Puerto Ricans resist disaster capitalists and "Puertopians" in Hurricane Maria's wake

Though popular parlance and political pundits push the idea that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, colonialism is the apt definition of how the United States – political and capitalist class- has engaged the island fore more than a century.

One of the central themes in the novel, Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochiltl Chavez is the gentrification of land and exploitation of other natural resources by non-Puerto Ricans, particularly after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico's infrastructure in 2017. Well-connected disaster capitalist developers who donate large sums of money to politicians in Puerto Rico and the United States are buying their access to occupy and own land. The machinations of these land speculators in coordination with lenders, lawyers, and legislatures – "Puertopians" is leading to the re-colonization of Puerto Rico. Fiction is often rearranged facts.

The colonial relationship between the island and the United States has existed for 125 years, while Congressional inaction continues to reproduce and enshrined the colonial status. As Ed Morales writes in Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico, "Since its acquisition by the US in 1898, Puerto Rico has served as a testing ground for the most aggressive and exploitative US economic, political, and social policies. The devastation that ensued finally grew impossible to ignore in 2017, in the wake of Hurricane María, as the physical destruction compounded the infrastructure collapse and trauma inflicted by the debt crisis." Another theme in Chavez's book is resistance and refusal to these maneuvers and plotting and the wildly brilliant self-determined community-based survival projects that have grown from the grassroots.

In this video, journalist Bianca Graulau explains how some Puerto Ricans are occupying land and legally demanding they keep access when the developers, who abandoned the property, or wealthy investors who see money in other peoples' misery, circle like vultures. From the perspective of everyday Puerto Ricans, these outside investors are parasites. The video is bilingual, with English and Spanish subtitles.

A thread from Graulau's Twitter explains the video,

"Picture this. An investor from the U.S. buys an abandoned building in Puerto Rico for $108k. Holds it for 7 years untouched and lists it for $360k. In the meantime, locals illegally enter and use it to cook for ppl after the hurricane. The "squatters" get to keep the building. It happened in Caguas. A group needed a place to feed ppl after hurricane María. They found an abandoned building, broke the lock and went in. They cleaned it, installed solar panels and built a kitchen. They used it for 4 years and invested $120k before anyone came to claim it. The community group started looking for the title holder and found a name that has become familiar to Puerto Ricans: Morgan Reed. The same real estate company tied to the purchase of the former school I told you about in the video with Bad Bunny. The company's executive, Brian Tenenbaum, is a top donor of Puerto Rico's 3 leading politicians, including the gov."

What does resistance, refusal, and autonomy look like? One element is solar-produced electricity. Others elements of self-determination are meeting the basic everyday needs of people. "Here are some of the things they offer: – free monthly groceries to 150 families – free massages & acupuncture for the community – ping pong classes for the youth – monthly community farmer's market with produce at a low cost."

Though not always the case, this story has a happy conclusion, "In the end, Morgan Reed agreed to a sale price of $187k. Comedores Sociales raised the money through grants from different foundations. In December, they announced to the community they held the title. They sang together: the mutual aid center is ours, it belongs to all of PR."

For more, check out the book (from your local library) The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists by Naomi Klein.

"In the rubble of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans and ultrarich "Puertopians" are locked in a pitched struggle over how to remake the island. In this vital and startling investigation, bestselling author and activist Naomi Klein uncovers how the forces of shock politics and disaster capitalism seek to undermine the nation's radical, resilient vision for a "just recovery."

All royalties from the sale of this book in English and Spanish go directly to JunteGente, a gathering of Puerto Rican organizations resisting disaster capitalism and advancing a fair and healthy recovery for their island. For more information, visit http://juntegente.org/."

At this link can see an example of Klein's reporting from Puerto Rico six months after Maria hit.

Another resource useful for understanding the impact of history on contemporary politics in Puerto Rico is Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico, by Marisol LeBrón.

"LeBrón traces the rise of punitive governance in Puerto Rico over the course of the twentieth century and up to the present. Punitive governance emerged as a way for the Puerto Rican state to manage the deep and ongoing crises stemming from the archipelago's incorporation into the United States as a colonial territory. A structuring component of everyday life for many Puerto Ricans, police power has reinforced social inequality and worsened conditions of vulnerability in marginalized communities.This book provides powerful examples of how Puerto Ricans negotiate and resist their subjection to increased levels of segregation, criminalization, discrimination, and harm. Policing Life and Death shows how Puerto Ricans are actively rejecting punitive solutions and working toward alternative understandings of safety and a more just future."

You can listen to LeBrón discussing Hip Hop, youth, policing and social crisis here, from a lecture at Duke University.