Workers Vanguard No. 1119
6 October 2017
Hurricanes and Man-Made Disasters
Puerto Rico Plundered by U.S. Colonialism
U.S. Troops Out! Cancel the Debt!
For the Right of Independence!
Puerto Rico lies devastated, its residents struggling to obtain the very essentials of life: food, drinking water, medicine, fuel, electricity, sanitation and shelter. There is nothing natural about this unfolding catastrophe. Long before Hurricane Maria made landfall, U.S. colonial domination had bled Puerto Rico to the point of collapse. The island of three and a half million people, today in more than $70 billion debt bondage to Wall Street vultures, was deprived of infrastructure and resources, left destitute, vulnerable and unable to cope with the mighty storms that tear through the Caribbean.
Presented with deep-going suffering and desperation, Washington responded how it knows best: with gunboats and a military occupation. A three-star general, Jeffrey Buchanan, has been placed in charge of the “relief” efforts. By the end of the first week, over 7,000 U.S. troops had arrived in Puerto Rico, including over 1,000 marines and sailors on two amphibious assault ships off the island’s coast. National Guardsmen were patrolling urban streets, while other soldiers engaged in clearing operations. The 101st Airborne Division, elite killers known for suppressing major civil unrest, like in 1967 black Detroit, are flying Blackhawk helicopters over San Juan.
The huge Roosevelt Roads naval base was even reopened as a staging area. It had been decommissioned shortly after the Pentagon in 2003 opted to abandon its long-time training grounds on nearby Vieques, where military exercises and relentless bombing provoked angry protests over the years. Those exercises pose dangers to this day. Two months ago, the unannounced detonation of explosives on Vieques by the U.S. Navy exposed residents to toxic fumes. We say: U.S. troops out!
With shelters running out of supplies and long lines for what little there is, the armed forces were mobilized primarily to assert control over the island and to contain any social outburst. Paving the way for military rule is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is all about. When FEMA, now part of Homeland Security, was in its infancy, Reagan administration officials made plans for it to set up the infrastructure for military dictatorship in the event of a “national emergency.”
True to form, days passed before FEMA bothered to contact some mayors of Puerto Rican cities, and even then 10,000 shipping containers full of food and other aid continued to sit undistributed at the Port of San Juan. When the capital city’s mayor sharply criticized FEMA for perpetuating suffering, Trump shot back with racist arrogance typical of the U.S. rulers, lambasting the victims as “politically motivated ingrates” who “want everything to be done for them.” The federal government’s criminal indifference toward the lives of U.S. imperialism’s Spanish-speaking, dark-skinned colonial subjects recalls the rulers’ treatment of black people in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Democratic Party politicians, shedding crocodile tears for the plight of the Puerto Rican people, have enjoined the Trump administration to “do more”—that is, beef up the military intervention. Typical is a September 27 letter to Trump from 145 Congressional Democrats urging the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in order to, among other things, quell supposed “looting and crime” at the hands of “armed gangs.” Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York (where there are almost one and a quarter million people of Puerto Rican descent) is bragging about the humanitarian supplies that the state has sent to Puerto Rico...along with over 150 state troopers and National Guardsmen for law enforcement.
While U.S. troops have participated in “search and rescue” and have distributed some food and supplies, their main function is not to help the island’s population but to impose reactionary “law and order.” They are to hunt down “looters,” in reality survivors foraging for life’s necessities, especially those who go out after dark. An extended nighttime curfew, a precursor of martial law, was imposed from the first by right-wing Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló. That flunky of the imperialists has also pleaded for a greater U.S. military presence in order to head off “a mass exodus” to the mainland. Washington could not agree more with that objective and has stationed military personnel at the commercial airports.
The Democrats and Republicans, both capitalist parties, represent one of the biggest looters the world has ever known: the U.S. imperialist ruling class. Ever since 1898, when control of Puerto Rico was wrested from Spain through war, it has pillaged the wealth of the island. Washington’s Puerto Rican colony has served successively as a naval coaling station, a sugar-baron empire, a low-wage manufacturing base, a corporate tax haven, and now a target for parasitic hedge funds. With nearly half the population living below the official poverty line, working people have overwhelmingly shouldered the cost, as they will for whatever passes as rebuilding under the watch of the U.S. profiteers.
