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In Puerto Rico’s Highlands, Hurricane Maria Has Exploded Fault Lines of Poverty & Austerity

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Six weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, millions of residents are still living without safe drinking water and electricity. Health experts say the storm’s massive damage to Puerto Rico’s water system is threatening to cause a public health crisis, as more and more people are exposed to contaminated water. Over the weekend, Democracy Now! was in Puerto Rico, and we traveled about three hours into Puerto Rico’s mountainous highland region in the interior of the island in order to look at the ways austerity has exacerbated the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria.

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, where, six weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, millions of residents are still living without safe drinking water and electricity. Health experts say the storm’s massive damage to Puerto Rico’s water system is threatening to cause a public health crisis, as more and more people are exposed to contaminated water. On Thursday, the White House finally agreed to release FEMA disaster aid with more flexibility to try to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s devastated power grid and other infrastructure.

The shift in aid disbursement was necessary because of Puerto Rico’s massive debt crisis, which both severely limits the island’s ability to prepare for the storm ahead of time and to respond fully in the days afterward. According to an investigation by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, quote, “The permanent disaster [of Maria] has been largely due to the slow and inefficient deployment of the emergency response due to a fatal combination between the lack of liquidity of the government of Puerto Rico and its municipalities and the federal government’s inaction,” unquote. For the last year, Puerto Rico has been controlled by an unelected fiscal control board, imposed by the U.S. Congress, whose role is to enact austerity measures to ensure the bondholders of Puerto Rico’s debt are repaid.

Well, over the weekend, Democracy Now! was in Puerto Rico. We traveled around three hours into Puerto Rico’s mountainous highland region in the interior of the island in order to look at the ways austerity has exacerbated the crisis caused by Hurricane Maria. We begin our journey in a town called Lares, about two hours west of the capital San Juan. I began there by asking Democracy Now!’s Juan Carlos Dávila, who grew up in Puerto Rico, to tell us about the history of this town called Lares.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: So, the motto of this town is “Lares, Ciudad del Grito,” which translates to “Lares, City of the Scream.” That is in reference to the revolution of 1868 here in the town of Lares, where Puerto Rican revolutionaries gathered to overthrow the Spanish forces from here and declare the Puerto Rican independence. The colonial administration, that continues to administer the colony, are saying that the motto is too subversive, that “Ciudad del Grito” is too subversive, so they have tried things like “Lares, City of the Beautiful Women” or “Lares, City of the Open Skies,” so that to, in a way, try to erase the history of Lares.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go over to the street of Pedro Albizu Campos.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Pedro Albizu Campos is a revolutionary leader of Puerto Rico, who was president of the Nationalist Party, a Harvard graduate. And he—

AMY GOODMAN: I think he was the first graduate—Puerto Rican graduate of Harvard Law School.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: So, yeah, Pedro Albizu Campos is a very important figure in Puerto Rico. He stood for the independence of Puerto Rico. He fought valiantly against United States imperialism. So, here, the important thing about Pedro Albizu Campos being here in Lares, and his street here in Lares, is that he represents the continuation of that struggle of the revolutionaries fighting against the Spanish forces. And for that, he was in jail, and he was tortured. And many believe he—

AMY GOODMAN: He was in prison for decades.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Yeah, he was in prison for many years. And he was—and it is believed that he was tortured, and they experimented with radiation on him.

AMY GOODMAN: In Lares, we meet up with Martin Cobian, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a member of the Center for Transdisciplinary Studies in Agroecology. We head about an hour further into the mountains, to a region called Las Marías.

MARTIN COBIAN: Hurricane Maria, you know, devastated, very much so, the highlands. But in a very—from another perspective, it also uncovered what was already a national crisis. Remember that we’ve been under austerity measures for—I don’t know how long. I mean, it’s, you know, as far as I can remember. It feels like we’ve been under austerity forever.

And one of the areas most, you know, hardest hit has been—have been the highlands, not only in the terms of, you know, the type of economies that municipal money used to bring, in terms of employment and so on and services that people used to have access to, and they’ve lost them, but also in terms of just people leaving, migrating, because, you know, it’s just untenable to sustain a livelihood.

