Tú sabes, another future is possible.
I finished reading Naomi Klein’s book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Shop your local indie store) in a day, a slim volume of just 96 pages brimming with hope and resilience.
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island killing many, wrecking homes and property, leaving thousands in the dark for weeks. The official death toll is at 64, although a Harvard University study estimates that about 4,645 died.
Amidst the destruction, Klein finds pockets of hope throughout the many communities she visited in January 2018. After being invited by a PARes–a group of university professors defending public education–to talk about her work on disaster capitalism, she writes about the ways Puerto Ricans have self-organized to help each other out after Maria.
In the small mountain city of Adjuntas lies Casa Pueblo, the community and ecology center that shone a light in the city for days. Literally and metaphorically. It became the community’s only source of power, its solar panels in tact after the storm. Its community-managed plantation also survived, and it was able to sustain its radio station which became the only source of information down power lines and knocked out cell towers.
Klein writes that her visiting Casa Pueblo was like “stepping through a portal into another world, a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the mood brimmed with optimism.” The founder, Alexis Massol-González and his son, Arturo Massol-Deyá, president of Casa Pueblo’s board of directors think of Maria as a teacher.
Massol-González shares his son’s belief that Maria has opened up a window of possibility, one that could yield a fundamental shift to a healthier and more democratic economy–not just for electricity, but also for food, water and other necessities of life.
“We are looking to transform the energy system. Our goal is to adopt a solar energy system and leave behind oil, natural gas, and carbon which are highly polluting.”
While at Casa Pueblo and in other places where Puerto Ricans have created communities of sustainability, like in Orocovis and Humacao, have flourished in spite of Maria, the reality in the eyes of Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló plays a different story.
The hurricane has set a flurry of motion to mitigate an ailing and bankrupt government: neoliberalism, in the face of disaster. For Rosselló, the version he sees is with bankers, real estate developers, cryptocurrency traders and the Financial Oversight and Management Board. Rosselló believes that “the real problem was the public ownership of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure which lacked the proper free-market initiatives.”
This is just one part of a sweeping vision that sees Puerto Rico transforming itself into a “visitor economy,” one with a radically downsized state and many fewer Puerto Ricans living on the island. In their place would be tens of thousands of “high net-worth individuals” from Europe, Asia and the U.S. mainland, lured to permanently relocate a cornucopia of tax breaks and the promise of living a five-star resort lifestyle inside fully privatized enclaves, year-round.
Call it “Puertopia” for the wealthy. Thanks to laws Act 20 and Act 22, Puerto Rico essentially becomes a tax haven for the wealthiest, all the while enjoying a nice surf every morning.
What Klein illustrates are different versions of utopia for the Borinquen, one that begs the question of for whom is Puerto Rico really for? At a time when the island is at its most vulnerable, its people and its appointed leaders go on opposite routes. One lays the red carpet for millionaires while the other builds a just and sustainable world for its Brown and Black population. At the core is also the island’s colonial relationship with the U.S., one that has continuously ignored and disenfranchised the population through extreme dependence on fuel and food and an illegal debt.
Still, the folks over at Casa Pueblo believe a different story, one that continues to inspire hope and action in the midst of crisis. A story that begs to be heard all over the world, the way it has given light to the communities of Adjuntas.
If Maria is a teacher, this emerging movement argues, the storm’s overarching lesson is that now is not the moment for reconstruction of what was, but rather for transformation into what could be.
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The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Shop your local indie store) by Naomi Klein
Haymarket Books (96 pp.)
June 5, 2018
My rating: ★★★★★
Note: This book was provided by Haymarket Books for free.
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.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.