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Naomi Klein: 4,645 Deaths in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria Were “State-Sponsored Mass Killing”

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We look at Puerto Rico as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last September. Researchers at Harvard recently revealed the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be a staggering 70 times higher than the official count. The official death toll still stands at 64, but the new study estimates a death toll of at least 4,645, with some projections topping 5,700. The Harvard study found that “interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane, a finding consistent with the widely reported disruption of health systems. Health care disruption is now a growing contributor to both morbidity and mortality in natural disasters.” We speak with Naomi Klein, author, journalist and a senior correspondent for The Intercept. Her new book is titled “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists.” We also speak with Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a Puerto Rican environmental activist and member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, and Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hurricane Season is officially underway. And today we spend the hour looking at Puerto Rico as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island last September. Researchers at Harvard University recently revealed the death toll from Hurricane Maria may be a staggering 70 times higher than the official count. The official death toll still stands at 64, but the new study estimates a death toll of at least 4,645, with some projections topping 5,700. This is one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Domingo Marqués of Carlos Albizu University.

DOMINGO MARQUÉS: [translated] Four thousand six hundred forty-five. So, to add something, I’ll tell you that in our study we found that in terms of the people who suffered from the hurricane, was due to the fact that the average Puerto Rican was exposed to 84 days without electric power. Moreover, it was more than 60 days without drinking water, which is a huge public health problem. And it was more than 40 days for the average person without cellular communications. So, just those three things really give reasons to the mortality numbers. Nine-one-one wasn’t only not working in small towns. It was down in all of Puerto Rico. So, when you think about those things, you can understand why the number was so high.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump has so far not responded to the new study. But in October, during a visit to Puerto Rico, Trump boasted about the low official death count.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack, because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the—every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering—nobody’s ever seen anything like this—and what is your—what is your death count as of this moment? Seventeen?

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen certified.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people, working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Trump in the days after Hurricane Maria. That was the same visit where he tossed paper towels to some of the residents of San Juan.

Cable news networks are facing criticism for spending far more time covering the Roseanne story than the stunning new Harvard report, that found at least 4,645 people died in Puerto Rico because of the hurricane. According to Media Matters, the main cable news networks covered Roseanne for over 10 hours in the first day of coverage; they covered Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico for just over 30 minutes. Fox News spent just 48 seconds covering the Puerto Rico story.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz posted a message on Twitter reading, “Never forgotten! Never again!” In an attached photo, she was wearing a hat with the number 4,645.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we host a roundtable discussion for the hour. We’re joined by Naomi Klein, author, journalist, senior correspondent for The Intercept. She has a new book out; it’s called The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists. She’s also author of No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, among others. Also joining us, straight from Puerto Rico, Katia Avilés-Vázquez, a Puerto Rican environmental activist, member of a sustainable farming resource group called the Boricuá Organization for Ecological Agriculture, which is part of the Climate Justice Alliance, based in San Juan. Elizabeth Yeampierre is also with us, executive director of UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! You have just come, Katia, from the island. You were there when this Harvard study came out. It’s not that a lot of people on the island weren’t saying it’s actually the opposite of what Trump said at the time. He’s consulting the governor, and he said what? Sixteen, 17 people have died. That was right after. But now this number, maybe it’s 4,600. Maybe it’s 5,700 people who have died. Was that your sense of things? And what, as we move into this next hurricane season, are your major concerns right now?

KATIA AVILÉS-VÁZQUEZ: So, I think the first thing is to highlight Omaya Sosa and the Center for Investigative Journalism. They were the first ones to document and call out what we all were feeling and knew and had seen, which was that we had died in the thousands. And I think it’s really important to highlight their work. And particularly, they were able to gain a victory yesterday, to have access to the number of deaths, thanks to esquire Luis José Torres Asencio, among other people that were in the team. The 4,645 number is a statistical mean.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Excuse me. When you say that they were able to gain access, that was a judge ordering the government—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of Puerto Rico to finally release—

KATIA AVILÉS-VÁZQUEZ: To release the numbers, finally. Yeah, that was—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the death certificates, actually.