So that is, for example, in Las Marías, where is the place that we’re going now, are two of the most—I think they’re one and two or within the five poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico and also the ones that have lost most population over the last five to 10 years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in a sense, Maria not only exposed the fault lines and the weakness of the situation here, but it exploded those fault lines.

MARTIN COBIAN: Yes, that’s exactly it.

AMY GOODMAN: As we’re driving through the mountains, we reach a part of the road where the hurricane has swept away the earth below the pavement, which is something we had to be very careful about everywhere we drove. We talked to a man whose house itself was precariously balanced between the road and what is now a cliff, the earth swept away below.

RESIDENT: [translated] Yeah, it’s the main road. If you want to go to Marical, you can take it. You can cross it now, but it’s dangerous. And if it stays like this, the road will fall off the precipice.

AMY GOODMAN: We keep driving with Martin.

MARTIN COBIAN: One of the main, if not the sole, income for most of this area is agriculture. And most of the agriculture in Puerto Rico has been, you know, destroyed or has been—you know, sustained heavy damage. So this is a big concern, because the type of agriculture that you find here is a lot of—a lot of it is coffee production. And, you know, for coffee to grow, you you need—it needs at least three to four years before you start producing. So you had a lot of trees that were adults and that were producing, and they were sustaining, you know, a small—from large to small peasant economies. And that has been destroyed.

The devastation is immense. It’s immense. I have a lot of friends, small peasant farmers, that—you know, they lost everything. And many of them are actually thinking of quitting and moving to the city or actually migrating.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just arrived in Las Marías, and we are coming to a place where doctors are coming to meet with people, bringing water. We passed an oasis, an oasis, where people gathered to get fresh water. And now we’re going down to the field, where the doctors are.

What kind of doctor are you?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: A general practitioner.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh. And your full name?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Jose A. Ramirez.

AMY GOODMAN: And your name?

DR. STEVEN ROMAN: Steven Roman, and I am internal medicine.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what you were doing today?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Well, today, we came here. We’ve been doing clinics since the hurricane. Every Saturday, we’ve been doing clinics.

AMY GOODMAN: What are people’s major complaints?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Their medicine. They are unable to get their insulins, are unable to see their doctors, and pains and so and so, you know.

DR. STEVEN ROMAN: Hypertension.

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Hypertension, diabetes and stuff like that. Right now we’re doing the statistics on how many deaths we had, during and after Hurricane Maria. We had—I know we had one gentleman who died of a heart attack in his car, and another one after the hurricane with a landslide. Mudslide came and took his machine—he was working on trying to clear roads—and it buried him. Other than that, we got a problem with oxygen, problem with home care and stuff like that, and the oxygen and all the stuff.

DR. STEVEN ROMAN: And I went to that—the people need to know that in Puerto Rico, there are more than 50 cases of leptospirosis, that are death patient, that no survive.

AMY GOODMAN: People die as a result of leptospirosis.

DR. STEVEN ROMAN: Yes, die.

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: And it arose from bacteria from the urine, mice urine. People eat the food without cleaning and washing it or anything. And they’ll eat that, and they’ll get sick from it. And usually the outcome is really bad.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you say the state, FEMA—how would you rate how they responded?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Compared to George a couple years back, they’ve been a lot—they’ve been slow. It’s been slow. Politics in the States, you know, have been affecting us here in Puerto Rico. You know, there’s a lot of—a lot of misgivings and stuff like that. We haven’t been receiving the help as soon as we needed it.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you make of President Trump saying that the people of Puerto Rico want everything done for them?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Well, the first thing, it’s not people of Puerto Rico, it’s U.S. citizens. We are U.S. citizens. That’s the first thing. It’s not people of Puerto Rico. It’s U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. They want help.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say their treatment of you during Hurricane Maria and after was the treatment of a colony?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Yes. Yes, it was. We are not—Florida, look at Florida. Look at—

DR. STEVEN ROMAN: Texas.

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Look at Texas. You know, they got treated really quick. They took him to—in the states, and to throw paper towels out. They should have flown him in a helicopter to see how it was around here.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying that President Trump threw rolls of paper towels.

