Hurricane Maria “lifted the veil off the starkness of reality in Puerto Rico,” according to veteran organizer David Galarza. On September 20, 2017, the hurricane struck the island, destroying communities and lives. But even before then, colonial exploitation — targeting a vulnerable area in order to take advantage of its people for labor and its resources for cheap raw material — was a manmade disaster. Today, organizations on the ground are working to promote renewable energy, food sovereignty, and democracy. But they are contending with “disaster capitalism” which seeks to privatize the island’s water, energy, and other systems.
I got to sit down with Brooklyn-based activist David Galarza, who works on labor, environmental, and Puerto Rican issues. On the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, here are some of his takeaways.
Eric Weltman: One year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, how do things look on the ground?
David Galarza: I was just there a few weeks ago. I saw signs – hopeful signs. But I also saw there was indeed a lot more that needed to be done to make the people of Puerto Rico whole. There’s always been different sorts of problems. What Maria did was basically lift the veil off the starkness of the reality in Puerto Rico – the ongoing storm. Outside of the natural events, there’s the unnatural, manmade event known as the so-called fiscal crisis, which has really made it more difficult for the island to bounce back. And we’ve seen all kinds of egregious acts being committed by FEMA and its contractors.
When you start disrespecting the dead, what does that say about you? If you don’t have any respect for the dead, you’re definitely not going to have any respect for the living.
EW: How has the federal government responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? How is the response different than to other disasters on the mainland?
DG: The gross neglect, the mistreatment, the lack of empathy that was displayed by this administration should make everyone indignant. It’s their fellow human beings. We’ve seen day in and day out that 45 has refused to acknowledge that 3,000 people plus died. When you start disrespecting the dead, what does that say about you? If you don’t have any respect for the dead, you’re definitely not going to have any respect for the living. The lack of response from the federal government and the way the folks on the island weren’t given life-saving supplies rises to the standard of crimes against humanity. We can send drones around the world, but we can’t drop water on an island in our backyard?
EW: The forces of privatization are rearing their ugly heads in Puerto Rico. Please tell us about what's happening with regards to threats of water and energy privatization.
DG: There’s a thing called the fiscal control board that’s basically the government that’s calling the shots. Seven unaccountable individuals. What they are is a collection agency for the vultures on Wall Street. The storm made it that much easier to privatize everything on the island that wasn’t privatized already. Individuals and corporations are at the ready to react whenever there are natural events like a hurricane or manmade events like a fiscal crisis trying to extract as much as they possibly can while people are still in shock. It’s in full force right now. Trying to privatize all the public schools. Shutting down agencies and consolidating others. Cutting pensions. Trying to lower the minimum wage. The list goes on and on.
EW: What is “disaster capitalism” and how might the concept apply to Puerto Rico?
DG: It’s definitely an appropriate term and exactly what’s happening right now. Assaults on public services and utilities. There had been no investment in upgrading and strengthening the energy grid in years. It’s still a public entity. It’s a public utility that’s considered the crown jewel of public utilities in the United States because it has so much potential to generate so much income. The energy was obtained by burning coal and importing oil and gas. In terms of disaster capitalism, instead of going towards sustainable energy, they want to rebuild what they had before and rely on dirty fossil fuels.
EW: What does the Resistance look like in Puerto Rico?
DG: The Resistance was immediate. When food and water and other supplies were running low, folks just banded together to make sure they could take care of their neighbors as best they could. Even more importantly, groups called Mutual Aid Centers sprang up all around the island – they did everything from providing food and health care to offering political education. It was important for people to know why they were basically being left to die. There was a reason why their lives didn’t matter as much as people in Texas. There was a reason why they didn’t have a voice in Congress. Other places that were beacons of light — like Casa Pueblo…
EW: Tell us about Casa Pueblo and how it might be a role model for green redevelopment.
DG: Following the storm, nobody had power – but there was light at Casa Pueblo. They had been working on environment and conservation. And they had the foresight to install solar panels. And they were powering their radio station which transmits to the region. They were able to provide updates after the storm. After the storm, people were able to preserve their medications and power their devices at Casa Pueblo. It’s been pushing for renewables for many years. To date, Casa Pueblo has been installing solar panels on homes and businesses – showing that another Puerto Rico is possible.
EW: What is the future of Puerto Rico that you'd like to see and how might it come about?
DG: I have some wishes, some thoughts, but it wouldn’t be right for me to advocate from New York City. It’s really more important for the people on the ground to express how they’d like to rebuild the island. It’s important for us in the diaspora to support that vision. Two dynamic organizations: Casa Pueblo and Comedores Sociales – send [support] to them directly.
EW: How might people on the mainland stand in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico?
DG: Get in touch with organizations on the ground. Rather than assuming what they need, ask what they need. We have a lot of privilege in this country – it wouldn’t be right for us to assume that we know what’s best for them.
Hard Lessons From Hurricane Maria Can’t Be Ignored
Reliance on fossil fuel energy was a huge vulnerability that compounded Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects. We need to move to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible — in order to curb the worst effects of climate change in the future and to position ourselves to survive the aftermath of extreme weather events. Tell your Congressperson that the time for 100% renewables is now, and show your support to Casa Pueblo for the amazing resources they provide to the people of Puerto Rico.