KATIA AVILÉS-VÁZQUEZ: That came down yesterday, yeah. So, after—come in June. And the numbers, we knew that it was going to be in the thousands. And I think it’s important to not focus on whether it’s 4,645 or 5,700, because we knew it was going to be in the thousands. The study remains within a 3-month window, which is October, November, December. And it looks specifically at the survey that they were doing, and then they extrapolated based on that survey. But it doesn’t necessarily count older people that went out of time, for example, our elderly and sick, that maybe could have lasted—our knowledge bearers, that could have lasted a little bit longer, and suffered before they finally—their bodies gave up, because they couldn’t take the heat or the lack of food.

I think it’s important to—that highlights not only that it was kept secret, but the fact that it was kept secret to serve a political agenda, in the case of Governor Rosselló. That day, right after Trump left, the government recognized that the number went up to 34. So when he answered Trump’s question, it’s very unlikely that he didn’t know the number was not 16 already, so that, again, it’s just highlighting that the numbers and the entire situation has been usurped to serve Rosselló’s political agenda and the capitalists that are now taking over the island.

I think the other part that needs to be taken into consideration, like you mentioned this, that the number of deaths now, and since January, has continued to increase due to Maria. And we have not only the suicide rates that are increasing, but stoplights literally falling on people and killing them, power plants blowing up and catching fire and killing people, and then people that have continued to die because of the lack of the necessary and appropriate resources. So, if we actually take into account all those indirect deaths, again, we’re in the thousands of deaths.

And coming into the next hurricane season, infrastructure is still very weakened. Houses are still with tarps. There’s very—a lot of debris on the streets. There’s still—the water hasn’t been restored everywhere. Electricity hasn’t been restored everywhere. The boat system, La Lancha, that goes from the main island to Vieques and Culebra, is still not functioning properly. So, we’re in a very weakened state to face the new hurricane season.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to go back to that issue. The Harvard study only, as you mentioned, goes from September 20th to December 31st, yet there were hundreds of thousands of people in January and February that still didn’t have electricity, so that there were undoubtedly other deaths that occurred—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the early part of this year, as well.

KATIA AVILÉS-VÁZQUEZ: Correct. And there are still some that happened a couple of weeks ago, because—indirectly, because of that. Like I mentioned, literally, a stoplight fell, and the person that it hit recently died. So, we’ve had continuous deaths indirectly to the hurricane and its impact on infrastructure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Naomi, I wanted to ask you about—you first did an article, a long article, and now this book, in terms of what you saw when you went down to Puerto Rico, and also the—how much Puerto Rico has fit into one of your main theses that you’ve developed over the years of disaster capitalism.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I was there—I was actually there with Elizabeth Yeampierre, and we were lucky enough to be shown around to some parts of the country by Katia. And, you know, we saw people in February having to travel very long ways to plug in their oxygen machines, you know, elderly people, because they still didn’t have electricity. So I think that this goes to the point that the deaths were continuing after the count stopped for this particular study.

And I’m really struck by this phrase that these are deaths “due to” Hurricane Maria, you know? It’s not due to Hurricane Maria. Maria was the catalyst. But if you look at the study, the cause of death in so many of the cases, the largest cause, was the collapse of the healthcare system, which is intimately tied to the collapse of the electricity system, which is intimately tied to the collapse of the water system. So, this is really about a total infrastructure failure, right? And it didn’t just fail. A total society doesn’t have its infrastructure fail, unless you systematically knock out every support structure and you do so knowingly.

You know, I keep thinking about this phrase, from four decades ago, by the great late investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh, the Argentinian kind of inventor of investigative journalists in so many—of investigative journalism in so many ways. When he was describing the economic policies of Argentina’s military junta, he called it “planned misery.” And I think that applies so much to what is going on in Puerto Rico right now, that this has been a planned system of immiseration. Maria comes along, and it’s just the final blow.

But, you know, I keep searching for a phrase to describe this. It’s not a natural disaster. It’s not just a tragedy. It’s state-sponsored mass killing. That’s what we’re talking about here, because maybe there wasn’t the intent to kill, but there was the knowledge that the infrastructure was being destroyed. And even after we see the results, the deadly results of it, they’re doing it still. And, you know, this comes to what, Juan, you’re asking me about how this fits into what I’ve written in the past about disaster capitalism in The Shock Doctrine. Even after seeing the effects of such brutal austerity and the thousands of lives it has taken, what is the response? More of the same—huge doses of austerity that they’re pushing right now, trying to kill–trying to close hundreds of schools, more layoffs, more neglect. And the cost of this is counted in thousands and thousands of lives.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the White House press briefing Tuesday. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about Puerto Rico.