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Yes, yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if you voted for president of the United States, the president of the United States would treat you differently?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Yes, because it’s 3.5 million people, and we all have at least two in the Senate, and we have at least five representatives. Five. And that’s a big vote, you know. And the thing is, the parties don’t see us—you know, they don’t see. And we could affect the parties in the states, too. Right now, you have 70,000 people who left to Florida. Most of them do vote. Most of them do like politics. Most of them will vote. And that will change the politics of Florida in a couple years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you hear about bodies being incinerated in the morgues and those bodies not being counted? And did that happen around here?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Well, the thing is, I certified around eight here in town. Eight. So it was 50, 40-something deaths. I certified eight after Hurricane Maria. Two of them were during the hurricane or after, the day after the hurricane. And the other ones were after, a couple days after, a week or so after the hurricane. I heard that—that’s why they ask for statistics. I’m writing the statistics down in case when they come back to ask for it, so I can give it to them.

AMY GOODMAN: So eight people have died since the hurricane.

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: That I certified. That I certified.

AMY GOODMAN: Can there be others? Are there other doctors?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Yes, there’s probably a lot more.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the Jones Act being enforced, in the time the waiver wasn’t in place, prevent, for example, medicines from getting in?

DR. JOSE RAMIREZ: Right now, insulin is—you know, my patients tell me it’s really difficult for them to get insulin. See, the thing is, if the United States doesn’t help us stimulate our economy right now, you know—I mean, we’re afraid. They might sell us, you know, like—there was a joke a couple years back that they wanted to give Greece to the United States, and give us to the European Union. You know, and this is kind of a—you know, it makes you think what the United States thinks about us, you know? You know, are we just a colony, what we are? Do they want to help us or what? You know.

AMY GOODMAN: After we leave Dr. Jose Ramirez at the pop-up health clinic in Las Marías, we head to another neighborhood nearby, where residents are gathering to wait for a delivery of aid. Along the way, we come across a caravan of more than a hundred volunteers, all church members, who are traveling across the island distributing food and water.

PEBBLES MORALES: My name is Pebbles Morales.

MARCO RIVERA: Marco Rivera.

PEBBLES MORALES: He’s the pastor, Marco Rivera. Well, we come directly from the food bank. We’re going all around different cities from the country, where we see that there’s like special needs and stuff. And we’re distributing food. That’s what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: What place was in the most need that you have been in?

PEBBLES MORALES: Right now, like I think it’s pretty equal, like in every part we’ve been through.

MARCO RIVERA: Fajardo, Luquillo, Ceiba

PEBBLES MORALES: Fajardo, Luquillo, Ceiba.

MARCO RIVERA: San Juan.

PEBBLES MORALES: San Juan.

MARCO RIVERA: Manatí, Vega Baja, Vega Alta, Morovis, Ciales, Adjuntas, toda la isla.

PEBBLES MORALES: All those cities, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole island.

PEBBLES MORALES: All around.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue driving with University of Puerto Rico professor Martin Cobian.

MARTIN COBIAN: Something that we have seen in Puerto Rico is that the communities have had to organize to survive, you know, in the middle of Maria and all the havoc that has been created.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: [translated] We’re asking for calm this afternoon, knowing that they’re coming from really far away and don’t really know the route, but they are going to arrive. They are going to arrive.

AMY GOODMAN: We arrive at the community gathering where hundreds of people, mainly women and children, are waiting for supplies to arrive.

ROSA ROSADO: [translated] My name is Rosa Rosado. We’re here in the neighborhood of Bucarabones in Las Marías, in a small community called La Josefa. We’re gathered together in a group of families, and we’re waiting, because we still don’t have any electricity. We have to take advantage of these moments. Whenever they’re going to bring us things, whatever they are, we have to take advantage of it. We’ve seen that when we want our leaders to pay attention to us—because we feel a little isolated—sometimes we have to demand their attention.

