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Weeks After Hurricane, Puerto Rico Lacks Water, Working Hospitals, Electricity & Considers Solar

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Three weeks after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, President Trump asked Congress for $4.9 billion loan to help the island pay government salaries and other expenses. This comes as he allowed a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act to lapse, restricting shipments of food, fuel and medicine from foreign-flagged ships as nearly half of the island still lacks clean water and nearly 90 percent lacks electricity. This comes as military security firms continue to patrol the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, and Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, has a pending bid to provide security services for water transportation. Meanwhile, solar companies and nonprofits say they could help Puerto Rico regain power. We get an update from Democracy Now!’s Juan González and speak with Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader and the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, who helped to gather aid to send to Puerto Rico, and has written a column published around the country this week titled “How to put Puerto Rico back on its feet.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Puerto Rico, three weeks after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria. On Tuesday, President Trump asked Congress for a $4.9 billion loan to help the island pay government salaries and other expenses. This comes as he allowed a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act to lapse, restricting shipments of food, fuel and medicine from foreign-flagged ships as nearly half of the island still lacks clean water and nearly 90 percent lacks electricity.

The expiration of the Jones Act waiver came over the fierce opposition of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who blasted the Trump administration’s slow response to the hurricane, tweeting on Sunday, “Power collapses in San Juan hospital with 4 patients now being transferred out. Have requested support from FEMA. NOTHING!” Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long, on Monday, dismissed Mayor Cruz’s comments, telling reporters, quote, “We don’t have time for the political noise.”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló said Friday that 63 of the island’s 69 hospitals are operational. But reporters with the Center for Investigative Journalism say they visited several hospitals and found they had limited capacity or were even closed. On Tuesday, the official death toll from Hurricane Maria rose to 43.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as military security firms continue to patrol the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. Academi, formerly known as Blackwater, has a pending bid to provide security services for water transportation. Meanwhile, solar companies and nonprofits say they could help Puerto Rico regain power. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted last week his company could help rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. Governor Rosselló tweeted back that the island could be Tesla’s flagship project.

For more, we’re joined by Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He ran for president in 1984 and 1988 as a Democrat. More recently, he helped to gather aid to send to Puerto Rico. And this Saturday he will be headed there. He has written a column, published around the country this week, headlined “How to put Puerto Rico back on its feet.”

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Reverend.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Good morning. Good to see you again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, I wanted to ask Juan, though, about the latest on the Jones Act and President Trump’s $4.9 billion loan request.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amy, the $4.9 billion really doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. And it is a loan request. In other words, Puerto Rico has to pay it back. Because the thing is that the U.S.-imposed control board, which has a majority of Republican members, sent a letter to Congress last week and to President Trump on Friday, specifically saying—and I want to quote from this letter, because, remember, this is now the U.S.-imposed control board, where, in this letter, it said, “Hurricanes Maria and Irma have fundamentally changed Puerto Rico’s reality.” The control board goes on to say that the island has not only a $74 billion debt and $53 billion of unfunded pension liabilities, that its economy has contracted by 15 percent in the last decade and lost—and the population has shrunk by 10 percent. But it says that it continues to have severe liquidity challenges and persistent budget deficits. So, even before the hurricane hit, the government was bankrupt, had no money.

And it goes on to say that “On top of [that], the damage that Puerto Rico has suffered is catastrophic and island-wide,” from this hurricane, and that Moody’s has estimated that this—that the hurricane did $95 billion in damages, one-and-a-half year of the total gross domestic product of the island. So this is a catastrophe on top of an existing total bankruptcy. And it says—and the board goes on to say this has never happened. And so it calls for all matching funds from the federal government for any kind of disaster relief to be waived. And it calls for massive help from the government.

I want to put it in context. After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government allocated $85 billion to the Gulf Coast for recovery. After Superstorm Sandy, the federal government allocated $50 billion to New York and New Jersey for recovery efforts. And we’re now talking about a $4.9 billion loan to Puerto Rico? That’s amazing.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Yeah, and Puerto Ricans and Virgin Islanders are American citizens. They are not foreigners, as they’re projected to be. It’s a structural dislocation. It’s time now for massive debt relief and renegotiation, for investment, [inaudible]. You know, the Marshall Plan was not so much money that was given or lent to them, it was a 50-year loan and 2 percent government-secured, so a combination of debt forgiveness and investment, with long-term, low-interest loans. And the 300 American corporations that have used Puerto Rico as a tax haven, they, too, must step up to the plate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are you hoping to do with this aid package that you are putting together and taking down there on Saturday?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, to keep Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on the front page, number one. We’re taking—I talked with the governor. He said, “We need medicine, and we need water, and we need generators.” Now, one thing that they can do, they must have massive evacuation. Those persons who cannot get medical care can—we would call the hospitals in this country, who would receive the sick. We’d have massive airlifts of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. They’re already Americans. Second, the children can be massive airlifted to schools in the U.S. Congressman Gutiérrez went there, and he brought back four students from Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: The Chicago congressman, Luis Gutiérrez.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Indeed. So the fact that you could have massive airlifts for the sick, because if they project a year without proper power, generation power, many will die in the hospitals and trying to get into hospitals.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Reverend Jackson, you probably recall that after Hurricane Katrina there were thousands of refugees from New Orleans who were basically taken in by other states and cities. I recall interviewing—

