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Holvino: Puerto Rico's Non-Recovery

It’s the start of another year’s hurricane season, and the effects of Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico still loom large – as hundreds of empty pairs of shoes in front of the capitol in San Juan stand as a mute display of mourning and protest.

The government’s official tally for the dead was an unbelievably low sixty-four until it was revised to one thousand four hundred following the publication of a Harvard study that estimates the toll to be anywhere between eight hundred and eight thousand.

Perhaps the situation is best understood through a lens of the island’s history and politics because as environmentalist Naomi Klein writes, “natural disasters lay bare the inequalities that have always existed.”

Puerto Rico became an unincorporated territory of the US as a result of the Spanish American War in eighteen-ninety-eight. Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in nineteen seventeen by an act of Congress that one might assume could be revoked anytime.

As an unincorporated organized territory, Puerto Rico has its own legislature, governor, constitution, and a degree of self-governance, but it’s not a sovereign state. Unlike Alaska and Hawaii, there’s never been a clear intention to incorporate it into the Union. This suits many Puerto Ricans, who want to protect the island’s unique culture and Spanish language, regarding it as a separate country – while others latch on to the ‘territory’ label to advocate for statehood, ignoring or downplaying the implications of the ‘unincorporated’ status.

Today, a teetering electrical grid, decades of economic recession, an inefficient and corrupt government, and continuing population loss due to migration and FEMA policies after Maria make for ‘the perfect storm.’ A federal budget-oversight board is further contributing to the Island’s decline and lack of sovereignty by promoting an austerity plan set on reducing and privatizing public services to pay off Puerto Rico’s huge public debt.

Still, eleven thousand Puerto Ricans are without power and all are drinking the dirtiest water in the USA.

Beyond humanitarian assistance, they need a comprehensive recovery package that includes long-term monetary aid, debt forgiveness, redesigned infrastructure, a sustainable energy and economic development plan, and a government and political structure that truly serves the interests of the Puerto Rican people.

Evangelina Holvino is a creative non-fiction writer and a free-lance consultant on issues of social differences and justice in non-profit organizations.
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