Photo: Rubble from a church destroyed by the ongoing wave of seismic activity in Puerto Rico
By Joseph Magyar and Ben Robinson
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump finally announced he would lift a block on $8 billion of previously allocated disaster aid meant for Puerto Rico after months of withholding the money, but it came with several restrictions which could further delay its release.
On January 7, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the second major earthquake in the course of two days, compounding the dire situation in the country, which has still never fully recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Over the past month, the island has seen a consistent string of seismic activity. On January 11, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake hit the island, and hundreds of foreshocks and aftershocks have occurred since December 28, leading to the displacement of at least 2,000 people. Following the January 7 earthquake, which left one man dead and hundreds of thousands without water or electricity across the island, Trump and Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez declared a state of emergency.
The major earthquakes and the hundreds of seismic shocks have caused an estimated $110 million in damages, with analysts predicting a $3.1 billion in economic loss. Governor Vázquez also announced that $130 million in emergency aid would be allocated to emergency relief, but the actual amount that will reach those affected remains to be seen.
Governor Vázquez’s disaster declaration comes as reconstruction efforts are still underway after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, causing thousands of deaths and over $91 billion in damages. The federal government’s response to Maria was slow and inefficient, greatly increasing the number of casualties. As part of a larger issue with corruption in Puerto Rico, multiple instances of fraud and embezzlement of hurricane relief money were also reported.
The Trump administration relied on the claims of corruption to withhold aid for months, and it appeared it would maintain this stance despite the damages of the most recent earthquakes. The indifference and neglect of the administration was clear this past Fall as well, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) neglected to inform Puerto Rico of a deadline that would have allowed further access to $43 billion worth of aid allocated to hurricane recovery.
Of the $20 billion congress allocated in aid to the island since Hurricane Maria, up until Wednesday, only $1.5 billion had officially been released by HUD. HUD officials had defended this, stating, “Given the Puerto Rican government’s history of financial mismanagement, corruption and other abuses, we must ensure that any HUD assistance provided helps those on the island who need it the most: the people of Puerto Rico.”
Since the removal of the corrupt US lackey Governor Ricardo Rossello in August 2019 due to pressure from popular protests, there has been a rotating line-up of comprador politicians (those who sell out their own people’s interests in favor of US imperialism) moving through the governor’s seat.
Despite the appearance of a dispute between the Trump administration and the island’s government over corruption, this corruption is in the direct service of US imperialism, ensuring that policy always reflects their agenda. Trump only uses the excuse of corruption, which he and the US government practice in the same hypocritical fashion as any bourgeois state, as yet another way to bludgeon the island’s people and enforce their dependent status.
Wednesday’s announcement that the other $8 billion would be made available may seem like a rare act of recognizing Puerto Rico’s needs, but it too comes with imperialist stipulations. Trump has tied the release of funds to lowering the wages of relief workers to below $15/hr, countering a 2018 executive order by then-Governor Rossello.
The stipulations also seek to give greater authority to the federally mandated Fiscal Control Board. Known pejoratively to Puerto Ricans as ‘La Junta,’ the colonial nature of the board was a primary target of the protests which ousted Rossello. The funds are also conditionally tied to Puerto Rico agreeing to a new system of tracking property deeds and they cannot be used to repair the island’s crumbling electrical grid, which has seen further damage from the recent earthquakes. Rather than unconditional help, this aid simply seeks to strengthen Puerto Rico’s status as a US colony.
More than any force of nature, the masses of Puerto Rico face a crisis which is the making of US imperialism. But the nation has a long history of resistance to foreign domination, and the failure of the comprador and bureaucratic bourgeoisie to adequately respond to the recurring natural disasters present an opportunity to stoke the fires of rebellion against the hand of US imperialism propping them up.