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

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Nearly nine months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s residents and Wall Street investors are engaged in a pitched battle over who will control the future of the island. A new short documentary produced by Naomi Klein and The Intercept takes us inside this ongoing struggle for power. We play an excerpt of the documentary, “The Battle for Paradise.”

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AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn for a moment to an excerpt of The Battle for Paradise, a new short documentary by Naomi Klein and The Intercept.

VICTOR OQUENDO: Tonight, Maria’s direct hit devastating Puerto Rico.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: The biggest catastrophe in Puerto Rican history.

NEWS ANCHOR: Evacuate or die.

REPORTER 1: [translated] Puerto Rico is a disaster zone.

REPORTER 2: [translated] A natural disaster.

REPORTER 3: [translated] Disaster.

NAOMI KLEIN: I’ve been reporting on large-scale disasters for two decades—superstorms, wars, economic meltdowns. My focus is less on the fact of these shocks than on how they are so often exploited, how governments, corporations and investors have learned to take advantage of the desperation and distraction in the aftermath of these events to push through radical policies—privatization, deregulation and austerity laws that remake societies in the interest of a tiny elite.

I saw it happen in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, when the country was treated as a blank canvas for libertarian fantasies, and again in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when the storm became the excuse to rapidly shut down public schools and public housing and replace them with more profitable alternatives.

Even before Hurricane Maria made landfall in September of 2017, many Puerto Ricans worried about another episode of this long story, about how the storm could be used to attack their austerity-starved public services and to snap up damaged beachfront property on the cheap.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Peña Juvelier of Sotheby’s.

MARGARET PEÑA JUVELIER: As you can imagine, we were all taken by surprise, everyone, at the magnitude of this storm. Initially, in those first couple of days, we felt that perhaps this whole business would be wiped out. I can speak to the luxury side. And surprisingly enough, we did not see any loss of interest in the marketplace.

BRENDA NIEVES: Welcome to Dorado Beach East. We have here a double-high ceiling in the living room.

MARGARET PEÑA JUVELIER: Let’s see the garden, because the magic of this house is the garden. You see there’s a level of sophistication, yet a Caribbean flair.

NAOMI KLEIN: So, are you hearing from people who think they can get a good deal in Puerto Rico because of the hurricane?

MARGARET PEÑA JUVELIER: Absolutely, everybody. We call it pre-Maria, post-Maria.

NAOMI KLEIN: There’s been a lot of talk about disaster capitalism here in Puerto Rico and in many places in the world that have been hit by disasters in recent years. What makes Puerto Rico different?

AMY GOODMAN: This is Rutgers University’s Yarimar Bonilla.

YARIMAR BONILLA: One of the particularities of Puerto Rico is that this major historic storm occurs on top of an already-existing major historic economic crisis. People were already in a kind of state of shock, and severe economic policies were already being applied.

NAOMI KLEIN: So what are the ways that a crisis like this can be profitable?

YARIMAR BONILLA: As you know and as you’ve written about, in these moments, a lot of things are suspended. Expectations are changed. And so, laws can be passed, and things can be put into place that would have otherwise not been acceptable.

And I think right now the main thing, that was already—that was already on the horizon, is going to be the privatization of public services. So, some speculate that part of why the electricity company has been so slow in getting back up is that they’re preparing for privatization of all of it. Things also like public transportation system, all of those services that were already weakened, had already been disinvested from by the government because of the financial crisis, it’s to be expected that all of them are probably going to be sold. And they’ll probably be sold at a very low price, because now they can say, “Oh, because of Maria, everything is devastated, everything is broken.”

AMY GOODMAN: Puerto Rico’s Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy.

MANUEL LABOY: It has been the most devastating natural disaster over the last 100 years. So, naturally, infrastructure suffered. Telecommunications suffered. Now, I believe that that can be seen as a silver lining opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Rosselló.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: [translated] I wish to inform you of one of the highest-impact initiatives for building a new and modern Puerto Rico: the transformation of our energy system. Over the next few days, a process will begin where PREPA’s assets will be sold to the companies that will transform the power generation system into a modern, efficient and less costly system for our people.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the CEO of Isla Verde Hotel Group, Keith St. Clair.

KEITH ST. CLAIR: I met with the governor just after the hurricane. And he said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I’m going to double down, I’m going to treble down, I’m going to quadruple down, because I believe in Puerto Rico.”

This is Isla Verde Beach. And to me, this is the finest urban beach in the Western Hemisphere. This is the new pool that we’re putting in. We’re building a new beach bar and a restaurant. You will see next door there’s a new hotel. There will be another new hotel on the point.

Really, what the government is doing and has the chance to do is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair and rebuild the infrastructure of the island. And if the infrastructure is built well, if the electricity, the roads, the water is taken to 21st century levels, that can only help us all.

NAOMI KLEIN: The big question hanging over the reconstruction is this: Who is Puerto Rico for? Is it for Puerto Ricans? Or is it for outside investors and tourists? And after a collective trauma, like Hurricane Maria, who has the right to make these fateful decisions? Because many Puerto Ricans have their own ideas about how to replace their shattered infrastructure. And it isn’t about selling it off for profit. It’s about reimagining how the island generates energy, feeds itself, teaches its kids and heals its sick—a people’s recovery. And like the shock doctrine, it was already underway before Maria.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Casa Pueblo’s Arturo Massol.

ARTURO MASSOL DEYÁ: Casa Pueblo is a community-based organization with 38 years of history defending our national territory. We have a commitment toward sustainable development. Solar power is our first and sole energy source. We were just a few in 1999, when we started with solar power. And all of the sudden, Casa Pueblo, after the hurricane, was still running.

RESIDENT: Hello?

ARTURO MASSOL DEYÁ: So people came here, right after the hurricane, to recharge their equipment. People came here with their equipment for respiratory therapy. This was an energy oasis for the community. Immediately after the hurricane, we distributed over 10,000 solar lamps to improve quality of life for the people. Now we have houses asking us for support.

And we want to help people unplug from the grid, from fossil fuel. We should embrace a transition to clean energy sources. Solar is one. We have plenty of wind. We have water power. We have plenty of biomass that can be used as a source of energy to run our country.

And I think Casa Pueblo, what we’re doing is not waiting for the government, not waiting for the U.S. Congress. There’s a resistance from everywhere. So we’re going to do whatever is at reach to change that landscape and to tell the people of Puerto Rico that a different future is possible.

DALMA CARTAGENA: Welcome to our farm.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you.

DALMA CARTAGENA: Here we are in Orocovis. That’s the center of the island. It’s beautiful work.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, it is beautiful.

DALMA CARTAGENA: It is.

NAOMI KLEIN: And it’s green.

DALMA CARTAGENA: It’s green, yeah.

NAOMI KLEIN: We had heard that there had been so much damage to the forests. But four months later…

DALMA CARTAGENA: Well, it was like a fire, like a fire had passed. But now, it’s—well, we are in shape.

AMY GOODMAN: And that last speaker, farm school director Dalma Cartagena, from the documentary The Battle for Paradise, a short doc by The Intercept, featuring our guest Naomi Klein. It was directed by Lauren Feeney. Naomi, the author of the new book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On the Disaster Capitalists. It’s out today. She’s launching it at Cooper Union, along with our other guests, who will rejoin in a moment.

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Next story from this daily show

Puerto Rico Is a “Playground for the Privileged”: Investors Move In as Homes Foreclose & Schools Close

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