Op-eds, Opinions

Fernandez ’21: A colony in crisis

Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On Sept. 20 Puerto Rico was hit by category four hurricane María and has been struggling to survive ever since. Residents of the island face hours of long lines for food and fuel, and only 45 percent of the population has access to potable water in their residencies. The hurricane, along with the consequent flooding, destroyed homes and decimated infrastructure, in addition to wiping out over 80 percent of the island’s crop value, exacerbating the prospect of food shortages. The majority of Puerto Rico is still without power, and its hospitals are struggling to provide care without access to electricity. Cell phone service is still scarce and communication is limited, providing an additional obstacle to the already complicated rescue and relief efforts. The death toll has officially risen to 45, but this is a number that is expected to rise substantially as officials have not had the resources to account for many of the victims and much of the population is still living under highly precarious circumstances.

Despite the fact that the situation has been documented as a disaster threatening the health, safety and well-being of 3.4 million people, it has consistently been ignored by those with the power to make a real impact. The situation in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane María is a humanitarian crisis that has served to further highlight the injustices and the unsustainability of Puerto Rico’s current economic and political status. The devastated island is being held responsible for the burden of recovery, yet has historically been denied the right to the very mechanisms of self-sustainability and self-determination that would make it possible to achieve such a trying task in the first place. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s crisis did not begin when María hit the coast.

As members of an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans are essentially treated like second-class citizens, a fact that has been made increasingly clear by the reactions of Americans to the island’s current circumstances. Puerto Ricans have no representation in Congress and have no electoral votes, despite the fact that their policies are completely subject to American approval. The island is currently $72 billion in debt that has been accumulated, at least to some extent, by a complicated economic relationship with the United States. Economic limitations placed on the island have made the cost of living greater in Puerto Rico than in many regions in the United States, and yet the average income in Puerto Rico is almost half that of Mississippi, the poorest state. To this we must now add the expenses related to reconstruction. The island of Puerto Rico has been subjected to colonial exploitation for all of its history. Furthermore, it is truly unacceptable that even in the midst of such a devastating catastrophe, this fact has yet to come to light in the public and in the political sphere. The issue of Puerto Rico’s colonial status has been hidden behind political jargon such as “unincorporated territory” and “commonwealth,” contributing to an uninformed public that is highly unsympathetic with the dilemma. This is highlighted by recent research that has shown that only roughly 60 percent of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are U.S citizens. Furthermore, those who were unaware of this fact were much less likely to agree with the premise that the U.S. government should provide aid to the island. Now more than ever, the public needs to recognize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, that this status was imposed on them and that U.S. policymakers must assume the responsibility that this imposition entails by providing aid during the island’s time of need.

It is understandable that these issues can seem incredibly distant and that grasping such levels of destruction is extremely difficult for all of us. However, it is important to remember that these matters hit very close to home for so many in the Brown community with connections to Puerto Rico and all of the other areas in the region that have also suffered greatly. As members of the Brown community, each and every one of us has certain responsibilities in regard to how we respond to such situations, the first of which is to support those who have been affected. We should also participate in the efforts that are already taking place to send aid to Puerto Rico throughout campus and the Providence area. Most importantly, however, we must acknowledge that the way the Trump administration has reacted to the disaster has been completely unacceptable and is disrespectful on a fundamental level to Puerto Ricans, not only as American citizens, but also as human beings.

We must understand that efforts cannot cease when the power is restored or when homes are rebuilt. There are so many other layers of crisis that need to be unmasked and addressed if Puerto Rico is ever to get back on its feet. The injustices perpetrated by the American political structure have serious implications for anyone living in the United States, regardless of their affiliation with Puerto Rico. These implications should resonate with anyone who no longer wants to exist within a structure that so blatantly continues to reap the benefits of colonialism and should push all of us to stand up for those who don’t have a voice or a vote; they should push us to reject the tempting pitfalls of indifference. The goal should not be solely to rebuild what has been lost, but to create something new that will allow Puerto Rico to regain national, economic and political dignity.

Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at marysol_fernandez@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.