Puerto Rico: Militarization of Hurricane Relief

Signs at emergency rally for Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, September 29, 2017.


New York City and Buffalo’s Puerto Rican community, alongside that of Boston and Chicago, and joined by all those concerned across the country, have rallied support for the millions contending with no power, no drinking water and the broad devastation across Puerto Rico. It is the people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico who are setting up facebook pages to provide information about conditions in various towns, reach out to family in Puerto Rico where lack of power means communication is down, set-up fund raising campaigns, and organizing together for the recovery.

Following on the heels of Irma, which caused $1 billion in damages to homes and buildings, Hurricane María, with 155 mile-per hour winds — alongside government failure to provide the infrastructure and safety required before, during and after such storms, — has created a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Much of the island remains without communications. Entire towns are isolated. Tens of thousands were forced to flee massive flooding, as the Guajataca Dam failed. It was known that this was going to occur, yet little was done in advance to prevent it. The 90-year-old dam, much like the levees in New Orleans with Katrina in 2005, was not strengthened and upgraded as required.

The National Weather Service warned the failure of the dam might be “imminent” and could lead to “life-threatening” flash floods for the estimated 70,000 people living in the immediate area. “This is an extremely dangerous situation,” the NWS wrote. “All the areas around the Guajataca River must evacuate now. Your lives are in danger.” The next day rushing water was sweeping through the municipalities of Isabela and Quebradillas after the dam failed.

The dam failure could have been prevented and is thus a government-made disaster. Similarly, while the government routinely calls for evacuations, as it did in Houston and Miami, it has no plan to guarantee such evacuations. Families are left to fend for themselves. And if they cannot afford to leave or have no means to do so, they cannot evacuate.

Puerto Rico, crippled by U.S. colonialism, and specifically the Control Board imposed, which has massively cut funding for social programs and infrastructure, was especially vulnerable. It is also now without funds for rebuilding and still under the dictate of the Control Board, which requires that debt payments come first. Current conditions overall are also government made, in that funding for infrastructure was not sufficient. While Trump finally declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, which releases federal funding, providing the immediate resources now is also not occurring at the level required. In fact the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is standing in the way of aid and creating a situation where supplies that have arrived are not being delivered.

The same can be said of reconstruction efforts in Houston and south Florida. So while an additional $80 billion is being provided to the Pentagon, making a yearly budget of about $700 billion, funding for relief and reconstruction is far below that. This too is a government-made disaster. Full and immediate funding is required.

In addition, the U.S. is blocking efforts by Cuba and Venezuela to provide assistance. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela promised to activate a “special plan of support and solidarity” for Puerto Rico. Cuban Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra offered to send a team of 39 doctors “to help our brother people.” The U.S. is refusing to allow the doctors to come to Puerto Rico, again showing its colonial status, as the people of Puerto Rico welcome the support.

Disaster relief as military exercise

There is also great concern about the military’s role in emergency operations in Texas, Florida and now Puerto Rico. For many, the military presence is more like an occupation than assistance. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons man checkpoints, something which civilians could easily do.

Every branch of the armed services — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard — deployed significant contingents to the Houston area, in some cases sending along the sort of specialized equipment normally used in major combat operations. The combined response represented an extraordinary commitment of military assets to that massively flooded region: tens of thousands of National Guard and active-duty troops, thousands of Humvees and other military vehicles, hundreds of helicopters, dozens of cargo planes, and an assortment of naval vessels. And just as operations in Texas began to wind down, the Pentagon commenced a similarly vast mobilization for Hurricane Irma and then Maria.

Despite this massive military mobilization, ensuring power and clean water for the people impacted by the hurricanes was commonly not the main aim. The military is capable of quickly establishing power, water and food to run a small city. It could readily do so in the many towns left isolated in Puerto Rico. It has not done so. Rather, checkpoints were established and impacted areas patrolled by armed guardsmen. When federal relief comes in the form of armed National Guard troops patrolling the storefronts of flooded streets, weapons trained on local residents in the name of “the maintenance of civil order,” it is clear that an exercise in military occupation is taking place. People are being treated as a threat, rather than as human beings with rights to water and shelter.

The military’s response to Hurricane Harvey began with front-line troops: the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, and units of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the joint-service force responsible for homeland defense. Texas Governor Greg Abbott mobilized the entire Texas National Guard, about 10,000 strong, and guard contingents were deployed from other states as well. The Texas Guard came equipped with its own complement of helicopters, Humvees, and other all-terrain vehicles; the Coast Guard supplied 46 helicopters and dozens of shallow-water vessels, while NORTHCOM provided 87 helicopters, four C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, and 100 high-water vehicles.