My daughter’s school, La Hosto, is a shelter now, and I don’t think that the school will reopen soon. For a school bus, the streets and highways are terrible. They’re horrible. So, as a parent, I wouldn’t dare send her. No, no. That said, I understand that the children need psychological support. It’s true. They need something to orient them, because young people have never experienced anything like this before. There are many children in this community. My daughter is 13 years old, and she needs help, because she’s in special education.

CARMEN VEGA: [translated] My name is Carmen Vega. Everything here was destroyed. It’s not easy to be struggling like this, washing everything and doing everything by hand. There are sick children, sick elders. That’s how it is here. In terms of health, the worst was that my father vanished. He died. So that hasn’t been easy for us. But we’re alive. We have to thank God that we are alive.

ROSITA RUIZ: [translated] My name is Rosita Ruiz. I want to say hello to my son, who lives in Philadelphia. I don’t know if this will reach there. My son, Eliomar Justiniano, I’ve only been able to communicate with him twice since the hurricane, but I send him greetings from here. I want to tell him that I love him. He knows the situation that’s happening here, and he’s worried. But thank God, we’ve been blessed throughout all of this, because he saved our lives, and my home wasn’t damaged. But emotionally, although we haven’t suffered physically, this affects us emotionally and mentally.

Because my husband now is taking care of me and he’s disabled also, in my condition and with my husband being disabled, because he has a disability, he understands that he has to take care of all the work at home. It hasn’t been easy. Understand this: It affects us emotionally, because we’re alone. Our children are not with us. I have one son in Philadelphia and another in Mayagüez. We’re depending only on this neighborhood where we live. We don’t have any other family. The only support is from the church and our neighbors, our friends. We are all extending our hands to each other. In other words, we’re all helping each other, because we are all suffering the same. And honestly, we’re thankful to God that we can help each other.

ANTHONY JUSTINIANO: [translated] My name is Anthony Justiniano, and I’m Rosita Ruiz’s husband. A lot of people have been affected by the storm, and they’ve had to leave for many different reasons. One is that they’ve lost their jobs. Another is that, although there’s some aid—it does arrive—when it arrives, people sometimes need things urgently to survive. Education is on hold. The children have not been able to return to their schools because of the transportation issues. It’s not as easy to travel as it was before the hurricane came. But we’re still fighting.

If they could bring some form of psychological help, so people could strengthen themselves during all this—even though we’re serving God, we have internal emotions that affect us as human beings, because we’re all human beings, and we need psychological support to help us and strengthen us to face all this. It’s really important.

ANTONIA FELICIANO: [translated] My name is Antonia Feliciano. I live in 44-09 in a section called Pariachi. Since I moved there, there’s been no electricity. I’ve been living there for 28 years. My husband died recently, waiting for the light, waiting for the light, and it never arrived. The thing is, I live far from the community, because the section in which I live, Pariachi, is two kilometers away from Bucarabones, where we are now. This stretch has never had electricity. It was in the mayor’s hands, and he kept telling us that they were going to put in electricity, but it never arrived. I am an elderly person. I’m 75 years old. And I use insulin and medicine that needs to be refrigerated. So, whenever my neighbor has electricity, I put my medicines in his home.

ELBA IRIS DUMONT: [translated] We’ve been waiting here since 1 p.m., waiting, and now it’s 4:25 in the afternoon. We’re waiting for them to bring us food, water, everything, because in this moment, anything that they bring us would be good. The hurricane was horrible. My house is on the side of the road, and the part of the road that leads to my house collapsed. When I go home, I feel so depressed, and I cry, because the road has collapsed.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: [translated] And we will be grateful that when they arrive, for all of us to please get in order, as you know how to do. We’re asking for calm, OK? They need the cooperation of each and every one of us. So, then—not now, but then—we will form a line.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s now been six weeks since Hurricane Maria, the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years. Millions still lack clean water and electricity. Special thanks to Sam Alcoff, Laura Gottesdiener, Juan Carlos Dávila and Denis Moynihan.

When we come back, we look at the president’s tax plan. He says it’s a Christmas gift for the American people. Others say it’s a gift for America’s elite. We’ll look at how the world’s elite benefits from global capitalism, with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, joining us in our studio. His new book, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment. Stay with us.

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