Puerto Rico and the World

P916 San CiriacoIn late March I stood on a partially buried cement and tile slab shaded by forest cover, – a toppled yagrumo tree lying where the entrance to the kitchen had been. I gravitated to where my bedroom had been when I was small. In the subtropics the foliage grows without pause so the forest is continually re-making itself. The row of macocos my mother once planted is still there. Some of them are the seedling descendants of that first planting but others are probably growing from the original roots.

Across Puerto Rico the forest is returning to green, a sign of the irrepressible resilience of life and providing a facade of normalcy to a land that six months before had resembled the aftermath of a firestorm. In fact, the agent of all that destruction was Hurricane Maria, a superstorm powered by a warming ocean, the collateral damage of three centuries of euphoric binging and burning by capitalist elites.

A shift in the air spoke of afternoon rains to come, clouds streaming from the east. Maria came from the east. Entering at Yabucoa on the southeast coast and crossing the island in a slow arc to Arecibo, leaving stripped farms, downed powerlines and crumbled bridges in its path. Maria swept away the material foundations of daily life. Communications, food supplies, refrigeration, roads, stores, jobs, schools, mass media, roofs and services ceased to function.

A mature forest creates its own stability. The canopy shades the ground, breaks the impact of the rain and blocks the wind. When fire flood, drought or storm destroy that cover, seeds long-dormant in the ground and saplings suppressed by the dark can finally make their moves. The forest may return as it was before or – depending on conditions – a different ecosystem may establish itself. That is Puerto Rico today.

Maria swept away a already crumbling status quo, allowing the seeds of two competing futures to leap into action. The island had already been in the throws of crisis. An “emergency board” of hedge funds and bankers – had been imposed with the mission of raiding pensions, slashing wages, closing schools and privatizing anything else not yet held by Wall Street. With the hurricane, all the weapons of disaster capitalism were unsheathed. Overpaid US executives were shipped in to accelerate the plunder.

But there are also native seeds, deep traditions of resistance and self-organization, spreading and connecting. As Maria’s howls were receding in the north, youth brigades were wading door to door identifying the isolated, injured and ill. Communal kitchens, pop-up clinics, makeshift schools, cleanup brigades, community councils and mutual aid centers sprouted in towns and barrios. Originally seen as short-term measures – to fill the gap until federal rescue came – they instead became firmly established when salvation didn’t arrive (or came so wrapped in restrictions as to be useless). The lessons of the “teacher Maria” as still being absorbed. Uncle Sam, it turns out, was not our protector; the poor, the workers, the youth, the campesinos and – especially the women – are capable, strong and resourceful despite what we’ve been told. Only places with solar panels remained lit. Only farms using traditional methods survived. A new anti-colonial awareness – grounded in the daily struggles for basic needs – is emerging at the grassroots.

Amid the wreckage of the old regime, two visions for the future are contending for dominance. One is of a depopulated island of crypto cities, luxury resorts, gmo monocrops and toxic dumps. Its advantage is the ability to move quickly and spend lavishly but it lacks legitimacy. The other is of a reawakened, self-governing Caribbean island, self-sufficient in food, powered by sun and wind. The movements embracing this vision are in the process of convergence, embracing a potent mix of mass protest and strikes, agricultural renewal and cooperative economics. Their strengths are deep roots and relational modes of organizing. The struggle is a test case for the future of the world.

Returning down the slope I could see across the mountains to the harbor at Guanica where the Yankees landed in 1898. They came like a viral infection, a pathogen disguised as a nutrient and the Puerto Rican immune system was too damaged and unformed to resist. Today’s rematch plays out under very different conditions. History demands a different outcome.

(Originally published in the May 2018 Edition of the Ricardo Levins Morales Arts Studio Newsletter.)

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