Still more aircraft were provided by the Air Force, including seven C-17 cargo planes and, in a highly unusual move, an E-3A Sentry airborne warning and control system, or AWACS. This super-sophisticated aircraft was originally designed to oversee air combat operations in Europe in the event of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. Instead, this particular AWACS conducted air traffic control and surveillance around Houston, gathering data on flooded areas, and providing “situational awareness” to military units involved in “restoring order.”

For its part, the Navy deployed two major surface vessels, the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS Oak Hill, a dock landing ship. “These ships,” the Navy reported, “are capable of providing medical support, maritime civil affairs, maritime security, expeditionary logistic support, [and] medium and heavy lift air support.” Accompanying them were several hundred Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, along with their amphibious assault vehicles and a dozen or so helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

When Hurricane Irma struck, the Pentagon ordered a similar mobilization of troops and equipment. The Kearsarge and the Oak Hill, with their embarked Marines and helicopters, were redirected from Houston to waters off Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. At the same time, the Navy dispatched a much larger flotilla, including the USS Abraham Lincoln (the aircraft carrier on which President George W. Bush had his infamous “mission accomplished” moment), the missile destroyer USS Farragut, the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, and the amphibious transport dock USS New York. Instead of its usual complement of fighter jets, the Abraham Lincoln set sail from its base in Norfolk, Virginia, with heavy-lift helicopters; the Iwo Jima and New York also carried a range of helicopters for relief and control operations.

The military presence for “civil control” and protection of property has brought to mind the military occupation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Concentration camps were put in place for residents, families were separated and forced to evacuate, armed troops were used to protect private property while families were left stranded on their roofs. Brigadier General Gary Jones, the commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force notably stated, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.” With orders from their commanding officers to confront looters and shoot to kill, soldiers and local police alike targeted the residents of New Orleans, especially the mainly African American areas. Many in Puerto Rico, already a U.S. colony, are concerned that the increased military presence will remain.

The long-term recovery needed in Puerto Rico and all the areas hit by the hurricanes likely mean a continued military presence. Instead what is needed is full funding now for the needs of the people and providing them with the resources and power to decide how best to utilize the funds. It is defending the rights of the people that is required, not the property of the few. Further, for Puerto Rico, an immediate assistance would be to Cancel the Debt! And make the Wall Street financiers that imposed it and benefit from it, pay for recovery.

*Newspaper of U.S. Marxist-Leninist Organization (USMLO).

Emergency rallies for Puerto Rico

New York City, September 28, 2017

Chicago, September 30, 2017

San Francisco, October 3, 2017

Los Angeles

Long Beach

(Photos: International Action Center, A. Gervasi, ANSWER, E. Lopez)

The United States has a responsibility it has not been fulfilling

Presentation to the Coordinating Bureau of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries (NAM) by Digna Sánchez Jiménez, member of the Executive Committee, National Hostos Movement for the Independence of Puerto Rico, September 29, 2017, United Nations.


Dear Members of the Coordinating Bureau of the NAM,

My name is Digna Sánchez Jiménez. I am a member of the Executive Committee of the National Hostos Movement for the Independence of Puerto Rico (MINH). We are grateful for this opportunity to bring here the voice of my people who are going through a catastrophic crisis brought on not just by Hurricane María or Hurricane Irma the week before.

When the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 with the excuse of the Spanish American War, it initiated the history of United States colonial domination of Puerto Rico. Since that ominous beginning, our country has been used for the plans of savage capitalism which has sought only to benefit the capitalists in the metropolis. We have thus been used for diverse plans which have destroyed our agriculture to the point where we now import 85 per cent of what we consume thus making our food supply greatly precarious, especially since we are an island.

“Fiscal control board, colonial slavery”

The Fiscal Control Board has refused to audit the $70 billion debt. Their only purpose is payment of the bonds, many of them now in the hands of hedge funds. But much of this debt did not comply with legal requisites. Nonetheless, to ensure its payment, the Fiscal Control Board has imposed austerity measures that are drowning the already small local economy. The people have been struggling against this Board, but the situation has become extremely difficult and one of the results has been the massive migration of Puerto Ricans mainly to the United States where there are now more Puerto Ricans than in Puerto Rico!Meanwhile, regarding the economy, the United States projects the image that its federal government is benevolent towards us, but in reality they extract billions of dollars from Puerto Rico. The economic policy they have promoted in the colony has resulted in a situation where our economy has been shrinking for more than a decade. As a result, in 2016 they imposed a Fiscal Control Board to ensure payment of the debt to Wall Street and the hedge funds. They are not concerned about the future development of Puerto Rico for the benefit of Puerto Ricans. The three branches of the United States government finally recognized in 2016 that Puerto Rico “belongs to, but is not a part of” the United States. It is a colony, and despite the lies, even they have recognized that.

