Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, with maximum winds of 175 mph, tore through the Caribbean, causing massive death and destruction. Puerto Rico, an island nation of over three million people, took a direct hit.
Around two dozen people died as a direct result of the storm—drowned by flood waters, hit by flying debris, or crushed by falling trees. But in the days, weeks, and months after the storm, thousands more would die, hundreds of thousands would endure great suffering, and the entire economic, educational, and social infrastructure of Puerto Rico would be severely and permanently degraded. Almost all of that was completely un-necessary; it was the result of deliberate inaction by the U.S. government and its refusal to organize a serious rescue and recovery effort for Puerto Rico.
From the first day it was clear that this was an unprecedented disaster for this poor, oppressed country. A spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s governor said, “This is total devastation. Puerto Rico, in terms of the infrastructure, will not be the same. This is something of historic proportions.”1 A few days later, the mayor of Manatí broke down in tears, reporting that the whole town had run out of food and water. “We need someone to help us immediately.”2
So what did the U.S. do to help Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory which it is legally and morally responsible to aid? Almost NOTHING. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the U.S.—the richest and most powerful country in the world, capable of rapidly deploying thousands of soldiers half way around the world to wage war—went through the motions of organizing aid for hurricane victims, while providing almost no meaningful relief.
For almost a week U.S. president Donald Trump didn’t even say anything about the storm.3 There were no cabinet meetings to organize aid. No mobilization of utility workers to repair the electrical grid.4 No helicopters to bring desperately needed food, water, and other supplies to isolated parts of the island. No effort to provide safe housing for hundreds of thousands living without roofs or without homes at all. No shipments of urgently needed medicine.
Two thousand FEMA workers who were prepositioned in the capital of San Juan, lacking any leadership, mainly stayed in the Convention Center and gave people paperwork to apply for future help. (Eventually FEMA’s numbers grew to 10,000, but they remained largely useless.)5
Six days after the storm, a journalist wrote in the Washington Post that “I’ve yet to see a National Guard, FEMA, Red Cross or federal vehicle anywhere on the Island.”6
A week after the storm, only 11 out of its 69 hospitals had any electric power.7 A children’s hospital in San Juan reported that children on ventilators were in imminent danger of dying because fuel was running out.8
Nine days after the storm, 55 percent of the Puerto Rican people did not have drinkable water and 95 percent of the people were still without power (U.S. DOD).9 The Miami Herald reported that “bodies are piling up at the morgues of the 69 hospitals in Puerto Rico, of which 70 percent are not operating,” and that people were burying their dead in their backyards because they had no way to transport them to a morgue.10 The mayor of San Juan tweeted: “We are dying here.... If we don’t get the food and water into people’s hands what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.”11 (Emphasis added.)
Two weeks after the storm, a U.S. hospital ship arrived, providing many photo ops and giving tours to journalists, but making no organized effort to get sick people there for treatment—the ship admitted an average of six patients a day!12 The respected aid organization Oxfam furiously condemned “the slow and inadequate response the US Government has mounted in Puerto Rico.... The US has more than enough resources to mobilize an emergency response but has failed to do so...” (Emphasis added.)13
The next day, medical journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote that “For want of insulin, blood pressure medications and antibiotics, things widely available at any neighborhood pharmacy in the US mainland, people in Puerto Rico will die—are dying—preventable deaths.” He concluded, “When you hear the death toll has increased from the current official number of 16, know that most every additional death need not have happened. They were preventable.” (Emphasis added.)14
Three weeks after the storm, 84 percent of the people still had no electricity, one-third did not have safe drinking water, and only about half the island’s hospitals had reliable power.15 Five thousand dialysis patients had their life-saving treatments reduced by 25 percent.16
Two months after the storm, over 750,000 homes and businesses were still totally without power,17 and the failure of a main line knocked out power temporarily for 80 percent of the population. Over 250,000 damaged or destroyed roofs were yet to be repaired,18 and FEMA bragged about providing 42,000 tarps to cover them.19 An unprecedented mental health crisis developed, with growing numbers hospitalized due to suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Doctors described the situation as “post-apocalyptic.”20
100 days after the storm, half the population was still without power.21 Two hundred thousand Puerto Ricans—over six percent of the population—had left the island because of the intolerable conditions.22
Even one year after the storm, tens of thousands still lacked any power and the electric grid was subject to frequent blackouts; 40,000 people were still using tarps for roofs.23 Only 40 percent of people who had applied to FEMA for aid had received any help, and nearly half of all applications were denied outright.24
And still today, 21 months after the storm, the electrical grid barely functions, tens of thousands of homes have not been repaired, little replacement housing has been built, and Puerto Rico is still considered extremely vulnerable to future (inevitable) hurricanes.
