Today I went to Guánica, and as any islander will tell you, there is a lot of Puerto Rico in between the capital and Guánica.
Marlena Fitzpatrick and her mother took me down a backroad which winded its way from Trujillo Alto to the Carraízo Dam, where we caught sight of a massive helicopter that lifted off, a long thick rope trailing behind it. The helicopter slowly, carefully swung the rope to the top of a nearby hilltop where a crew worked on raising a downed utility pole which had carried power above the treetops. Within earshot of the chopper, the dam itself appeared neglected in the same way that the bridges and railroads and old factories of Rust Belt America do, as a relic of earlier, more hopeful days now only vaguely remembered by a few locals. (The dam began operating in 1953, a year after the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was constituted.)
That backroad though, namely the trees slanting along each side of it, looked something prehistoric. It was as if, a short while before I arrived (the island is already greening), some monstrous creature—a pack of them, in fact—had risen up out of the sea and stormed its way across the island. Most of the trees are gnarled and partially bald; normally I would use “were,” but they are mangled still and will continue to be for the next few months at least; part of the “new normal” is this dissolution of the firm distinctions which once existed between past, present and future tenses. Whatever happened after Hurricane María stomped across the island is still happening and will continue into tomorrow. Or in other words, que era, será.
Practically every other house and place of business in Puerto Rico is either abandoned or up for sale. Let me rephrase that for my fellow Puerto Ricans living out there in the Diaspora, many of whom are loving the island, as I did, from a disrespectful distance: Puerto Rico is emptying and going for cheap. Bars and banks in picturesque Viejo San Juan are shuttered and on the market, and that appears to be more or less reality for the foreseeable future.
Vulture capitalists are undoubtedly rubbing their hands together and licking their lips in anticipation of the record profits they are bound to make off yet another disaster befalling a nation of, as they see it, poor brown people. I am putting words in their mouths, of course, but not in their heads. The wrath which Wall Street shows Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America isn’t even rumor; it is established fact. Naomi Klein famously wrote about recovery shakedowns in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, but the people of Honduras had learned all about “disaster capitalism” after Mitch, the second-strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, sideswiped Central America in October 1998. And considering how the U.S. government viciously indebted the Puerto Ricans after two severe hurricanes swept through during the early days of the colony—San Ciriaco in 1899, a year after the invasion; and San Felipe II in 1928–it is a wonder why a Puerto Rican writer hadn’t beaten Ms. Klein to her thesis. (To be honest, however, I am not so sure one hadn’t; after all, who understands slavery better than a slave?)
Whether Puerto Rico is sold to outsiders who want to remain outsiders and rebuild the island in such a way that attracts even more outsiders—paradise lost to the profit margin—remains up to the Puerto Rican people to decide for themselves. Do they wish to keep their homeland theirs to enjoy and pass down to future generations of boricuas, or would they rather spend their greenbacks on… anything else?
I know what some of you are surely thinking: money means rights, and if a person has the money to buy something, then who’s to stop them? Such is the cruel logic which capitalism has foisted on us all. Money does not give anyone the right to do anything; and not because money is dirty (though, as Marx showed, money is the original sin of capitalism), but because the unequal distribution and access to money precludes it from being a grantor of rights of any kind. Money is power; a disparity in money among people is a disparity in power among them; and a disparity in power leads to oppression.
Life is the only bestower of rights, and all lives are equal in that regard. No one is more worthy of happiness or dignity than the rest.
Puerto Rico belongs to its people—those who live here, those who have lived here, and those who would be living here had their forbears not been muscled out by money. Now is the time for the people of Puerto Rico, aquí y allá, to claim what is rightfully theirs.