Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 18th. Grassroots mutual aid organizations and networks like Taller Salud, Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, Casa Pueblo, and Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico hit the ground running to provide rapid response to the island’s people. Five years ago, Puerto Rico saw an even more deadly aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Yet, most demands of the Puerto Rican people remain the same — access to affordable, clean, and reliable energy, genuine democratic self-determination, and an escape from the crippling hold racism, capitalism, and colonialism have had on the island.
“Part of the problem is the [United States] federal government, often trying to apply an approach that is out of context of Puerto Rico’s historical experience,” says Erica Gonzalez Martinez, director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, a national coalition of the Puerto Rican diaspora and allies working to advance federal policies and legislation to support a just recovery from Hurricane Maria and self-sufficiency. The coalition’s primary goal is to help the island and its diaspora fight for self-determination. So, it’s not surprising that Hurricane Fiona also raises the question of statehood or independence for the island.
Decolonization and Puerto Rico’s Status
When the United States acquired the island from Spain, it had to cope with the “legacy of colonialism” and Puerto Rico’s status as a US territory. But statehood is not necessarily the answer. “When we look at statehood as an option,” says Gonzalez Martinez, “what kind of equality does that mean?” How has that equality translated for Indigenous and Black people living in America?
Any legislation that proposes to decolonize Puerto Rico and change its status must inform the island’s people of all the implications of each status option. Unfortunately, as of now, H.R. 8393, the Puerto Rico Status Act introduced in the house in July, fails to present what is at stake entirely.
In 2019, the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition created a comprehensive policy blueprint to address the many challenges that discriminatory US federal decisions instituted. The blueprint pushes for thorough funding, like the Marshall Plan, where the United States would provide direct aid to the island. Following WWII, the United States implemented the Marshall plan for Western Europe, helping to create dependable trading partnerships and enabling the development of reliable democratic governments. In addition, the plan led to large-scale regional investments and a resurgence of European industrialization. That same level of aid and investment could set Puerto Rico on an entirely new trajectory.
The policy blueprint also called attention to the impact of an archaic shipping regulation known as the Jones Act, which requires that good shipped between US ports be transported on ships that are built, owned, and operated by US citizens or permanent residents. This act stopped a British petroleum vessel from delivering 300,000 gallons (about half the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool) of life-saving diesel fuel early last week. On Wednesday, September 28th, the Department of Homeland Security approved a targeted waiver to allow the vessel to dock, but only after outside pressure increased and precious time was wasted. “We’re trying to shine a light on the opaque processes around Puerto Rico,” says Gonzalez Martinez, as the island is continually held to a different standard. “This whole idea that [Puerto Rico getting statehood] is going to wand away these impositions magically is not necessarily the case,” explains Gonzalez Martinez.
Getting Equitable Disaster Relief
FEMA tightened its application process after close to $1.4 billion was lost to fraud during the Hurricane Katrina and Rita application disaster relief cycle. The agency set strict guidelines for the kinds of documentation acceptable for households applying for federal disaster assistance. Disaster assistance approval rates plummeted. A few months later, the agency issued a policy adjustment that allowed for a broader range of acceptable homeownership and occupancy documentation.
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In addition, earlier this year the agency sought for the first time to start collecting demographic data on disaster relief applicants to address equity issues. In Puerto Rican families, land is often passed down through family and community inheritance—a tradition also common to Indigenous and African American communities. However, the lack of formal documentation has barred these communities from accessing the recovery aid to which they are rightly entitled. However, even though this policy adjustment was an effort to advance equity, “it didn’t apply retroactively to the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have been denied years ago,” says Gonzalez Martinez.
Last Tuesday, September 27th, the coalition, in partnership with UPR Resiliency Law Center, held a congressional briefing to push federal agencies such as FEMA and HUD to use their regulatory power to help Puerto Rico have a resilient recovery. At the briefing, Power 4 Puerto Rico presented several demands, including the following:
- Distribute FEMA and HUD funds in a way that will directly benefit the island’s people
- Prioritize mitigation funding and ensure the building of sustainable infrastructure
- Comply with Environmental and Historic Preservation (EHP) laws
- Consider local planning capacities to fully engage the Puerto Rican people and bolster disaster recovery and hazard mitigation
- Ask that FEMA and HUD include more explicit provisions to bolster community engagement in every way possible
Puerto Rico’s Goals: Climate Justice, Energy Justice, and Self-Determination
The people of Puerto Rico want energy justice, as the island’s reliance on imported fossil fuels is unsustainable. Power 4 Puerto Rico has been fiercely calling for the cancellation of the LUMA Energy contract, which has privatized energy on the island, set electricity rates sky high, and caused numerous blackouts since its implementation in June 2021. Puerto Rico is ready for clean, renewable, and sustainable energy like community microgrids and rooftop solar.
Most critical to the island’s just transition is ensuring that community and civil society are at the forefront of leadership and design. So often, marginalized people are presented with a plan that has little wiggle room, or they are consulted after the fact in order to check a box. Organizations like Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, are already working towards a more resilient Puerto Rico by launching solar projects that minimize the impact of blackouts and by empowering people to gain the skills necessary to maintain those systems. Yet, despite these grassroots efforts, the fossil fuel industry and lobbyists continue to work against local Puerto Rican laws that encourage renewable energy.
Achieving energy and climate justice through self-determination “debunks this racist mythology that Puerto Rico will just sink to the sea and that the natives don’t have the capacity to lead,” says Gonzalez Martinez.
Puerto Rico is always thought about and discussed in the context of its relationship to the US. However, the island is part of the Caribbean diaspora and has the potential to form strong trade alliances and associations and stand on its own. Despite the barriers they face, the island’s people were asserting their self-sufficiency through community-based health centers and agricultural projects even before Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017.
Puerto Rico is a place of storytelling, humor, and community rooted in the island’s strength. “Let Puerto Rico lead,” says Gonzalez Martinez, “because these are the people who know their communities the best.”