Puerto Rico’s rising Hurricane Maria death toll a political matter
Wednesday, September 05, 2018
Why do death tolls matter? Puerto Rico’s experience after Hurricane Maria reveals that deaths are deeply political — and financial.
Just as we approach the one-year anniversary of Maria hitting the island, officials added 2,911 names to the list of the dead — from 64 to 2,975. What changed? More growing public frustration on an island already vulnerable to exploitation from its arguably antiquated status as a U.S. colony.
The stories of Puerto Rico’s devastation after Hurricane Maria are about electricity, food, water, healthcare, and shelter shortages — as well as ongoing poisoning from damaged Superfund sites.
Now the island is devastated by inaction and bureaucratic incompetence, as it stands in the historic crossroads of the great economic debate of our times — privatization.
"Historic" is due to the storm’s size and impact, but also because Puerto Rico’s future ends up encapsulating climate change-era economic debates about ownership and infrastructure development.
Days and weeks after Maria touched ground, the financial shock doctors of the disaster industry moved in to take advantage of new real estate opportunities.
The U.S. Financial Oversight and Management Board had already wrestled away control of Puerto Rico’s finances due to its pre-Maria debt struggles. Then Maria hit, worsening infrastructure and politicizing available financial options.
In her recent book, "The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists," Naomi Klein writes that Maria placed the island in the crossroads of the larger financial debates.
Klein states, "Rather than transforming the infrastructure so that it truly serves the public interest, they argue for selling it off at fire-sale prices to private players."
Klein explains that, like Cuba, privatizers want to transform Puerto Rico into a "visitor economy" with fewer Puerto Ricans and many "high net-worth individuals" from the U.S., Asia, and Europe who seek a "five-star resort lifestyle" with tax breaks and beaches galore.
One group at the center of this effort is the determinedly independent and insular Bitcoin Billionaires. There’s talk of turning the devastated island into "Puertopia" with San Juan becoming a city run by virtual money and transparent public contracts.
Puertopians began to buy property, anticipating the debate about Puerto Rico’s financial future. (For an excellent account of how Bitcoin hit the island all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, see Klein’s chapter "Invasion of the Puertopians" from the new book.)
As privatization remains the central economic issue, a proper death count remains the outstanding moral issue and a lead story developing alongside financial debates. The two are linked, as mainstream academic journals, like New England Journal of Medicine, link the hurricane’s death toll to the U.S. government’s chronic "inattention" and Puerto Rico’s "frail infrastructure."
Just after Maria hit, activists on the ground, like Rosa Clemente of PR on the Map, were claiming that the official death toll, which was reported at 64 people, was wildly underreported by pro-privatization Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration.
Now, the official count has hit a number almost larger than the death toll from 9/11. The current number stands at 2,975 and it could reach 4,600 — as various agencies, academic outlets, and media groups scour the ground for accurate numbers.
What’s in a death toll? In this case, it holds the key to accountability as Puerto Rico challenges its future position as a globally relevant privatization playground for new technology experiments.
Paradoxically, a larger official death toll count could favor a pro-privatization agenda. If infrastructure is to blame for a high death rate, then it can be argued that critical infrastructure privatization, like with the energy grid, would be more efficient and effective in the event of future storms.
Failed infrastructure, like public school buildings, has been used to justify rapid school chartering on the U.S. mainland.
Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor was personally affected: she has a family member among the uncounted Puerto Rican dead. Sotomayor’s relative was on a ventilator when power went out on the island. If the inclusion criteria hadn’t been expanded, Sotomayor’s relative would not have been counted.
Add to this example the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report, released Sept. 4. This report offers striking lessons in government failure, stating: "54 percent of federal emergency personnel were not qualified to do the rescue work in October 2017."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states that it was short-staffed and tested by other catastrophes, caused by wildfires and hurricanes elsewhere at the time.
What a difference a year makes. Not only is the death count higher for Maria victims, but official accountability failures are being addressed head-on by government agencies and news outlets alike. Just how an accurate death toll will be used in the larger financial debate has yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, critics of privatization, including striking teachers and involved community workers, want to use the growing death toll as an argument for a truly independent Puerto Rico with a publicly owned energy grid and infrastructure. The idea is that privatization will breed more incompetence and less accountability.
This is a radically different value system that places Puerto Ricans, and not Wall Street investors, at the center.
The death toll number may play into either side of the financial debate, but it stands on its own as testament to how Maria’s massive destruction was exacerbated by government inaction.
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