Aid promised to Puerto Rico fell far short of the $90 billion needed for reconstruction. And even most of that was never received. For instance, in April 2018, Congress “authorized” almost $20 billion in aid, but as of March 2019 (11 months later) only $14 thousand of that had been delivered to Puerto Rico, due mainly to obstruction from the Trump administration.25
And all through this, the U.S., backed by its loyal government, headed by Governor Ricardo Rosselló, in San Juan, sought to minimize the emergency by claiming a tiny death toll—first of 16, then 18, and finally settling on 64 deaths, which they insisted on for 11 months, even as numerous experts studying the situation—as well as the masses themselves—estimated vastly more deaths due to storm-related causes like heat stroke, lack of medicine, sepsis, kidney failure, and on and on.
Finally, on August 28, 2018, the Puerto Rican government acknowledged 2,975 “excess deaths”—people who had died as a result of the storm—in the first five months after Maria hit.26
President William McKinley, who ordered the conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898, and future president Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, who rushed to participate in these U.S. wars of conquest (in Cuba) and build his political career as a virulent American chauvinist.
Every single subsequent U.S. administration, which, while varying in specific policies, all kept Puerto Rico as a subordinated colony, source of enrichment for U.S. capital, and a military testing base (on the island of Vieques), while repressing resistance to this status.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, who has acted as a craven lackey of Trump throughout the crisis, echoing his claims that the U.S. did a great job, maintaining the lie that only 64 people died in the storm, and providing cover for Trump and the U.S. government
Donald Trump, who spearheaded his administration’s “America First” genocidal policy of refusing to provide relief as Puerto Ricans were dying, while blatantly lying about the situation and promoting vicious white supremacist, fascistic contempt for and cruelty toward the Puerto Rican people.
There were and are two different but related excuses from the Trump regime for this unnecessary humanitarian catastrophe.
On one level, Trump denied that there was even a problem, insisting that hardly anyone had died even as the real death toll was climbing rapidly. “It’s been incredible,” Trump told CNN nine days after the storm. “The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”27 On October 3, he showed up in San Juan, declaring it “a great day” for Puerto Rico, and tossing rolls of paper towels into a crowd, mocking the true desperation of the people.
More fundamentally, Trump blamed Puerto Rico and its people, and did so in terms that dripped with racism. On September 30, he tweeted that the real problem was that “They want everything to be done for them...” Soon he began complaining, “We can’t keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders in P.R. forever.” Even a year later, he railed that Puerto Ricans “only take from the USA.”28
THE REAL MOTIVE
Hurricane Maria was a major natural disaster, the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. But the humanitarian disaster that killed thousands, caused incredible suffering for millions, and is still playing out in Puerto Rico resulted from two things.
First, the un-natural devastation caused by U.S. imperialism, under both Democrats and Republicans, over more than a century of domination, since its military conquest and occupation in 1898. So even before Hurricane Maria, 40 percent of Puerto Ricans lived in poverty, the school system was in acute crisis, the aging electrical grid was decaying from lack of maintenance, and Puerto Rico was terribly and unnecessarily vulnerable to a major storm.29
The rise to power of the Trump/Pence regime took this legacy of imperialist domination and plunder to a whole new level as part of an overall white supremacist and fascist agenda for dealing with the sharpening contradictions U.S. imperialism is facing domestically and around the world.
The Trump/Pence regime’s refusal to provide aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria—especially in comparison to its much more rapid and well-funded response to hurricane disasters in east Texas and Florida during that same period—was a stark example of its escalation of U.S. predation around the globe, and the genocidal thrust of his “make America white again” agenda.