In their various statements on the disaster, the Democrats have taken to reminding themselves, and the country, that Puerto Rico’s inhabitants are U.S. citizens. In fact, under the present commonwealth arrangement, Puerto Ricans are oppressed second-class citizens who cannot vote in presidential elections and are not represented in Congress, but who have been drafted in disproportionate numbers for U.S. imperialism’s wars. That citizenship was first conferred a century ago, in order to press some 20,000 Puerto Ricans into service as cannon fodder in World War I.
Even today, the minimal political rights and paltry federal assistance granted to Puerto Ricans provide a thin gloss on colonial exploitation. Puerto Ricans are prohibited from managing their own economy, negotiating their own trade relations and controlling their own currency. Although by and large fed up with the current commonwealth relationship, Puerto Ricans have expressed contradictory views toward independence. On the one hand, people on the island have a very strong national identity informed by a long history of anti-colonial struggle, which the U.S. imperialists have brutally suppressed, including by murdering, imprisoning and torturing independentistas. On the other, many fear losing the ability to live and work on the mainland and of sinking further into poverty. After the hurricane, by all accounts, many Puerto Ricans view getting off the island as their only chance for a future.
As intransigent opponents of national oppression and U.S. imperialism, we favor independence for Puerto Rico. However, in upholding the right of self-determination, should Puerto Ricans decide they want statehood, we would support the will of the population, just as we would oppose any attempts to forcibly impose independence. Thus, we stress the right of independence for Puerto Rico.
Whatever the final sum spent on rebuilding the island, it will be a drop in the bucket of the total needed to truly modernize Puerto Rico. There is no percentage in that for the U.S. ruling class, which in general invests only what it can realize back in profit. Puerto Rico has to escape the colonial straitjacket to even begin to address the needs of the working class and the poor.
A fight to cast off colonial oppression will by its very nature run up against local agents of the imperialists like Rosselló, who have enforced austerity on behalf of their U.S. overlords. With the working class at its head, such a fight could prove a springboard to the smashing of capitalist rule on the island and would be a powerful leaven for class struggle across the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as on the U.S. mainland, where millions of Puerto Ricans reside. If workers were to first seize power in the U.S., they would immediately grant independence and massive aid to Puerto Rico.
Capitalist Profiteering and Colonial Subjugation
In his first post-Maria tweet on Puerto Rico, Trump reminded the world that U.S. bankers and financial speculators will still need to collect on the territory’s massive debt. In so doing, he was continuing the work of his predecessor. Last year, the Obama administration appointed a fiscal control board, widely reviled as the “junta colonial,” to slash the island’s spending—and break union contracts and sell off public assets in the process.
This instrument of colonial subjugation has ruthlessly enforced austerity, including by cutting health care expenditure by 30 percent, closing hundreds of schools and lowering the minimum wage to $4 an hour for people under 25 years old. With Puerto Rican society now in a state of near total collapse, the unelected board approved $1 billion for relief efforts, but the money was merely reallocated from other parts of the budget. Additional planned anti-worker measures, like furloughs and pension cuts, remain on the table.
The island’s U.S. creditors are even angling to profit further off the mass misery, as documented in an Intercept article (27 September) titled “Puerto Rican Debt Holders Respond to Catastrophic Hurricane by Offering Puerto Rico More Debt.” The debt was a crushing weight on Puerto Rican workers even before the present disaster. Early estimates for the cost of rebuilding the island would double the debt. Workers in the U.S. have an obligation to side with their Puerto Rican class brothers and sisters against the common class enemy. To clear the path for their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters to recover from social disaster, workers in the U.S. must demand: Cancel the debt!
The U.S. capitalist rulers have plundered the island without stop for more than a century. Witness the Jones Act shipping restrictions, which the Trump administration did not temporarily waive until eight days after Maria. Enacted in 1920, this protectionist legislation mandates that all “coastwise” shipping, including between the mainland and Puerto Rico, must be on U.S. vessels, or face high tariffs and fees that are passed on to the Puerto Rican population. This price-fixing scheme for U.S. shipping magnates contributed to the island’s economic crisis. Thanks to the legislation, the price of goods from the mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, and the cost of living in impoverished Puerto Rico is higher than in most U.S. cities. That means materials needed for hurricane preparation and recovery, from storm windows to generators, are for many priced out of reach.
