Puerto Rico Needs Help, But Not Like Haiti

Puerto Ricans made homeless by Hurricane Maria in a shelter. Credit: Twitter@LatinoinitUSA

Fè atansyon! Haiti 2010 is not the intervention model you want for Puerto Rico.

Last month, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico hard. Most of the island is without power, and flooding is severe in parts. A crisis is brewing.

It is said there is no such thing as a natural disaster. We say this, sometimes, to emphasize that the devastation unleashed by a hurricane, an earthquake, or a tornado, is especially intense in areas marked by long-term socioeconomic turmoil.

Extreme weather feasts on fertile terrain. In Haiti, the Léogane earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010 demolished large swathes of Port-au-Prince because of its overcrowding, its plethora of fragile buildings, its myriad of bidonville “slum” neighborhoods that clung onto the city’s steep mountain walls.

This evolution of Haiti’s capital was fueled by decades of land hunger, the maiming of Haitian agriculture by international saboteurs, and constant precariousness of city employment.

Ask a Haitian, they would likely regret most of the assistance given. Mèsi anpil, Papa Obama. So much money donated never made it to the Caribbean, spent in the USA.

The roots ran deep below an exposed surface. On shaky ground, the city fell to its knees.

When the levees broke and New Orleans was flooded, those who could leave were long gone. It was those who remained that were put to the mercy of Katrina’s rage. Starving, they tried to salvage what they could from the abandoned city. They were painted as looters and in the kangaroo courts of the sniper’s mind, their lives were forfeit. Houston, 2017. “Looters” again. The mansions have always been on the hill.

When there is no such thing as a natural disaster, the causes are social, historical. President Trump is playing heavily on this truth, but he has spun it within a web of ancient lies. He may not realize it, but how right he is that there is an “ocean” between himself and Puerto Rico.

Poor leadership

For once, he isn’t talking about himself. He’s indulging in old stereotypes of Latin, Caribbean governments to wash his hands of any responsibility. Sailed out halfway between territory and colony, Puerto Rico is no longer America’s problem. In Trump’s pastiche of PR, there is neither imperial guilt nor patriotic duty given to drive the necessary aid to the island.

Puerto Rico is as American as Guantanamo Bay: out-of-sight, behind the closed doors of the Caribbean Sea. It has no admission to the Electoral College, but in the wake of Irma and Maria, it finds itself as dependent on the U.S. federal government as ever.

“We take care of our own.”

I need not repeat that the U.S. President is more interested in his putting game than saving Puerto Rican lives. We knew this before, we know it still. But the rhetoric of the White House (golf club?) aims to play on the notion that social factors exacerbate a hurricane’s anarchy in order to blame Puerto Ricans themselves for their own suffering. Carmen Yulín Cruz, often seen neck deep in water helping San Juan residents, is translated to Trump’s audience as both lazy and responsible, an attack catalyzed by El Jefe Naranja’s trademark misogynistic bluster.

Some critics, trying to emphasize that PR is part of the USA, have praised the U.S. response to the Léogane earthquake to criticize Trump’s inertia. Send in the military they say, like we did in Haiti. Send the bigwigs, the ex-Presidents, the medicines, the big trucks. Why is Haiti worth our assistance but not Puerto Rico?

Ask a Haitian, they would likely regret most of the assistance given. Mèsi anpil, Papa Obama. So much money donated never made it to the Caribbean, spent in the USA. “Corruption” was cited as why. The UN, generous to a fault, donated the contagious disease of cholera, killing thousands. “Poor infrastructure” was blamed. Months later, many in the U.S. questioned why progress was slow. “Poor leadership”. So the pro-U.S. candidate was parachuted in.

It was based on the same mores and stereotypes as Trump evokes today. Both Haiti and Puerto Rico are painted as backwaters, erasing their long and troubled history with their colossal neighbor to the north. Bill Clinton said in 2010 that they would “BUILD HAITI BACK BETTER”.

They did, in a manner of speaking. “Better” for those who viewed Haiti with this ignorant condescension, “better” for those whose interests lay in discouraging Caribbean democracy, and “better” for those orienting their economies due north.

After decades of subversion, Puerto Rico knows this dance better than anybody, it needs not its reprisal. If anything, it is owed federal assistance, but U.S. help must break with this tired mold, used since 1898. It must realize that its model of Caribbean foreign interventions is unfit for the purpose of assisting Puerto Ricans as they recover from Irma and Maria.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. Puerto Rico’s rubble is on American hands. Puerto Rico needs massive assistance, TODAY, but our concerned eyes must watch it unfold very closely. For, if it does arrive, it will mark only the beginning of things.

Presten Atención.

This article originally appeared on the Haiti Support Group website. Antony Stewart is HSG’s Chair. Twitter: @AntyDL


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