a country seized and used as an economic resource. A fiefdom.
Oh, God, no, we don’t actually call it that.
We call it a territory. It sounds better.
And we don’t call the people serfs or slaves. That wouldn’t do. In our enlightened age, with all of our post-industrial technological advancements, our emphasis on equality, these terms make us uncomfortable.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens! That sounds much better than serf.
Oh, no, we’re not going to give them representation in our government, or any kind of actual power over their land, their economy, their future.
But they can be kind of like a, you know, adopted sibling. A younger, weaker one. The one we don’t really talk about. The one we make fun of and bully. The one who serves as a convenient scape goat. The one whose candy we steal.
At a popular food cart by María’s Beach, a surfer taps on his phone to open a bitcoin app.
It’s his first time using it, this coquí thing. He’s not sure it will work. Seems weird.
But hey, what the hell. If he can spend a little less cash — tough to come by — and use this digital coin, he’s for it.
He holds his phone up at the counter, his face a question. “I heard you guys take coquí coin?”
Straight up the hill, a water truck rumbles by. The water service has been off and on for weeks. More off than on. The truck parks in an empty lot. It will stay parked there all day, so the locals who don’t have a cistern can come with their empty plastic jugs.
The surfer centers his phone’s camera over the QR code and taps the button. A success message appears: 5 Coquí Transferred.
“Cool.” He nods and sips his watermelon juice.
Eight days after Hurricane María blasted the Caribbean, President Trump waived the Jones Act.
Many members of government praised the move. They’d called for it. Puerto Rico needs help to recover, they said. The Jones Act makes everything more expensive, they said.
The Jones Act, part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is simple enough:
“Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act is known as the Jones Act and deals with cabotage (coastwise trade) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.”
There’s another Jones Act, too: the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, conveniently created a month before the U.S. entered World War I.
It granted citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. What a gift! Now they can serve in the military.
Now they can pay taxes.
Now they can have representation regarding the laws that govern them.
Oh, wait, no.
Not that last bit.
Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship, “meaning that citizenship was granted by an act of Congress and not by the Constitution (thus it was not guaranteed by the Constitution).”
And they were given representation.
The two houses were a Senate consisting of 19 members and a 39-member House of Representatives. However, the Governor and the President of the United States had the power to veto any law passed by the legislature. Also, the United States Congress had the power to stop any action taken by the legislature in Puerto Rico. The U.S. maintained control over fiscal and economic matters and exercised authority over mail services, immigration, defense and other basic governmental matters.
A few years later, after 20,000 Puerto Ricans had been drafted into military service, the Jones Act of 1920 — limiting the “coastwise trade” of U.S. ports — was created.
All trade coming into Puerto Rico from the United States has to be transported on ships built and owned and crewed by the U.S.
The net effect is that all business Puerto Rico does with the U.S. comes at a much higher price than it has to. More affordable shipping options — from global competitors — are eliminated by the Jones Act. As a small island that has to import many of its end-consumer goods as well as raw materials, Puerto Rico is in a stranglehold of economic limitations.
A business in Puerto Rico can do what it wants, sure! Make stuff! Buy stuff! Sell stuff!
“We don’t mind,” chuckles the U.S., generous older brother. “Sure! Get what you want! Join the global economy.”
“But, uh, you’ll have to ship it through our boats. You know. It’s a small thing. Just send all your shipments here, and we’ll move them over to our boats, with our crews, and then we’ll get your cargo to you.”
“What, no? Of course we can’t do that for free. We have to pay for the ships! We have to pay the crew! What do you want, a hand-out? God. The ingratitude. It’s shocking.”
“What do you mean, your economy’s not strong? If you don’t like it, do something about it. I mean, we want you to succeed. We’re not stopping you.”
“You just can’t get it together over there, can you? Tell you what. We’ll help you out. Fine. We’ll loan you some money. But seriously, you can’t keep operating like this. It’s a drain on us.”
And on the thirteenth day, the U.S. statutory citizens in Puerto Rico were toldthat their lives cost a little too much to save — kind of broke the budget — and their disaster wasn’t that impressive.
And on the eighteenth day, the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continued to live without power and without water.
Nobody likes to spend money maintaining slaves. It’s easier to get new slaves.
On the morning after María, a big group of machete-wielding, statutory U.S. citizens (and a few of their friends with constitutionally protected citizenship) made their way down a tree-covered road.
They started in driveways and worked their way out.
They chopped small branches off downed almond and mango trees. They threw palm leaves to the side. They moved debris: pieces of cars. Roofing. Sign posts and power lines. They worked together to roll tree trunks and large branches out of the way.
Within hours, the road was driveable. The clearance was narrow, but everyone took turns, swerving around the massive tree trunks and downed power lines.
Neighbors checked in on each other.
“Yeah, yeah. You? Todo bien?”
“We’re safe. We’re okay.”
And on the tenth day, the President of the United States complained via Twitter that Puerto Ricans wanted everything done for them.
He pays half in cash, half in coquí.
It’s getting hot. The high season is over. It wasn’t a good season. The San Juaneros will be taking their summer vacations, but it’s the U.S. and European tourists who bring the most money.
And so many of them didn’t come this year.
But some tourists did come.
A few weeks ago, a big group rolled through the west side of Puerto Rico in a vintage Airstream.
The rumors about them were wild.
They’re buying all the empty factories.
They’re starting a commune.
They’re buying up acres and acres of land.
They’re founding a city.
They’re buying up Puerto Rico.
They’re creating jobs.
They’re running out the locals.
They’re boosting the local economy.
They’re here to stay.
They won’t be back.
They’re throwing around millions.
They’re making empty promises.
Bitcoin billionaires, come to liberate Puerto Rico, or come to be its newest set of colonizers?
How do you know the difference?
You don’t wait to find out. You take action yourself. You create your own niche in a new kind of global finance.
You realize that the system is a system. That financial incentives from the outside — however altruistic the intentions — are still a method of control.
You look at how to side-step. Not to fight the current of change, but to find an alternate vehicle on it.
To get off the big ship, the one that has to be American made and American owned and American crewed, and step onto your own.
It’s smaller. It’s less stable. It’s unpredictable. How will it fare in this current? The waters are choppy.
No one knows for sure.
But you can’t swim with chains on your ankles.
And you can’t make your own way on someone else’s ship.