Now we have been hit by Hurricanes María and Irma. The devastation is unbelievable. Our beautiful archipelago is wounded and our people are suffering. The United States has a responsibility it has not been fulfilling, and President Trump had the audacity to say that Puerto Rico is devastated, but it has to pay the debt. It was not until yesterday that Puerto Rico was temporarily exempted, for ten days, from United States maritime laws, imposed on Puerto Rico through the Jones Act, which mandate since 1917 that only ships built in the United States and manned by United States crews may carry cargo into and out of Puerto Rico. These laws must be struck down permanently. In the face of Puerto Rico’s present humanitarian crisis we should be able to receive aid from other countries and to engage in commerce with other countries without having to use the United States merchant fleet which is the most expensive in the world.

Criticism to the United States due to its slow pace in responding to its responsibility to aid has been answered with the statement that it was a problem of the Puerto Ricans. They have now assigned a general to coordinate the aid. We are greatly concerned about the militarization of Puerto Rico. Pro independence forces have historically been persecuted and this terror was part of the script that the armed forces used in Puerto Rico.

We ask that our friends help us. Solidarity is powerful. When Hurricane Irma struck the smaller countries of the Caribbean, ships of people from Puerto Rico went to the aid of our neighbours in the Caribbean before the U.S. and European governments brought help. Puerto Rico, my people, will rise and we are counting on your support.

Thank you.

(Edited slightly by TML for publication)

Hurricanes expose destructive force of U.S. colonialism

Protest against visit of U.S. President Donald Trump, San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.

Excerpted below is an October 12 interview with José E. López of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, conducted by Molly Osberg of Splinternews.com, regarding the current situation in Puerto Rico and its colonial relationship to the U.S. López is the brother of well-known Puerto Rican independence fighter and former political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, and also part of the Puerto Rican independence movement.


Molly Osberg: What were some of the major issues for the [Puerto Rican independence] movement right before Maria hit?

José E. López: What we — and I mean the sort of radical sector of the Puerto Rican community — were doing in Puerto Rico was mostly a lot of work against the oversight board, and against the imposition of the PROMESA law [which restructured Puerto Rican debt during the Obama administration].

But as for the community in the United States, we’ve been doing work for years around the connection between the colonial situation of Puerto Ricans and the marginalization of Puerto Ricans in the United States. So in particular I can speak to the work that we’ve been doing in Chicago for the past 50 years, creating a series of parallel institutions to serve the needs of our community.

That includes issues of housing, education, health, employment — all of the things that fall by the wayside when you are not considered an integral part of the society and are not allowed to fully partake as a full citizen.

And the hurricane as a natural phenomenon has unmasked the very unnatural causes of the situation in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria and its impact on the island has to be seen against the prism of the U.S. colonial enterprise in Puerto Rico. And what that has meant since 1898: Puerto Ricans have never been able to self-actualize, nor self-determine. And right now as we look at the contempt that President Trump holds for the Puerto Rican people, it’s really unmasking that colonial reality. It’s been a hidden struggle, and we’re finally breaking through, and people who might not know much are talking about Puerto Rico and its unnatural relationship to the United States.

MO: What’s the relationship between the work you do in Chicago and the broader Puerto Rican independence struggle?

JEL: Most people understand, or at least have a concept, of what a direct colony is. Colonialism as a system is pervasive all over the world: Most of the countries in the world are in a neo-colonial relationship to the United States. And then there are the internal colonies within the dominant colonies. For example, if I look at the conditions of Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx, the conditions of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta, the conditions of Native Americans that have lived in the occupied lands of New Mexico, so many of them would have the same lack of housing, lack of education, lack of quality of life. There’s something systematically wrong with the U.S. in terms of its relationship to these people. Its not just a question of class, or of the relationship to people of color. For these populations it’s a colonial question, as well.

MO: And what are you thinking about how recent events are going to shape this colonial relationship?