Perhaps the greatest testament to U.S. colonial pillage, though, is the decrepit state of the electrical utility, PREPA. With the deindustrialization of the island in the 1990s, U.S. capital lost its primary incentive to ensure the upkeep of this crucial infrastructure. Over subsequent years, many of the generation and distribution systems became dangerously outmoded. Saddled with billions in debt, PREPA increasingly skimped on preventative maintenance. This corner-cutting included foregoing annual safety inspections of dams, including the one at Guajataca now on the verge of failing.
By the end of last year, Puerto Ricans were experiencing more than four times as many electrical outages as the average U.S. customer, while paying higher rates than in any state except Hawaii. According to the electrical workers union, UTIER, the utility intentionally degraded service to prime the pump for privatization. Many skilled workers were forced out through retirement and emigration. Then, the glancing blow of Irma turned off most lights, PREPA delayed restoration to build support for a corporate sell-off, and Maria finished the job.
Some of Puerto Rico’s creditors prefer PREPA to simply restructure its debt and pass the cost on to consumers (for decades). Other bourgeois elements view a fire sale to private bidders as an opportunity, not least to completely smash UTIER, which before the shuttering of industry was in the vanguard of the combative proletariat on the island. Over the last 15 years, this union has experienced a halving of its membership without a corresponding drop in the workload.
For a Planned Economy
Under Workers Rule!
This hurricane season, widespread structural damage and the loss of electricity have also upended life in the U.S. Virgin Islands (not to mention a swath of other Caribbean islands). A curfew is in effect there, too, as the U.S. military polices the heavily black combined population of 110,000. Washington’s derisory “relief” efforts led one resident to describe the islanders, who are plagued by racism, unemployment and sharp economic disparities, as “the bastard step children of America.” We uphold the right of self-determination for this colony.
One nation in the Caribbean, Cuba, fought its way out of total dependence on U.S. imperialism, through the expropriation of the capitalists on that island in the period following the 1959 Revolution and with crucial Soviet military and economic aid. A bureaucratically deformed workers state was consolidated with the overthrow of capitalist rule and a planned, collectivized economy was built, guaranteeing jobs, housing, education and food. However, these gains are today increasingly threatened, from without and within.
One indication of the advantages of the collectivized economy over the capitalist system of production for private profit is the success the Cuban workers state has had in protecting its population from hurricanes. As a matter of course, the government provides early forecasting, educates and mobilizes the population and has arrangements in place for shelters, transport, food and medical backup. Often, hurricanes rake the island without any fatalities at all. This year, Hurricane Irma slammed Cuba and killed ten people, but even so, the island is in far better shape than Puerto Rico and others in the Caribbean that were ravaged by storms. Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, Rogelio Sierra Diaz, even offered to send electricity workers and medics to assist Puerto Rico.
Cuba’s high level of preparedness is maintained despite the bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy and the country’s relative poverty, which has been deepened by over five decades of U.S. economic embargo. We Trotskyists stand for the unconditional defense of Cuba against capitalist counterrevolution and imperialist attack. That defense includes the fight for workers political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and put political power in the hands of the working class. Defense of the Cuban Revolution fundamentally requires its international extension through successful struggles for proletarian power throughout Latin America, and especially in the belly of the U.S. imperialist beast.
What has happened to Puerto Rico is a stark indictment of the barbarous, irrational capitalist-imperialist system and its insatiable drive for profit. Even as the U.S. ruling class amasses ill-gotten gains by exploiting workers at home, it retards the development of the colonial and neocolonial world to the same end. As long as capitalism remains, it will reproduce catastrophe over and over.
Marxists fight for a society that will provide for the toiling masses and ultimately eliminate material scarcity altogether. Only when production is planned and directed at satisfying human need and not the profit motive can the human toll of natural hazards be minimized. It will take a series of workers revolutions across the globe to rip the mines, factories and other means of production from the grip of their private owners, and pave the way for an internationally planned, collectivized economy. The struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the world imperialist order is a matter of the very survival of humankind. Simply put, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, the choice is socialism or barbarism. Our perspective is to build Leninist-Trotskyist parties in the U.S., Puerto Rico and beyond, national sections of a reforged Fourth International, dedicated to the fight for workers rule.