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, they were citizens called refugees. They were not refugees.


REV. JESSE JACKSON: They were citizens. And they were able to go first to higher ground in Baton Rouge, in Houston, Chicago and New York. FEMA had evacuation money to evacuate them from a tough situation. FEMA can evacuate many people. Now, there are those who are against DACA, on the one hand, who are trying to run, quote-unquote, “nonwhites” out of the country, may find it offensive to be bring more Puerto Ricans in. Well, Puerto Rican are Americans and citizens, and so are Virgin Islanders. And so, we need something as—it’s good to take some medicines and food, but given the destruction, they’re going to need some different kind of help, massive and quick.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Juan, this whole issue of the Jones Act, that there was a waiver for 10 days—and people, their eyes might glaze over to hear—what is the Jones Act? But the idea that Caribbean countries could get aid from other countries, like, for example, Cuba sent 750 doctors and health professionals around to the hurricane-ravaged places. But they couldn’t come to Puerto Rico because of the Jones Act. Aid couldn’t come in from other countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, from—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is and what it means.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: From Venezuela or from Mexico, from any of these other countries. The Jones Act means that anything coming into Puerto Rico has to be on an American ship. And so, if Mexico wants to send aid or supplies, it would have to first go into Florida to be put onto an American ship, to then take into Puerto Rico. It’s just driving up the cost of transporting anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Even President Trump said this involves our shipping companies and them making money.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, well, and, of course, the shipping companies, together with the maritime unions, who are trying to protect jobs, are in an alliance to prevent a waiver, a long-term waiver, of the Jones Act, which all of the Puerto Rican leadership is calling for at this point.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: A tremendous humanitarian crisis. And the crisis gives us the opportunity to address it in a meaningful way. If we have a massive debt, the banks and our government can work out a debt forgiveness program and invest. And the 300 American corporations, 300 or them that are there, must pay their fair share of taxes. Again, they’ve used Puerto Rico as a kind of tax haven. And I think that while we are fiddling with this, people are literally dying today, having slept in the dark last night.

AMY GOODMAN: There may even be a drug shortage in the United States, because so many pharmaceutical companies are based in Puerto Rico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Although many of them have left, there’s still quite a few. And, you know, companies, as you mentioned—Johnson & Johnson is a perfect example of a company that has made much, much money from its factories, its drug factories, in Puerto Rico. And Pfizer and these others all had plants there.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Within six days after Katrina, through FEMA, we had evacuated people around the country. And we can evacuate people from Puerto Rico to the mainland. And I’m convinced that while we are trying to figure out whether we use solar energy or whatever, people should be evacuated. Also, be very clear on the fact that these citizens are in peril. And it brings the issue of earth science to the front. So long as we allow these carcinogens to open up the ozone layer, and these glaciers are melting, and the waters are rising in temperature, land temperatures are rising, and the wind blows, hurricanes and tornadoes are coming, there’s no infrastructure on the ground to protect us from this. The islands are in jeopardy imminently, right now, not eventually, not in the future. They are jeopardized. After—the hurricane season has just begun, really, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the—Elon Musk proposing let’s make this a solar experiment, which sounded very interesting, but the concern also—and you’ve talked a lot about this, Juan, about the power grid, about this very lucrative power company and the push to privatize it. What about all of this? How would this play out?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Well, obviously, the Puerto Rico electric company is a government-owned electric company. It’s the largest public utility in the United States. And the power industry has long wanted to privatize it, and they’re trying to use this crisis to accelerate that. But that’s why the issue of solar power is so important. And many solar industries are now—are offering supplies now to begin to jump-start the possibility of whole towns or neighborhoods beginning to develop solar power and break off from this electrical grid.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: They used the crisis in New Orleans to privatize schools and jails. So, some will exploit this for their own economic, ideological and property profit reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, this comes as the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said Monday the federal tax credits for the wind and solar power industry should be eliminated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, well, that’s typical of where we are today in America.

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