HUNTER WALKER: Does the president still think his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico deserves a 10-out-of-10 score, now that estimates say almost 5,000 people died there?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion. We’re continuing to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do the best we can to provide federal assistance, particularly working with the governor there in Puerto Rico, and we’ll continue to do so. Peter?

HUNTER WALKER: Any concern about the massive volume of the death toll there?

AMY GOODMAN: So, there are the reporters asking about the volume of the death toll, and the White House spokesperson saying, “Doing the best we can.” Elizabeth Yeampierre?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Well, what we understand is that FEMA is evacuating people instead of rebuilding. We know that even before the hurricane, that lots of people were being pushed out of Puerto Rico, so many of them moving to Central Florida. We estimate that by 2020, I think something like 600,000 Puerto Ricans will have been pushed out of the island. We know that here, in New York City, those people who are in temporary shelters are also faced with eviction. They’re living under the worst kind of circumstances. They get frisked when they get into their homes. They have to show their ID as if they were in some form of incarceration.

And I think that one of the things that concerns us the most is that this effort of evacuating the island is really an opportunity to really privatize the entire island. And so, if there are no people there, it really makes it easier for the United States to support corporate interests. One of the things that I’ve been concerned about is what happens, for example, with those 23 Superfunds that exist in Puerto Rico and a lot of the toxic exposure that people are being exposed to. None of that is being addressed by the U.S. government. Those are U.S. corporate interests, and those are sites that are managed by U.S. corporations. And that’s another source of death for people in Puerto Rico. So, it’s really disappointing.

But I also think that there’s not a lot that is being expected of the U.S. government in this situation. We saw what happened in New Orleans, and we saw how people were treated in New Orleans. And people in Puerto Rico have not fared better than that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to take a little of the trip with you that Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Yeampierre went on in Puerto Rico, when they followed you, Katia, and others. We’re talking to Naomi Klein. This is the day the book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists is released, with the big event tonight at Cooper Union. Elizabeth Yeampierre is with us. She is co-chair of Climate Justice [Alliance], among other groups. And Katia Avilés is with us. Katia Avilés is a well-known Puerto Rican environmentalist working in agriculture with the group Boricuá Ecological Agriculture. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Resilience,” a new song by the Puerto Rican artist Taina Asili.” This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yea, I wanted to follow up. Elizabeth, before the break, you were talking about the federal response. And one of the things that folks have not gotten much—paid much attention to is that the—Trump’s Federal Communications Commission recently decided that they were going to sharply reduce the Lifeline project, which most people are not aware of, but the Lifeline project is a project that provides cellphone and broadband services to low-income Americans. And there are 500,000 people in Puerto Rico who receive that Lifeline. It’s a government subsidy for communications. Now, we all talk about the communications catastrophe that occurred in Puerto Rico, but 369,000 people in Puerto Rico are going to lose—there’s 500,000 in Puerto Rico who receive this service; 369,000 are going to be cut off as a result of this decision. And they’re not going to have access to even government-subsidized communications in an emergency situation like this. Another example of how, in very—in many different ways, the federal government is failing the people of Puerto Rico.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: You know, what’s really interesting is that we’re living in the age of climate change. And everyone who is talking about climate adaptation, resiliency, building social cohesion, one of the central things to making it possible for people to survive recurrent extreme weather events is a good communications system. And so, we just finished hearing about a report where people lost their lives because they had no access to communication. They couldn’t get access to healthcare. They couldn’t get access to—you know, if they had diabetes and they needed medical care.

And so, by doing that, by dismantling that and by diminishing that, it really increases the chances that more people are going to die. It increases vulnerability. It destroys social cohesion. And it really is an attack on the survivability of the Puerto Rican people. And I think people think of communications, and they don’t see the relationship between the ability for people to have access to all of their needs, through that system, and their survival. And there really is a direct relationship. And that’s just one of the many things that is happening in Puerto Rico to really make it impossible for people to make it through.

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“The Battle for Paradise”: New Intercept Doc Goes Inside Struggle over Puerto Rico’s Future

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