JEL: It’s pretty clear one of the most important aspects of this moment, particularly for progressive people in this country, is realizing that Puerto Rico is a direct U.S. colony. And that in many ways much of the progressive movement in this country has totally ignored the question of Puerto Rico. It’s time to really begin to analyze that, to say, “We have been complicit in this colonial enterprise, even on the left.”

I think it’s that people have a really difficult time, even progressive people, dealing with the U.S. as an imperial power. U.S. history is formulated against the backdrop of denial of a culture of empire. We never study the movement and the killing of Native Americans as a colonial enterprise. We don’t see the U.S. taking over Hawaii as an imperial design. We don’t see the U.S. taking over Alaska as an imperial design. So we don’t see Puerto Rico as an imperial design. So when we don’t acknowledge that, we also have a problem of trying to deal with it.

MO: Do you expect the U.S. government’s disastrous response to the hurricane to reinvigorate, or change aspects of, the independence movement?

JEL: In Puerto Rico there has been a long history of resistance against U.S. colonial rule. It began the very moment the U.S. established control of Puerto Rico in 1898. We have a list that shows over 2,000 people, historically, were incarcerated in Puerto Rico because of their activism in the Puerto Rican independence moment, and in their struggle for social justice. And if we add, for example, the incarceration rate in 1950, when Puerto Rico rose up against colonial rule in an armed uprising, we could make the list even longer.

But there is a long history of political incarceration, a long history of political persecution, that has been waged by the U.S. government, particularly through the FBI and its COINTEL program, that has been around since the late ’50s. But as a matter of fact, last year we were able to free my brother, who was the last political prisoner. He was in prison for 36 years of his life, for his activism, for his advocacy, for his work around Puerto Rican independence.

But I think the movement is already reinvigorated. The Puerto Rican people, many of them who were blind to the colonial reality, are awakening to the fact that the only thing they can count on right now in Puerto Rico are the efforts of the Puerto Rican people themselves.

In the absence of assistance from government authorities, Puerto Ricans rely on each other and show their resilience and resourcefulness.

President Trump talks as if FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security] was there, and had done this great job. But how can you say that on an island that was just devastated, where people are very ill, where people were ill before the hurricane, where so few people have been helped?

I mean, right now you have a bunch of supplies in the port of San Juan that have not been delivered to people. There’s nothing in place. Because in Florida and in Texas, FEMA and the government already had a plan of how you were going to deal with this catastrophe. Here there was no planning.

MO: What do you think needs to be done, policy-wise?

JEL: You have to eliminate the debt. That’s the first thing that we must demand. Because this debt can never be repaid, this debt was never incurred by the Puerto Rican people, this debt has never been audited. We don’t really know how much is owed, and this debt will only fill the coffers of the hedge funds and the bankers. It will do nothing for Puerto Rico.

I think we gotta figure out the Jones Act, which limits any shipping to and from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico should be able to receive ships and food and supplies from any part of the world. Right now it means that Puerto Ricans are paying at least 15 to 20 percent more on any good that’s shipped to Puerto Rico. And the other thing is: We must undo this oversight board. And in addition to that there should be a process that guarantees Puerto Rico equity in terms of Medicare and Medicaid.

MO: And what do you expect to see in this movement, going forward?

JEL: In all the Puerto Rican communities there has been a lot of organizing effort, and it must lead to something that is long-term, that has a commitment to rebuilding Puerto Rico, to rebuilding the kind of infrastructure that guarantees a process that will continue to ultimately invest in a future Puerto Rico.

I think [San Juan Mayor] Carmen Yulín Cruz is probably the only effective voice in Puerto Rico today — she has become a symbol, obviously, a voice that has taken on the imperial voice of the United States as expressed by President Trump. I think she has a keen sense of where Puerto Rico is at, and where it’s going.

But there are 3.5 million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, 5.5 million in the diaspora. And I think the diaspora is going to play a key role in the future of Puerto Rico and in developing and carrying out an agenda that guarantees that a new Puerto Rico emerges out of this horrible situation.

(Photos: Primera Hora, PR Informa)


Filed under Caribbean, United States

3 responses to “Puerto Rico: Militarization of Hurricane Relief

  1. Pingback: ‘America First’: Washington train disaster shows grim reality of Trump’s concept of ‘security’ | Tony Seed's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Extreme weather or extremist governments? | Tony Seed's Weblog

  3. Pingback: In 2018, Sunday shows have covered Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico for only 20 seconds | Tony Seed's Weblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s