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Naomi Klein: A Year After Hurricane Maria, There Is Nothing Natural About Puerto Rico’s Disaster

StorySeptember 25, 2018
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One year since Hurricanes Maria and Irma killed thousands in Puerto Rico and caused the longest blackout in U.S. history, we are joined by Naomi Klein, author of “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists,” whose recent report for The Intercept is titled “There’s Nothing Natural About Puerto Rico’s Disaster.” Last week, President Trump generated widespread criticism when he falsely claimed on Twitter that thousands of people did not die in the two storms, even as a Harvard study estimated the death toll may top 4,600. Meanwhile, on Monday, President Trump declared himself an “absolute no” on statehood for Puerto Rico as long as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a major critic of his administration’s response to Maria, is in office. We also discuss the role of the unelected PROMESA fiscal control board in the island’s unfolding economic crisis, with co-host and reporter Juan González.

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

AMY GOODMAN: “Isla Bendita”—Blessed Island—sung by many Latin artists, including Juan Luis Guerra and Luis Fonsi, to raise funds for Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end the show with Puerto Rico, one year after Hurricane Maria killed thousands and caused the longest blackout in U.S. history. Last week, President Trump generated widespread criticism when he falsely claimed on Twitter, “3000 people did not die in two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…”

He went on to tweet, “…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”

Trump’s comments came after Puerto Rico’s governor formally updated the death toll from Hurricane Maria to 2,975 people, citing multiple news outlets and universities that showed thousands of people died during the days and weeks after the storm. A Harvard study estimated the death toll may have topped 4,600.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Monday, President Trump declared himself an “absolute no” on statehood for Puerto Rico as long as San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, is in office. Cruz has been a major critic of President Trump’s response to Maria. Trump spoke in an interview with Geraldo Rivera in Cleveland.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing. With people like that involved in Puerto Rico, I would be an absolute no. If you had people like the mayor of San Juan, whatever her name may be, she is a horror show. She was so bad to the—and so disrespectful to our military, to our first responders and to our great FEMA people, who did a phenomenal job.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Naomi Klein, author of the book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists. She’s senior correspondent at The Intercept, where her recent article is headlined “There’s Nothing Natural About Puerto Rico’s Disaster.” She’s also the new inaugural Gloria Steinem chair of media culture and feminist studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Congratulations on your new post, Naomi—Professor Klein.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And welcome back to Democracy Now! Naomi is joining us from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where Juan also teaches.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and we’re delighted to have Naomi with us at Rutgers now, and also she’s in my department, as well, in Journalism and Media Studies.

AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking of journalism, media studies and Puerto Rico, Naomi, why don’t we begin with these two different controversies that President Trump has created by questioning the numbers of people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and then saying he would never support statehood as long as Mayor Cruz is the San Juan mayor?

NAOMI KLEIN: Absolutely. Amy and Juan, it’s wonderful to be with you. So, you know, I don’t think we should be terribly surprised by the fact that Donald Trump is denying hard reality. He did this beginning on his very first day in office, denying the accounts of the size of the crowd, and he denies the reality of climate change, so he denies inconvenient facts both small and large. And now he is denying the reality that Hurricane Maria was the catalyst for thousands of people losing their lives.

You mentioned the 3,000 figure. Many Puerto Ricans are convinced that that is very low, that at the end of the day we’re going to find out that the number could well be more than twice that. And the accounting—you know, he talks about old age and so on. This is absolutely not true. What these very credible studies have shown, from several universities—and also now the government in Puerto Rico is saying that this is legitimate—is that people lost their lives for multiple reasons, not just the wind and the storm itself, but the total failure of the infrastructure. And maybe we can come back to that. But people lost their lives because they weren’t able to plug in life-saving medical equipment. They lost their lives because basic medicine was not available to them because the healthcare system collapsed. The whole public infrastructure of Puerto Rico collapsed. And that’s not just about Trump. That is part of a bipartisan war that has been waged on the public sphere in Puerto Rico using the debt as the excuse.

Now, when it comes to the attacks on the mayor of San Juan, it’s really striking, because many of the worst examples, the most lethal examples, of the failure of relief efforts in Puerto Rico were outside of San Juan. I mean, not to say that things went well in San Juan, but the world was introduced to Mayor Cruz because she was wading through the waters trying to help people—a very different model of leadership than Donald Trump, you know, waiting so long before going to Puerto Rico, then tossing paper towels, right? So he always saw her as a threat.

But the worst accounts that we heard after the hurricane had to do with communities—sorry—that were more isolated, places like Adjuntas, Orocovis, Mariana, where it was weeks before there was any visit from FEMA. And then, when they finally—you know, somebody came, they were offered Skittles and Cheez-It crackers. So, it wasn’t—the worst—and it was months and months before places like Vieques got power at all. So, this is really a distraction by focusing on Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and it is, I think, really about him banking on the misogyny of his base. He has made it very clear the type of woman that he likes—these are women who stay silent and loyal, for the most part—and he’s trying to cast Mayor Cruz as a loudmouth Latina woman who doesn’t know her place, and he’s hoping that this will be sufficient distraction from his own failures.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and, Naomi, on that point, even Governor Ricky Rosselló, who is obviously in a different political party from Carmen Yulín Cruz, criticized the president’s remarks toward the mayor. Interestingly, and this hasn’t gotten much attention here in the United States, but there is apparently a federal grand jury that has been convening in San Juan looking into alleged corruption within the San Juan municipal government. They’ve been taking testimony now for several days, and the press reports have started to surface. So, not so surprisingly, suddenly the federal government is launching a corruption investigation into the San Juan mayor’s office.