1. “Briton dies after boat capsizes during Hurricane Maria,” The Guardian, Sept. 22, 2017. [back]
2. “Crisis grows in Puerto Rico as towns without water, power and phone service,” The Guardian, Sept. 23, 2017. [back]
3. “What every American needs to know about Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster,” Vox.com, Oct. 5, 2017. [back]
4. In fact, the pro-U.S./ pro-Trump government of Puerto Rico and the PREPA power company it controls declined an offer of assistance from the American Public Power Association (a consortium of utility companies) who were prepared to assist, and instead gave the contract for rebuilding the entire electrical grid to Whitefish Energy, a tiny company in Montana with two employees, no experience on anything like this scale… and strong political connections to the Trump administration and the Republican Party. “Puerto Rico Turns to Unproven Montana Company for Massive Power Restoration Job, But No One Knows Why,” weather.com, Oct. 17, 2017. [back]
5. “Trump’s Response to Hurricane Maria: Deadly, Racist Contempt for the Lives and Dignity of the Puerto Rican People,” revcom.us, Oct. 1, 2017. Also, “When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, ‘everything collapsed simultaneously,’” Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2017: “The U.S. government did not ramp up all of its capabilities until six days had passed.” [back]
6. “Puerto Rico is being treated like a colony after Hurricane Maria,” Julio Ricardo Varela, Washington Post, Sept. 26, 2017. [back]
7. “Problems With Health Care Contributed To Hurricane Maria Death Toll In Puerto Rico,” NPR.org, Feb. 21, 2019. [back]
9. “Trump lays blame on Puerto Ricans for slow hurricane response,” Reuters, Sept. 30, 2017. [back]
10. “Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico is higher than the official count, experts say,” Miami Herald, September 28, 2017. [back]
11. “‘Something close to a genocide’: San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz begs for more Puerto Rico Relief,” Independent, Sept. 29, 2017. [back]
12. “Amid Puerto Rico Disaster, Hospital Ship Admitted Just 6 Patients a Day,” New York Times, Dec. 6, 2017. [back]
13. “Statement by Oxfam America President Abby Maxman regarding Puerto Rico Hurricane Response,” at Oxfamamerica.org., Oct. 2, 2017. [back]
15. “Only 16 percent of Puerto Rico has power 3 weeks after Hurricane Maria,” ABCnews.go.com, Oct.12, 2017. [back]
16. “Puerto Rico’s Health Care Is in Dire Condition, Three Weeks After Maria,” New York Times, Oct. 10, 2017. [back]
17. “Three Months After Maria, Roughly Half of Puerto Ricans Still Without Power,” New York Times, Dec. 29, 2017. [back]
18. “Half of Puerto Rico’s housing was built illegally. Then came Maria,” Miami Herald, Feb. 14, 2018. [back]
19. “Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State of Puerto Rico Luis G. Rivera-Marin: ‘FEMA is a powerful partner in Puerto Rico’s recovery,’” Whitehouse.gov., Oct. 31, 2017 (last accessed 7/15/2019). [back]
20. “Doctors in Puerto Rico: ‘Reality here is post-apocalyptic,’” CNN, Oct. 17, 2019. [back]
21. “3+ months after Maria, barely half of Puerto Rico has power,” AP, Dec. 29, 2017. [back]
22. “Quick Facts: Hurricane Maria’s Effect on Puerto Rico,” reliefweb.int, Jan. 19, 2018. [back]
23. “One Year After Hurricane Maria, Still Living Under Tarps; Puerto Rico may never recover from the catastrophic storm,” Bloomberg.com, Sept. 20, 2018. [back]
24. “A year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans rebuild amid setbacks,” by Nicole Acevedo, nbcnews.com, Sept. 18, 2018. [back]
25. “With Hurricane Season Looming, Billions in Disaster Recovery for Puerto Rico Remain Unspent,” The American Prospect, April 15, 2019. [back]
26. “Puerto Rico’s new Hurricane Maria death toll demands an inquiry into why the truth is only now coming out,” nbcnews.com, Aug. 29, 2018. [back]
27. “Trump’s continued indolent response to Hurricane Maria is our worst fears about him come true,” Vox, Aug. 29, 2018. [back]
28. “White House spokesman twice calls Puerto Rico ‘that country’ in TV interview.” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2019. [back]
29. For a deeper understanding of this, see “Puerto Rico: 120 Years of Imperialist Exploitation and Oppression,” revcom.us, Oct. 2, 2017. [back]