And also, that when President Trump talks about he’s not supporting statehood because of people like the mayor of San Juan, the mayor of San Juan is not part of the government apparatus of the overall commonwealth of Puerto Rico. She has nothing to do with it. She’s a mayor of a local city. So the idea that you would penalize an entire population by not supporting statehood—not to say that all Puerto Ricans or even a majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood, but just to target this issue of statehood just because you have a disagreement with the local mayor is really astounding, but, I think, goes along the line of—

NAOMI KLEIN: And it’s a smokescreen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —what you’re saying about him not wanting to have any kind of challenge from a woman politician.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. And incidentally, she’s been very clear that she herself doesn’t support statehood. That’s not her political position. But I think—and I’d be interested in hearing your perspective on this, Juan—you know, I also think that if we look at what has happened after the storm and also what was happening before, there’s been this huge influx of hedge fund managers, cryptocurrency dudes, who are flocking to Puerto Rico for part of the year, but establishing residency there to take advantage of this buffet of tax incentives that is being offered to them. You know, they are able to pay no federal income tax, but they’re also able to pay no tax on dividends, no tax on interest, no capital gains taxes. So it seems to me that the profitability of Puerto Rico for the very wealthy in the United States really has to do with its exceptionality, with its colonial status. So I think that may actually be the reason why Donald Trump isn’t interested in statehood, perhaps.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to an event you went to, Juan, on Friday. You gave a keynote address at Rutgers Newark, and before that, Rutgers held a panel on the PROMESA control board and the debt crisis with a member of Puerto Rico’s PROMESA control board, Arthur González from NYU Law School. He was joined by Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan from—


AMY GOODMAN: Her name is?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, Lycia Ora Bannan from LatinoJustice PRLDEF. This is a part of their exchange.

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: The board has publicly said, on several occasions, that their goal is to turn Puerto Rico into the Singapore or Hong Kong of the Caribbean.

ARTHUR GONZÁLEZ: When did the board say that?

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: Members of the board have said it, and I—in public—

ARTHUR GONZÁLEZ: No, let’s clarify. No, this is not—

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: Well, members of the board have said that.

ARTHUR GONZÁLEZ: If you’re going to say the board said something, you really need, I think, to try to be accurate. I know of no member that said it.

NATASHA LYCIA ORA BANNAN: Well, members of the board said it in their capacity as a member of the board. Right? Have said that. They’ve said that in public spaces in their capacity as a member of the board, not in the individual capacity, have said, “We want to make sure Puerto Rico becomes the Hong Kong of the Caribbean, the Singapore of the Caribbean.” …

What does it mean to be a Singapore or Hong Kong of the Caribbean? Are we talking about an elitist base, a high-wealth income space where only those that can afford to live there are able to live there, and where those who are poor are being pushed out? … I mean, I think that those are extremely problematic comments that signify—that signal what the vision of the board or members of the board have, that in their—you know, and being entrusted by Congress to enact an economic vision is one that is not shared by three-and-a-half million individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan from LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Arthur González, who is on the PROMESA control board. Juan, the significance of this?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Arthur González very rarely speaks in public, especially as a representative of the PROMESA control board. The fact that he was there and that he was willing to participate allowed for people to be able to challenge some of the perspectives of the control board directly.

And I raised a point that a huge report that the control board produced on August 20th about the roots of the financial crisis—that the control board never used the subpoena power really that they had, that Congress gave them, to call in these bankers and these other folks on the record to talk, to find out what the possible corruption basis of a lot of the debt of Puerto Rico was. Instead, they relied on voluntary testimony. They took no transcripts of the interviews they did with over 120 people. And they didn’t interview people under sworn testimony. So, in reality, the report ends up being a whitewash. And I’d like to ask Naomi, in the little time that we have left: Where do you think Puerto Rico goes from here?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Juan, as you know, the proceeds from the book Amy mentioned, The Battle for Paradise, all of it goes to an amazing political coalition in Puerto Rico called JunteGente. People can look it up online at JuntaGente.org. It’s 60 organizations that have been fighting austerity, privatization, and also advancing a very different economic and political vision for the islands that is really grounded in deep sovereignty, so not only political sovereignty, but food sovereignty, water sovereignty, energy sovereignty, a transition and a response to Maria that treats it like the wake-up call that it should be, so that the way in which Puerto Rico recovers actually get at the root causes for its vulnerability. So that means addressing the structures of colonialism—

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Naomi, for being with us. That does it for the show. I am Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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